Traditional curriculum of first 3 years must be scrapped, if we are to achieve anything significant in improving education quality

I often remark that the following graph must be framed and put in office of every official in education, from that of minister down to the block or mandal level. 

Learning trajectory of students from grade 1 to grade 5.

The above graph is from Karthik Muralidharan's fantastic study in Andhra Pradesh where he tracked a set of representative sample of students from grade 1 till their grade 5. It means it's a 5 year experiment. The graph says that

1. The mean performance in grade 5 is still at grade 1 level. It means that an average kid reaches only 1 level after spending 5 years in school.

2. The learning trajectory of bottom 10 percentile is flat after 2nd grade.

This study is significant because it tracks the same set of students over 5 years, as opposed to ASER which tests different children each year.

These findings should ring alarm bells. Translating this into a classroom, it means that 90% of the students in grade 5 are not following the teacher, who teaches at grade 5 level. Similar effect is seen in other classes too.

Imagine the kids sitting in this class. They aren't able to understand anything and are being forced to sit in these classes for 5 continuous years. It could easily be one of the most horrifying experiences. Remember last time you were forced to sit in a 5 hour class where you understand absolutely nothing.

All of this is because our obsession with 'timely completion of syllabus'. We have become slaves to curriculum and syllabus. Completing syllabus has taken precedence over ensuring that children learn. Where students lack even basics of reading and writing, we are teaching them way above their standard. All these efforts go in vain.

Excessive focus on curriculum has several consequences. 

Lant Pritchett calls it 'over ambitious curriculum'. In a paper exploring the effects of the overambitious curriculum, Lant estimates that 

all of the observed learning differences between poor performing and OECD countries could be accounted for only by an overly accelerated curriculum in poor countries - even if the countries have exactly the same potential learning.
That's a dramatic effect.

The overambitious curriculum also has other consequences. Once students fall behind, it demotivates them and it's difficult to bring them back. Two, The IHDS data suggests that the probability of catching up decreases with the income profile of parents.

Further, the practice of overambitious curriculum is a roadblock to every other reform efforts in education. It means that even if governments work on other aspects, including the improvement of government structures, the overambitious curriculum thwarts all those efforts. 

To repeat, all of this is because of our obsession with curriculum and finishing the syllabus. In the context of all this, the first and foremost step that any government has to take is to scrap the existing traditional curriculum for the first 3 years.

For the first three years or at least for the first two years, the focus of the school should be only and only on ensuring reading, writing and numeracy skills to students. Reading is especially more important because without reading and comprehension skills, kids can't attempt even math questions.

All the current efforts of Pratham, Delhi government and governments in other states in using 'teach at the right level' to improve basic numeracy and literacy skills only have limited gains when seen on an absolute scale. 

It's because all such efforts have been along side the traditional curriculum, except in the case of Delhi. Schools were asked to set aside 2 hours per day for 2-3 months. This time is simply not enough. One needs a remediation of at least 6-8 months where students work on improving these skills all the day, setting aside the traditional curriculum.

It needs political will on behalf of governments to stop the obsession with curriculum and syllabus. Delhi government has shown the way by taking such step in organising reading melas where kids were separated from usual classroom daily but it was only for 2 months. Even after 2 months of such intervention, 1 lakh students out of 3.5 lakh caught up with the rest 2.5 lakh students yet to catch up. It clearly demonstrates the need to increase the time period of such interventions. 

It must be noted that the government faced huge resistance from across sections, as the Delhi Minister Mr. Manish Sisodia mentions in his speech during 2017 ASER release. This is not just a political reform but also includes a huge attitudinal and mindset shift because our system is accustomed to a particular way of doing things. Changing it doesn't happen easily.

Though might sound like a radical reform but it's actually not. It's more of a common sense and in fact it's actually the way it should be. For instance, in Finland, the focus in early years of schooling is exclusively on reading, writing and numeracy. They proceed ahead only once students are proficient in these.

Alongside, government must also invest in research that explores the appropriate and effective ways to teach literacy and numeracy to first generation learners, not-so-fast learners and students with dyslexia etc. Curriculum should move away from philosophy to empirics. 

For instance, there is a constructivist philosophy in education that says that children construct knowledge. As per this philosophy, students are to taught using 'whole language approach'. It means that kids are taught words as whole. There's another approach called phonics approach where kids are taught individual sounds instead of whole word. Though recent emerging research has shown that kids learn better when taught using phonics approach, some still cling on to 'whole word approach' because of their belief in constructivist philosophy.

There are many such debates in education. It would be great if these are settled using empirics and teachers are provided a guide. It needs investment in research in pedagogy, psychology and neuroscience. We have not even scratched the surface in this regard. It's better late than never. We need to take steps in this direction.

To conclude, the learning gaps in reading, writing and numeracy skills that arise in early school years is hindering progress. Our obsession with completing the syllabus as per curriculum is one of the major reasons for this. Therefore, the first step that any government serious about pursuing education reform should take is to scrap traditional curriculum for first three years and focus exclusively on reading, writing and numeracy skills. This initiative also complements several other efforts of the governments. To put it more bluntly, without this, there will be no hope for a drastic reform; we can only achieve marginal results despite our huge efforts. Alongside, government must also invest in research to explore appropriate and effective ways to help students improve the literacy and numeracy skills.


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