The challenge in India’s school education system today is how to translate years of schooling into learning. While there is reason to lament the learning crisis, a quiet movement is taking place in Uttar Pradesh. In this note, Shobhini Mukerji, Executive Director of J-PAL South Asia, describes the shift brought to the state’s primary education system through the government's evidence-backed Graded Learning Programme.
Imagine spending year after year in a classroom, without acquiring the basic skills you will need in life: the ability to read and do basic mathematics. This is the challenge in India’s education system – of how to translate years of schooling into learning. India now has enrolment levels of 97%, however, available data year on year shows that only half of all children enrolled in grade 5 are able to read simple texts fluently.
While we lament the learning crisis, a quiet movement seems to be taking place in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Since January this year, for the 8.4 million children studying in 113,000 government primary schools, the government launched an innovative initiative called ‘Graded Learning Programme’ (GLP). Teachers grouped children across grade 1-5 according to their current reading and mathematics levels, and used appropriate activities and materials for each group, for two hours during the school day, strengthening foundational skills. Using a mobile-based android application that 230,000 teachers downloaded on their phones, learning data from each class of the state’s 113,000 schools was regularly uploaded by the teachers. The data generated comprehensive dashboards displaying charts and simple bar-graphs that were reviewed to track progress at different levels. And who knew that motivated teachers and a structured approach would result in an extraordinary achievement of improving reading by 22 percentage points!
The Graded Learning Programme
The GLP was initiated in August 2018 through a partnership between Pratham and the Uttar Pradesh Basic Education Department and sought to target all primary school children in UP. There were three aims: (i) significantly improve their learning levels in basic reading and arithmetic, (ii) introduce and sustain innovative teaching-learning practices in schools, and (iii) build monitoring, mentoring, and academic support capacity at block and district levels. After some delays, by January 2019, the programme reached classrooms across all 75 districts.
In the next three months, 1.7 million children in grade 3 and 4 were being able to read basic texts in Hindi at grade 1 level. This is nothing short of spectacular to achieve in a programme of this scale and size, garnering buy-in and ownership right from the classroom to the corridors of the state’s bureaucracy.
What did UP do? The answer is surprisingly simple but not easy. The initiative relied on a pedagogical approach, known as Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), where children’s reading and mathematics skills are assessed and classrooms are then regrouped according to learning level rather than age or grade. TaRL is the culmination of over a decade of collaborative research and implementation by Pratham and researchers affiliated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), aimed at finding out what works, how it works, and at what scale, to improve learning levels of primary school children.
Over the last 18 years, J-PAL affiliated researchers together with Pratham have evaluated a range of programmes across states in India, aimed at improving student learning through pedagogical interventions. The interventions have been tested in many settings: schools and communities, by volunteers, school teachers, and officials. This has resulted in a body of evidence showing that reorienting teaching to the level of the student, rather than the rigid expectations of a curriculum, consistently improves learning outcomes. Iterated and improved with each successive evaluation, the TaRL pedagogy has been scaled up to reach over 50 million children in India and Africa. In the case of UP, this means taking pilots from 50, 100, and 500 schools to scale in 113,000 schools.
Governments, donors and community stakeholders frequently ask – how should success be defined? What are the costs of bureaucratic hurdles and corruption? What about ownership and sustainability?
Ground-level managers: Careful planning went into this state-wide scale-up to create and execute a systematic roll-out plan. Different layers of government personnel, such as District Resource Persons (DRPs) and Block Resource Persons (BRPs), were appointed from a group of existing personnel (including Assistant Block Resource Coordinators (ABRCs), headmasters, and teachers) to lead the programme. This ground-level government team of 3,500 or so are seen as ‘leaders of practice’ who first spent a non-negotiable 20 days practising the TaRL methodology with children in classrooms. In phases, they then mentored and monitored 230,000 teachers to raise children’s learning levels.
Low-cost materials: Every teacher was equipped with training, requisite tools, and locally sourced materials to use in the classroom, and each child had a booklet of simple stories in large font and worksheets to take home. The government spent around Rs. 1,000 per school for these additional materials. If, on average, 100 children benefitted from the programme within a school, then the cost per child is Rs. 10 for a booklet of stories, a personal barahkhadi1, and a number chart.
Technology success: 230,000 teachers were uploading their students’ learning data on the GLP app on their phones within a few days of assessing children’s learning. WhatsApp groups were buzzing with excitement, where teachers shared ideas and tips, pictures and videos, and asked each other questions. The team of 3,500 leaders of practice reviewed dashboards of their schools, enabling data-driven conversations alongside academic mentoring.
The view from the ground
A visit in April 2019 to a school in Etmadpur in Agra district had me inspired. While the programme assessments captured basic levels of reading and mathematics, it was altogether a different sight to see the transformation in the children themselves. We asked grade 3 and 4 children to make a list of words beginning with a single letter. The room was alive with their excited chatter. All discussing in pairs, scribbling, and erasing in their notebooks. Some got it wrong, some hesitated but everyone tried. All pairs of hands shot up to read aloud their sentences. Two girls got up confidently, “Na. Na se – Navratri ke din Nani ne nal se paani nikala” (choosing letter “N”, their sentence read, “During the day of the Navratri festival, my grandmother took water from the tap”). Just two months earlier, most likely these two girls would have not even been able to read words.
Even if all procedural elements are in place – an effective pedagogical intervention, access to technology, and dedicated administrative support – a scale-up cannot be successful without the human element. This was an election year, where teachers had been pulled out of classrooms and into election duty, in addition to invigilating board examinations, and their regular administrative tasks. When asked about the pressure of completing the syllabus as GLP impacted their work day, the teachers simply stated that the syllabus was inconsequential if the child could not read. The unanimous consensus among UP’s teachers is that foundational learning is important for the child to progress in the school system. For the teachers to recognise this fact, and the state to support it, is incredible, given how much we have read and researched the tyranny of the syllabus hanging like a sword above the teachers’ heads.
During the feedback meeting I attended in Lucknow called by the Department of Basic Education, the ‘leaders of practice’ team – or “middle order batsmen” as one group proudly called themselves - shared their experiences and gave suggestions. The ownership exhibited by the group was overwhelming and humbling. The group celebrated the success of the programme, accepted the gaps in implementation, analysed mistakes, and gave constructive and well-reasoned suggestions to improve processes for planning, training, and monitoring as they prepared to take the programme into the second year.
Each one of them was touched by the confidence in the children who finally learned to read, taking the discussions to beyond just comparing endlines and baselines. These discussions ranged from process improvements to pedagogy design to technology support, involving parents, better classroom management, teacher recognition, encouraging visits by State officials, strengthening data-enabled review meetings, improving the GLP app, introducing English, and so on. The suggestions were endless, and went way past lunchtime with no one noticing the clock or their grumbling stomachs. As one BRP nicely put it, “We aimed for the moon and landed in the sky”.
The review meeting ended with one humble request from the block and district teams – tell the world about what is happening in UP. Tell them to come and visit our schools and see the effort it takes to help a child who cannot read to become a fluent reader. Then others will have more faith in the data and transformation that is happening in these 113,000 schools across the state.
Lessons from UP’s successful learning improvement programme
From an analytical perspective, UP offers a unique opportunity to understand the mechanisms and conditions under which such reform efforts get integrated and absorbed into the every-day workings of the State. The constructive feedback and planning session, where I was an observer and a listener, was a reflection of an honest self-evaluation that is needed to improve in the next step. In addition, external evaluations and a more nuanced qualitative enquiry will be able to shed some light on the challenges and pitfalls that exist when governments adopt and own such reforms, and the conditions under which they can be successful. These journeys are neither linear nor straightforward, but learning actively from each step takes everyone forward. Making these learnings publicly available can add to a larger body of work on reforms in India through the analysis of how change efforts are institutionalised, interpreted, and implemented on the ground, and the constraints and incentives that exist within initiatives like GLP.
Successes like that in UP don’t happen because someone thinks it is a good idea… well, that too… but it involves an entire system rising up to the challenge. Big change requires everyone to contribute, from the government system to civil society organisations, foundations, academics, donors, and communities. In this context, it was bureaucratic will and an eagerness to try something big, bottom-up and top-down alignment and understanding of the basic learning goals, and a partnership based upon trust and transparency. The challenge is now to see how much of what has started this year gathers momentum and moves into the next school year.
The hope is for every state in India to achieve this transformation, sustain, and build upon it, to ensure every child entering the schooling system has the foundation and the means to attain the required skills and knowledge. The approaches can be several – and there is room for many collaborators – but the underlying principles must be evidence of impact, scale at an optimal cost that the government can bear with their own resources, clear accountability, and full transparency.
Having participated in, researched, and observed a variety of learning improvement initiatives across India in the last decade, I am fortunate to have had a first-hand glimpse into one of the most promising movements to push learning ambitiously at scale through a government system. It is early days yet. Time will tell. But along with many people who are behind UP’s effort, I too would like to believe that this is a strong first step.
- Barahkhadi is a chart of consonants with vowel sounds in Hindi.