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Working at the Systems Level to Solve the Learning Crisis

By Dr. Parthajeet DasGarima Grover and Shalet Sicily Jose

Apr 25, 2023

There have been sincere efforts from government as well as non-government actors, across the globe and in India, to solve the problem of low learning levels among children through programs, projects, and interventions for ‘quality education’ at the school, block, district, and state level. However, the fact that most of them have not led to any substantial, lasting or sustainable impact, visible at a state, or country level is a testament to this challenge being a serious concern.

It is reasonably well understood that a large majority of primary-grade children in India attend school, but do not learn as well as we want them to. The lack of schooling that translates to sufficient learning and prepares our children for their future is termed as the “learning crisis.” India, unfortunately, is not alone in this conundrum. A large number of Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) in the global south are facing a crisis of ‘learning poverty’ [1] (World Bank, 2022), where anywhere between 50-80% of children exiting primary schools cannot read or write simple sentences or do basic math. This amounts to almost 617 million children globally and almost 103 million in India. It is not just a problem of government schools, rather a sector-wide concern that can reverse gains made by decades of development and education reforms, where increasing numbers of children are now enrolled in schools with the hope that they gain knowledge and essential skills that gives them a fair ‘life chance’ in the 21st century.

Source: World Bank

In India, we acknowledge the problem explicitly in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, and express a clear intent to ensure Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) skills for all children exiting Grade 3 by 2026-27. Many cycles/years of data from learning surveys conducted by the government such as National Achievement Survey (NAS) and State Level Assessment Survey (SLAS), and non-government actors such as Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), among others, point to poor learning levels across all states and districts across different grades. Unfortunately, inconsistency, incomparability, and lack of useability of the learning data from NAS, ASER, and such learning achievement surveys have not led to using data for ‘true and nuanced’ academic and administrative planning that improves the situation.[2] To make matters worse, comparing states based on this data either directly or through indices such as Performance Grade Index (PGI) and School Education Quality Index (SEQI), both of which measure the status and effectiveness of school education across states in India, have played a role in affecting the reliability of data by making such surveys very high-stakes (Johnson et al. 2021).[3]

Nevertheless, there have been sincere efforts from the government and non-government actors to solve the problem of low learning levels among children through programs, projects, and interventions forquality educationat the school, block, district, and state level. Many of these projects have been funded by large multilateral donors such as the World Bank, UK Aid Direct, and USAID, among others. Additionally, there have been several civil society organizations as well as management and development consultants who have undertaken many well-intentioned pilots or result/outcome-based projects.

However, the fact that most of them have not led to any substantial, lasting or sustainable impact, visible at a state, or country level is a testament to this problem indeedbeing extremely hard to solve. The reasons for this cannot simply be attributed to lack of good project design, lack of funds, lack of honest implementation efforts by sincere organizations, or lack of knowledge of best practices. Unfortunately, we do not have either the theory or a playbook to refer to or a practice to learn from. Alber Einstein puts it well,

Theory is when you know everything and nothing works. Practice is when everything works and nobody knows why. We have put together theory and practice: nothing is working . . . and nobody knows why!


Diving Deeper into the Widespread Problem of Learning

To begin with, while ASER has done a good job in bringing attention to the crisis in learning outcomes in academic and development circles, the problem is still largely invisible to most, especially when it comes to early grades. The problem is further masked by averages, achievement scores, and exam pass percentages. People simply do not think of foundational learning as a problem and have different definitions of the outcomes expected.[4]

The Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)[5] approach suggests a framework to understand the complexity of the challenge or problem being dealt with and asks a few questions to organizations trying to implement interventions to solve a problem. 

  • Is the achievement of the objective, i.e. ensuring good teaching-learning, transaction-intensive? Yes, imagine the sheer number of schools, school heads and teachers in our country—all of them need to do their jobs appropriately (dedicating the right amount of time to teaching-learning, following proper pedagogy, helping struggling learners, etc.), consistently (do it for >200 days, every single day of the year, for years), and with commitment for learning to happen at scale. In comparison, creating education  policies or drafting a curriculum framework involves few experts and policymakers and for a relatively shorter period of time. Hence, the latter is not transaction-intensive.
  • Does it require the end-actors to use discretion? Absolutely yes! Every child learns in his/her own way and a teacher is encouraged to teach in a manner that helps children learn and grasp effortlessly. There are many diverse ways in which a teacher can and needs to ensure that classroom instruction translates into learning for a large majority of learners, which may include using alternative teaching and assessment strategies or providing specific support to struggling learners. To make a contrast, the job of administering vaccines, which even if done at massive scale, is largely standardized and requires little discretion to be applied by the health worker. 
  • Service or obligation? The delivery of equitable, quality school education by the government to the citizens is both an obligation and service. While under the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP), the Constitution of India expects the government to provide early childhood care and education to all children, the 86th Amendment Act of 2002 made elementary education a fundamental right under Article 21A. However, at the end-point of delivery, i.e., schools, the children and their parents are also the recipients of the services (of equitable, quality school education) offered by a particular school, the head-teacher and teachers. The parents can even exercise their choice of either sending their wards to a nearby government school for free or to a private school, where they pay a fee and can exercise the demand of a certain quality of service. Our school education system is a mix of both, with 54% of children enrolled in government schools and 46% in private schools[6] and with varying levels of demand and expectations from the end-users i.e., children and their parents. 
  • Based on known technology? Teachers have been teaching and children have been learning ever since homosapiens learned to communicate (verbal or non-verbal). So, one could argue that the ‘art and science’ or the technology of teaching is well known and is based on certain principles, which forms the basis of academic training, degree and certifications of educators. However, the world as we know it is changing at an ever increasing pace, as are the expectations from the education system to be able to produce empowered citizens of the states, skilled workforce for industry and leaders of the society. Children today can learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone – the boundaries of a school are disappearing with technology enabling access to quality education in a manner that wasn’t conceivable before. Machines are not just learning, they are also generating information and experiences (generative AI such as ChatGPT), similar to how a good teacher is expected to. How do we prepare students of today for the disruptions of the 21st century, which themselves are not fully known or understood yet? 

Based on the answers above, the PDIA framework puts solving learning at scale as a tricky and an extremely hard problem to solve. It is in this light that ‘systems approach’ or ‘systems reforms’ are spoken about as one of the possible approaches or probably the only approach that could solve this problem at scale, for a large number of learners across the majority of schools. 

Solving the Learning Crisis through a Systems Approach

Put simply, a system is a set of elements that are connected to each other by feedback relationships and organized in a way that achieves a function. Studying individual elements reveals some useful information about the system, but studying the interactions between them and how these interactions produce the systems’ functions can reveal a great deal more about the true system characteristics.

In social systems such as education, it can be harder to see the feedback relationships (connections) between actors, therefore developing a framework for studying education systems that clearly identifies the elements, relationships between them, and resulting system functions can be immensely helpful.[7] The Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme has developed a system diagnostic framework, [8] based on the seminal works of Lantt Pritchet. The framework seeks to build an understanding of education systems by specifying its components and defining the way those components interact to produce or undermine learning outcomes. The diagnostic study aims to facilitate and support the government in selecting high-level strategic reform priorities to improve learning, based on the latest education systems research. 

A team at Central Square Foundation (CSF) recently undertook the systems diagnostics pilot with the RISE Programme in one of our states of operation.[9] The framework defines the education system as a set of key accountability relationships among system actors. The politics relationship is the starting point of the “long route of accountability”. While the ultimate accountability for service delivery originates with citizens, that accountability passes through political leaders and government agencies before reaching the frontline, where services are actually delivered. It uses a model to describe a situation where one actor (the principal) wants a task accomplished and engages another actor (the agent) to complete that task in a Principal-Agent relationship. Also, it is simply not enough to understand parts or sub-components of the system as the famous parable of the elephants and the blind men confirms. We need to understand the whole and not merely parts or the sum of the parts.

The “accountability triangle”, a graphical illustration of the relationships between the various elements of the system
Source: Spivack, M.

Then comes the elements of the systems, or as one may prefer to call them, system levers. These are the ways of levers of how the principal interacts with the agent or gets it to do what it wants.

Together the principal-agent relationship and elements combine to make the 5X4 framework[10] of RISE systems diagnostic. As of 2022, it has been implemented in seven field-based studies across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, led by diverse teams spanning NGOs (including CSF), think tanks, consultancies, academic researchers, and government counterparts, applied across a variety of themes such as retrospective policy analysis, program design, and prioritization.[11]

The 5×4 Education Systems Framework
Source: Spivack, M. (modified and text added by author)

All of this is incredibly hard to even comprehend, which we realized once we did the study, and while the breadth of the framework made sure that the analysis and findings are comprehensive, the sheer depth of interactions with many stakeholders (all principals and agents as part of one relationship or the other) made the exercise richer. As one of my colleagues and a key researcher of the project quipped “..the system at any point of time is doing exactly what it is aligned (designed) to do, which in the case of an Indian state (and would be true for the entire country) is delivering access, ensuring selection of a lucky minority who win a place at university, or labor market and complying with set processes.” 

A lot of the angst and frustration that many of our colleagues and other organizations working with the system or state have to go through can be attributed to the fact that we are trying to measure the system and expecting it to deliver against an objective (learning), which it might not have been designed or fully aligned to deliver yet. One of my colleagues who joined us with a rich experience of working (teaching) in government schools through a fellowship program candidly shared this conundrum with me during a chat, “Sometimes, I wonder if it makes sense to even attempt to do what we are doing: the seemingly insurmountable constraints that meet you in the face every day; the alignment of goals, purpose, and priorities among many different system actors seems remote; the results and outcomes of our work are not visible in the short or even in the medium-term. Why should we do this incredibly hard job?” 

These perspectives are not unfounded; as a teacher or a practitioner working directly in schools, the results at least, are directly visible and possibly realizable on almost a daily basis in the pure joy of children who are engaged gainfully in schools and learning. This, alongside appreciative smiles and acknowledgment of teachers and head teachers, who are developing, and growing because of your work. But, we have to take a systems approach as only this will solve it at scale for all and equally well as we successfully solved for access. There is no district or state in the country which is struggling for equitable access in terms of enrolment[12]; yes, attendance remains a challenge but we have to look at these as generational shifts and phases of reforms. India started with extremely poor participation rates in schools post-independence and massive inequity among states[13] (Dreze and Sen, 1997). Hence, the government had to intervene through legislation by bringing in a constitutional amendment and moving education into the concurrent list, as the joint responsibility of center and states, and subsequently launched many centrally sponsored schemes (Das, Parthajeet, 2019) that worked towards the goal of ‘Education for All’[14].

There is a need to prioritize learning, especially foundational learning, across all levels in promised and articulated intent (policy), implementation (from the government to schools), and impact (from schools to outcomes for children). If we want the system to be coherent and aligned for learning, we need to redesign the system and make it go through a process of change as hard, complex, and yet as beautiful as the process of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly.

View Article References


Foundational Learning

Authored by

Dr. Parthajeet Das

Project Director, Strategic Support States, Central Square Foundation

Garima Grover

Project Manager, Strategic Support States, Central Square Foundation

Shalet Sicily Jose

Project Manager, Strategic Support States , Central Square Foundation

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