By Bhamy V Shenoy
Pratham has been publishing the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) for rural India since 2005, with a break in 2014. ASER assesses the learning levels of rural students-both in government, and private schools. Successive reports should have shocked the nation since they have consistently showed that our children are not performing at the level they should.
For example, ASER 2018 revealed that only 27.2% of Standard III students can read a Standard II-level text, and 28.1% can do subtraction. The same report showed that 25% of children leaving Standard VIII cannot read a second-grade-level text; performance on this aspect was much better in 2008-only 15%. Do we need any further proof that we have an education crisis?
ASER 2019 results were unveiled on January 15, 2020 in Delhi. This report has focused on "early years" of child development. Globally, 'early years' is defined as the first eight years of a child's life. It is this period that is most important for the cognitive, motor, emotional, and social development of children. Since 90% of a child's brain is fully formed by age six, it is critical that the school environment provides for creative learning, and other developmental activities.
ASER 2019 has collected data on schooling status, and analysed important development indicators of children in the age group of 4-8 years. It does not reveal a pretty picture. The findings strongly support the recommendation of Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) of strengthening early childhood education (ECE) by shifting it to school complexes, with trained teachers handling ECE rather than poorly-trained, poorly-paid, and overburdened anganwadi teachers.
ASER surveyors covered a total of 36,930 children in the age group of 4-8 years in 26 rural districts across 24 states. They asked each child to perform a variety of tasks that would test their cognitive skills, literacy, as well as numeracy knowledge. Furthermore, social and emotional development was tracked through activities.
Only 12.7% of the children aged between four and five years were found not to be enrolled in any type of school-anganwadi, preschool, or school. While this is a good thing, what is not encouraging is that 21.9% of the children in this age bracket were in Standard I or above. It is presumed that children, while entering Standard I, are at least six years old; allowing underage children into primary grades puts them at a learning disadvantage, which is difficult to overcome later.
On the other hand, 36.4% of the children aged seven and above are still in Standard I when they should have been in a higher grade. According to the Right to Education Act, compulsory and free education is applicable from ages 6-14.
However, the ground reality is different. Earlier, ASER reports have also revealed such dismal statistics. But, nothing has happened.
Five-year-olds are exposed to a wide variety of environments and inputs, depending on where they are enrolled: 26.3% children are in anganwadis, 40.6% are in private lower or upper KG classes, and 23.9% are in government or private schools, attending Standard I or above.
Children were administered five cognitive tasks-sorting, spatial awareness, seriation, pattern recognition, and puzzle solving. As expected, the ability to perform tasks improves with age from four to five, regardless of schooling status. It came as a surprise that most students were not able to perform these simple tasks even at age five. For example, among five-year-old children, only 44% of those in anganwadi, 50% of those in private preschools, and 30% of those not enrolled for any form of schooling could do simple pattern recognition.
One more example. Of all four-year-olds enrolled in anganwadis, 63.8% can do a sorting task, 51.7% can do a spatial awareness task, 39.4% can do a seriation task, 38.8% can do pattern recognition, and 31% can solve a puzzle. Worse has yet to come.
The ability to identify emotions is an important part of social and emotional development. The child is shown four face cards depicting sadness, happiness, anger, and fear. At age four, only 24% could identify all four emotions; this was only slightly better for children aged five years at 33.6%. Happiness was the emotion most easily identified, with 62% of four-year-olds, and 72% of five-year-olds successfully recognising it.
Lack of preparedness at the pre-schooling level becomes evident while looking at reading and numeracy skills of children in Standard I. Only 16% of the children in Standard I can read at the level expected of that grade; while 39% cannot even read a letter, 29% can identify letters, and only 15% can read a word.
Of those enrolled in Standard I, 25% could not recognise a number while 51% could do one-digit addition, and 39% could do-one digit subtraction. Only 40% could do oral word-problem addition.
ASER analysis has shown that early language and numeracy skills improve if a child is able to perform cognitive tasks better. This suggests that focusing on play-based activities that build memory, reasoning, and problem-solving abilities is far more productive than an early focus on content knowledge.
Unfortunately, today, even at the pre-schooling level, reciting nursery rhymes or rote learning to demonstrate one's knowledge of facts is stressed more than encouraging children to indulge in discovering new things out of their own inherent curiosity, a methodology stressed in Montessori school.
ASER tried to correlate the education level of mothers with the performance of their children in terms of performing three cognitive tasks, and reading and numeracy skills. In all categories, there a positive correlation was found-higher the education level of the mother, better the performance of the children. This should not come as a surprise.
However, this does not justify teachers blaming parents for students’ poor performance. While it is certainly advantageous to have educated parents, children can still overcome the handicap if they have dedicated and competent teachers.
Pratham has made a great contribution by highlighting the problem of dysfunctional early childhood education. It is not rocket science to improve ECE as has been clearly discussed in DNEP. And, it cannot be done through baby-steps; we need transformative reforms. Let us hope that our country will implement DNEP on a war footing.
Former manager, Conoco, and former board member of the National Oil Company of Georgia Views are personal