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How Schools Can Make Up For Learning Loss When They Reopen: Lessons From A UP Study

Mumbai: Schools, when they reopen, must focus on foundational skills among children–basic reading and arithmetic–to make up for the learning loss suffered during the prolonged lockdown, recommends an insight note from a recent programme implemented in the primary schools of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

The learning gain from a year’s worth of schooling can be managed in three months if there is a strong focus on foundational skills, said the note by Rukmini Banerji, chief executive officer of Pratham Educational Foundation, a non-profit organisation. The conclusion is based on evidence from a ‘Graded Learning Programme’ (GLP), a collaborative effort between Pratham and the Uttar Pradesh Basic Education Department, implemented across the state in 2019.

The programme used a ‘Teaching-at-the-Right-Level’ approach wherein students are classified according to their reading and mathematics skills, not age, as is the traditional practice. The aim of the programme was to build sustainable, innovative teaching-learning practices in schools, and strengthen the academic support capacity at block and district levels.

Learning levels are particularly low in UP: More than 60% of Grade 3 students at government schools cannot read words as yet, according to findings from Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018, an annual assessment of reading and arithmetic skills of India’s school students.

The GLP, conducted between January and May 2019, proved successful. In reading, it led to a gain of 14 percentage points in Grade 3 and 16.1 percentage points in Grade 4 students. A similar programme can thus undo the learning loss caused by the lockdown, which Pratham estimates, will be deeper than “summer loss”–a notable drop in achievement levels noticed among students after summer vacations. Data from the GLP suggested a summer loss of 7 percentage points in reading abilities over three months among Grade 3 students in UP.

“Given that everything shut suddenly and there was no time to wind up the last year and get ready for the next year, and the period of closure is getting longer, we assume that based on what happens in a normal school year, this time the loss will be deeper,” said Banerji.

The lockdown to limit the spread of the pandemic starting March 24–now extended in Bihar, Nagaland and Sikkim, which are under complete lockdown–has disrupted schooling across the country. There is no official statement yet on schools reopening. A study has estimated that upto 320 million Indian school students have been affected by school closures.

Only about half of all children enrolled in Grade 5 could read at least Grade 2 level and do basic arithmetic operations, as per the national figures from ASER 2018. This implied that even in a normal school year, uninterrupted by events such as the ongoing pandemic, students are in need of immediate help in acquiring foundational skills in numeracy and literacy. These low levels of learning will further deepen due to shutdowns, affecting disadvantaged children.

2-3 hours daily of foundational skills

For the programme, teachers assessed students one-on-one using the ASER tool for reading and for arithmetic. The data were collected before (baseline) and after (endline) its implementation–January to February 2019 and from late April to early May 2019. Additionally, in anticipation of GLP re-starting in the 2019-20 academic year, many schools did a new baseline with their primary school children in August 2019. From these data, the usual “summer loss” in reading ability was found to be less than 10 percentage points for children who had completed either Grade 3 or Grade 4 and were already reading at Grade 2 level (‘story’ level).

Instructions at school ranged from 45 days to 70 days with at least two to three hours per day devoted to building foundational learning skills. Evidence from data measured in May 2019 showed gains in reading of 14 percentage points in Grade 3 and 16.1 percentage points in Grade 4. The gains with this programme noted between January and May 2019 were equal to the year-on-year gain normally seen.

Approximately Rs 1,000 worth of extra material was printed for each school for Grades 1 to 5 (a little over Rs 5 per child), which included stories in large font, syllable charts, practice reading cards, and word problem booklets, according to the insight note. Teachers helped the children progress to the level of learning with various instructional activities and there were frequent reviews at school, block, district, and state level.

Better learning outcomes and employment

Building foundational skills at an early age is correlated to better learning outcomes, personal well-being, economic and national prosperity, found a 2014 study on literacy and numeracy skills among children in developing countries. Even one year of participation in a quality early childhood development programme can ensure higher school readiness levels, according to The India Early Childhood Education Impact Study by the ASER centre and the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development.

“Once you can read, you can do a lot of things on your own but if you can’t read you can’t do much on your own. That’s why it’s important to have your foundations in place,” Banerji explained. Echoing this is the National Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission to be launched by the end of 2020 along with the Draft National Education Policy 2019, which mentions the need to build foundational skills in Grades 1-5.

Reorienting teaching

Textbooks and learning material need to be completely reorganised once schools reopen, said Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, Delhi. “Schools need to prioritise content, while deciding what subjects and teaching methods they want to focus on. They should focus on language and math for Grades 1-3," she said.

Every teacher in the GLP was equipped with training, to gather data for baseline and endline surveys. With funds for teacher training down 87% in six years, there could be a shortage of resources for programmes such as GLP. A study that analysed school budgets from eight states showed that teacher salaries made up the largest share of school expenditure but spending on training, critical for improved learning outcomes, has been poor.

Scyon Quinny, who teaches Grades 8-12 at a government school in Mumbai, was of the view that students need to be assessed once schools reopen to understand the extent of learning loss and make necessary changes to methods of instruction. “I am conducting online lessons but there definitely needs to be a curriculum change to adapt to online learning and teachers need to be adequately trained to use digital tools to teach,” he said.

Reorienting the curriculum to teach and learn what is essential in the students’ lives is important. “For me we just need to figure out how to reprioritise,” said Banerji. “I don’t think it has major budgetary requirements, it requires a major mindset shift. Are we willing to create space to help children who have fallen behind to catch up rather than move right away into the curriculum?” Regular mid-days meals will ensure food security for the child and thus regular attendance, she added.

“There are hardships at home, but the school can [have] a mediating influence in getting children back on track,” she said. With mid-day meals interrupted by school and anganwadi closures during the pandemic, on March 18, the Supreme Court issued a notice to state governments to provide responses on dealing with this closure.