From a “wide portfolio” to systemic support for foundational learning: The evolution of the Central Square Foundation’s work on education in India (Part 2)

This week, IEN continues to look at the developing work of the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and its efforts to build the capacity for improving learning outcomes in India. The post draws from an interview with CSF’s Co-Managing Director Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja. Last week, part one explored the first five years of the Foundation’s initiatives (2012-2017) and how they developed their current strategy focusing on foundational learning, educational technology, and affordable private schools. This week, part two concentrates on the “four pillars” of their approach to foundational learning and the lessons they have learned in trying to improve learning at scale in India.

“Four pillars” of work on foundational literacy: Partnerships, aligned instruction, professional development and assessment

Thomas Hatch: Tell me a bit about your work on Foundational Literacy now.

Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja: After almost four decades, India came up with a new education policy that highlights that unless we solve for early learning, any other reform, whether we do it in higher education or in secondary schools, will become irrelevant. Just last summer, the national government launched the policy with the introduction of the National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) The initiative aims to ensure that, by 2026-27, every child in India attains foundational literacy and numeracy by the end of Grade 3. CSF has had a small but a catalytic role in the development of the policy, and this initiative is now phase three of our mission.

It’s important to know that India doesn’t have a formal early childhood education system. Our Right to Education Act starts at age six and grade 1. Prior to that, you can go to the Anganwadi Centers, which are under a different Ministry, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD). Those Centers, by the way, have done an incredible job when it comes to vaccination, nutrition, and health, but, unfortunately, the system is overloaded, and they also now have to take care of education. The new education policy talks about the need to address this problem in the three-to-eight-year age group and to have a strong pre-primary section, but it’s not yet institutionalized in the education system. 

TH: So this is a new focus area – it still follows your same general approach – but it’s not a totally distinct endeavor? 

SS: Exactly. It’s what we call radical prioritization of early learning. The idea is how do we equip the existing education system to raise the floor of their approach to early learning so that it translates into learning outcomes?  And it’s particularly crucial right now because, with COVID, enrollment in India is back to being a problem, especially with some socio-economic groups. For example, a girl who walked into grade three now would never have gone to grade 1 or grade 2, and India doesn’t have a pre-primary school system. The girl is probably eight or nine years old and is expected to start working at the third-grade level. That’s why the early learning focus is so important from a COVID learning loss perspective as well. 

Now a girl would walk into grade three never having gone to grade 1 or grade 2, and India doesn’t have a pre-primary school system. The girl is probably eight or nine years old and is expected to start working at the third-grade level. That’s why the early learning focus is so important from COVID learning loss perspective as well.

Building a lot on RTI’s approach in Kenya, we are pursuing what we call a four-pillar approach. The first step is to do a system diagnostic – “What are the critical enablers we need?”. One of the challenges in India is that learning gains are very intangible in the early stages of education. In India, the first high stakes assessment happens in grade 10, which is a board exam. That’s very critical and private schools will advertise how well they do, but it’s very late in the cycle of education and there’s no ownership or accountability for earlier stages of education. Actually, the system allows a child to pass out of primary and upper primary school without really having learned. That’s why the first step is How do we get alignment on goal setting and communication?” From the Chief Minister of a state to a parent or an illiterate parent who’s sending a first-generation learner to school, do we all understand what we mean by the mission of education and what we are hoping to achieve? What does learning to read with meaning mean? What does it mean to be able to do basic arithmetic? That becomes the first pillar. 

From the Chief Minister of a state to a parent or an illiterate parent who’s sending a first-generation learner to the school, do we all understand what we mean by the mission of education and what we are hoping to achieve? What does learning to read with meaning mean? What does it mean to be able to do basic arithmetic? That becomes the first pillar.

Teacher professional development and teaching and learning materials – the second and third pillars – are related.  With our literacy and numeracy partners, we are working on a structured pedagogy approach to ensure that there is a common learning outcomes framework reflected in lesson plans, workbooks, and learning activities for children in the classroom as well as deeply aligned teacher professional development. One of the learnings of all teacher training initiatives in India has been that teacher training by itself – which isn’t aligned to our curriculum or pedagogical approach – might inspire teachers, but doesn’t always translate to benefits in the classroom. So it’s designed to be a very integrated approach. In other words, it’s capacity building for the entire value chain, including teacher education and including all the materials and layers of academic support which are supposed to be helping teachers in the classroom. 

The fourth pillar is assessment and developing a monitoring framework. What will the assessment and monitoring dashboard look like at the district level, at the state level and then at the national level? Unfortunately, in India right now assessment is equal to testing and testing means we are judging children, whereas the intent has to be to assess so that we can support children wherever learning gaps are coming up.

Then, in order to support adoption and behavior change around these four pillars, we have to take into account things like, in India, teachers don’t retire. As economists say, there’s a “stock” but not a “flow;” there’s not an active “churn.” “I’ve been a teacher for two decades. What’s in it for me to truly change how I teach children language or another subject?”  That’s why we’ve specifically called out behavior change along with things like home learning and community engagement. How can we augment the teaching time that children are getting in school with the time they’re getting at home? But I want to stress that the idea is not to shift the responsibility of education to the parent, but can they play an enabling or facilitating role? 

These four pillars capture the work we are doing in our key states (Haryana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh) with a focus on learning. Overall, our role is to leverage other NGO’s in the eco-system. The coalition that works with the state government in each case includes the Central Square Foundation, and we typically play a project management role and help to leverage other NGO’s in the eco-system, including a literacy expert and a numeracy expert. This approach reflects the principle that to solve this complex need, we need different organizations to bring their expertise and co-create a solution with the state. And it’s not proprietary. We want Gujarat to run it as Gujarat’s Foundational Literacy and Numeracy program. For it to actually scale and sustain, the budget, the branding, the operational costs has to come from the State itself. 

Reflections on the challenges and opportunities of supporting learning at scale 

TH: What kind of pushback have you gotten as this work has evolved? Are there particular areas where the government has resisted or you’ve had to change in order to move the partnership forward? 

SS: It took us a while to land on this four-pillar approach, but it’s what we have done strategically and theoretically. Actually bringing it to the ground with other partner organizations, as you can imagine, is easier said than done. There was a learning curve that we ourselves needed to go through. 

It’s easy for me to say that we are bringing together a project management partner, a literacy expert, and a numeracy expert. But historically in India, NGOs haven’t collaborated well. I think we NGO’s and civil society organizations tend to be in love with our own IP [intellectual property]. We think we’re the only ones who can do it, and it has to be done “our way.” But if I’m a teacher in a government school, and I’ve been teaching a certain subject for two decades, I’ve seen many programs and many missions and many NGOs come and go, but I’m still here. You can’t expect me to learn a different way of teaching language and a different way for numeracy and then do assessment. It all has to come together in an integrated manner. 

If I’m a teacher in a government school and I’ve been teaching a certain subject for two decades, I’ve seen many programs and many missions and many NGOs come and go, but I’m still here. You can’t expect me to learn a different way of teaching language and a different way for numeracy and then assessment. It all has to come together in an integrated manner.

The devil in the details is how will all the partners work together? How will we establish accountability? That’s been a learning experience. Because organizations are also people, understanding the chemistry of different partners – first at a coalition level, and then with the government stakeholders – has also been an interesting journey. 

From a government perspective, everyone understands why early learning is important so they latch on to the need for early learning, but I think the biggest challenge has been assessment and putting a strong monitoring system in place. Again, this comes from a legacy of assessment being equated with tests and exams that are used for selection. But it’s been much harder to make the transition to using assessment to inform instruction and to make course corrections so that everyone is that grade level and year-end remediation is not required. 

The other classic challenge is how prescriptive should a structured pedagogy approach be? Is teaching a science or is teaching an art? With our approach with the instructional materials and guidebooks for the teachers, we are trying to solve for the part that is science. And if you are a teacher who gets the art part right, your classroom will be more engaging, your students will be more engaged, and it will show up in their work. Whereas, if I’m an average teacher with average motivation, and I just want to get my work done, if you can provide me with a scientific solution that is prescriptive to a certain extent, at least it will ensure that my children get to grade level.

So, all in all, I would say our own learning has been around four challenges. First, what does it take to build a coalition for the four-pillar approach: What will our role be, how do we establish accountability? Second, how do we land that approach with a government so they see we are not coming with our own NGO program, that we want to help strengthen their early learning program? Third, how do we solve the assessment problem, so that assessment is both a check for understanding in the classroom and a way of monitoring so we know the health of the system overall? Fourth, what does having a scientifically defined learning framework with micro competencies and related lesson plans, do to the autonomy of a teacher?  Those have been the biggest challenges and areas of learnings for us.

What does having a scientifically defined learning framework, with micro competencies and related lesson plans, do to the autonomy of a teacher?”  

TH: What have you learned and what have you had to change in order to shift, particularly that NGO mindset of “I have the solution?” 

SS: The first thing we’ve learned is we don’t have to start with a solution that we are proposing. First, we have to do a diagnostic and understand – and help the government understand – what their current approach is. How do they do early learning? What have their gaps been? What’s happening in the classroom and what are teachers experiencing? Then one of the things we’ve had to change is to get the conversation started on learning goals, teaching and learning materials, and on an assessment framework with the government as an equal partner. We’re not presenting the framework to them. We’re actually discovering it together. We’re peeling the onion to see what ‘s amiss, what can we contribute?  How can you support that or this is sacrosanct and you can’t touch it?  For example, in India, you can’t touch textbooks.  Textbooks come from NCERT/SCERT (State Education Department) and they just get followed. However, if you want to reorder or the sequence or if you want to skip two chapters and augment them with some supplementary material, we can have that conversation. It has been crucial to understand the constraints and the appetite for change.  It has taken us a while to realize that we’re not helping states start the early learning program we are helping them augment their early learning programs so that kids learn on grade level.  

It has been crucial to understand the constraints and the appetite for change.  It has taken us a while to realize that we’re not helping states start the early learning program we are helping them augment their early learning programs so that kids learn on grade level.”

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