IEN will be taking a break until the end of August, but in the meantime, please revisit some of our posts highlighting specific improvements that organizations like Fount for Nations, Van Ness Elementary School and Transcend, and the Central Square Foundation are making in schools and learning opportunities around the world. IEN returns in September with our annual scan of “back to school” headlines in the US and other parts of the world.
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, partone 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.”
Over the next two weeks IEN looks at the first 10 years of the evolution of the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and its efforts to build the capacity for improving learning outcomes in India. The posts draw from an interview with CSF’s Co-Managing Director Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja. Part one explores the first five years of the Foundation’s initiatives (2012-2017) and how they developed their strategy for the next five years focusing on foundational learning, educational technology, and affordable private schools. 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.For more on the 10th Anniversary of CSF’s founding see #10YearsOfCSF: Leaders at CSF on Their Vision for the Next Decade.
Central Square Foundation’s first five years: Developing a “wide-portfolio”
Thomas Hatch: Can you tell me about the background and evolution of the Central Square Foundation (CSF)?
Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja: We started in February 2012. The founder of CSF, Ashish Dhawan, has one of the largest private equity funds in India. He always had a deep desire to move to the development sector, and he started by serving on boards of other NGOs to try to gain an understanding of education. I joined CSF in July 2012, and for the first five years, we were only funded by our founder which allowed us to be very entrepreneurial in how we looked at education. The only “guardrails” he put up were that we would be a non-profit; we will look only at school education (K-12); and we would support young social entrepreneurs. As a result, venture philanthropy shaped a lot of the work that we did in the first phase of our journey.
Without external funders, we had the flexibility to look at a diverse set of issues from education technology to early childhood education to data and assessments. During this time, grant making was one big part of our work. Second, we supported research, particularly research from the perspective of how it can inform policy. Since we are neither a university, or an evaluation agency, our research was always oriented more for policymakers and for other education leaders and on how our research can help the ecosystem develop a collective voice. Third, we focused on government engagement. Even while we were doing grant making and looking for innovative solutions, we knew that for any solution to scale and be sustainable it needed government adoption. Early on, we weren’t even sure what government engagement meant, but we began by trying to come up with innovative solutions, having smart researchers lend their voice to it, and then handing it over to the government to run with it. But, as in much of the developing South, government demands typically include asking you to work in partnership with them, so we ended up setting up a number of project management units both at the central and the state level.
TH: What’s the advantage of an organization like yours taking some of that work on in a partnership with the government?
SS: The reality is that most people in the government understand the issues and challenges that the system is facing; they’re not blind to it. but the education production function is so complex that it’s difficult to pick out one part of the problem and solve it. The government is in the business of setting up the policy, and they are doing the regulation, and they are also the service provider of education. Working with an external partner enables them to hire people with a different profile – with different backgrounds and more specific expertise about a particular issue. The external partner becomes an extension of the government but they’re also able to bring a different profile of talent and to be razor sharp on the issue that they’re working on.
“Working with an external partner enables [the government] to hire people with a different profile – with different backgrounds and more specific expertise about a particular issue. The external partner becomes an extension of the government, but they’re also able to bring a different profile of talent and to be razor sharp on the issue that they’re working on.“
For example, working on a partnership focused on school leadership was my first project at CSF. At that time, school leadership as a term was not even being used in India. But, in 2012- 13, we were able to bring a group of people together, including myself, from the US and India, with expertise in organizational leadership to create the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI) which worked with principals of “low-fee” private schools. (For an overview of the evolution of ISLI see IEN’s conversation with ISLI Founding Director, Sameer Sampat.) But then the government was able to set up a National Center for School Leadership that built on a lot of our learnings in ISLI even though “low-fee” schools aren’t even part of the government sector.
The development of India’s national online platform for teachers provides another good example. As you know, the growth of technology in India has always had the advantage of better device penetration, cheaper internet, cheaper hardware but the software solutions have been the problem. In this case, states started building their own portals for teacher education but their first version was basically just a PDF of their teacher manual that they put on their websites. So there was a huge opportunity for a platform to be built, not just a portal, but a platform on a national level that states could connect to.
The national teacher platform called DIKSHA relied on core technology that came from the EkStep Foundation. Their own legacy is from AADHAR which is a platform enabling the Government of India to directly reach residents of the country in delivery of various subsidies, benefits, and services by using the resident’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number only. They already had sophisticated technology at a level that no state government would have been able to develop itself. CSF then took on the project management responsibilities to integrate and adapt the technology for the state governments so that it aligned with their needs and had the look and feel of their website portals. It was a logical opportunity for CSF to start working with the government, but it was dependent on identifying a strong need where the government wanted support and where CSF had the ability to provide that support. It’s one of my favorite examples of a government partnership, because it involved a foundation like EkStep that brought in the technical capability; we brought in the project management capability, and we also had a much deeper understanding of teacher education, having worked on that for about four years. To the best of our knowledge, this is one of the most successful examples of a public good being created in partnership with CSO’s and NGO’s and different parts of the government. By 2020, the Prime Minister described DIKSHA As “one nation one platform” for the entire spectrum of education, now serving students and families as well as educators.
Shifting to phase 2: Focusing on “impact”
TH: The examples you talked about illustrate how you were operating during those first five years?
SS: Yes, and this was the time at the end of what we call the first phase of our work that our Board put the question in front of us of “What will CSF’s work look like?” During that phase, we were an operating organization which doesn’t actually work on the ground with students and teachers and school leaders. We incubated ISLI.
We helped to bring the leader in from the US (Sameer Sampat who went on to co-found, with Azad Oommen the first Executive Director of CSF, Global School Leaders on the ISLI model), but I was the donor on the team. I wasn’t running the organization. We were also working with states who had different interest areas. In Delhi at one point, we were working on the school-to-work transition and department restructuring. Two very distinct areas of work that are not directly related to student learning outcomes. It’s a long value chain for department restructuring: it depends on department re-structuring leading to better pedagogy and better curriculum that reach classrooms in schools and teacher education programs that then leaders to better teaching and learning. Our board left it up to us to decide: would it be better for CSF to continue with the “wide portfolio” approach and continue to engage with state and central government, when an opportunity and interest appeared? Or should we take stock and pick a part of learning outcomes where we could have a more direct impact? And we felt that the breadth of our work allowed us a space where we could narrow down our focus and make a more meaningful impact. We essentially said: Let’s pick out an area. Let’s be more outcome and measurement and evaluation driven in our work overall and also in how we work with our partner.” We always say for education reform to stick we need to zoom in to a district and go deep. Similarly, we decided to pick an issue within education and go deep.
“Would it be better for CSF to continue with the “wide portfolio” approach and continue to engage with state and central government, when an opportunity and interest appeared? Or should we take stock and pick a part of learning outcomes where we could have a more direct impact?“
This was around 2017 and about the time that the Gates Foundation began looking at doing work in education in India. Our first validation came when they chose CSF as an “in-country” partner. We were still a relative rookie in the education space when they saw potential in us.
As we moved into this second part of the CSF journey, we shifted from the portfolio approach to three focus areas:
Technology in education
Private school sector
Landing on the need for foundation learning was very evident for us. There is a rural household survey called ASER which has been going on in India for 20 years, and it shows that the problems with basic skills are quite deep.
The second area, building on some of our earlier work, was education technology. The widespread availability and use of mobile devices and data put India in a unique position relative to many other countries. There was also a lot of for-profit entrepreneurial activity happening in India, so we saw an opportunity for solutions to be created and designed locally. We also had a unique advantage because CSF had already been playing an evangelizing role for how tech can be leveraged for education within the government system.
The third issue area is private schooling. We are very unique as a country where over 40% of children do not take advantage of the free education provided by the public education system. Education in India, like it is worldwide, is aspirational. The moment a family can afford to pull their child out of the free government school, they would rather send their child to a private school with fees beginning at roughly $10 a month. For the most part, the government has looked at the private school system mostly from the perspective of regulation, and there hasn’t been a strong focus on quality. But in the first phase of our work, because a lot of us, including our founder Ashish, came from the management and the corporate side of the world, many people assumed “Oh you guys must be pro-private schools,” and it took us a while to clarify that whether it’s a government school or low fee private school the school is accountable to deliver quality education.
Our approach to these three areas has been similar to what I described for our first phase:
Working with the government and creating a reform agenda with a collective voice of other education leaders
Evidence building and supply shaping comes from the work we do with our partners, with other NGOs in the ecosystem with a sharp focus on the public good – making sure that whatever we are creating is available to others in the education ecosystem – and an emphasis on research
Deepening our government engagement efforts by shifting from working across multiple issues in multiple geographies to focusing our work in certain states on the issue of foundational literacy and numeracy
Getting to scalable and sustainable solutions in these areas became an extension of our approach in phase two. Across focus areas like education technology, we are trying to be more sharply focused on early learning, including at home, and in our work in private schools, we are trying to raise the bar for quality at the primary level. From a measurement perspective, we are targeting the learning poverty index the World Bank has highlighted (measuring the percentage of children who can read and understand a simple text by age 10), asking “how can we contribute to bringing down learning poverty in India?” with an ambitious target of bringing it down from 55% to 15% over the next five or six years. We’ve found this is both a directional goal– requiring us to articulate how our work contributes to it – and an aspirational and inspiring goal that connects our work with others.
TH: Given how hard it is to achieve these goals, have you also established some benchmarks to see if you’re headed in the right direction?
SS: Unfortunately, because of COVID, the plan to get a baseline is still on paper. The whole principle of system reform is that you’re doing it – not just with the approval of the government – but in partnership with the government. However, with the situation worldwide with COVID, that’s been impossible. We actually adapted a tool that USAID uses, the Early Grades Reading Assessment and the Early Grades Math Assessment. We’ve partnered with an assessment agency, and we’ve piloted it in English and in Gujarati so the tool is ready, but quite honestly haven’t even asked the government for permission yet because it’s just unfair. We’re also acutely conscious that whenever we get an opportunity to do the baseline, it will actually be lower than it would have been before COVID first hit. But, in a way, it will also capture a more picture from ground right now.