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With abundant data pointing towards poor learning outcomes in Indian primary and higher education, the Draft National Education Policy has shifted the focus from ‘schooling’ and ‘inputs and investments’ to ‘learning’ and ‘outcomes.’
This shift is similarly echoed in the Niti Aayog’s Action Plan 2017-2019. Both documents delineate several mechanisms, such as adaptive learning, smart classrooms, new pedagogies, and institutionalised assessment and management systems, to address learning-related concerns.
Core to this revised focus, however, is the importance of data and evidence in improving the effectiveness and scale of education models. Here, I share 5 ways we can nurture a system-wide appreciation for evidence-based approaches.
Creating a culture of experimentation
For evidence-based research to inform policies and programs, it is crucial to develop a ‘trial and error’ mindset. Investments must be patient, stable, and flexible.
Important lessons can be drawn from the health sector in this regard. Household-level data is collected and rigorously analysed by research institutes and centres of excellence (e.g. ICMR) to develop products, services and solutions. Oftentimes, repeated testing may even lead back to the drawing board. Ensuring donors have a R&D mindset to support long-term, flexible investments is key for program success.
Collect evidence based on the questions we want answered
Currently, there are two main databases for learning outcomes – ASER and the National Achievement Survey (NAS). ASER is a household-based survey, while NAS is its school-based counterpart. Similarly, the District Information System for Education (DISE) collects information on school infrastructure. If we wish to answer the questions, “How many children in government schools in Punjab at age 14, can perform a 2*2 multiplication problem?” or “How many schools have functioning toilets for girls in Uttar Pradesh?”, the ASER, NAS and U-DISE suffice.
This type of data, however, is insufficient for governments and parents to hold schools accountable for improving school performance. If we want accountability vis-à-vis learning outcomes, we need evidence not just at the individual school level, but also across a host of parameters, including teaching & learning, classroom climate, leadership & governance, community & partnerships. There is a spectrum of tools that schools can use to self-evaluate, which can then be whetted by a third-party evaluator.
Use evidence to design demand-driven interventions
Often, interventions are designed because top management, researchers and practitioners believe that it is important for the community. This leads to misinformation as there is an understanding gap between leaders and the people on the ground. A classic example occurred in Bangladesh, which in the 1970s started adult literacy classes. They were a dismal failure. In-depth conversations and surveys with the community revealed that literacy was not ‘valued’. The program then focused on providing information on animal husbandry, health, and hygiene, which proved to be a tremendous success. In fact, this laid the ground for the Non-Formal Primary Education (NFPE) program, which provides children outside schools and dropouts with access to primary education. Today, the NFPE program runs in Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Philippines.
Incorporate evidence-based systems into every stage of the program
While integrating evidence-collection and assessment into every stage of a program may seem tedious, it is important to identify incremental improvements and pinpoint lagging system capabilities. Sambodhi is evaluating Aflatoun International’s program to improve financial literacy and life skills for children in Classes 6 to 8 across 40 government schools in Himachal Pradesh. The end-goal is to scale the program across all government schools in the State.
To achieve this goal, we at Sambodhi need to understand two things – if there is a marked difference between Aflatoun’s program and its competitors, and if and how government systems need to be strengthened before State-wide scale. These insights will then feed into recommendations for program improvements.
Use evidence to invest in leadership and organisation capacity
There is a corpus of research that identifies the critical role of strong operational systems, leaders and networks in ensuring ideas and models adapt and take root in new contexts. Yet, investments in people and processes are extremely small. Most investors, instead, support tangible, ‘attributable’ outcomes. Fortunately, there are several approaches that rigorously quantify the impact of strengthening systems for program effectiveness and scale. At Sambodhi, contribution-analysis and process tracking, summative and developmental evaluations are routinely used to understand how policy and advocacy investments or leadership accelerator programs are amplifying social impact.