Essay 8

Achieving SDG 4 Requires Prioritising Foundational Learning, Globally and Nationally

Ashish Dhawan

selective photography of green leaf plant


As a Gates Foundation partner committed to improving foundational literacy and numeracy in India, it is not remarkable that I found myself in agreement with Girin Beeharry’s call to the global aid architecture to prioritise foundational learning if we are to progress on SDG 4 targets.

His logic is straightforward: children must learn to walk before they can run, and they cannot learn more skills without having foundational ones to build off of. To this I would only add that the same logic holds true for systems, and this strengthens his argument further; systems that cannot solve basic yet fundamental problems will struggle as we load them with wider and more complex priorities, and indeed, are likely to get locked into a cycle of underperformance.1 More funding and more priorities for systems that cannot deliver is not the answer. We must be laser sharp in prioritising the foundations, build demonstrated capacity to solve for outcomes, and then extend.

What are the issues at the national level?

What I did find remarkable was how closely the problem areas that Girin calls out in the global architecture mirror those at the national and local level. Prioritisation, performance monitoring, and accountability are exactly the key interlinked and deep-rooted constraints that affect the ability of the Indian education system to equip most of its children with foundational skills by grade 3. As papers by Lant Pritchett2 and Stuti Khemani,3 and Girin’s essay, suggest, the low visibility of primary learning outcomes is key to why politicians and bureaucrats do not focus on them but focus instead on more tangible and easily moved indicators. It is why every village in India has a primary school with a teacher or two within a kilometer or two, with no regard for the (mostly deleterious) impact such an infrastructural setup has on actual learning.4Another recent case in point is the treatment of higher grades when it comes to COVID response. India’s institutions—government, courts, and media—were all focused on what happens to higher grades which have school leaving “board” exams. School reopening plans consistently prioritised those grades, with next to no attention to the fact that primary grades were shut for the entire year, and scheduled to remain as such in the coming months. While sterling efforts by ASER over the past decade and a half have put primary school outcomes on the civil society and research map, these are still not electorally relevant because they are still invisible to the vast majority.

Performance monitoring naturally follows prioritisation, and, predictably, information systems are geared towards measuring inputs. Annual reporting exists at the national level on measures of school buildings, toilets, teachers, and students. The National Achievement Survey, a sample survey intended to highlight outcomes, is conducted only once every three years, and on the three occasions it has been held, has not been comparable over time, with difficult-to-parse results that independent observers do not consider reliable.5 At the state level too, the story of what gets monitored is similar with some variance, and even where learning is monitored, most state officials and teachers will freely admit in private that the data is heavily inflated, and of course, there are independent measurements to that effect.6 To some extent, the paucity and poor quality of data feeds back into the issue of prioritisation, allowing many politicians and bureaucrats to simply deny that there is a problem that needs to be solved at all.

Accountability is perhaps the most broken of these areas, even on the much more limited definition offered by Girin in his essay: “to take periodic stock of progress, to reflect on the reasons why we are or aren’t making any, and to alter the course of our action as required.” This too is closely linked to the other issues of prioritisation and performance monitoring. If politicians face no electoral pressure on learning goals, and have no good measures for them, who will take stock of what and why?

What are we doing?

The Central Square Foundation’s (CSF) strategy has been to build salience for foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) among policymakers, demonstrate success at scale in a few states, and create public goods through our work in these demonstrations. This is in addition to our work on improving learning outcomes in private schools and via education technology, which are also focused on FLN improvement, but which I will not elaborate on here. Thanks to the efforts of several organisations and experts, both global and local, the first strategy (salience building) has had relatively more success, more quickly than we had anticipated. FLN featured prominently in Indian’s National Education Policy, and the government of India has recently announced the FLN mission, which aims to universalise FLN by 2025 and provides us a unique opportunity, though the official launch has been delayed by the COVID outbreak.

A major part of our work for the short/medium term has thus become working directly with education departments at the state and national level to try and make the FLN mission a success. We are supporting governments in program design and rollout in the now expanded number of states we work with (currently 8 of the 16 large Indian states). Much of our work in these states will center around ways to improve performance monitoring and (limited) accountability structures which are tightly coupled with the technical aspects of improving classroom practice, which we are also working on (i.e., developing teaching and learning material based on a structured pedagogy approach, and teacher professional development and coaching aligned to the material and approach).

In the longer term, making universal learning at the primary level a political priority appears to be one of the, if not the, most critical levers for sustainable improvement.7 It is also an incredibly difficult change to achieve and will require large cultural shifts. One plausible medium-term pathway we are exploring is building a credible and easily observed metric as well as salience for it amongst the electorate. India’s recent National Education Policy offers an opportunity to do this via the stated goal of having key stage assessments at grades 3,5, and 8. The challenge will be to create an institutional setup that keeps measuring outlined competencies with validity and reliability over time while also making the results of these examinations salient for the school system (public and private), students, and parents.8 We are thus supporting some state and national-level governments and examination boards in trying to arrive at a model for getting key stage assessments rolled out and getting them right as a demonstration, and on codifying lessons from these for other states and boards.

How can the global community help?

I will once again echo Girin’s call for more prioritisation around FLN. While politicians focus primarily on the local electorate, clear and focused international mandates can also be useful motivators for governments. This is even more important for the bureaucratic and technical communities, which often look to international counterparts for professional norms. As Girin points out, the sharp focus on very specific and basic metrics like infant and maternal mortality in the MDGs went a long way in coalescing national efforts in health systems, and this success is ripe for replication in education.

I cannot stress enough the need for robust data to support performance monitoring and accountability, and I offer my view on what is needed. While truly independent data can be accurate, it is also often treated within government as not being legitimate; for example, poor performance on both ASER and PISA is typically dismissed defensively by the government (see for e.g Kumar, 2019; Vishnoi, 2012).9 The pressure to show good results on the other hand, skews education department data to the point where it is simply not useful. What we need is a compact via which governments can introduce data reliability processes with independent checks that allow them to measure and improve the quality of their data and be celebrated for honest (albeit low in levels) outcome reporting by both international and local constituencies. This is something that the global architecture can help with, by prioritising the introduction of independent checks to help improve data, as well as prioritising generation of high-quality data as an indicator.

Girin also calls for active funding for research-and-evaluation-type public goods, giving the example of the Tusome evaluation, and proposes that public goods tend to not get used in part because they do not answer the questions that policymakers are asking. Here I will differ from him not in the call to action, but in the implication of the earlier diagnosis. Policymakers, at least in the Indian context, and at least in my experience, are typically not asking questions that sustain long enough to be answered by research, especially in the absence of appropriate prioritisation, which is the context we face in education. I do not see that changing in the near future. The research agenda will thus have to be determined via some combination of interaction with advocacy priorities and gaps in the literature. Ideally, inputs from policymakers who are known consumers of research and engage with it deeply would also help shape the agenda.

While it may be possible that Girin and I are in agreement because we are partners in co-funding CSF, I am more partial to the view that we are partners because the evidence independently leads us to agree on what we believe is an inescapable conclusion: that achieving broad-based FLN in developing countries is a critical and urgent first step to bettering the human condition via education. This is why at CSF our ‘North Star’ is to halve learning poverty in India by 2030.