Over the past decade many developing countries have expanded primary school access, but improvements in school access and enrollment have not universally translated into actual improvements in learning outcomes for all students. This is especially true in India, where 96 percent of children (ages 6-14) are enrolled in school, but 47 percent of children cannot read a grade-2 level text and 62 percent cannot do basic arithmetic in spite of spending five years in school.1 This means that well over 40 percent of all rural children in 5th grade are at least three grade levels behind.2
There are many reasons for the backlog in learning: government efforts are still focused on showing increases in enrollment rather than improvements in learning, inadequately prepared teachers, outdated teaching methods, unsatisfactory teacher-student ratios, irregular attendance in school by children, widespread teacher absenteeism, and lack of an inbuilt system within schools to identify children who are not learning and to arrange remediation in a timely or effective fashion. Compounding this is the absence of learning support at home: mothers of 50 percent of rural school going children have never been to school themselves. The result is low quality education that often imparts little or no real learning.
In 2001, J-PAL affiliates Abhijit Banerjee, Shawn Cole, Esther Duflo and Leigh Linden evaluated the Balsakhi program, a remedial education intervention designed by Pratham, an Indian NGO that works to improve and accelerate children’s learning within the existing education system. A tutor (Balsakhi) was hired at a fraction of the cost of civil-service teachers in about 200 public primary schools in Vadodara and Mumbai to work with children who had fallen behind their peers in basic reading and arithmetic. The evaluation showed that during the academic year, there was a visible improvement in learning for both low-performing students, who received remedial education as well as for stronger students. The number of students in the bottom third of the Balsakhi program classes who passed basic competency tests in math and language increased by 7.7 percent, while those in the top third who passed increased by 4 percent. At a cost of just $2.25 per year for every child who received remedial assistance, this compares to the average education expenditure per student in India of $78 per year.3 For more about this project, see the related evaluation page.
In 2005, J-PAL evaluated another remedial education program run by Pratham in Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh. Three interventions were tried with the aim of improving learning outcomes of children. The first two interventions focused on sharing information about low learning levels in the community: “village report cards on learning” were prepared by testing children and discussed in village meetings. Along with these discussions, the third intervention included an action component: Pratham designed teaching materials and ran demonstration classes to show how quickly and effectively children could be taught to read. Local unpaid volunteers were trained in techniques for helping children learn to read and were encouraged to conduct after-school reading camps in the village that supplemented the normal primary school curriculum.
After-school reading camps were highly effective: children who could not read anything at baseline were 7.9 percent more likely to be able to read at least letters. Those who could read only letters at baseline were 3.5 percent more likely to read at least paragraphs or words, and 3.3 percent more likely to be able to read stories. For more about this project, see the related evaluation page.
The main downside of the volunteer-based program was that the number of volunteers in each village was insufficient as compared to the numbers of children who needed supplemental help. For this reason, Pratham moved to an alternative model, called Read India, which used similar teaching methods and materials, but worked with teachers in existing government schools, in addition to working with village volunteers. In 2009, J-PAL affiliates began evaluating specific variants of the current version of Read India in a few blocks in the states of Bihar and Uttarakhand, administered jointly by Pratham and the state governments for two school years.For more about this ongoing project, see the related evaluation page.
(i) Read India: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined together in 2007 to support evidence based programs that improve the quality of education in developing countries. Pratham was awarded one of the first of these grants amounting to $9.1 million for scaling up Read India.4 This campaign has been scaled-up in over 300 of the 600 districts in India to improve the reading, writing and basic arithmetic skills for children aged 6-14 years.
The campaign uses two main strategies based on local needs—one is via schools and teachers and the other is with the help of village volunteers. Both have the same goal—every Indian child should be reading fluently, doing basic arithmetic confidently and able to communicate effectively in terms of simple writing. Pratham has developed new reading materials for students, and training and teaching methods designed to be more accessible and effective, given the current conditions of India’s educational system. Pratham’s training for teachers is administered jointly with state governments under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan projects. Since the launch of Read India, Pratham has forged partnerships with twelve State Governments. For 2009-10, there are formal partnerships in eight states.
At its peak in the summer of 2008, the Read India campaign covered 305,000 out of the 600,000 villages of India and mobilized 450,000 volunteers. Over 600,000 teachers and government workers have been trained. In 2008-09, the campaign reached over 33 million children across 19 states (see map below). In most states, of the children who were a part of the intervention, the proportion of those not able to read alphabets is down to zero. Likewise, the proportion of children able to read simple sentences is up by almost 20 percent.5 Over the next three years, Read India will move to its next level, Read India II, which will focus on higher levels of academic content, and on subject specific and grade specific content for grades 5-8. To learn more about this initiative, please visit www.pratham.org.
(ii) Summer Campaign: In 2008, Pratham launched Summer Camps of Read India, wherein one month of intense activity was conducted in 400,000 villages across India, reaching approximately 15 million children.6 The summer camps targeted low-performing children in primary school and aimed to help children who had fallen behind academically to catch up before the regular school year began in July. Preliminary analysis from Bihar suggests there was a modest, significant impact on overall reading levels in the villages, but a much larger impact on the subgroup of children that actually attended the camps, indicating the effectiveness of targeting of low-performing students.
1 ASER 2009 “National Findings,” http://www.asercentre.org/asersurvey/aser09/pdfdata/National%20finding%2....
2 ASER 2009, “National Highlights 2009,” http://www.asercentre.org/asersurvey/aser09/pdfdata/national%20highlight....
3 J-PAL Policy Briefcase No.2, “Making Schools Work for Marginalized Children: Evidence from an inexpensive and effective program in India,” November 2006.
4 “The Hewlett and Gates Foundations Award $9 Million to Pratham,” July 5, 2007 http://www.hewlett.org/newsroom/the-hewlett-and-gates-foundations-award-...
5 Pratham, “What We Do: Read India,” http://www.pratham.org/M-19-3-Read-India.aspx.
6 Pratham, “Hewlett Foundation: Grant 2007-9570, Annual Report 2007-08,” p.25, http://readindia.org/common/images/pdf/report.pdf.
Pratham, “Summer Camps 2008 Report,” http://www.pratham.org/images/summer-camp-report2007-08.pdf.