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How Rich Donors Have Caused More Harm Than Good to India's Education

In India, NGOs like Pratham have pushed programmes and ideas on government-run schools which the world has found unacceptable. The alarm bells about Pratham, and the ASER survey’s impact, when rung by a few journalists, have not been heard.
A school in Humayunpur, Delhi. Photo: Francois Decaillet/Flickr CC 2.0

A teacher in Jharkhand carries FLN (Foundational Literacy & Numeracy) workbooks for 200 students on her head, since her school is far into the jungle. FLN is mandated by the Government of India as a magical new tool to make children read and write faster and better in schools.

A 14-year-old in a school in Delhi goes to a higher-ability classroom to talk to his friend but gets into a fight and is then beaten by the teacher without listening to his explanation; the beaten student feels his friend, who he sought, does not defend him because he studies in the classroom marked as lower ability.

Far away in New York, a rich non-resident Indian (NRI) donates to Pratham USA while getting his photo clicked with Trevor Noah at a fundraising gala. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria drops in, raising the visibility of the event, where two tables with ten seats can cost $100,000. Everyone feels good. They are wining and dining for a cause – the education of poor children in India. No cause is more noble than investing in India’s future, than helping a poor child. Guests not only get the chance to give back, they give back with high visibility.

Pratham USA manages to raise Rs 216 crore in a single year.

Not to be outdone, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pours in Rs 300 crore into education in India since 2009. The donations are made through various NGOs, notably Central Square Foundation (led by Ashish Dhawan, who is also one of the founders of Ashoka University), Pratham (led by Madhav Chavan and Rukmini Banerji), Room to Read, and Language and Learning Foundation (led by former bureaucrat Dhir Jhingran). 

The Modi Government’s spending on education declines to just 2.4-2.5% of its total expenditure in the ongoing and last financial years against 3.3% during 2019-20, reports Business Standard on January 30.

Meanwhile, the ASER report, brought out by Pratham, releases alarming data year after year from 2005 to 2014, and then every alternate year. Children are in school but are not learning, it declares. There is a ‘learning poverty’, shouts the World Bank. India’s schools seem on the brink of collapse.

The ASER survey released last month was no different. It made headlines.

“Most rural kids 14-18 can’t do Class 3 math, over 25% can’t read” announced The Indian Express on its front page on January 18.

“Almost 9 in 10 are in school, but 56.7% teens could not do simple division” added the daily.

“25% rural kids aged 14-18 can’t read Std 2 level in own tongue” shuddered The Times of India. “43% can’t read English sentences.”

Not just a survey

Pratham’s annual alarm through data allows the NGO to serve as a wake-up call to “the education system” which seems to be sleeping on the job.

“As soon as you assess and place importance on the result of an assessment, the assessment informs what the intervention should be,” says Abhinav Ghosh, a PhD scholar at Harvard.

“If your assessment says children are not identifying letters, the automatic intervention will be to put all effort into identifying letters, all else can wait.”

Representative image of girls studying in school. Photo: TESS/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Based on this framing, Pratham picked up steam, gaining right to intervene to bridge the gap in learning. Since then, Pratham has helped frame education policy, besides assisting in its implementation. It has injected ideas, reading material, and people in the public school system. ASER’s tools for assessing literacy, used extensively in government schools, are seen as learning goals in themselves. Teachers do regular paperwork to say they are using these tools; teachers’ own assessment of students’ ability, a key tool for classroom interaction, doesn’t count. The ASER survey helped bury the no-detention policy.

With the latest policy intervention, Pratham and Central Square Foundation, flush with funds from Gates Foundation and other rich donors, have pushed FLN, a strange concept which sees reading as a mechanical skill, sometimes confusing it with fluency but often separating it from comprehension.

FLN is part of New Education Policy or NEP 2020, and has begun reaching schools in all states this academic year through workbooks devised by State Councils of Educational Research and Training or SCERTs. So important is FLN that the new policy, a favourite of the Modi regime, calls it an “urgent national mission”.

FLN will intensify decontextualised and rote learning, note Martin Haus, who is doing doctoral research at the London School of Economics’ department of government and Harvard doctoral scholar Ghosh, in this blog.

“Despite the rhetoric of “FLN for all”, the push for attaining these basic skills is almost exclusively directed at children from rural and marginalized communities who have historically received substandard education,” write Haus and Ghosh. The blog was reproduced in the Hindustan Times.

The trouble with donor money

Journalist Tim Schwab has deep dived into the influence and impact of the Gates Foundation in education in the United States of America. In his book ‘The Bill Gates Problem, Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire’, released in November last year, Schwab shows how Bill Gates has lit fires in the public school system there and failed to put them out.

Its interventions ranged from a set of educational standards called the Common Core in the early 2010s that the Gates Foundation “willed into existence”, says Schwab, to eliminating so-called bad teachers in the USA.

Through aligning each state’s educational standards, and relentlessly testing against those standards, the Gates Foundation promised that students all across America would finally have access to the same high-quality education, no matter where they lived.

Gates worked with political parties and “leaned heavily on the media to help drive its education reform agenda”. It put in money into underwriting  news programmes, promoted a documentary on its educational reforms agenda, and held Gates-funded summits hosted by The Atlantic, a well-known magazine in the US.

States in that country began adopting the standards before a final draft had been made public and despite the fact that there had been no pilot programme or assessment to make sure Common Core was effective. The Washington Post called it one of “the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.”

Several states began backtracking on the Common Core when it drew critics from both the left and the right. An independent evaluation went on to show that Common Core didn’t actually do what Gates had said it would, improve education.

India interventions

In India, Pratham has pushed programmes and ideas on government-run schools which the world has found unacceptable. The alarm bells about Pratham, and the ASER survey’s impact, when rung by a few journalists, have not been heard. It stays a media darling.

When it came to light that governments were segregating children in the same age group in school, making them sit in separate classrooms, and even teaching them from different textbooks – said to be based on their ability, part of teaching-to-test or Teach at the Right Level, a move pushed by Pratham – I reported on the Delhi government’s effort, and its disastrous impact on children and the way they perceived each other, recorded by an intern teacher who studied the impact over months. Manish Kumar’s research found that physical separation changed the identity of students. They began calling their classmates not by their names but by the group name, and even refused to play with the group perceived as weak in ability. “You don’t know anything, that’s why you are in Vishwas (lower-ability group),” a student reported being told.

Manish Kumar Peace Education by The Wire

He said he feels angry with himself for not having enough brains to be in the Pratibha section. “I have less brain, that is why Pratibha section does not play with me. I wish I could study like Pratibha section, and be in the Pratibha section.”

This shows an impact on vulnerable minds. Experts pointed to the lack of peer learning that such a policy of segregation entails.

While reporting on ability-based segregation in 2019, I sat down with Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor, director of education, Delhi government for nearly two hours to understand the logic behind the ability groups.

Sharma drew his salary from Pratham. He had a substantial office and team in the old Vidhan Sabha building.

A parent decided to sue the Delhi Government, forcing it on the back foot. The Delhi Government gave the segregation a quiet burial.

Pratham didn’t reply to my question on whether it has done any study on the impact of physically segregating students by ability, and FLN, and said these queries are better addressed to the Delhi government. Pratham’s spokesperson said the organisation hasn’t done any studies on either and chose to clump both as the Delhi government’s Mission Buniyaad policy, though FLN is part of the Union Government’s new education policy, and has begun to be implemented in schools country-wide.

It did not reply to my question on the impact of Pratham’s interventions on teachers.

Teacher, teacher

Teachers are wary of repeated Pratham interventions because they have seen the NGO’s impact.

By constantly highlighting failure, Pratham has eroded the professional credibility of teachers, teachers I met with say, especially those working in government schools. Pratham’s interventions in government schools have included preparing ‘teacher-proof’ material which just needs to be delivered by any adult. This re-constitutes teaching as a non-profession and as ‘service’ or as ‘volunteering’, a big part of NEP 2020. This impacts teacher recruitment, already an area where state governments do not want to spend, and brings in contractual jobs where teachers have neither rights nor full salaries. Pratham’s tool for assessing literacy has come to be seen as a learning goal in itself. It is used extensively in government primary schools to assess and segregate children merely on the basis of their performance on the tool. This erodes the teacher’s own assessment of her students’ abilities.

school children

Representative image of school children. Photo: Maia Maia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Both through the impact of their work in schools and the more recent but more decisive role in policy-making itself, they have succeeded in de-professionalising teachers by taking away their agency at all levels – content planning and delivery, classroom dynamics and organisation, and assessment,” said a teacher who has headed a group of teachers who have analysed – and unsuccessfully tried to raise questions on – Pratham’s interventions.

Teachers in Delhi report that Pratham’s summer reading camps have ended the summer break for teachers, something they looked forward to after a tiring term and end-of-year exams.

A key part of the Gates Foundation education reform agenda, at one time, was eliminating bad teachers in the USA, reports Schwab in his book. Gates advanced an agenda to weed out low performers and reward the best teachers. A pilot project in Hillsborough, Florida ended in disaster. But before its failure, the heavily-promoted project had “contributed to a nationwide zeitgeist of teacher accountability efforts—and a culture of blaming teachers for the poor performance of students. One teacher in Los Angeles, after having been publicly named as a low-performing teacher by the Los Angeles Times committed suicide, prompting hundreds of students, teachers and parents to protest outside the newspaper’s office”, writes Schwab.

Middle school teacher and writer Anthony Cody noted that for all Bill Gates’s rhetoric about using a variety of measurements in teacher evaluation, the Gates Foundation had carefully crafted its teacher evaluation metrics around student test scores.

“…if the Foundation was really the organization it claims to be, working in partnerships with teachers and communities, it would publicly apologise for its failures and offer compensation and reparations for all the harm it has caused, from the teacher-shaming culture it engendered to the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars that were spent, or wasted, on its failed pilot project in Hillsborough County,” says Schwab in his book on the Gates Foundation.

Pratham has similarly not apologised for the harm caused by segregating students in schools in India. Probably the subjects who are experimented upon, children in government-run schools, did not deserve an apology.

Ending no-detention

Pratham’s Aser reports sounded the death knell on the move not to detain young students in both private and government schools – a move which sought to stem student suicides in India.

“The Aser reports are perhaps the most frequently-cited of all education surveys in India,” wrote Shreya Roy Chowdhury, a journalist who has covered education for many years, for Scroll in 2018.

“Its findings are invoked to lobby for or resist a variety of policy decisions. They help buttress arguments in favour of removing the no-detention policy from the Right to Education Act, 2009, which mandated the promotion of all children between Classes 1-8 every year regardless of performance. Its data comparing learning outcomes of children studying in government schools with those enrolled in private ones, without considering non-school factors such caste, income or education or parents, are invariably cited to push for deregulation of private schools and even to challenge the Right to Education Act. The Act’s insistence on what it calls “inputs” – that schools have basic infrastructure such as toilets and classrooms and resources like qualified teachers – to be recognised, are seen as a hindrance to private enterprise in education.”

Roy Chowdhury asks ASER Centre’s executive director Wilima Wadhwa in the interview why the ASER surveys always paint a dismal picture, and why the data does not factor in caste and family background.

Roy Chowdhury: Your reports are used to buttress arguments to remove the ban on detention in primary school from the Right to Education Act. Do you have a stand on this issue?

Wadhwa: We have never had a stance on it. You know it will have certain consequences and one of them is this [low outcomes]. Am I saying holding back a child is a good thing? No! Of course not. But the survey results are an early warning sign.

Informally, many states already had a no-detention policy up to Class 5. We think in terms of watershed years – the end of primary school [Class 5] was one and that is when many dropped out. The jumps in curriculum levels – from Class 5 to 6 and from Class 8 to 9 – are different from the changes from Class 4 to 5 and Class 7 to 8.

We know where they will face most difficulty. Do not hold the child back but there has to be some way of addressing the deficit. Learning levels were low and slow to change from 2005 to 2010, but after 2010, there was a drop. Suddenly the focus shifted to playgrounds and boundary walls. I am not saying those are not important but whatever little attention learning got also went away. The teachers had to deal with elections and Census [enumeration] along with continuous comprehensive evaluation [mandated by the Right to Education Act, it involves constant tracking of a child’s progress in place of a year-end exam] which took years to figure out.

We have also been accused of constantly testing a child leading to stress – but unless you know where the deficits are, how will you address them? The government’s policy-making is like a patchwork – you have a crisis somewhere, you put a patch over it.

The no-detention policy, backed by CCE or comprehensive and continuous evaluation, was one of the most significant changes in India’s exam-driven school education. The policy got short shrift from Parliament in January 2018, just a few days before the publication of the interview. Prakash Javadekar, the minister responsible for education then, said 25 states had asked for the right to scrap ‘no detention’.

Now children as young as 10 could be said to ‘fail’ in a class.

What then?

A reason why governments end up courting interventions in education is that education is a slow-reform sector. The impact of an educated society, given to critical thinking, cannot be measured in simple metrics. Or farmed for votes.

More visible is a student who reads aloud fluently without understanding anything. The parents, at least, will be satisfied.

Also, student failure is a result of deep wealth inequities which politicians would not like to address.

Writer and middle school teacher Cody, a leading critic of the Gates Foundation, notes in the book by Schwab, that academic success is predominantly guided by factors outside the school related to wealth and social class. This means Gates’s classroom interventions – whether it’s changing educational standards, supporting charter schools, evaluating teachers, or introducing new educational software – can’t deliver the game-changing results the foundation claims.

“We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools,” Cody writes.

Schwab interrogates Bill Gates’s own education in an elite, private school and then at Harvard, which allowed Gates self-exploration to develop a sense of self-confidence and an identity to decide which subjects he needed to study further. It also gave him free time to get his first job in senior year in high school.

“Gates has given his own children the same rich educational experiences he had, but he has been far less charitable towards the poor children of colour at the heart of his philanthropic efforts. For the masses and the commoners, education is not about enlightenment or critical thinking or creativity or dignity or self-discovery or even learning. It’s about getting the necessary training to be useful contributors to the global economy,” writes Schwab.

This is exactly what India’s school education is pushing common people towards.


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