Tamil Nadu has one of the lowest child literacy rates in India. As of 2002, schools boast an enrollment rate of 99.5% (and that number has increased since then), but over 80% of 5th standard students can’t read. What does that say about the state’s education system?
Plenty, if you’re Mr. Balaji Sampath, Founder and CEO of the Association for India’s Development (AID), which has been working with the Indian government to revolutionize the way students are taught basic language and math skills. He believes in “education, health and livelihood:”
- set clear and simple goals for the students
- cultivate a healthy environment for learning
- translate parents’ livelihoods (however small) into teacher accountability
On December 18th, he showed us with slides, handouts, chalk and a blackboard how AID is implementing these principles today. Read his story below, and if you’re inspired, donate to his project, Eureka SuperKidz by December 31 for your donation to be matched by generous donors. I believe I have enough family and friends to adopt a chunk of the 88 villages left, and I hope you will help me in this worthy campaign!
Kerala and Himachal Pradesh have the highest children literacy rate, while Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank at the very bottom. “Learning was just not happening,” Sampath says matter-of-factly, the preface to his 15-year-long story about AID’s introduction to and involvement with Tamil Nadu’s rural poor.
In 1994, the World Bank launched the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) in India, in parallel with AID’s surveys and assessments. “No organization works in a vacuum,” Sampath says, and explained some of the crucial realizations the collaboration yielded:
- While student enrollment—that is reported on—is high, so are dropout rates. Angry, frustrated and embarrassed parents pull children out of school as early as the 3rd standard when they find out their children are performing poorly, or failing, and the child has slim chances of returning to school.
- The Tamil Nadu government, eager to maintain high school attendance rates, instituted an “all pass” through 5th standard policy, uniformly passing all students regardless of their performance. Parents didn’t know any better and the students continued in school and continued not learning.
- Re-evaluations at the end of the 5th standard showed similarly low literacy rates, so the government remedied the problem with an “all pass” policy through the 8th standard. It was a “short-sighted” solution, Sampath says, and created a “brain drain” situation from primary school onwards.
Partnering with Pratham, the largest education NGO in the world, in 2004, AID took a sample survey of schools across Tamil Nadu to see how the government’s new policies were faring. The results weren’t promising. With more funding and attention in 2005, AID surveyed every district in Tamil Nadu and Bihar and found approximately 53% illiteracy among school-going children. But the infrastructure seems to be in place; Sampath tells us that every school has 2 teachers for a classroom of 80 students spanning 1st through 5th standard, so how can the quality of learning be improved?
“If you make it fun, kids learn better,” Sampath says with a smile on his face. “When subtraction becomes a game that you play with 4 friends, you want to play it, and you end up learning.”
He demonstrates on the blackboard, drawing 8 Tamil characters with chalk. He rapidly explains them to us, “this is ma, pa, tha, ka,” and erases them as quickly. He draws just one character: which one is this? The non-Tamil readers/writers in the room (including me) identify them with some accuracy, mixing up ka with tha, but not ka with pa. Sampath’s point is that it’s easier to mix up letters, objects, numbers—anything—that look similar, such as ka and tha, or, switching to English: b, d, p and q. “It’s easy to see that a and b look different; one has a stick attached to it. So how do you tell the difference between b and d, that both have sticks and balls?”
Make it fun! The more fun a task, the more appealing and the less difficult or cumbersome it becomes to children. He shows us a math jigsaw puzzle, 9 individual number squares that make up a 9x9 box. Each tile has 4 numbers on all 4 edges, written as arithmetic problems (4+15; 13x2) instead of the answers (16; 26), and the objective is to piece the puzzle together by matching the numbers on the edges of each tile with the 8 other tiles in the puzzle. It’s a basic game, made out of paper and requires a lot of arithmetic to play and complete. “Our resources are limited to paper, cardboard, markers, so we keep our games simple,” Sampath says.
Games are effective because kids work together, challenge each other, and learn in the process. “Attention span increases, focus increases.” Voila: a learning environment.
Next, AID introduced their learning-through-games methodology in 2 schools in Tamil Nadu which quickly showed positive results. They talked to the government about expanding the program, which seemed skeptical at first. But a government assessment in 2005 showed that AID was right, 5th standard students really could not read. Frantic, they demanded state-wide intervention from AID, who responded with a plan to work in 5, then 10, then 15 districts, scaling up the program over time. AID has created the 6th standard text book for schools all over Tamil Nadu. Sampath switches to the next slide in his presentation, showing us impressive quantitative results:
- The government funded teacher training in 7,300 schools
- Pratham funded reading campaign in 13,000 villages
- UK-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) provided monitoring in 7,219 schools
“The goal is not to improve education as a whole but, more simply, to teach kids how to read,” Sampath reminds us, reiterating the need to keep targets simple.
AID sustained a 3-year continuous focus on 10 districts, reaching 1 million kids, training 18,000 teachers and running AID-designed classroom lessons for 1 hour a day in the classrooms of all 10 districts. As important as exposing the children to these creative learning incentives and techniques, was exposing the teachers to the reality of their students’ abilities. The AID assessment showed the teachers that more students than they thought could in fact not read.
The response to this glaring gap in the children’s education was straightforward: set a goal that all students will be able to read sentences. Simple goals and strategies are far more effective than complex ones when working with 18,000 teachers. “Take the example of India’s freedom struggle,” Sampath reminds us, “make salt. You can’t get simpler than that!”
Draw up two lists: students who can read and students who can’t, and work with the students in the latter list to move them to the former. Leverage kids who can read, have them help those who can’t. Involve the students because “you can’t hide things from children,” Sampath laughs, and simple goals appeal to kids. “They have an incentive to move lists. They set goals for themselves. If I read a sentence will I get a certificate? Will I move to the other list? Ok, I’ll do this.” Sampath assures us that sentences are picked at random when testing the students’ reading ability to ensure they actually can read and have not just “mugged up” a passage.
Percentage marks in an assessment doesn’t show students what they have learned and not learned; it is unclear what they have to improve upon to move from 60% to 80%. Tell the kid what is to be learned—a to read a sentence, a paragraph, 2-digit subtraction, etc.—and the students can go about it more effectively.
AID’s assessment highlighted another glitch in children’s education. Most of the children who could not read had parents who were illiterate and not involved in their children’s schooling, and could not provide any homework or other after-school support. Typically being from lower communities, they did not feel confident to approach or confront teachers—literate, better paid, higher status— with concerns about their children. “Getting the parents involved matters as much as, if not more than, game learning and regular assessments,” Sampath concludes.
He paints a picture for us: a classroom in rural Tamil Nadu today holds 80 students spanning 1st to 5th standard, with2 teachers attending to the entire group. Obviously, this makes individual attention very difficult, if not impossible. How can this be addressed?
Sampath describes how AID visited several villages and appointed 3 “young people” as after-school teachers trained by AID. Each is paid $1,000 / month, which is split between AID (Rs. 500) and the village, who further divide the fees between all the parents, so each family contributes Rs. 25. The afterschool program runs from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. daily and leverages materials (assessments, workbooks, games) supplied by AID.
Such materials show the village that AID takes literacy and after-school programs extremely seriously, exciting the parents to be equally engaged. Now everyone is working towards the children’s development. More importantly, perhaps, is the approach that the after-school teachers take, which is to move away from the “I teach” attitude to the “you learn” attitude. Progress is measured by output from the children versus input from teachers. The teacher’s agenda isn’t to push material onto the students, but to pull learning out of them. A simple attitude shift, but so critical!
Sampath reads out names from a visual check-mark chart showing students’ progress afterschool, in fundamental concepts in English, Tamil, Math(s) and Science). “Janet has learned 2-digit subtraction; Monisha has learned 2-digit addition but not subtraction; Armstrong has also learned multiplication…by the way, names in Tamil Nadu have changed quite a lot!” he jokes. “We have a lot of Stalins and Marx also!”
A mentality shift is taking place: take the example of microcredit. Poor women thought themselves separate from banks, in no way connected to them or reliant upon them. After international organizations and NGOs set up microcredit programs, bringing women together, having them meet regularly—very important, we learn— the women recognized that they were making the effort, saving money, maintaining personal accounts informally , and believed that the bank did owe them something. A new market was created.
Similarly, teacher/parent reciprocity and accountability is very important. The after-school teachers in the villages are from those villages, locals that the elders have seen grow up, so even if the parents are illiterate, they do not feel inferior to these teachers. They are confident enough to confer with them regarding their children, since they, like any parent, want the best for their children. The students feel the benefit of the encouraging educational environment they’re in after school, at home and with their friends, and are motivated to excel.
In Bihar, the same after-school program is in place, running earlier in the day, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. since it gets dark quicker. “Some villages have solar lights for our programs; that’s the only part of the village with lights in the evenings,” Sampath says.
Now What? The Perfect New Year’s Resolution!
Here’s where we come in as interested donors, inspired individuals, locals, NRIs and firangis with networks of family and friends who believe in education. AID has identified a group of generous donors—Prithvi Solutions, Prabhu, Shiva, AGK and SAVLAC Fund—who have put together a Seed Fund to support the Eureka SuperKidz project in 250 villages in Tamil Nadu. A village costs $1,000 to adopt so we need to provide just $500 per village. You can do so here: please include my name and ‘Dec 18 Princeton University talk’ in the Comments section. Donate as individuals, families, student groups or however you choose, the money’s going directly to Sampath and the villages!
Hopefully these folks will nudge you in the right direction:
- A UChicago MBA student is providing additional funds to sponsor students who complete school to attend college.
- Mohana, a 7th standard girl in one of the villages, called “makku” by her friends and deemed an expense to her drunkard father, sells her dad’s liquor bottles to pay the Rs.25 teacher fee.
Still Not Convinced? Maybe the Internet can Help
Kirsten Anderson worked with Sampath for 2 years in Madras as an American India Fellow (an AIF peer of my dear friend Hamsa Subramaniam) designing an English reading curriculum, and helped produce this video about AIDs efforts in Madras: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRSPg-fy02w&feature=related
And on a lighter note, here are some of the outtakes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sv_8iDXdsM
Charles Leadbeater, an expert in “innovation strategy,” gave a superb TED talk on different and creative ways to educate the children in burgeoning cities in the developing world. Like Sampath, he believes in the “push, not pull” approach; it’s not what the teachers teach, but what the children learn, and he praises Pratham’s creater Madhav Chavan highly. Watch the TED talk here, it’s just 20 minutes: http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_leadbeater_on_education.html
For even more inspiration, here’s what kids all over India are doing to effect social change in India, an idea discussed by educator Kiran Bir Sethi in another TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/kiran_bir_sethi_teaches_kids_to_take_charge.html
If you don’t want to donate to this cause, check out some other organizations featured by the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/opinion/19kristof.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=homepage.
If you made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading, watching and, hopefully, donating!