Archive for October, 2016

The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meets on October 25, 2016 to discuss many important issues. The apex education advisory organization features education ministers, HRD officials, key institutional heads and key influencers from outside government. The CABE takes the important decisions about education in our country.

This time around, on the tentative agenda are a spate of important things. Such as:

  1. The scrapping of the no-detention policy
  2. The extension of RTE (the Right to Education) Act to span pre-school and secondary education
  3. The re-institution of a Class X board exam

The Class X Board Exam

It was found that only 4% of the students went through the school-based Summative Assessment 2 exam as prescribed by Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) (on an average in the past three years). They found that not only were the school based exams considered medium standard, but also that the huge psychological stress barrier of a boards based exam, when removed, actually resulted in a lax attitude by students and a decline in quality of education itself. Students ended up losing the habit of regular studies given a virtual no-detention on the basis of the large proportion of co-scholastic evaluation counting in the final exam. They also found that the majority of parents, teachers and principals (the latter overwhelmingly so) wanted a board mandated exam instead.

In summary, they feel that the CCE scheme was unwarranted, misinformed and counter-productive, which is why board exams need to come back carrying 80% weightage and school assessment carrying 20% weightage, with a minimum passing score of 33% in each.

Perhaps the answer does not lie in standardizing exams, as most of the world is finding out (look at the gaokao noose in China and the resistance to standardized testing in the USA). The core system behind continuous, rather than one-shot assessments with a weightage to co-scholastic performance is most definitely a better system for learning than a rote-based, performance only driven system. The fact that neither could the board do away completely with board exams (by merely making it optional, there was no compulsion to change over for most schools, thereby keeping 96% of the students at a conventional advantage as compared with the 4% who did take the option), nor could it also not drive the program effectively as a change agent. They took a quick dip, found it is not working (across two ‘sarkars’) and decided to abandon it, in effect throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The CABE could take the view that CCE was improperly implemented, not uniformly adopted, and ineffectively communicated as a transformative change. It could argue that change in the education system is gradual and generational, needs emphasis and change management. It could state that the CCE was placed in a system that basically had the power to shape it in its own mould, in much the same way as it conducted the regular pre-CCE scheme of studies, and in essence defeating its very objective. Perhaps the CCE could have evolved in the face of this emergent response of a system under threat, but it did not, and that is where its demise may begin.

Perhaps we do have spine still in the education system. But then perhaps, we don’t. How can we argue that 4% of the students virtually lost interest in studying because they no longer were faced with the stress and indiscriminate rigor of a rote based system? It is like saying we would all end up committing heinous crimes if we did not have a mandate to the electric chair waiting for us if we did.

The scrapping of the No-detention policy

My perspective on this policy is that it basically helped get the gross enrolment ratio up. With no threat of ‘failure’, there was an easy progression on the way up and therefore also incentivized retention. A perfect fit to the Right to Education Act. It allowed people to take advantage of the system while unknowingly serving the political goals of getting every child to school. Teachers got the short end of the stick here, with no way to enforce discipline. No one really wanted to come to school to learn, they just wanted a certificate they could get a job with.

Different stakeholders are blamed, rightfully or wrongfully, on either side of the fence, for the failure of our aspiration to do things differently. Many states have blamed the policy for a downfall in educational outcomes and quality.

Five states out of 23 have asked to stay with No-detention. Different states and committees have given different suggestions on how to implement this policy – like the New Education Policy recommended we have no detention only up to age 11/grade V; some have suggested external (ostensibly ‘board’) exams at class III/V/VIII levels; and so on.

A series of important perspectives on these two issues are available here, for and against:

No respite for edTech

The complete absence of attention to Educational Technologies (edTech) in the CABE agenda is striking. Not even one small part of the agenda is focused on how we can truly leverage edTech to act as an agent for scale or performance. This, at a time when edTech is perhaps at par with other burning issues such as teacher education, curricular reform and inclusive education. Does this mean that the highest body in Education in India today does not regard edTech as a real force and change agent? Or will there be lip service to this domain?

What is the point in all this?

What we are doing successfully is that we are missing the point. We are trying to deal with two different themes altogether. One, which emphasizes learning and creativity and technology, and the other which emphasizes rote and certificatory cultures.

The twain shall not meet in ordinary circumstances, but our uncommon wisdom seems to guide us towards mixing the two up upfront. You cannot expect to twist the dominant paradigm into an aspirational one and then expect it to remain significantly unchanged at every level of exit. More often than not, and clearly visible in this case, the dominant paradigm has dwarfed, sabotaged and mutated the aspirational one.

What this means is that if we truly want to be inclusive about alternate systems of education, we have to stop trying to channel their outcomes into the singular dominant paradigm. And if you really wanted to change the dominant paradigm itself, you would need to deal with supporting the change and its agents fully, over a period of time, in smaller incremental steps. You cannot hope to make big bang changes which you easily discard when you fail.

What if we really wanted to make our aspiration more mainstream? Were there any other ways to make this work?

Possible Solutions

Perhaps yes. If the right incentivization was put into effect for each stakeholder so that they knew it was alright to experiment, without any terminal concerns, it may just work. For example, if schools were given extra autonomy, reduced curricular load, better pay & progression structures for teachers, necessary infrastructure, and allowed to build a different structure for performance evaluation & excellence which extended right to college and thereon to job opportunities, it may just work.

If the CABE decides to do this as a parallel system, it will perhaps be able to leverage the right resources to scale at the right time. Rightsizing the aspirations will mean that we recognize the aspirations for better educational opportunities at every stage and then credibility for performance and excellence in those opportunities when students compete for employment.

One of the ways that we could do this is to set up a separate Board altogether. Let us call it the National Progressive Board (NPB). The NPB would receive the same level of stature and credibility as the CBSE or State Boards for all practical purposes. The NPB would conduct its own performance evaluation and its evaluation would be normalized for entry to higher education with respect to other Boards. Rather than melting into one common examination for entry to (say) engineering and management institutions, this Board would get weightage basis its own evaluation structure. It would be subject to the same level of scrutiny as other boards are with respect to their performance.

But instead of using one single yardstick to view their output, different (not inferior) yardsticks could be equally applied for this board – sort of leveling the playing field. It does not make sense to align all competitive exams to the curriculum followed by the dominant board only – it marginalizes other boards and makes it difficult for them to sustain their identity.

Therein also lies a challenge. Boards often end up competing, directly or indirectly, for reach, student numbers and visibility. It is often noted that some Boards are not perceived nearly as good as others, and sometimes entry level criteria in (say) colleges are mutated to fit those discrepancies. Sometimes location-based or reservation-based policies for entry also mitigate the discrepancies. So a system exists that is inclusive and understands that there is no one-size-fits-all criteria for excellence, but it needs tweaking to ensure parity.

So if it was possible to incentivize interested stakeholder to adopt the NPB, and as a systemic intervention, the performance objectives of the NPB could be aligned with downstream educational and work opportunities for students coming from other boards, we would have a solution that could scale when we need it to.

Over time, if the NPB performs and its students and teachers can demonstrate that results are comparable (or better, hopefully, than systems following rote and certificatory rigor), it can start scaling up to larger audiences. This is perhaps how the Charter Schools in the USA started, and perhaps many more such initiatives across the world. If the NPB does not perform, there are systemic corrections that will happen precisely because stakeholders are unable to extract value. Over a period of time, expectations and alignment to the bigger vision will happen, if done correctly.

A Resurgence

The NPB could be charged with taking edTech seriously. It could evolve its own curriculum and train its teachers differently. They would have the time and space to do so, taking the best practices from all around the world and localizing them to our unique context.

The structure could also vary significantly. Rather than having age determined grade levels, the NPB could look at competency driven structures which are leveled progressions. Mobility from one certifying level to another would then perhaps even imply mobility from one type of institution to another within the NPB – schools that are meant to deal with different competency structures within a single Board, perhaps.

Teachers could then be specifically targeted for different certifying levels, with a minimum target level being assured by legislative acts like the RTE (instead of years of schooling). More specifically, teachers could be tasked very differently compared to the existing system – perhaps on the number of students they were successfully able to move from one certifying level to another rather than having to focus on completing an year of mandatory curriculum.

We talked about the NPB in context of school education, but what is to stop us from moving further to skills and Higher Ed with similar structures? They are faced with similar systemic issues and it does not make sense to stop the innovation at the end of school. I am guessing the premier institutions also could benefit from a healthy dose of progressive thinking in a similar vein.

Having a well defined competency based progression to higher and tertiary education may make for a more integrated and credible system.

At each level, the focus will be on outcomes, the same as any other board. But not every student will have to be judged the same way and exposed to unified age-based curricula. This will make the system flexible to meet various different needs and aspirations, while giving credibility to each structure.

Employability also needs to be addressed in a similar manner. The fact is that the current systems are not really producing enough employable people, as has been witnessed by many a study and bemoaned by both academia and industry. In that sense, even if we were to remove no-detention and even reintroduce board driven external examinations at every level, it still would not improve the terminal employability outcomes. It is chimerical to assume that detention or external board driven exam will improve the quality of the education system – we have not witnessed adequate terminal efficiencies in that legacy approach either. It’s like saying let us fix the ship so that it sails, even if it is in the wrong direction.

We have achieved this in some way in our diverse education system already, so it may not be an altogether novel approach. Our ability to split streams from core to vocational is one such example. Our distinction of ITI vs. IIT is another example of meeting different needs and aspirations. However, most of these initiatives stem from a singular approach to structuring education – age driven curricula, uniform one-size-fits-all approach to curricula, year based exit criteria, subject silos and so on. Perhaps it is time to innovate within the structure effectively and introduce greater structural flexibility, choice and focus.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for CABE to set things right this time, to get to root causes instead of just agreeing to the incidental and expected symptoms. I hope in my heart they will democratically evaluate alternate initiatives on merit, initiatives that are capable of systemic transformation, not demagoguery, myopia or bias.

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