Even as the notion of the “learning gap” has become part of the public conversation about school education as a part of our effort to deal with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to acknowledge that this is not an old issue. There has always been a learning gap arising from the many other socio-economic gaps that exist in our country. The pandemic just introduced such a gap in some hitherto unaffected contexts, and it deepened the divide in others. We have known for a long time that students in some schools perform better than others on multiple metrics, that there is a distinct hierarchy of institutions and thus students that come out of them, that this leads to a drastically uneven playing field when it comes to facing the board exams, and then life thereafter.
When children enter school, they do so under the weight of huge aspirations. For some, these are easily dealt with, having also entered with the advantage of educated families, resource-rich homes, and pathways to a future that are eased in both tangible and intangible ways. For many, many others, school is the first step to a future that does not replicate a life of hardship and poverty. But as we well know, this has been reduced to a pipe dream for millions of children and their families. Despite the fact that enrollment in schools has been steadily rising, and drop out rates declining (though much more slowly), problems such as teacher shortages, chronic absenteeism, and poor infrastructure, among others, have continued to impact what happens inside schools.
If there’s one thing that has made policy makers and the public alike sit up and take note of in relation to the uneven quality of school education, it is the Annual State of Education Report (ASER), produced year on year by Pratham, since 2005. It has shifted the public discourse steadily from a focus on quantity to a keener eye on quality, forcing us to consider the purposes and processes of school education.
Teacher Plus has for the most part trained its gaze on the microcosms of the school and the classroom, offering perspectives on what the individual teacher and a single institution can do to improve learning or to create an environment where all stakeholders are empowered. The assumption that underlies much of this type of writing is that given the right inputs, and the right context, learning can happen – in fact, that learning will happen. ASER instead forces us to look at the macro picture; it urges us to confront that there are many contexts where learning does not – perhaps cannot – happen, that systemic challenges constrain even the most basic skills from being acquired.
Over the years, ASER has provided the evidence that allows us to hold the state – and others engaged in education provision – to account for what is clearly a persistent learning gap. This issue of Teacher Plus looks at what has gone into this tremendous project of evidence building, and how it continues to be an important way to understand what is really happening in schools.