On Monday I had a fascinating visiting with the non-profit project 1947 www.15aug1947.org I found the organization through my friend Tay. I had no idea what I was going to learn and I ended up finding a kindred spirit in the funder, Naresh Bala. He started out in business and even had a start up in the Silicon Valley at one point. He developed a passion for increasing the value of life skills/soft skills in the India educational system. This initial passion has translated into a wealth of valuable projects.
I started my day by meeting the deputy director, Murali. I picked him up at a local mall and we headed off to visit a local government school. Government schools are the U.S. “public” school equivalent (and “public schools” in India are private schools!). This school was a “commission” school-funded by the city of Bangalore. All of the children at this school were below the poverty line. It was secondary school, so grades 7, 8 and 9, 10 (there is no middle school) and as I mentioned in previous blogs, school in the state of Karnataka only goes to grade 10.
Project 1947 has developed an initiative seeking to address issues of poor curricula and teacher shortages in the government schools. Their strategy is to develop DVD based curricula that is highly integrated with state standards and exams. When I first heard of this strategy I admit I was extremely skeptical. Yet, as is the case with educational policy, HOW something is implemented matters much more than what it is. And these folks “get it.” The goals underlying the development of this strategy are actually the opposite of what I had thought. Naresh wanted to devise strategies that would encourage peer to peer learning, creative and cognitive thinking, a decentralization of authority from a teacher-centered classroom, and greater personalization of skills. To get a foothold in the door, he needed to market this program as improving results on the state exams. And it does that for sure, but his main goals are not exam prep but all these other soft skills emphases.
Naresh and Murali were inspired by Howard Gardener’s multiple intelligences models. The goal of the content is to provide visual and kinesthetic learns a way to access the content as much as auditory learners. 99% of content delivery in secondary schools in India is through large lectures. These DVDs chosen over computer based formats since they would be easier to implement in poor schools. They provide a way to give quality content on subjects, especially in math and science that is the greatest area of teacher shortage.
The cheaper model involves showing the videos to the entire class on a TV. The students are expected to sit together in groups while watching the video, and the video has built in times for the students to collaborate with one another to answer questions posed on the video. Students also must teach one another components of the lesson as a part of the video instruction. Teachers work through this curriculum and they have control over it, unlike Skype or something that is not flexible and able to be integrated into a teacher’s own repertoire.
In 20% of the schools, they have a more inventive approach. They have a separate classroom of portable DVD players–much cheaper than laptops. Students work in small groups on modules that are adaptable to the areas of the curriculum.
Each group can work on a different topic, or at a different level—remedial (red), extra practice (green), or basic content (yellow) .The poster on the left below shows the three levels. The guidebook on the left shows exactly how the content aligns with the state exams, including sample questions from previous exams about that content.
With the portable DVD model, they hire a paraprofessional to run the technology. The paraprofessional does not have content knowledge and instead is trained mainly to operate the equipment. Students fill out query cards that are sent back to their teacher when they fail to solve an issue collaboratively in their peer groups. The teacher then addresses the issues in the group lecture. The photo shows the query card area in the room.
This strategy therefore provides supports to schools with a shortage of teachers in specific subjects, but the equipment and the paraprofessionals make it difficult to spread to many more schools.
The DVD program is also connecting to a range of needs in the Indian schooling system. Sick children who cannot attend school for long periods of time, for example, are finding the DVDs a way to keep on track academically. Thus Naresh is networking with the hemophiliac society. He is also looking at the “deaf and dumb” population since the content is accessible to this population.
I had a chance to ask some questions to the children before I left. I asked what they like best about the school. They replied their Maths teacher. I asked what they would change about their DVD program. They said that for some of the tougher units, they wanted a larger screen to see the information than just the small handheld players. An advantage of the handheld, though, is that the kids can take the player home with them to continue studying even if they have no DVD player or television. Murali also showed me student-self assessments where they indicate their scores on a pre-assessment and how they will improve their learning (left photo below).
I also saw profiles of the most at-risk kids that included plans for improving achievement, which most often included a meeting with the parents to ensure agreement on schoolwork having a value (right photo above). All the kids work before or after school, mainly as housecleaners, in garages, delivering newspapers and bills. As is the case in U.S. secondary schools, often poor kids are working so many hours that they have no time to study.
I also met with the headmaster and some teachers. I mainly talked with the English teacher since the headmaster did not speak English (an indication of his own education). I learned that the school is only at 80% occupancy. Much like in poor urban schools in the U.S., the entering class is twice the size of the graduating class. Plus in India, private schools are preferred even if the quality is no better. Families prefer private schools in part because of the “illusion of English” since the schools have English names, they expect the children will learn English better in these locales. So government schools often have space. You can see in the photos below that the classes aren’t full. Also note the gender segregation–boys on one side, girls on the other.
After our school visit, we took a long drive through traffic to the south of town to the Project 1947 office where I met Naresh. I could have talked to this man four hours. We share similar interests related to schooling, voice, the value of life skills/civic skills as a focus of the curriculum. We talked about the difficulties of funding ongoing reform work–issues of scale and measurement. They are planning on moving from 250 schools to over 500 schools next year but want to do so in a way that does not dilute the curriculum.
The scaling up issue incudes how to hire paraprofessionals and train them for so many new schools versus with the TV based model in which the whole class watches a DVD as one, the teachers need to be rained to integrate and make the best use out of the content. Measurement is yet another issue. The Dell Foundation is their biggest founder and they demand an eternal evaluation of the results. But how do you motivate secondary students to take an assessment that has no stakes for them, especially when they are already taking 4 sets of exams a year? The state exam measurements are also problematic because of the amount of cheating and corruption that occurs in government schools. The pass rate can fluctuate from 40% to 80% in a year based on the amount of copying, cheating and other forms of abuse that occur in exam administration.
I also learned of other Project 1947 initiatives, including the introduction of M.Psych students into high schools to teach life skills. An especial focus of the organization is trying to get more government school children into math and science. While we in the US think of India as very math and science focus, that is only the case for privileged students in the very best private schools. Hardly any government school children enter the sciences, and the rare ones that do will not go into math or science teacher training. Thus there is an extreme math and science teacher shortage in the schools/ although the government offers free education through engineering for very poor children, they will rarely choose sciences.
The story of two India’s 750,000 to 8,000 Less than 1% of government school children go on to get a degree in science. Naresh divides the school children in government schools into three cat4egories: Less than 1% are scholars in the traditional sense. 20-25 % are literacy challenged–unable to read or write at a basic level. 75% are literate but struggling to pass and to ma the state board exams, called the SSLC (learning certificate). The word “diploma” is saved for advanced training.
And for most of the girls, they rarely get to move beyond the 10th grade. The parents fear for their safety living at home in small huts at an older age and they try to marry them off right after the 10th grade. Plus since the female parents must pay the costs/dowry they worry that an over educated daughter will be much more expensive to marry off since she will seek out a more highly educated spouse. The perception is that more education does not translate into greater opportunity but it does translate into a higher dowry.