We need to hold every school accountable for minimum benchmarks of learning. The first step to achieve this is to measure the performance of schools against benchmarks regularly.
Several studies have shown that the learning levels among India's students are poor. And yet, plans to improve the quality of education remains vague and unintelligent. The 2019 Congress manifesto expresses concern about the outcomes and proposes use of technology-enabled teaching methods to redress the problem. The BJP refers to quality of learning only once in its manifesto and plans to remedy it by improving teacher training and capacity building. But NITI Aayog, the government's think tank, in its 2017-20 action plan, said teacher training or technology-enabled solutions in isolation are not effective to solve the learning outcome deficit.
While we need many reforms, we must move away from labelling schools as recognised, unrecognised, government and private. Instead, we must create a system of recognition that attaches the highest importance to learning outcomes. Both the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) conducted by the non-profit, Pratham, and the government's National Achievement Survey provide district and state-level data. However, the two data sets don't offer any insights into the block, village, school, or child performance.
This means that all decisions by the government to fund or regulate, and for parents to choose schools, are made without any information on a school's performance. Parents can talk about the universe of school education — midday meals, fees, uniforms, books, infrastructure — but discussions on outcomes are neither easy nor instinctive. In the absence of credible information on school performance, parents may assume a school to be adequate when it is not the case or be swayed by other markers of performance.
The government has no information advantage either: U-DISE — the Education Management Information System — provides school-level information on the teacher-student ratio, blackboards, buildings, number of toilets but negligible information on learning outcomes or student-teacher interactions.
So, what can we do to bridge this gap? We need to hold every school accountable for minimum benchmarks of learning. The first step to achieve this is to measure the performance of schools against benchmarks regularly. Globally, this is implemented in different forms, for instance, privately administered standardised tests in the United States, national census-based student assessment in Uganda, and league table ranking of schools in Dubai, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Second, we need to introduce systematic school self-evaluation practices, validated by a third party, to ensure that the road we take to improve outcomes is child-friendly. Introducing school self-evaluation (in addition to standardised assessments) is a low-cost alternative to the current inspection system.
How should this information be used? The simplest accountability tool is to create school report cards with information on fees, outcomes, environment and facilities that can be used by parents to decide and the government to regulate. The government can use this information to grade schools, and thus provide parents with more than just the label of recognised/unrecognised. This is important because parents are not passive clients of education. They are alert to matters of quality and want value in return for the money they spend.