Uma Vishnu accompanies an ASER team to a village in Rampur, a district in UP with some of the worst learning levels in the country, to see what it is to read.
Maurya is with a team of volunteers that is conducting a household survey for NGO Pratham’s Annual Survey of Education Report or ASER, one of the most definitive barometers of learning levels among children between 3 and 16. This is the survey that has been telling us, year after year since 2005, that much of India can’t read and do basic math, that schooling is not the same as learning, and that the country needs to get its basics right.
“Only two of the children we have surveyed so far have managed to read the paragraph,” says Dubey, leaving Radha Devi’s house.
The Right to Education Act, 2009, managed to get children to school, pushing up enrolment levels and making sure schools were held accountable for their infrastructure — playgrounds, toilets, kitchens — but it had no way of ensuring learning levels improved. As ASER first found out in 2011, levels of reading and math had, in fact, dropped in many states since the RTE came into effect. In 2008, the proportion of children in Class III who could read a Class I text was 50.4 per cent, but that dipped to nearly 40.2 per cent in 2013. “Kusum must have been in Class V when the RTE came into effect. Since the Act did away with exams and assessments and said children can’t be held back, she must have gone all the way up to Class IX, without ever being tested,” says Sunil.
“Our reports are not a way to say the government doesn’t do its job. It’s more important that the government sees there is a problem. Once you do that, solutions are not hard to come by,” says ASER Director Rukmini Banerji. Over the years, ASER has proposed simple solutions such as grouping children across grades based on their learning levels. “For instance, if there are children who can’t identify alphabets in Classes I, II and III, bring them all together and teach them. That’s how Bihar’s Mission Gunvatta, for instance, works,” says Ranajit Bhattacharyya of the ASER Centre.
On the way out of the village, Maurya does a quick, back-of the-envelope calculation. “Of the 39 children we surveyed yesterday, only 12 could read a story, 2 could read paragraphs, 3 could read words, 10 only identified letters and 11 were at the beginners’ stage. That means, 70 per cent children couldn’t read a story,” he says.
That’s where this story begins.