Scaling education programs across India: Are we (un)learning enough?

Growth and impact evaluation are some of the factors to take into account while scaling education programs in India, according to a panel at #DDHubli2015.


We know of lots of good initiatives in education: a learning program for slum children, a program that brings IIT coaching to the most disadvantaged, another program improving spoken English in a rural school, etc. But these successes are limited to one school or district or state. What keeps these initiatives from scaling, from spreading across the country?

One of the panel discussions at the Development Dialogue 2015 in Hubli on 7th Feb, 2015, discussed just that—the scaling of initiatives in education, how funding agencies see scaling and impact evaluation.

The panelists included Ashvini Ranjan (Pratham Mysore), Ajith Basu (Agastya Foundation), Prachi Windlass (Michael and Susan Dell Foundation ), Vidya Shah, (EdelGive Foundation) and Mohammed Mohsin, I.A.S, Commissioner for Public Instruction, Karnataka. The discussion was moderated by Sushil Vachani, IIM Bengaluru.

All the panelists are involved in education in some way, two panelists from NGOs (Ashvini Ranjan and Ajith Basu), Mohsin from the government, and two representatives of funding agencies (Prachi Windlass and Vidya Shah). Pratham focuses on high-quality, low-cost, and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system, it has reached about 4.7 million children in 20 Indian states. Agastya brings innovative science education to Government schools via science labs, mobile science labs, etc.

The panelists spoke about how, when talking about scale, it was important to not just speak about how things are it was normally done, but also to look at cases where it has failed or succeeded. They then spoke about important collaborations and the challenges to scale.

Here are excerpts from the discussion:

What are the things Agastya has learnt in scaling?

Ajith Basu from Agastya said they’ve always looked at collaborations, and mainly with three parties: the government, NCERT and the teacher and scientific community. The government is the single largest provider of primary education in India and they merely supplement their efforts with science education and encouraging curiosity. The NCERT lends its support at all stages, and Agastya maps its curriculum around NCERT’s curriculum. Agastya also draws from its connections with the teacher community and scientific community, they also work with premier knowledge institutions like IITs and IISc to keep evaluating and improving what they do.

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They also ensure that their work is very child-centric, and also focus on the children themselves explaining things to their peers; that increases their science learning and builds their management and leadership abilities.

What does scaling involve?

According to Vidya from MSDF, scaling means change and it means investments in areas which funders don’t look at—in administration, human resource, system processes and impact measurements. “Scaling, according to us, is not simply increasing the number of beneficiaries, scaling means we do that along with growing the organisation”, she says.

Many donors ask if the money is going to program or administration expenses, but an organisation can’t be expected to scale with all the funding going only to program expenses and none to administration expenses. Vidya cites the example of Agastya: “They have been able to scale because they have this ability to hire even in new geographies. When we wanted to work with them in rural Maharashtra, where they hadn’t worked, they could execute on that within just 3 months; expanding like that is not easy. This is because they on the back end have a very strong organisation.”

Ajith Basu said that in Ramji Raghavan’s (Founder and Chairman, Agastya) mind, the primary bottlenecks to scaling was the lack of senior management, people who could think differently. The transition and growth in terms of museums, vans, and motorcycles that go out took about 10 years, and it definitely helped that Ramji also paid personal attention to things. “We also were in touch with the community, getting their suggestions. The lab in a box idea, came from these suggestions.”

Impact evaluation

One of the things MSDF considers fundamental is proving before scaling, showing that the program has had an impact on children’s lives. “We’re extremely careful about impact measurement,” says Prachi, talking about how they base their work, whether with government or private sector, on impact evaluation. They follow this with all their programs, and as a result, there is some amount of predictability in terms of how long it takes and what kind of outcome to expect.

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Ashvini Ranjan from Pratham says their major evaluation of learning levels is through the ASER test. “Our work is to supplement and not challenge the way government schools function. We function through collaboration with governments, schools, teachers, and volunteers, and scale of our models is very important. We’re practically a learning lab – we keep trying out new ways of learning. We make sure that ROI is maximum for all our interventions,” he says.

Speaking of innovations Pratham has come up with, he mentions intensive sessions they held for students with low learning levels. After these 30 day intervention camps with them, they were able to bring them up to the appropriate level of learning. These ‘camps’ have been held across the country and is a proven model which can be scaled up.

Talking about how Agastya measures conceptual understanding or creativity which are not measured in standard assessment protocols, Ajith Basu mentioned how they (apart from collecting data) use caselets assessed by a third party to study the impact of their intervention.

How do funding agencies take decisions

Both EdelGive and MSDF look at learning outcomes for assessing education programs.

Vidya says that in EdelGive’s experience, improving learning outcomes also increases attendance in schools. The best ways for them to work is: 1. To work with organizations that directly impact learning in schools (rather through direct or after school interventions), and 2. focusing on teacher training organizations – that focus on building a teacher rather than saying things are wrong, building a teacher’s confidence and competence.

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The role of involvement of parents and teachers

While the most common response to India’s education problems is to blame the teacher, Ajith says they have seen that using accelerated teaching methods can engage students and effectively use teacher time reducing teaching time from 4 days to 4 hours. “We have a huge challenge coming up in the future with our youth bulge, so we can’t design around the current situation but plan for the future – and that’s the design of all our programs,” he says.

Talking about the involvement of parents in their children’s education in rural India, Mohammed Mohsin says it’s not easy, as often, as many children are first generation learners and parents themselves are illiterate and it’s hard to involve them in the learning process.

This article is part of a series of panel discussions and reports from the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015 conference in Hubli. You can find all the articles and reports from the conference here.

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The Development Dialogue is a conclave of like-minded people from across the country who believe in entrepreneurship as a way of nurturing scalable solutions for development, an International social entrepreneurship ecosystem conference hosted by Deshpande Foundation India.


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  • liujo

    unlearning things are new to many peoples. But this things are very much in demand to make the basic things to learn in precise manner. no matter how hard the situation are the entire way out has been guiding the people in a way so that they could get the ideal approaches functional for all.

  • liujo

    unlearning things are new to many peoples. But this things are very much in demand to make the basic things to learn in precise manner. no matter how hard the situation are the entire way out has been guiding the people in a way so that they could get the ideal approaches functional for all.