Foundational learning crisis in India: Evaluating a way forward

Reading, a basic skill, is aptly called the gateway skill to lifelong learning. Research indicates that if a child is unable to reach a certain degree of grade-level competency in literacy and numeracy by the end of class 3, the learning gap will only further deepen, perpetuating inequity and economic loss (Muralidharan and Zieleniak, 2013).

Children in India can expect to complete 10.2 years of pre-primary, primary and secondary school by age 18. However, when years of schooling are adjusted for quality of learning, this is only equivalent to 5.8 years: a learning gap of 4.4 years. This means that a student in class 8 has an average learning level of a class 4 student (World Bank, 2018).

“The rest of the Policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of our students if this most basic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is not first achieved. Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children must become an immediate national mission and an indispensable, non-negotiable part of the curriculum.” (Draft National Education Policy, 2019)

Renowned researcher Karthik Muralidharan succinctly talks about the criticality of foundational learning. A key challenge for the skilling sector in India today is that the students who enter skilling or job-training programs have very poor literacy and numeracy — and are thus often not equipped even to handle the curriculum of the skilling programs. This is because, by the time students are earmarked for vocational tracks in school and directed to such programs, they have already fallen far behind the curriculum and have weak foundational skills (Muralidharan, 2019).

Factors responsible for the foundational learning crisis and the way forward:

1. Adoption of non-contextual curriculum and pedagogic strategies across states.
Most states in the country are tasked with myriad problems ranging from teacher absenteeism to teacher surplus, but do not make concerted efforts towards making context-specific policy solutions. The need of each state is varied, its problems are localised and complex to solve. It is essential to identify these problems and tailor-make solutions that would apply to every state’s context.

2. Lack of accurate standardised skill-based assessment at primary level
The purpose of assessments is to send signals to parents, teachers, and policymakers. These are signals to secondary teachers, employers, and even parents, that children are equipped with certain skills. In recent times, much noise has been generated over the quality of learning in schools through large scale assessments like ASER and NAS. It is important to improve awareness around these assessments at the parental level in order to focus the needle on the demand-side of education.

3. Non-targeted training programmes for teachers (especially in-service) offering minimum scope for adoption into practical classroom strategies
Currently, training programmes offer very little scope for practicum-based learning for teachers. While pre-service teacher training in itself needs to be overhauled, much needs to be done in revamping in-service teacher-training. The training needs to become targeted for teachers, with a clear targeted learning pathway established for every teacher in each state across the country.

4. Absence of monitoring mechanisms to promote transparency in data-based governance
Currently, there is no nation-wide system that promotes transparency through data-backed governance. However, if every official who visits the classroom captures data and makes it available to make decisions, policies can be based on sound evidence. Clear-cut, goal-driven foundational learning mission will certainly yield desirable results. If this activity is coupled with incentives to promote accurate data collection, the system is bound to become a fool-proof means of capturing real-time classroom data.

5. Excessive focus on input-oriented parameters
Most states in the country have spent huge sums of money on publishing like new textbooks, new supplementary reading materials, new digital learning aids, etc., with little or no focus on aligning the focus of provisioning the same towards improving quality of foundational learning. It is important to attune every agency within the education department in each state to work towards aligning all their efforts to strengthening attainment of foundational learning outcomes in the states.
A collective failure of the Indian education system is that even after seven decades of independence almost three-fourth of 8-year-old children who leave class 3, cannot read or comprehend. This is a moral injustice and deserves urgent redressal. The lack of such skills potentially leads to such children losing out on employment on entering the job-market contributing to economic growth. The huge amount of money which currently goes into building schools and teacher and support staff salaries’ would be futile if there is little effort towards making children attain foundational literacy and numeracy. This must change.
1. Muralidharan, Karthik and Zieleniak, Yendrick (2013), ‘Measuring Learning Trajectories in Developing Countries with Longitudinal Data and Item Response Theory’
2. World Bank,
3. Muralidharan, Karthik (2019), ‘Reforming the Indian School Education System’ in What the Economy Needs Now, edited by Abhijit Banerjee, Gita Gopinath, Raghuram Rajan, and Mihir Sharma, Juggernaut

Posted by Vijayalakshmi Mohan