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LIDC Podcast: Worrying Findings From Unique Education Survey

The poor quality of teaching and low pupil attendance in India’s two poorest states are highlighted in the latest episode of LIDC’s podcast Development Matters. Figures discussed reveal how 80 per cent of teachers find it difficult to teach maths, and regular pupil attendance rates are as low as 26 per cent. 
During the interview, Professor Geeta Kingdon, of the Institute of Education, explains the results of the novel study she led in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. She describes the robust and unique method of data collection – repeated, unannounced school visits – and how this methodology is now being used as a blueprint for UNICEF’s work. Kingdon also makes recommendations for improving education, including the testing and better training of teachers.  
Wide-ranging survey
Kingdon, Chair of Education and Economics and International Development, begins by outlining the origins of the School Teacher Effectiveness and Learning Level of Students (SchoolTELLS) study. It emerged from research comparing regular and contract (or para) teachers.
Contract teachers began to be appointed in the last 10-15 years in India to help plug the teacher shortage created by higher pupil enrolments. They are paid less and have lower qualifications than regular teachers on long-term civil service contracts, but their teaching effectiveness is similar. This is largely because they are recruited locally and have an incentive to perform well to renew their contracts, which typically only last one year.
The SchoolTELLS study was an opportunity to investigate wider issues of school functioning in India, including pupil attainment, pupil attendance, teacher competence and teacher absenteeism. It involved unannounced visits to 160 schools (80 in each state). Each school was visited four times. This created a dynamic picture of school functioning throughout the 2007-2008 academic year, rather than a snapshot from a one-off visit. Dr Rukmini Banerji, Research Director of Pratham (India’s largest education NGO), assisted with questionnaire design, and the data collection was led by Pranav Chaudhary of Sunai Data Solutions, Patna, Bihar.
Poor quality teaching
Kingdon details many “worrying” findings, in particular teachers' shortcomings when teaching the curriculum. The survey’s results show 80 per cent of teachers admitted some degree of difficulty teaching maths, only 25 per cent of teachers could solve a basic percentage problem designed for 10-11-year-olds, and only 45-50 per cent of teachers could explain the meaning of difficult words in language suitable for children. Kingdon said: “The large deficit in teachers’ own skills and knowledge to deal with the material that is in the primary school textbooks – that has got to be an important factor explaining why children’s learning levels are low. There were important deficits even in language, but it appears that maths is a more difficult subject for them [teachers].” 
Teacher absenteeism is also identified as a significant problem. The survey’s findings show  teachers, on average, miss school for more than one in five days – a figure backed up by Government of India data. 
Low pupil attendance and attainment
Kingdon also emphasises the distinction between enrolment (registering to attend school) and regular attendance. The survey shows only 26 per cent of enrolled children attend school regularly in Bihar (regular attendance is defined as being found in school on at least three out of the four survey visits). The figure was somewhat higher in Uttar Pradesh at 44 per cent. Overall the school attendance rates “shocked” the researchers.
The pupils were also tested at both the start and end of the school year, and the results reveal that those who performed badly in the first test hardly made any progress throughout the year. According to Kingdon, failure to master the basics in the early years is leading to learning being “compromised” in later years. 
Recommendations and future surveys
Policy responses are suggested, including better pre-service and in-service training for teachers. Kingdon advocates testing teachers to identify their weaknesses and help improve their skills, rather than punishing them.
The SchoolTELLS survey is already having an impact, particularly as its methodology has been adopted by UNICEF India for a similar survey of 1,000 schools in five states in India. Kingdon also believes the major weaknesses identified are likely to be relevant in other countries in the world.
Further reading
Kingdon, G., Banerji, R. (2009) Addressing school quality: Some policy pointers from rural north India, Policy Brief 5, Cambridge: Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty
By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer at LIDC