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Covid taught kids many lessons uncaptured by traditional assessments

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Good Morning [%first_name |Dear Reader%],

Welcome back to Ed Set Go

It’s never a dull day in education, especially since the pandemic hit and changed the concept of learning forever. We have a whole line-up of the most important happenings from the world of education for you today, including a record 50% cut in edtech funding between 2021 and 2022.

But I’d like to start the edition with a small thought experiment.

Imagine you’re going back to school after two years. At home, you had a patchy internet connection, a single phone shared between four people, and just worksheets upon worksheets to fill up. You’re fed up and just want to see your school friends. Academics isn’t at the top of your mind.

Instead, what you’re hit with is a barrage of assessments—baseline assessments, endline assessments, tests to figure out what grade level you should be taught at—and a flurry of after-school remedial classes to get you up to speed.

Would you want to go back to school?

Unfortunately though, this is what the average government or private school will need to put their students through as they settle back into their physical classrooms. The emphasis on learning losses, while prescient, could suck the fun out of going back to school because teachers will always be playing catchup with the prescribed syllabus. 

To make things worse, you now have to relearn what you unlearned, and learn anew what you never got to learn.

And amidst all this confusion, there’s still one question that needs to be asked: what did kids learn on their own?

It wasn’t calculus, for sure.

There can be no debating the fact that foundational literacy and numeracy really suffered, falling a dangerous 9% in India between the National Achievement Surveys (NAS) conducted during 2017 and 2021. Students have lost entire school years of learning that they’ll only ever partially recover.

The focus on getting back literacy and numeracy skills, though, can’t be at the expense of ignoring how students relate to these assessments. Especially when they haven’t really been tested like this for two years. A well-argued piece in The Indian Express lays out the practical challenges of narrow, marks-heavy assessments:

The more fundamental impact of such assessments is on the meaning they give to learning. Remedial programmes like bridge courses are based on an understanding of learning as an additive process, one that can be recovered by increasing either the content intake or the instruction time.

Second, it also assumes that learning manifests itself easily irrespective of who is evaluating and under what circumstances, without bothering to understand how children relate to the assessment exercise.

Third, it validates certain kinds of learning which takes place in the classroom and excludes all other experiences outside it…one must admit that there is a risk of them being given disproportionate importance to the neglect of all other kinds of learning that seldom gets measured.

The third point, argue the authors, is especially important in light of what students have gone through in their economic and social lives. Sure, they often faced dire circumstances like hunger, dislocation, and loss, but they also gained social connections with friends outside of school, their family, and developed learning skills outside the classroom. Can a straight-laced assessment capture these nuances?

In the United States, a non-profit organisation called Project Tomorrow has been tracking student learning outside the classroom from before the pandemic. There’s a name for it: “free agent learning”.

Project Tomorrow has polled thousands of American high schoolers, across the demographic spectrum, to find that two-thirds of students do this kind of self-directed learning, often online. 

Such data on social and emotional learning, outside classrooms, should ideally be accounted for in any assessment. It could even be argued that teachers should shape their curriculum and pedagogy to accommodate some of this learning in the post-pandemic classroom.

In India though, the challenge is always going to be one of numbers. With the largest school going population in the world—400 million—fixing assessments is the last problem to solve.

Back Bench

It’s summer vacation time in Punjab, but it’s the teachers who’re leaving. And some are seldom coming back. 

It’s a big enough problem that the Punjab government had to issue a special diktat this week: teachers can only take leave to go abroad if they’ve been approved by the government. And they’ve followed through on the policy—about 1,500 applications for leave, from a total of 3,500, have been rejected. 

Teachers going truant is becoming a huge problem for the state’s department of education:

Some of its teachers take leave on the pretext of holiday or meeting their children settled abroad, and never return. It then becomes a herculean task for the department to trace them. It follows a series of show cause notices leading to initiation of proceedings to terminate their services, a process that often takes years to complete.

Having so many teachers on leave, with some of them gone for good, also impacts students adversely, added the department. 

All that said, though, teachers deserve a break too. And the new Chief Minister of the state, Bhagwant Mann, seems to understand this. Which is why he’s planning to send teachers to countries like Singapore and Switzerland to train. Poll promises square off with bureaucratic red tape.

Teachers were the backbone of the public school system during Covid. Across countries, teachers figured out ground-up, local strategies to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. While most toiled in obscurity, others had well-deserved recognition come their way.

Ranjitsinh Disale, from the Paritwadi Zilla Parishad in Maharashtra, won the global teacher prize in 2020—a prestigious million-dollar award given once a year to a teacher who’s made an exceptional contribution to their field. Disale had set up QR-code-enabled classes for girls students who couldn’t come to school because of the pandemic.

Yet, the biggest challenge faced by the award-winning teacher wasn’t Covid, but his own district administration, who put him under the scanner for being “absent” from his post and not applying for a scholarship that would let him go abroad to pursue a Fulbright scholarship. The inquiry is on, but Disale has already quit his post.

The signs were already there. And now the numbers are in. A report released by Pricewaterhouse Cooper indicates that funding for edtech startups was down 50% between the first and second quarters of 2022.

Capital inflow has slowed and so has the number of deals—from 75 deals in the first half of 2021 to 55 deals during the same period in 2022. 

The most precipitous fall has been seen in the test-prep sector, where, according to an Inc42 article, investments are “down to almost nothing”.

This is what the situation looks like globally.

Where will Indian edtech’s projected growth come from? 

Experts are putting their bets on certification (yay UpGrad, Simplilearn, Scaler), on edtechs launching more vernacular content, doing edtech-as-a-service, and, of course, the flavour of the season: “hybrid” edtech. There’s scope in re-inventing school edtech too—LEAD has shown it can raise money on that promise.

That’s a wrap for today. 

If you were the betting kind, where would you park your money? Write to me at [email protected], I’d like to know.

See you next Thursday!



This newsletter has been discontinued. But you can read The Stack which includes our newsletters around cleantech, fintech, personal finance and e-commerce in India!