A loss foretold – Dr Ayesha Razzaque

26

I recently visited a grade-6 classroom of what many would describe as a ‘good’, public school. When a student was asked the meaning of the words ‘stone’ and ‘frightening’ they were unable to answer.

A loss foretold
By Dr Ayesha RazzaqueOctober 31, 2021
I recently visited a grade-6 classroom of what many would describe as a ‘good’, public school. When a student was asked the meaning of the words ‘stone’ and ‘frightening’ they were unable to answer.

In a grade-4 classroom of a provincial public school a colleague asked a class if they could read and explain the meaning of the sentences ‘I come to school every day. I learn new things.’ Only one out of 20 could read and understand this simple sentence in grade-4.

In a grade-5 classroom of a non-formal school of yet another province, I asked a child to read from his previous year’s grade-4 English book. He could read well enough. But when I asked him what ‘door’ meant he stopped to think a long time before he said ‘dhaga’ (thread). Taking a cue from the perplexed look on my face, he very animatedly told me that it is ‘jaise patang ki dor’ (‘Like the string of a kite’).

Poor learning outcomes such as the ones above are not new – they are the norm. A few years ago the World Bank introduced the concept of ‘learning poverty’ defined as “being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.” Even before Covid, when the global rate of learning poverty stood at 53 percent, Pakistan’s was at 75 percent. Post-Covid, Pakistan’s learning poverty rate is estimated at 79 percent.

This is the biggest challenge facing educators and students right now, not a new curriculum, not catching up on missed syllabus. We had plenty of warning and could see this coming from miles away. In 2020, Andrabi, Daniels and Das published a study detailing the long-lasting effects of 14 weeks of school closures following the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan which set back students’ learning by 1.5-2 years and reduced their lifetime earnings by 15 percent. Disruptions to the school year due to Covid-19 spanned more than a year.

Then, in July-August 2020, the Malala Fund published the results of its survey on the damaging effects of school closures in Pakistan on student learning. Since then, this has been followed by another disrupted school year.

A few days ago, the Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi released the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021, which contains a lot of data and findings that can guide planners and education service providers. Ed-techs in particular will find a lot to learn about their target households, particularly those at the lower end of the market. Here are some of the highlights.

In surveyed households classified as ‘poorest’ only 8.5 percent have smartphones, 0.5 percent have access to a computer, 2.8 percent have internet access, and 2.4 percent have a TV. In households classified as ‘poor’, 38.3 percent had a smartphone, 9.1 percent had Internet access, 4.9 percent access to a computer and 34.7 percent had a TV. These are the ground realities for millions of students. In terms of learning losses, the ASER report confirms what many expected – learning losses in Urdu / Sindhi / Pashto reading, Arithmetic and English rose ranging from marginal to substantial, particularly among girls, with those from poor households bearing the brunt. Analysed by gender, learning losses from 2019 to 2021 can be summarised quite succinctly: learning losses in all subjects were greater for girls than for boys.

In grade 5 only 22 percent of children in school can read a sentence, only 56 percent can read a story in Urdu / Sindhi or Pashto, only 42 percent can perform two-digit division, and only 55 percent read at grade-2 level. The reason two-digit arithmetic is so important is that algorithms for multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction of larger numbers break down calculations to arithmetic operations on one- / two-digit numbers.

We must ensure children at grade-3 are acquiring literacy and numeracy skills necessary for all subsequent schooling. Learning losses compound in following years if that minimum is not achieved. This emphasis in favour of arithmetic (Math) and languages should be reflected in a lightening of curriculum contents of all other subjects and in assessment policies.

In an op-ed I wrote (‘A Colossal learning setback’, The News, December 16, 2020), I described a household phone survey that had been conducted in Pakistan during the first round of school closures and it confirmed that the effects of learning from home greatly varied with household characteristics. Children from wealthier households were much more likely and able to continue learning from home, while children from poorer households were at a distinct disadvantage – they had limited access to guidance from educated people in the home to support them and their access to distance learning initiatives (eg, educational government television programming) was also limited. It did not take rocket science to predict that these children would come back to school lagging behind peers from wealthier households, having not only learned less during closures but likely having forgotten what they had learned prior to closures.

The ASER report captures children’s study habits during school closures. Sixty percent spent less than an hour per day studying anything at all (children study four to five hours a day during regular school days. Overall, 32 percent children watched PTV’s TeleSchool, but only two percent of them were from the poorest households. Only 1.6 percent received support from RadioSchool. About 63 percent received learning support from family members, while 17 percent relied on tutors. Only 31 percent said they received learning materials from their school, while 51 percent (more than half) were never contacted by their school. Foundational literacy at grade-3 has always been poor, but Covid just made it worse.

Another issue is that of poor planning and prioritisation and waving off research when it does not suit one’s agenda. Late last year, when schools had already been closed for a full 26 weeks, I happened to talk to a provincial education minister and told him how the entire world was warning against learning losses due to school closures and brought up the study by Andrabi, Daniels and Das. I urged the minister to prioritise recovery learning after schools reopened and told him solutions exist. He seemed unimpressed and said, “Keh tou aap theek rahi hain lekin hamaray maslay kuchh aur hain’ (‘You are right, but we have other problems’). What other fierce urgency in education trumped learning, I still do not know.

Even now government departments are not prioritising recovery from learning losses. They are convinced only when donor funded assistance programmes push for it. I believe there are two reasons for this: one, decision-makers, including bureaucracy and politicians, fail to appreciate the urgency of the problem. Information has to be repeated by multiple sources at high level forums for months and years for it to sink in. Two, the long-term nature of solutions that extend beyond one’s own tenure discourages their adoption in favor of flashier, albeit less useful, projects that can yield photo ops and media coverage immediately.

That is why all we heard about during closures was about more educational TV content, more technology solutions even when we knew fully well that children who will suffer most are also less likely to have access to these channels. The lack of an accompanying monitoring programme means that even now we do not know who benefitted from that content.

I am not suggesting terminating these programmes. With time these could become elements of an effective distance learning strategy – I am critical of the lack of prioritisation. When we knew that children of a certain background will suffer because they will not be able to continue studying on their own, why did we not listen and prioritise printing learning materials when survey results showed that 95 percent of respondents preferred workbooks? Why did we not conduct awareness campaigns, sending parents advice on what support they could provide even with limited literacy skills? And most important of all, why did we not prepare for school reopenings?

The priority has again shifted to covering course contents so exams can be held from full syllabus in May/June next year. The new normal in education remains the same old normal, with the addition of the glitz of some more technology here and there.

The writer (she/her) is the technical adviser to the MoFEPT. Views are her own.