The ASER journey that started relatively quietly in the summer of 2008 has apparently ended with a bang with the publication of the final report in 2015.No one could have predicted the scale that was finally achieved in 2015 – to sample 258, 021 children (3-16 years) in 145 rural districts covering 83,755 households using 10,000 volunteers is a tremendous victory in and of itself. To do so within the economic and political climate of the past few years is even more of a triumph. Those who were involved in this adventure will tell you that the journey was treacherous – it met with both displeasure and with difficulties (with stories of volunteer teams being kidnapped in some areas and flooded in others).There is no doubt though that ASER has changed the education landscape of Pakistan forever. The final launch was a moment to behold and the old veterans rightfully proud and tearful.
The date of the launch itself – exactly one year after the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan which killed 132 school children aged eight to eighteen years – was a poignant reminder of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. The question we must ask now is: where do we go from here? The precedent set by the citizens-led evidence based nationwide innovations such as ASER that call attention to learning and access issues is unparalleled.
The ASER experience has shown us that it is possible to collect large-scale data of a relatively good quality using low cost and non-intrusive approaches. These efforts have shown that learning levels are consistently and persistently poor in most parts of Pakistan. ASER 2015 National findings reveal that still 45% class 5 children could not read class 2 level story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto in all rural districts. The SDG’s and in particular Goal 4 for education, have set out education targets that are ambitious and if not addressed now, some would argue unachievable.
As Pauline Rose rightfully said recently (http://www.aserpakistan.org/index.php?func=blog_detail&id=17), it is now truly time for us all to get down to business. So, what should we be gearing towards and what exactly should that business be? The next step for ASER Pakistan is to take on a new set of challenges aligned to local, national and global levels to allow for both the early detection of learning competencies and primary and possibly secondary levels but also to aim to now provide scalable solutions to improve learning outcomes.
One of the important dimensions to develop going forward would be the enhancement of the tools for assessing learning competencies. This would include development of tools in ways that allows them to now move beyond assessing narrow sets of mechanical functions in computation and the ability to recognise characters and the ability to read a sentence or paragraph or a story when assessing reading competencies.
Existing ASER data are not sufficiently rich or diagnostic enough to be able to make convincing judgements about what we may, for instance, call meaningful learning (for example ability to read with full comprehension). It would be important to develop tools that allow us to detect meaningful learning in far better ways. It is also important to now start thinking about ways to use this powerful movement in ways that help us to solve the problem of low learning. The ChaloParhoBarho(CPB) campaign (http://itacec.org/itadc) provides one such example that can be developed, re-designed and extended after evaluation as a means of improving learning outcomes.
This existing campaign was launched by ITA as a citizen-led campaign which targeted children of primary school going age by providing special classes in the local school for children with poor learning levels in language and arithmetic. The aim of these classes was to develop children’s’ learning levels by using citizens withinthe community to improve the educational status of their community’s children. Educated volunteers were recruited from the villages and then trained by ITA to conduct CPB classes in the local government schools. The classes are held for children who have been identified using ASER tools as being unable to read properly and are not able to do basic arithmetic operations. The program also caters to out of school children. Accelerated catch up classes are held after school for these children. The objective is to also mainstream these out of school children into the formal schooling system.
This programme was inspired by Pratham’s flagship Read India campaign which similarly aims to improve the reading, writing and basic arithmetic skills of children aged 6-14 years. Initiated in 2007, this programme has since partnered with state governments to implement the programme effectively. An independent evaluation of this campaign by the Abdul JameelLatif Poverty Action Lab (http://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/read-india-helping-primary-school-students-india-acquire-basic-reading-and-math-skills) has shown that whilst there are modest impacts on overall reading levels in the villages where camps were held, there was a much larger impact observed on the subgroup of children that actually attended the camps. The researchers argue that the positive impact of the summer camps in particular is quite noteworthy given that they were organised in one of the poorest states in India (Bihar), one of the states evaluated under the programme. There is room to move forward positively.
The first step of the journey was to create some noise, and few would argue that ASER hasn’t been successful in doing that. The next step, however, is harder still. Now we have to move beyond creating a furore to taking positive actions. And it is critical that the right steps are taken now if we are to come close to achieving the ambitious SDGs. (The author is an education economist, working on gender and education in Pakistan. She holds a DPhil. in Economics from the University of Oxford and is a Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London, a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, CSAE, Oxford and is a Senior Research Fellow at Idara-Taleem-o-Aagahi, that implements ASER in Pakistan. She can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org www.aserpakistan.org)