A preschool class operated by the education NGO Pratham in New Delhi's Trilokpuri neighborhood. (Photo: Lisa Hornak)

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Why Child's Play Is the Key to Spreading the Wealth in India

Straight out of the slums of Mumbai comes a data-driven method to get the nation's poorest kids ready to start school.
Sep 25, 2015· 7 MIN READ
New Delhi–based Dinsa Sachan writes about science and culture for a variety of publications, including Nature, Scientific American Mind, and Discover.

Although it is only a few miles east of the architectural masterpieces and expensive bungalows of the upscale part of New Delhi known as Lutyens’ Delhi, the Trilokpuri neighborhood contains many of the elements typical of a poor neighborhood in India’s urban centers: congested streets, shanties scattered among small houses, young men playing cricket on streets, stinking garbage, and openly defecating children.

Kishan, a rambunctious four-year-old, lives here, in a modest two-room house with paint peeling off the walls. His mother stays at home, and his father works as a taxi driver. Thanks to the education NGO Pratham, Kishan now attends preschool, a crucial first step for children like him on a path that could lead them out of Trilokpuri and across the Yamuna River to the immaculately tree-lined roads and shiny college buildings of the city center.

In a small, gray, two-story building tucked in a narrow lane just 100 yards from Kishan’s home, a 23-year-old teacher, Reeta, who does not use a surname, wears a paper mask depicting a cat as she recites a poem about cats. Kishan and two dozen other preschool children huddle around her; posters with pictures of animals and Hindi poetry line the walls.

Clad in a blue-green checkered shirt and red shorts, skinny Kishan looks fascinated. While his friends Vaibhav and Jai scurry about the room, Kishan listens to Reeta with rapt attention. He mimics her feline moves, and other students follow. He wants to answer all her questions. Later, Reeta leads the children in a game of passing a ball around; when the ball comes to someone, the child says his or her name. Kishan wants to grab the ball every time.

Throughout India, tens of millions of children are raised in poverty by parents with little education who were themselves raised in poverty. Although the GDP rose 380 percent between 2001 and 2011, many have been left out of the economic expansion: The literacy rate increased just 8 percent over the same period. India’s government recognizes that broadening and improving education will be key to improving the economic circumstances of families like Kishan’s: “The biggest weapon one can use to fight poverty is education of children,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a speech in Varanasi in September.

With his mother Seema watching, Kishan (center) plays with his brother, Om, after classes at the Pratham Learning Hub in Trilok Puri, New Delhi. (Photo: Lisa Hornak)

It’s easier said than done. In 2001, the Indian government launched Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a program aimed at improving access to education across the country. It was successful in developing the education infrastructure and getting kids in school; more than 96 percent of kids in India are now enrolled. But the quality of the education offered is often substandard. With more than 40 percent of kids starting school without preschool or kindergarten (or in some cases without even toilet training) the efficacy of teaching a first-grade curriculum to pupils who have never seen a book is in doubt.

Conceived by UNICEF officer Richard Bridle, Pratham was founded in 1995 to deliver the proved benefits of early education to children living in Mumbai’s slums so they would be ready to learn when they entered school. Madhav Chavan had a Ph.D. in chemistry from Ohio State University and was teaching at the University of Mumbai; his cofounder Farida Lambay was a social worker also with years of teaching experience. They began Pratham with a simple concept: To improve school readiness, three-year-olds just needed a space in the community where a volunteer could take care of them, answer their questions, and treat them with kindness.

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Preschool centers were opened in the homes of volunteers. In two years, Pratham was running 3,000 preschools across Mumbai, and its message spread to other areas. Once the program was demonstrated to work at scale, the government came to Chavan and asked for Pratham’s help solving problems in the elementary schools. With all the focus on building schools, acquiring textbooks, and providing lunch for hundreds of millions of children across the country, nobody stopped to ask what students were learning. “Children who had been in school three or even five years did not have simple literacy and numeracy skills,” says Chavan. “So we started talking the language of outcomes.” With a $2 billion tax for education having just been levied, the argument that the government should come up with an independent evaluation of the public’s investment met with a favorable reception.

In a country of one billion people you’re always finding more resources and more needs because the two are interconnected.

Madhav Chavan, cofounder, Pratham

In 2005, Pratham initiated the Annual Status of Education Report. Each year, 25,000 volunteers select 16,000 villages across the country in which to survey 720,000 children in 330,000 households over just 100 days. “My background is in chemistry, so I insist on getting data that’s not tainted by what you think,” Chavan says. The results of the first ASER survey were stunning: About half of fifth graders couldn’t read second-grade texts. Almost a third of second graders couldn’t recognize letters. “Often, children haven’t attained their grade-specific capabilities or skills, [yet] they are promoted to the next grade,” says Anamara Baig, who leads donor management at Pratham. The numbers have barely budged in a decade, but the survey had an ancillary effect: By seeing their children tested on tasks even the illiterate could understand to some degree, many parents became aware of how little their children knew and got more involved in their education. Pratham encourages parents to attend meetings with teachers. Dayaram Banshiwal, whose daughter, Himanshi, attends a Pratham tutorial program, says it has helped her immensely. “She has been faring better at school now that she has a clearer grasp of concepts,” he says. “She is more involved in her academics.” A version of ASER is now conducted in eight other countries, from Uganda to Mexico.

Pratham already had a remedial education program, Balsakhi (it means “a child’s friend”), to help kids at risk of dropping out of elementary school; around 40 percent of Indian children do not finish eighth grade, according to the nonprofit Child Rights and You. A randomized trial by economists from MIT found that Balsakhi substantially improved learning in just a few months, so it became the foundation for Pratham’s next major intervention, the Read India program. “In a country of 1 billion people you’re always finding more resources and more needs because they’re connected,” says Chavan. Read India’s curriculum of 10 day-long learning camps in 10,000 villages across the country aims to get all schoolchildren reading at grade level. After three to four such learning camps, 80 percent of kids are able to pick up basic math and reading.

Sanna, 13, attends classes at a Pratham learning center after her
school day is done. (Photo: Lisa Hornak)

Kishan attends what Pratham calls a learning hub, one of about 20 around Delhi that provide remedial classes for kids in grades one and two and, at a few sites, preschool. (Apart from learning hubs, Pratham–Delhi also operates 300 preschools, mostly in homes and government schools.) Asked what brings him here, Kishan responds with charming naïveté: “I come here to play.”

That’s all Kishan and his friends seem to be doing, but there’s more than play happening here. The activities are designed to target children’s social, emotional, linguistic, physical, and cognitive development. “It looks like a bunch of kids playing games and having fun, but it’s quite structured and linked with development milestones a child needs to achieve,” says Shailendra Sharma, head of Pratham’s national operations.

Pratham’s preschool teaching method is derived from the Playway method, a pedagogy that uses games and activities to render lessons. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT has shown that children learn best when provided opportunities to explore and follow their curiosity in structured activities. Billions of neuronal connections are made in the human brain in early childhood; some can only be made during this period, and others require much more training to achieve the same result later in life, which is part of the reason that research from the University of Chicago shows that spending on early childhood is one of the best investments a society can make. Preschool is a key facet of that investment. Data on Indian children is sparse, but studies of North American kids have shown that attending any kind of preschool can be a big boost to a young child, especially if the child is disadvantaged by poverty, parents’ lack of education, or minority status. Although the brain’s plasticity ensures that it never stops learning, children who are behind at age six tend to require extreme interventions to catch up by 16—and play is the best way for children younger than six to learn.

A few blocks from Kishan’s house, 12-year-old Somi returns from school around 1 p.m., dressed in the standard blue-and-white uniform. She lives with her parents and four siblings in a one-room house, where shelves are stacked with books and notebooks. Her father sells traditional clothing on his bike, earning just enough for his family to get by on.

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Somi, an eighth grader, unties her braid and empties her bag with a sense of urgency. She hopes to take a quick nap before her 2 p.m. English tutoring class at Pratham’s learning center in Trilokpuri, where she also attends math and science classes. It’s a rigorous regimen, and it’s just an early step on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a doctor.

Somi finds the environment at Pratham more conducive to learning. “Teachers at school are chatting on cellphones most of the time,” says Somi. “Here I can go to my teacher with questions as many times as I want to.”

A decade ago, a World Bank study found that almost one in four teachers was absent on the day of a surprise visit by researchers, and only half were engaging students. A 2014 working paper on teacher quality in India, by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, suggests things haven’t changed much. Somi frets that government-school teachers seem obsessed with completing the syllabus whether the kids learn it or not.

Time is set aside several times a year for professional development for the teachers at Pratham learning hubs and centers. Supervisors keep tabs on their performance. In 2010 Pratham introduced the Education for Education program for Read India teachers, whereby volunteers are compensated with vocational training. Computer literacy was the first subject taught, and the following year Chavan added English. “Everyone sees English as a ticket out of poverty,” he explains. “Volunteers retain pride in doing the work for nothing when they are also getting something that is helpful in finding a job or improving their skills.” (Read India camps are now operated by paid staff.)

With around 98 percent of the teaching staff in Pratham’s Delhi programs being women, Pratham is an opportunity for them to get ahead while helping the children they tutor. Some come from unstable homes—Reeta’s father had a drinking problem —and cannot complete their education (Pratham teachers are required to have completed twelfth grade). Most earn around $40 a month, and are able to leverage the Pratham training and experience to seek bigger opportunities.

Pratham’s work has paid off. It has reached about 33 million children. It received the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Nonprofit Leadership from Claremont McKenna College and is ranked among the world’s top 100 NGOs by The Global Journal. Chavan was awarded the 2012 WISE Prize for Education. (Disclosure: Chavan also received the 2011 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, given by the Skoll Foundation, whose primary funder, Jeff Skoll, owns TakePart's parent company, Participant Media.)

“I think we’ve made our point,” says Chavan. “We pushed the issue of quality learning in schools, and the government has started to see that something needs to be done about it for the first time in India.”