By Muhammad Usman, Pakistan, a 2016 PAL Network Fellow, and ASER Pakistan’s Data Analyst
We listen to the same music.
We watch the same movies.
We eat the same food.
We farm the same land.
We speak the same language.
In so many ways, India feels like a home away from home.
It’s not just these historically ingrained similarities that make India special to me, a Pakistani. There’s something else, too. We do the same work. Barely 400km from my office in Lahore, Pakistan my colleagues in New Delhi are working on the same projects, grappling with the same challenges, and celebrating the same achievements.
What’s more incredible is that it’s not just in India and Pakistan that this work is happening. We belong to a growing global network of 9 full-member and 4 provisional-member countries, working across 3 continents to assess the basic reading and numeracy competencies of over 1 million children annually, in their homes, through citizen-led assessments.
The Power of Concern
The network is known as the People’s Action for Learning Network (or PAL Network). This month, we issued a statement of support for the Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education, which was crafted by consensus by representatives of all nine countries present. Our journey began in India more than ten years ago, when a group of concerned citizens decided to find out whether or not children were acquiring basic skills, regardless of their age or schooling status. This exercise came to be known as The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER).
When ASER first released their findings, the picture was alarming. Nearly 60% of children aged between 7 and 14 could not read a simple Grade 2 level story. Word got around. It wasn’t just citizens of India that were concerned about the learning crisis in their country. Citizens of Pakistan were equally concerned. ASER Pakistan conducted their first learning assessment in 2009, and word spread again. Seven years later, citizens from another 11 countries have joined together to find out whether and how much their children are learning.
Returning to Our Roots
It is against this backdrop of growth and expansion that ASER Centre in India recently hosted two workshops. The first workshop was co-organized with The Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP) Secretariat at UNESCO Bangkok. Participants from 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region with a strong interest in the citizen-led assessment model came to find out more. The second workshop was organized in partnership with the PAL Network Secretariat, inviting leadership teams from member countries who have never visited India, to visit the birthplace and experience the spirit of the citizen-led assessment movement.
The day I arrived in India, we were taken straight out into local villages to experience the citizen-led assessment process first-hand. There is nothing that can compare to the feeling of seeing a father stand behind his daughter, in his home, willing her to succeed. I was humbled by the deep similarities between the citizen-led assessment process in India, and at home in Pakistan. I’m not just talking about the assessment process, but the roads, the trees, the homes, the smiles, the people. The feeling of familiarity warmed me.
Assessment to Action
Our annual assessments are an important ‘thermometer’ that regularly ‘take the temperature’ of learning progress. Of course, assessment in itself is not a solution to poor learning, but it’s a first step in identifying where learning is not happening, and designing interventions to improve learning outcomes – particularly for the most disadvantaged children.
ASER Centre in India is one of Pratham India’s flagship programs. Pratham’s CEO Rukmini Banerji explained that the links between collecting data on learning levels and interventions to improve learning outcomes are direct. Both initiatives are integrally linked to each other. Whether at the village level or the state level, ASER helps people understand the problem, and interventions like Read India and Lakon Mein Ek in India, and Chalo Parrho Barrho in Pakistan, enable village volunteers and teachers to find solutions.
The Journey to Loving Learning
I also visited one of Pratham’s flagship hybrid learning programmes, designed to inspire children to love learning. In a nearby village, little circles of between 5-8 wide-eyed children were huddled in little groups surrounding a small tablet with a range of short, interesting learning videos.
We walked around the village from group to group, amused by the animated expressions of the children. On our way, one lady asked us “Are you the people who have bought these things? Since these little computers have come to our village, I never see my grandson. He does not help with chores, he is only interested in watching and learning. All day, and all night. That is all he wants to do. What have we done to deserve this?!”
People Are Still People
Could there be a more convincing story of success than this? I thought about my home city in Pakistan – Bahawalpur. I thought of the children there. In so many ways, they were no different from the children here.
From India to Pakistan, Kenya to Mexico – the PAL Network really is an extended family. A growing family that includes more than 68,000 citizen volunteers across 13 countries, speaking over 40 different languages. A family that collectively assesses over 1 million children a year. A family that is experimenting with new interventions to improve learning for the most disadvantaged children, using the annual assessment as a tool to track progress.
2016 marks the beginning of ASER Pakistan Phase II. Phase II will integrate the annual learning assessment with targeted interventions like learning camps and learning kiosks for hybrid-learning. I have only one wish. In the coming years, I hope to hear similar complaints to the one we heard from parents and grandparents all over Pakistan.