Decades of international research have supported the finding that a child’s foundational reading skills significantly impacts their overall academic performance at school. If a child does not learn to read fluently, they will struggle to comprehend text-based content presented in the classroom and in physical or digital curricular resources. This in turn will contribute to a steadily widening gap in student academic performance and learning as the curricular content becomes progressively more complex and difficult over the years. Unfortunately, foundational literacy skills of young students have been a growing concern in India for several years now. Acknowledging this serious issue, the National Education Policy (NEP) in 2020 asserted that the highest priority of the education system will now be to achieve universal foundational literacy in primary school, because unless this is addressed the other reform initiatives of the policy will be irrelevant. While the NEP has promised that a National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy will be set up on priority to support this goal, and all State/UT governments have been asked to immediately prepare implementation plans with targets and monitoring mechanisms, it will take at least a few years till systematically organized learning from such efforts might be available for sharing and use across our country. In the meantime, the Acres Foundation Research Centre recently published two research papers in international peer-reviewed journals, documenting the nature of interventions implemented at The Green Acres Academy (TGAA) schools in Mumbai and their effects on student foundational literacy skills. In a span of only four years, TGAA schools went from 87% of their students scoring below grade level to almost 90% achieving grade level benchmarks. This significant improvement was due to a set of interventions and strategies undertaken by the TGAA team. While details can be found in the study titled, “A Systems Approach to Improving Foundational Reading Skills at a Preschool in India”, a brief summary of the paper is presented in this article.
At the outset, a “systemic approach” was taken by TGAA while making its strategic improvement plan. This implies that the school teams were conscious of the fact that if they wanted to improve teaching and learning processes in the classroom, then they could not solely tweak the curriculum or sign teachers up for some workshops and then expect for magic to happen. Instead, a series of curricular supports would need to be put in place, along with a series of complementary interventions to build teacher capacity. Further, the curriculum and teachers would need to be supported by other critical systems-level factors like the learning environment, the structure of school leadership, and parent engagement. All of these areas would need to be addressed simultaneously if meaningful and enduring change was to be expected.
First, the school’s early childhood literacy curriculum was revamped. A research-based synthetic phonics program was introduced, along with strategies to increase daily reading exposure, as part of a more comprehensive literacy curriculum. Lesson plans were rewritten so that they were now driven by learning goals rather than activities, and were complemented by universal screening assessments and ongoing formative assessments to continuously monitor student understanding and inform subsequent lesson plans. Most importantly, the curriculum was not merely prescribed by outside “experts”. Instead, the ICSE board learning standards were kept in mind and then key curricular resources were developed inhouse through teacher collaboration.
Next, the school improved its student-teacher ratio by adding more teachers per class. Also, the physical layout of the classroom was changed to accommodate different types of flexible groupings of students. Additionally, teacher schedules and daily work plans were adjusted to support the new lesson plans’ demands for more active learning and learner-centered pedagogy rather than the traditional teacher-directed approach that is typically observed in classrooms. Together, these measures enhanced student engagement, which has a direct influence on student learning. At the same time, the school introduced a set of strategies to help improve teacher capacity. Typically, in-service professional development entails signing teachers up for workshops conducted by inhouse or external experts. That’s all. But, research from around the world has consistently shown that workshops alone cannot change or improve classroom practice. Instead, a series of complementary initiatives are needed to build teacher capacity. Keeping this in mind, TGAA introduced protocols for ongoing peer and leader observations and feedback, in-class coaching by experts, and a 360-degree teacher assessment and individual development planning process. Most importantly, professional learning communities were established within the school where teachers can collaboratively problem solve and study student learning data together in order to make enhancements to their teaching and curriculum.
In addition to the improvements made to curriculum and professional development, TGAA made a concerted effort to engage parents more meaningfully in the school improvement process and in the learning of their children. In addition to a series of protocols set in place to improve the promptness of communication between families and the classroom, and structures that allowed for more intimate conversations about each child’s progress between teachers and parents, TGAA instituted a mid-year 360-degree whole school evaluation process where parents were asked to anonymously complete surveys that asked questions about several aspects of the institution’s functioning. This feedback was then processed by the leadership team at the end of each academic year and used to draw up the school’s annual strategic improvement plans.
Finally, the entire change process was supported by effective leadership structures. Previously, only one school head – the Headmistress/Principal – was responsible for both administrative and educational matters. This is typical of how school leadership is structured in India. These leaders tend to be inundated with administrative issues and are therefore left with no bandwidth to tend to teaching and curriculum matters. To address this problem, TGAA recruited an expert in teaching and curriculum to serve at a position parallel to that of the administrative leader. This allowed the two key leadership functions of administration and education to be distributed between two experts in their respective domains, both serving at equal levels of power and authority in the school. The restructuring provided teachers and parents with the much needed support during the change process.
TGAA’s case study presents some ideas for how foundational literacy skills of young students can be significantly improved over a reasonable time period. The key idea here is that powerful change requires a systems level approach to improvement. There are no silver bullets, no shortcuts, no tech products we can buy off the shelf to solve the issues. Also, while the strategies from this study can and should be used as inspiration, it is important for school leaders and educators to take into consideration the unique constraints and affordances of their specific circumstances and adapt the strategies used by TGAA to better fit their own context.
(Dr. Siamack Zahedi, Co-CEO and Director of Education and Research, The Acres Foundation)