India has 265 million school going children across 1.5 million schools (UDISE, 2021). We have one of the largest school education systems in the world with learning outcomes that remain abysmal. The percentage of children in Grade 3 in government or private schools who can read a Grade 2 level has dropped from 27.3% in 2018 to 20.5% in 2022 (ASER, 2022). The NIPUN Bharat Mission has put the country on a war footing to address the learning crisis and yet, it would serve us well to take a moment to reflect on who our chosen foot soldiers are.
Research over the last three decades has established that greater parent involvement in a child’s learning journey leads to improved school performance, higher academic achievement, and greater social and emotional development of the child. Parental involvement at school was found to be significantly associated with early literacy for almost all children, particularly for children whose families were socially or economically disadvantaged. Children continue to spend as much as 80% of their time at home even after entering the formal schooling system. In a country with a rising tide of educational aspirations in families across socio-economic strata, as established by the PROBE report, a question worth asking is why have we failed to effectively leverage parents in ending the learning crisis?
Barriers To Parental Engagement
The government, recognizing the importance of parental and community engagement in education, mandated each school to have a School Management Committee (SMC) under the Right to Education Act 2009. The setting up of SMCs comprising members from the local community has been one of the more systematic efforts driven by the state towards leveraging parents. Therefore, understanding reasons for the dysfunction of SMCs provides pertinent insights into barriers that hinder parent engagement in education.
Multiple studies have found that often SMC members are not aware of their membership in the committee. The selection is led by the headmaster/teacher without the knowledge of the parents. SMC meetings are not held but minutes and resolutions are prepared which parents are asked to sign. Parents are also unaware of the roles and responsibilities they may exercise as members of the committee. To make matters worse, even when aware, neither parents nor teachers think that parents have the competence or authority to monitor the functioning of the school.
The biggest reason for the failure of SMCs as a structure is the misalignment of incentives. Designed for parents to hold school administration accountable through monitoring activities and budget utilization, it creates perverse incentives for the headmaster/teachers. The problem of accountability is exacerbated due to information asymmetry between the school and parents. Parents are unaware of policies and guidelines instituted to empower them. But more importantly, they lack an understanding of what learning will look like for their children in FLN grades and what their current learning levels are. This invisibility of implications impairs their ability to hold the school administration, or policymakers/political leaders at large, accountable. Another factor that possibly diminishes parent engagement with the SMCs is the problem of collective action with the cost of engagement being borne by a few parent members, whereas the benefits accrue to the entire community.
While these factors inhibit parent engagement at school, a few additional barriers hinder parent engagement at home. While parents value education, learning in early grades is not valued which affects their engagement with their children during FLN grades. Parents also have low self-efficacy due to low-income and low-literacy, and lack the confidence to actively engage with their children. They do not have access to any resources or tools at home to aid engagement, making it more cognitively taxing. Lastly, parents also have limited time, especially if they are the primary breadwinner in their household.
Interventions With Behavior Design
An understanding of the barriers that inhibit parental engagement warrants a behaviorally-informed intervention design. There is emerging evidence on what might shift learning outcomes at this intersection of behavior sciences and parents in education.
A study conducted in Madagascar trained an elected group of mothers in necessary childhood activities and aided them in conducting home visits and group activities with other mothers. Variations in the study also included helping mothers create plans with achievable milestones to bridge their intent-action gap and a self-affirmation activity to build self confidence. While there was no direct impact on overall socio-cognitive development, the intervention led to improved child development outcomes of fine motor and social skills.
READY4K! was a text-messaging intervention designed for parents of preschoolers to help them support their child’s development in the San Francisco Unified School District. Under this, parents received three texts a week pertaining to an academic skill – a fact about the skill, a tip on how to engage with their child, and a message for encouragement and reinforcement of the concept. This led to observed increases in parent engagement at school and home, also manifesting in observed learning gains for the children in the form of higher test scores.
New initiatives to improve parent engagement are being launched in the Indian context as well. For instance, Rocket Learning is creating digital communities on WhatsApp for parents and teachers, in collaboration with government stakeholders, where weekly learning tasks aligned to the state curriculum are presented to the parents in their local language with simple steps. Parents are also given low-touch incentives such as personalized badges to sustain engagement. Saarthi Education is also running an innovative parent engagement program, where algorithm-based worksheets based on the child’s level are provided to parents through trusted local community workers.
Parent Behavior Change Pilot in Uttar Pradesh
With the aim of adding to this emerging field of evidence, Central Square Foundation and Centre for Social and Behaviour Change at Ashoka University collaborated to develop and empirically test behavior change interventions to increase parental engagement on FLN (view report here).
Based on the barriers discovered through an exploratory diagnostic study, the intervention design was centered around three behavioral principles, as mentioned below.
- Providing clarity to parents on the role they can play in their child’s FLN journey
- Reducing the cognitive load of engaging with children through simple tools
- Increasing parents’ confidence to engage with such activities
An 8-week intervention program was implemented in two districts of Uttar Pradesh. Parents were onboarded to play the role of a coach for their child. They were provided information on the importance of FLN for their child’s future and skills their children were expected to acquire at an early age, along with simple activities they could use to engage with their children. The core interventions were delivered through two modes: i) an offline intervention through parent workbooks, and ii) a digital intervention through WhatsApp groups.
The interventions were evaluated through a two-month RCT with 1017 parents to test their effectiveness. The results showed that both interventions had a statistically significant positive effect on parental engagement with FLN.
Parents remain an untapped resource in the FLN landscape of our country – one that, if leveraged well, could be transformative. Any mission that envisions a sustainable shift in learning outcomes can not exclude parents. While behavior sciences may not provide a one-stop solution to this problem, it reveals critical insights into what can make parent engagement work.