Pratham, ASER and the PAL network at CIES

– Suman Bhattacharjea, Director – Research, ASER Centre
(From L – R): Meera Tendolkar, Usha Rane, Ketan Verma, Vikram Guria, Suman Bhattacharjea and Varun Limaye at CIES conference, Vancouver

Cloudy Vancouver was awash in more than just rain during the week of March 6. For five days, the downtown area was also flooded with the 2,700 or so people attending the 60th edition of the annual CIES conference

CIES, or Comparative and International Education Society, was founded in 1956 to “foster cross-cultural understanding, scholarship, academic achievement and societal development through the international study of educational ideas, systems, and practices.” The CIES conference, held each year in a different location in North America, brings together people working in the education sector from across the world – teachers, students, representatives from NGOs and international organizations, donors and grantees, researchers, government functionaries. The conference typically has more than twenty sessions running in parallel at any given time. CIES 2016 offered incredible richness and variety, with more than 700 sessions spread over 5 days.

This year, close to 15 of the delegates were in the “Pratham family and friends” category. Pratham and ASER Centre sent a large team – as many as six of us presented different aspects of our work. Vikram Guria talked about the how and why of household-based testing which is at the core of the ASER survey design and Ketan Verma described where we are after ten years of doing ASER. Varun Limaye discussed how just having data isn’t enough – time and thought needs to be spent on creating a culture of evidence-based decision making. I presented some preliminary findings from a research study that examined access to and quality of education for middle school children. On the intervention side, Usha Rane described Pratham’s journey over the last twenty years and the deep links between evidence and action in everything that the organization does; while Meera Tendolkar presented key elements of Read India’s approach to teaching mathematics.

The People’s Action for Learning (PAL) network was also well represented at CIES, with participants from Uwezo and ASER Pakistan among others. Established only last year, this growing network currently comprises civil society groups from 13 countries across 3 continents that are implementing “citizen led assessments” (CLA) –household-based rapid assessments of children’s foundational skills that are modeled on ASER. It isn’t only in India that most children are in school but failing to learn even the basics. Civil society groups in all these countries have decided to implement CLAs in their own contexts, in order to generate evidence on scale about poor learning outcomes.

During CIES sessions ASER was mentioned by many people other than the Pratham and ASER team. Some of those who talked about our work were Pauline Rose at the University of Cambridge, Silvia Montoya from UNESCO and Patricia Scheid from the Hewlett Foundation. Seeing recognition on listeners’ faces when ASER is mentioned is always nice. But it is especially gratifying when people one has never met before tell you that they know your work and have used your tools: “Oh, you’re from ASER? We’ve used your tools in our project in xxxx country…!” I had several such conversations, and heard for the first time that ASER tools have been used in projects in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria.

These are encouraging signs. Perhaps in the not too distant future we won’t have to experience the flip side of the coin – sitting through panels where presenters from developed countries discuss the problems of developing countries and claim to have all the solutions (if only their clients would cooperate and implement them properly). This, too, is part of the reality of CIES.