By Ryan Fauber and IDinsight
I had the opportunity to hear Rukmini Banerji speak about her work with Pratham and ASER a week before participating in the ASER Survey Recheck Process. It was a timely reminder of how simple—and yet how transformative—the ASER survey is. Think about what ASER does: they take a single-page document and send volunteers all over the country to assess children on their learning levels. That’s it. They answer at a household level: what does your child know and not know? It is radical simplicity applied at an astonishing scale.
Don’t be fooled, though, the ASER Centre handles a massively complex process that generates some of the most comprehensive knowledge on the state of education in India—all built on a survey that you can fit on a single sheet of paper.
And further, the recheck itself is a testament to the commitment on ASER’s part to data integrity. Not only do they organize a nationwide survey, they then engage with external partners to gather honest feedback on the results and the process.
As context, I work for IDinsight: an organization that helps social sector practitioners generate and use evidence to amplify impact. We are currently engaged in several projects in India that use the ASER survey to assess the impact of educational programs. So, when Pratham/ASER approached us about rechecking the survey results in districts near Delhi, we saw it as an opportunity to contribute back to an organization that has offered so much to the education sector.
The recheck itself is an extension of their deceptively simple model. Going from house to house, we ask previously-surveyed students if they remember seeing the ASER tool and if they remember what level they were able to complete. But think about what that suggests to those communities. First, ASER visits their community to test the learning levels of their children, then they return to make sure that they are providing the most accurate information to the country’s leaders. To the students, parents, and teachers in the villages we rechecked, ASER is affirming: every piece of data matters. It matters so much that we come back to make sure we’re getting it right.
And what I saw when accompanying the ASER team was a level of community engagement that was certainly the result of ASER’s hard-won status as both committed and trustworthy. During the recheck, parents asked thoughtful questions about the ASER survey and the implications of the results; children enthusiastically recounted being tested, even if it was weeks ago; neighbors and community leaders not only helped us locate specific households, but they stayed to observe our work and discuss the implications.
In a country as diverse as India, it’s surprising that such a simple tool is having such a profound effect on how we approach education. Consider, too, that this is now being piloted all over the world. The explanation for ASER’s success is straightforward: simple means accessible. Simple means that they can deliver this survey to every state in India; that the results can be easily interpreted by teachers, parents, and the students themselves; and that leaders and decision makers are better equipped to craft targeted policies. Importantly for our work, this simplicity means that ASER can further commit to rechecking the results.
At the talk I attended, Dr. Banerji spoke about the ASER survey as an obvious first step towards education reform. I think she’s being modest. Crafting a tool and a program like this takes humility to go back to the beginning, thoughtfulness to cut to the heart of an issue, and imagination to understand the potential of such an effort.