Q & A with Melissa Goodnight

In 2013, Melissa Goodnight attended her first ASER national training in Bihar. She continued her association with the organisation by working on a teacher evaluation project in Bihar prior to becoming a Fulbright-Nehru Student Researcher in 2014. The same year, she came back to India to conduct field work as part of her dissertation on the organization’s flagship programme, the Annual Status of Education Report survey.

In 2014, Melissa, a Ph.D. student from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) spent nearly 10 months in India travelling the length and breadth to understand the ASER approach to evaluating education. An excerpt from a conversation with her:

Can you tell us about your area of study?
MG: I am interested in approaches to evaluating education that consider issues of equity and social justice. ASER’s model of including citizens (e.g., volunteers, partner organizations) in educational evaluation and understanding the ASER model is part of my dissertation. However, the focus is on investigating how ASER influences educational change in India.

What is it about the ASER survey that has intrigued you the most?
MG: The ASER is a truly unique approach to exploring learning on an extremely large scale (pan India). I became interested in how it works and what its impact has been. To me the entire world should be concerned with the education and welfare of India’s people. It is remarkable and significant that roughly one-sixth of humanity resides in a single democracy. India is arguably the most important country in the world and, its national government has such a humanitarian weight on its shoulders! I think it is also important to look at India as a postcolonial country that overcame exploitation and reinvented its economy, governance, and identity while also finding ways to celebrate the diverse history of its people and their cultures, languages, and philosophical and religious traditions.

There are many countries that evaluate their education programmes. Why did you choose to do your field work in India?

MG: I find that India is amazing in ways that only exponentially grow the more I study the country and its education system. When I learned about ASER, I started to wonder, could a process like ASER help improve education in such a large and diverse democracy? I am especially passionate about the vision of ASER – ordinary people coming together to measure and share information that shapes their lives. I wanted to see how that worked and if it worked. Given that ASER is so big, I learned that figuring out how it works and if it works is quite complicated. I think the answer to those questions is both an issue of perspective and context, and of course, across India, there is nothing if not a diversity of perspectives and contexts. My study does what it can to capture some slice of that diversity in principally four contexts – Delhi, Rajasthan, Manipur and Tamil Nadu – and in each of the contexts, to ask people their perspective on ASER and on education in India.

You spent 10 months collecting data and conducting interviews. From what you’ve seen, heard and observed, what has stood out as unique qualities of the education system in India?

MG: I spent nearly 10 months (August 2014 to May 2015) shadowing ASER teams in the field. The process was unforgettable and quite difficult to summarize. One thing I want to mention is that ASER Centre has recruited and nurtured some of the most talented, committed and resourceful people imaginable. More than anything, I have been overwhelmed by the absolute sincerity with which people pursue their work – which is often difficult and tiring work.

Aurangabad, ASER National Training
As a foreigner, working within the Indian context can throw up its own unique challenges. How did you tackle these, and did it influence your study?
MG: My biggest challenge in doing fieldwork over the 10 months was not having linguistic competency (being able to speak the local language) in the three states where I focused my study on – Tamil Nadu, Manipur, and Rajasthan. Not being able to speak local languages made it harder for me to connect with people during the surveying and to inquire about their interest in the survey. I relied on volunteers and ASER staff to translate for me and to give me their impressions of what was happening in the field — which was helpful — but it is not quite the same as being able to fully understand and learn for myself. Language was sometimes even a barrier in my conversations with volunteers and MTs at the district level. Even though many people were extremely generous in their willingness to speak in English with me, I know that some individuals felt limited in what they could express and make me understand about their experiences. With all that said, I think my experience is not terribly unique. The linguistic diversity of India makes the country both fascinating and difficult to study across many contexts.During your time here, did you observe a gap between policy and practice in several contexts within the education system? What are your thoughts on the status quo?
MG: I have grown in my appreciation of the challenges and victories that undergird India’s history and continuation as a democracy. Particularly, as an anthropologist or sociologist of education, I think I have gained a lot of appreciation for how complex it is to build and reform an education system to fulfill the needs and aspirations of such a diverse democracy—especially with a population that by and large, struggles with meeting its basic needs. I have learned an immense amount from the ASER Centre team about how to overcome implementation challenges and creatively design assessment and survey processes. Those are my academic and intellectual gains.Did you come across cases of gender disparity with respect to education in India?
MG: From my observation, I think that gender dynamics differ a lot across the country and are shifting in ways that are hard to fully account for. I interviewed some people in Manipur who genuinely believed that girls and women were not treated any differently than boys or men in public or in terms of educational opportunity. That is different than how I heard most people talk about gender and its significance in Delhi or in Rajasthan. In Tamil Nadu, I interviewed one person who revealed that he was allowed to pursue an education but his older sister was not after the age of 12 –even though she begged her mother to continue school and was a much better and more dedicated student than he was. At the time, their family was struggling and his sister could not continue because she was the oldest and a girl. His sister, now an adult, still loves to study and has continued to try to read and tutor herself, but finds it difficult with her other work supporting the household. He says she frequently laments not having had the opportunity to continue school. In Varanasi, I met a boatman who was financially struggling but told me he was trying to earn enough money to send all four of his young girls to private school—the school fees for them were well beyond his means, but he had managed to keep his two oldest daughters enrolled. In short, it is hard to generalize about gender across so many contexts, and even families. At the same time, gender was a very common theme raised by volunteers, partner organizations and ASER staff in interviews and casual conversations about education and the meaning of ASER.

Speaking of our volunteers and partner organisations, from your extensive interviews with them, can you tell us what you learnt about their aspirations and reasons to be associated with the largest citizen-led movement in the country?
MG: I heard many volunteers expressing that they joined for one of three reasons: 1) they are interested in education and inspired by what they see ASER trying to do, 2) they are seeking the professional experience of ASER – this includes DIET students who are sometimes mandated to do ASER for professional development and as part of their program, and 3) they are hoping to make some money from the stipend or find employment opportunities as a result of participating in ASER.

Sometimes, volunteers admitted that they joined for one reason, but ended up feeling another. Especially in the case of people who joined for financial and employment reasons, many expressed to me that they became inspired by ASER through the training and the enthusiasm of the Master Trainers and the ASER state teams. That, I think, is an encouraging sign towards the influence of the ASER process on people’s interest and ideas about education.