From the very beginning, ASER aimed to bring the invisible problem of poor learning outcomes to the centre of discussions on education – not only among researchers and policy makers, but equally among parents, community members and other ‘ordinary citizens’.
The ASER tools were designed with this objective in mind. They were easy and quick to administer and simple to understand, so that people across the country could become active participants in assessing and understanding their children’s learning levels.
In order to reach rural districts across the country, as Rukmini Banerji explains, the ASER implementation model visualizes working with local partner institutions:
[Extract from 'Every Child Counts (and reads)'. Watch the full video here]
But how to actually find people and institutions to partner with, in every corner of this enormous country, that too with very limited resources?
Pratham knew that in every village it was possible to find people – usually young people – willing to get involved.
Local partner organizations could provide volunteers familiar with the region and the local language. And they would be ideally placed to take forward conversations about the results, as well as actions to improve learning.
An appeal was launched to people and institutions all over the country. But sending out a written appeal was not going to be enough. So, in the last few months of 2005, all Pratham staff stopped what they were doing and fanned out across the country, looking for ASER partners.
Imagine being sent off to an unknown part of the country – perhaps with the name and number of a contact in your pocket, perhaps not even that – in order to convince perfect strangers to participate in a survey. That too as a volunteer.
Not surprisingly, there are hundreds of stories of how this absurdly ambitious task was carried out. Ranajit Bhattacharyya, now General Manager at ASER Centre, recalls hunting for ASER 2005 partners in West Bengal:
The 11th edition of ASER, currently in the field, has a detailed set of processes to help ASER teams find good local partners to do the survey. There are checklists and databases, MOUs and partner appraisal documents. Above all, there is ten years worth of accumulated experience.
But when ASER began in 2005, as Shruti Nag recalls, it was all about making friends:
Of the many fascinating stories that Pratham old timers tell about the hunt for ASER 2005 partners, a few more are available here.
They got the job done. ASER 2005 reached 9,521 villages, finally publishing data from 509 districts. As many as 540 partner organizations from across the country joined in this effort, making it a citizens' report on truly enormous scale.
Access the full ASER 2005 report here.
Eleven years later, a number of ASER 2005 partner organizations continue to participate in the survey. Overall, though, the profile of participating institutions has has changed substantially over time [see an analysis from 2011 here].
Universities and colleges have come on board in large numbers. In recent years students from the District Institutes of Education and Training (DIET), the government teacher training colleges, have conducted ASER in many states. In its most recent edition (ASER 2014), the DIETs conducted ASER in as many as 240 districts - about 40% of all the districts reached by ASER in that year.
The exposure of large numbers of future teachers to the abysmal status of even basic learning outcomes among children currently in school is an important achievement. It is only when teachers understand the problem that changes in classroom teaching-learning processes will take place.
Over ten years of ASER, one thing that has been demonstrated time and again is the fact that people do care. They are this country’s greatest resource. Ranajit Bhattacharyya describes some of the many ways in which he has experienced this generosity and engagement from perfect strangers:
In short, what makes ASER an incredibly exciting process is not the data that it produces. It is the enormous impact it has on thousands of people every year. ASER partners organizations and volunteers are not paid for the time and effort they put into the survey, although they are reimbursed for expenses incurred. But their responses to the process suggest that ASER’s objectives are indeed being met.
The Department of Social Work at KSKV University, Kutchh, Gujarat has partnered with ASER for several years. Professor Chirag Patel, Head of the department, has this to say about being an ASER partner: