07/09/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Data and Statistics: The Only Way to Measure Impact?

As a teacher, a significant part of my day is spent reading articles and blogs about the latest happenings in the Indian education sector. Facebook groups, tweets, LinkedIn and other prominent websites are all sources of my information. Over the past year, education in India has witnessed a boom in the number of NGOs, foundations and enterprises aspiring to transform the education system by giving meaningful instruction to children from low-income families.

According to the statistical evidence made available by NGOs, we are on the right path. I concede that statistics are the best form of measurement for capturing the growth of an educational organization -- especially in terms of target students achieving requisite levels in English, math and other subjects -- but the question that needs to be asked is, are we pressuring students in the name of reducing an education gap?

If we examine the growth trajectory of these NGOs and organizations based on the information available on their websites and through press coverage, we may safely assume that India is on the path of an education revolution. For example, one could easily find the following statistics on NGO websites: Our students made a 1.6 year jump in English reading scores and 80 percent of our students increased their math scores by 65 percent. We are now in more than 10 cities. Our organization has reached more than 45,000 students. Does reach always mean impact?

Historical trends illustrate that investors, funders and philanthropists around the world use statistical data when they make the decision to continue investing in social organizations that they initially invested in. I agree that data might be a strong representation of social impact, but when it comes to education, is data totally correct? Rephrasing my question, is it justified that these organizations pressure target students to keep improving their grades to impress investors and ensure funding?

Consider the following -- a student named Sunita studied in my class in a municipal school in Delhi. When I started teaching in 2011, she was three years behind her grade level and was never properly taught in school because of a lack of invested teachers. Over the past two years, she was given countless standardized tests, which do not measure her actual growth, partly because her learning speed is not on par with the rest of her class. She gained only 0.9 years in math and 0.6 years in English during my two years of teaching. Her progress, although tiny, is not a measure of her true ability and potential, which I believe is in arts. There are other students who made big jumps of two years or more in math and English. It may look like they made significant progress (and I believe that they will continue to progress, given that they will be taught by good teachers for the next 6-8 years), but I am concerned. Are we educating our kids or just training them to do well in skewed assessments? Rather than teaching them conceptual understanding, our focus is on procedural fluency, to raise their scores. This leads to curriculum deformation.

Another disturbing trend I have noticed is that students are pressured to learn words and concepts that supposed to be introduced at a much higher grade. A second grade student using words like stupendous, apologetic and ameliorate, as irrational as it might be, is highly encouraged. Often, fewer than six months after a volunteer arrives to teach students, he or she introduces the students to difficult words, ones that I have never seen people use in daily life. In math, questions one might find in the Bank PO Exam or railway entrance exam, find their way into the materials. The resulting assessments are never a true measure for gauging a kid's progress. All this in the quest to reduce the education gap -- students are made to study material that is not even age appropriate.

The issue, therefore, lies in the approach that NGOs and their funders and investors take, which is more focused on data-driven growth and scaling up quickly in various cities than on each child's individual education. These numbers work wonders when the NGOs need to show their progress to investors. Unfortunately, showcasing a handful of top students who speak impeccable English and use fancy words, and using data to show how rapidly NGO programs have expanded, harms, rather than improves our education system.

The NGOs must have noble intentions to transform education in India, since they invest so much time and so many resources in their work, but I think their approach needs to be rethought. We should look at alternative school models, such as Mirambika School in Delhi and Digantar in Jaipur, both of which have a strong focus on each child's holistic development and individuality. Apart from quantitative data, there needs to be a focus on qualitative aspects of education, such as oral examinations, class performance and activity-based assessments of each student's knowledge.