This is the third blog in a series by Distinguished Fellow Maya Kalyanpur on her research in India on children with learning disabilities.
Using a post-colonial lens (Motha, 2015), this study examined the process by which low-income students from non-English-speaking backgrounds are labeled as learning disabled within the context of the Sustainability Development Goal of quality of education. In the new millennium, the number of children labeled as learning disabled or dyslexic in India has increased exponentially:Currently, about 10% or 30 million children are estimated to have a learning disability (“10% of kids”, 2012). There is no research to explain this trend.The label, new to India, was officially recognized in 2009 when the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 was amended to include the category of Specific Learning Disabilities. In post-colonial India, more children than ever before are accessing an education facilitated by the Indian government’s Education forAll program launched in 2001 and the 2009 Right to Education Act. Recognizing English as the language of opportunity and social mobility, parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to English-medium private schools rather than government schools where the medium of instruction is in the regional or national language, even though they may speak a regional language at home.
Part of a larger qualitative study on the quality of educational services for struggling students in English-medium private schools conducted in a metropolitan city in India over four months, this blog focuses on an analysis of assessment practices in three low-fee-paying schools and two learning disability clinics to ascertain the process by which students are labeled learning disabled. Data sources included document analyses of psychometric assessments used at the clinics and curriculum-based assessments used in schools, participant observations of instruction in schools, and interviews with teachers, parents and clinicians.
Findings indicate that students who struggle academically are caught within a fiercely competitive educational system that is hierarchically tiered by students’ socio-economic status and, by extension, their access and familiarity with English. Students from elite backgrounds, fluent in conversational and academic English, attend Tier I or the top-ranked schools, which gives them access to top-ranked universities and colleges both nationally and internationally. On the opposite end, students from low-income, non-English-speaking backgrounds attend Tier 3 schools, such as low-fee-paying schools, and aspire to the lifestyle that access to fluent English provides in India (“Goddess of English”, 2014). While the national No Retention Policy requires that students not be retained until Grade 8 even if they are failing, unlike in the US, there is no legal mandate to provide academic support services in schools.
The Challenges of Creating Standardized Assessment Measures
Yet, there is a strong dependence on the US service model. The definition of Specific Learning Disabilities in the 2009 amendment of the Indian Persons with Disabilities Act mirrors that in the US Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, specifying that assessments should ascertain a “discrepancy factor” between achievement and aptitude. Most of the measures themselves are imported from the US and poorly standardized on Indian norms, resulting in students outside the norming group being identified as learning disabled. For instance, the Indian version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV, 2012) published by Pearson, the American publishing company, is normed on just 334 children (118 boys, 153 girls) studying in English-medium schools with almost 84% parental educational levels of college graduate.
Some Test items expect students to recognize items like a sled, mittens and a snowman,hardly culturally appropriate for the Indian context. Further, the number of officially recognized languages in India makes creating a standardized assessment measure for the specific detection and educational intervention of children with LD problematic (Narayan, et al., 2003; Unni, 2012). While the Dyslexia Assessment in Indian Languages (DALI), an indigenously developed screening tool that uses linguistic knowledge of the language rather than translated versions, is a creditable alternative, it is currently only available in four languages and for elementary grades. At the two clinics observed, the DALI was not a systematic part of the diagnostic process.
For low-income, regional language students, the lack of appropriate assessment tools is particularly problematic. Many are first-generation school-goers, and their home environments preclude access to conversational English, either through TV or within the community. They are enrolled in low-fee-paying English-medium schools because of their parents’ lifestyle aspirations, where they are introduced immediately to academic English. The large class sizes of up to 60 students make individualized support for academically struggling students impossible, and render the mode of instruction primarily teacher-led with heavy reliance on rote memorization. Teachers are not trained to scaffold students’ learning through translanguaging pedagogy (Garcia & Wei, 2014) which enables students to acquire English by building their comprehension in their native language; in any event, even multilingual teachers are unlikely to speak all the languages represented in any given classroom. English language acquisition becomes contextualized to the curriculum and students’ academic achievement is filtered entirely by their ability to acquire what is essentially for them a foreign language. Even the remedial classes offered to struggling students focus on reinforcing the curriculum through memorization rather than increasing conceptual comprehension.
Learning Disability? English Language Acquisition?
The No Retention Policyaverts major crises until Grade 10 when students take the high-stakesschool-leaving statewide tests, which determine access to all post-secondarypaths. At this point, students may receive minimal government-permittedconcessions of extended time on tests and scribes for students with dysgraphia(Karande, Sholapurwala & Kulkarni, 2011), but, as in the US, they must bedeemed to have a learning disability. Thus, desperate to pass students willseek a certificate of disability, despite the enormous social stigma attachedto the label and even though, in most cases, the learning barrier islanguage-based, not cognitive. The study concludes that, despite the SDG ofquality education, these assessment processes further disadvantage low-incomestudents, despite their fluency in regional languages, by conflating difficultywith English language acquisition with learning disability.
Karande, S., Sholapurwala R. & Kulkarni, M. (2011). Managing Specific Learning Disability in schools in India. Indian Pediatrics, 48, 517-520.
Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York: Teachers College.
Narayan, J., Thressiakutty, A.T., Haripriya, C., Reddy, K.G., Sen, N. (2003). Educating children with learning problems in primary schools: Resource book for teachers. Secunderabad: National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped.
Distinguished Fellow, Professor Maya Kalyanpur further explores the topic of inclusive education in India in a low-fee private school.
Primary schoolteachers in a low-fee paying, private English medium school in a low-income neighborhood in Mumbai, India, were interviewed on their perspectives on inclusive education. The school was established in response to the liberalization of economic policies in India in the early 1990s that sought to provide alternatives to the existing government-run public education system, which had proven unable to meet the demand for schooling for all. English medium private schools catered primarily to affluent families, whose children then benefitted from access to the colonial legacy of an English-based higher education system. By charging low fees and offering instruction in English, the school attracted parents from the neighborhood who wanted their children to learn English, recognizing it as a passport to success, but could not afford a more expensive private school. All the children spoke a language other than English at home and were being introduced to both conversational and academic English, for the first time in school. The study situates itself within the current debate on low fee-paying schools. Some scholars assert that the government being unable to meet the demand for quality education, private schools are better than nothing at all (e.g., Tooley, 2009) while others have argued that private schools exploit low-income parents’ aspirations for their child to access top tier higher education by offering poor quality education (e.g., Nambissan, 2012; Sarangapani & Winch, 2010).
Based on ethnographic interviews and classroom observations conducted over a four-month period as well as an analysis of policy documents, this study focused on what inclusive education meant to six teachers within the context of the national “no fail” policy which requires that students be promoted regardless of their academic performance until the eighth grade. Three themes emerged: (a) despite an awareness of the benefits of child-centered learning, teachers focused on teacher-led instruction, with a strong emphasis on rote memorization; (b) their limited pre-service training not having provided them with the strategies to respond to the needs of those who struggled to learn, teachers engaged minimally with these students and held largely negative views of them and their home backgrounds; and (c) in a highly competitive context and a strongly hierarchical system where the teacher has considerable authority over parents, teachers are not accountable for ensuring that students learn.
With a minimum of 60 students in their classes, the teachers struggled to ensure that students acquired the academic language while meeting the curriculum standards that would enable their students eventually to pass the state-mandated school completion exam in Standard Ten exam to enter pre-university. While their own middle-class backgrounds had enabled them to go to middle tier private schools where they had learned English, they too rarely spoke the language at home. Classroom observations corroborated their efforts to teach in a language that was unfamiliar to the students and equally cumbersome for the teachers. In the end, they reconciled themselves to teaching to the top two to five percent of the class. Instruction was primarily teacher-led. The standard format for lessons was an opening introduction to the lesson, which mostly consisted of the teacher reading from the textbook and offering translations or clarifications as needed. The teacher then recorded the main points of the lesson on the board and for the rest of the class period the students copied these notes from the board into their notebooks. Students who were able to do so within the remaining time shared their notes with those who were not. Although the teachers mentioned having received training on using child-centered instruction and had some play materials available to facilitate this, these materials or strategies were rarely used. During initial observations, teachers did pull them out to show the researcher and even some in one or two lessons, but over time, they fell back on their habit of teacher-led instruction. Informal assessments of the students by the researcher found that most of the students had memorized the notes from each lesson with very little understanding of their meaning and were able to apply this learning to similarly worded or duplicative questions for the school’s month-end examinations.
All the participants held fairly negative views of the struggling students and would often make reference to their family background in terms of their parents being uneducated. Many of these students came from particularly low socio-economic backgrounds and received state-supplied free uniforms and some fee subsidies to attend school. The students were either bunched together at the back of the class or made to sit next to an academically successful student who was expected to share their notes with them. Again, during initial observations, teachers did check on these struggling students’ performance in class, but over time, they engaged minimally with them. According to the teachers, in every class, there were inevitably five to six students who would be at the bottom of the class, and who would have been held back if the “no fail” policy were not in place. They were ambivalent about the policy: they acknowledged its disadvantage- that students would keep getting pushed up the grades without learning the curriculum and would possibly drop out at the eighth grade, but also identified its advantage in that the students would not be their concern after this school year was over.
The teachers strongly held the view that parents were equally responsible for ensuring that the students were academically successful. According to them, responsible parents arranged for their child to attend remedial classes, or private group tutorial services offered in the morning for students who attended the afternoon shift in school and in the afternoon for students who were in the morning school shift. Some teachers offered special after-school sessions on Saturdays to go over the content covered through that week and openly berated the parents, when they came to pick up their child, for not taking responsibility for making sure their child had the necessary notes (or “portion”) and for forcing the need for these make-up sessions. The study argues that, despite efforts towards education for all, the poorest of the poor continue to be the most disadvantaged in terms of access to quality education.