321 Education Foundation Is Challenging India’s Primary Education System
Founder and CEO Gaurav Singh in conversation with Jumpstart.
By Sharon Lewis
In days long past, India was known as the ‘Golden Bird’ for its abundant cultural and economic wealth. In fact, to this day, a popular partisan song from the subcontinent reflects on this age. When translated, it goes, “where golden birds perch on every branch, that’s my beloved India.”
This metaphor has found resonance with 321 Education Foundation, whose logo features a little golden bird in flight, looking upwards. The organization is on a mission to “make sure that [India’s earlier] glory is not just in our past but also our future,” and it’s starting with the country’s primary education.
An Accidental Discovery
On looking at statistics from India’s primary education system, it’s immediately evident that the numbers are abysmal. About half of India’s Grade 3 students cannot read a Grade 1 text, and around 30% cannot recognize two-digit numbers. It is, in short, a system in crisis. And at the heart of this crisis are India’s teachers.
But Gaurav Singh, Founder and CEO of 321 Education Foundation, was not thinking about the systemic issues with Indian education when he joined Teach For India. He joined the non-profit in service to the country, and there he suddenly realized that he knew how to teach.
The journey since then has been “one step in front of the other, following problems that are both important and inspiring,” he tells Jumpstart.
Since its founding in 2012, 321 Education Foundation has worked closely with over 250 schools and thousands of educators. The social enterprise provides a nexus of support for education, including research-backed curricula, assessments, and teacher training.
Singh speaks passionately about the struggles that teachers face in Indian classrooms. Teachers are treated condescendingly, and supported inadequately.
Training programs tend to be mere hand-me-downs borrowed from elite counterparts. Singh points out that these programs do not work in schools that deal with more students than their resources can support.
The end result, he continues, is that teachers are angry and misunderstood.
“A common misconception is that teachers don’t care or are not motivated. We have soundly found that to be untrue,” Singh explains. The motivation to teach is present, he says. The setback is that teachers do not have the know-how to transform that drive into results.
A Four-Pronged Approach
When 800 students under 321 Education Foundation’s program were screened during the academic year 2018, learning outcomes improved 2x in reading and 3x in mathematics.
When they scaled to 8000 students the following year, the team braced for a dip–recreating previous results with 10 times the number of students would be fairly unorthodox.
But that’s exactly how it turned out. “We showed [great results] with 800 students, and we have actually shown better data with 8000… We’re getting better as we get bigger,” Singh says.
He attributes the win to four key factors on which 321 Education Foundation’s flagship program Ignite! is centered. The program provides rigorous support to teachers, including emotional support, uses a research-based and contextualized curriculum, incorporates independently collected data at several levels from the classroom to the overall program, and builds relationships with various stakeholders in the system.
“You will often have organizations doing one of these four. But if you want to be able to move student learning data in a measurable, clear and non-deniable way, you have to do all four,” he asserts.
In the next few years, 321 Education Foundation aims to impact 100,000 students year-on-year. The organization sees its work expanding through the direct scale-up of Ignite! and by building resources for the larger ecosystem that can reach hundreds of thousands of students.
Singh believes that while the organization has impact and scale pegged down, the key now is to become sustainable while maintaining impact and consistent growth.
“The holy grail in education is to have an impactful, scalable, and self-sustainable program. And all three are very hard to do together,” he observes.
About 80% of the organization’s operations are financed by backers such as Central Square Foundation. Its network schools make up for the remainder through fees for 321 Education Foundation’s programs.
“But there’s only that much that schools can pay, given their capacity,” Singh points out, since 321 Education Foundation works with aided private schools.
To reach their sustainability objective, Singh has placed his bets on economies of scale to help make the shift to self-sustainability in the next few years, and eventually flipping its model to 80% revenue backed and 20% donor funded.
Noting that the organization comes from a place of deep respect for teachers, Singh says that 321 Education Foundation applies itself to solving the most pressing problems in education with evidence-backed means. To Singh, teachers are the categorical starting point.
“Our job is to get them to experience success, by getting them to [see] what student learning looks like, and then give them the tools and support to do it,” he says.
“And then they fly from there. And because they fly, their students fly,” he concludes.
Images courtesy 321 Education Foundation