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Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics


New research by Associate Professor Anne Fitzpatrick shows that remedial education at the secondary school level improves learning by 58%

May. 23, 2024

A recent evaluation by AEDE Associate Professor Anne Fitzpatrick, summarized  here  shows how to improve learning in secondary schools in India


Existing evaluations from primary schools show that teaching children at their learning level instead of grade level can significantly improve overall educational achievement (Banerjee et al.2017, Banerjee et al. 2010, Duflo et al. 2020, Duflo et al. 2011, Lakshminarayana et al. 2013). However, whether the same approach works in secondary schools is an open question for two reasons. First, it is unclear how wide the gaps are. On the one hand, to enter secondary school, students typically must pass high-stakes standardized tests. In principle these tests should screen out the weakest students, but our study finds that they are not effective at doing so. Moreover, secondary school students are older than primary school students, and thus gaps between the strongest and weakest students have had more time to widen. Second, even if large gaps do exist, remedial education interventions are largely untested at the secondary level. Is secondary school too late?

Together with Jason Kerwin, Khandker Wahedur Rahman, Adrienne Lucas, and Sabrin Beg, the research team  studied these two issues in the context of ninth grade students in Odisha. Odisha is one of India’s poorest states, with some of the lowest literacy rates in the country. It exemplifies the challenges of heterogeneous learning progress: the data show that 50% of secondary school students fail to meet a basic international benchmark of mathematical knowledge; in contrast, the top 5% of students excel, and are at grade level.

The researchers partnered with Transform Schools, People for Action (PFA), and the Odisha Department of School and Mass Education to conduct a randomized evaluation. They randomly assigned 300 government secondary schools in the Jaipur and Dhenkanal districts to one of three groups

  • Standard Utkarsh: these schools received the original version of Utkarsh where teachers implemented the program’s topics and lesson plans according to a pre-specified schedule.
  • Flexible Utkarsh group: these schools received a version of Utkarsh where teachers were explicitly given more autonomy and partial flexibility to adapt topics and/or timelines according to the needs of their students.
  • Comparison group: these schools did not receive the Utkarsh.

They report two main findings based on one school year of implementation for Class 9 students.

  1. Students were substantially behind grade level – an average Class 9 student was 4 to 5 grades behind in English, Math, and Odia with substantial within school variation.
  2. Both interventions (standard and flexible Utkarsh groups) improved student learning – by about 0.1 standard deviations (SDs)1, equivalent to a 58% increase in learning compared to the comparison group. 

Furthermore, the researchers document that this program is highly cost-effective, costing $11.64 per student. In short, remedial education in secondary school can result in meaningful learning gains—it’s not too late.