[My book] UnpackED: The black box of Indian school education reform

This post is about a book that I have written a book on Indian school education called "UnpackED - The black box of Indian school education reform" published by Centre for Civil Society, Delhi. Parth Shah of CCS, Delhi has written the foreword and Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan (LokSatta) has written the afterword. Gurucharan Das, Dr. Geeta Kingdon and Dilip Thakore have written testimonials.

UnpackED is the one stop source to get a comprehensive perspective of issues in school education. It is highly recommended to those who are looking to understand the nuances. If you are the person who is curious to understand education, if you are the person who feels perplexed with the complexity of the problem, this is the book to go. You can order the book here.

Assurance from my side - The whole book and all arguments are evidence-based and reasoned. You will have to struggle to find rhetoric. FYI: The book has 155 references. So, don't worry about that.

The motivation for writing the book is 
  1. I have tried to think of the core reason behind the poor education system since long. Many reasons are quoted in discourse but none of them were satisfactory explanations. I felt the need to explore each of these and explain why they aren't satisfactory. At the same time, identify the core reason, using evidence. Unless we understand it, attempts to reform can end up being ineffective.
  2. The reform in education is being approached from a fragmented manner - some viewing it only through the lens of curriculum, some only through the lens of economics etc. I felt the need to view all of these comprehensively.
  3. As far as I know, there is no one place to refer regarding Indian school education. This book is an attempt to put together evidence across different strands and infer insights from it.
  4. In the context of New Education Policy, right lessons have to be communicated for wider discourse so that we don't repeat mistakes. Someone had to say all this and hence!
The summary of key points in the book is shared below in a simple, conversational tone.


Argument 0 - Quality of education in India is pathetic. How pathetic? After 5 years of primary school, an average student is still at the level of first grade. This might be evident to some but I frequently encounter people who aren't aware of this. Hence, repeating. What about NRIs abroad and Indians leading large MNCs? It boosts our ego but sadly that isn't representative of an average Indian.

Argument 1 - The often quoted reasons are incomplete. Whenever you ask a group of people to share the one pressing problem that they think is the critical reason for the poor state of education, the typical responses are - lack of infrastructure, teacher training, corruption in education, low-motivation of teachers, bad curriculum etc.

These hypotheses can be tested by questioning - If 'x' is a problem, what happens if 'x' is solved? If 'x' is the pressing problem, you see a dramatic increase in the quality. This arises another question, what if 'x' is unsolved despite efforts? Thus, one can subject the above hypothesis to these two questions - Does solving 'x' lead to dramatic increase in outcomes? If 'x' wasn't solvable, why?

The book uses evidence to answer the above two questions regarding the oft-cited hypothesis and argues that these are incomplete. Thinking of reasons for poor education in terms of the above nomenclature doesn't provide satisfactory answers. We are thus clearly missing something.

Argument 2 - Weak state capacity is the critical constraint. The above scenario is analogous to a situation where we are looking at a dead body and trying to find out the reason behind its non-movement. Diagnosing the problem in education in terms of the oft-cited hypothesis is analogous to attributing the non-movement of the dead body to a specific organ and trying to treat it to make the body move, which turns out to be ineffective. The real reason is that the soul of the body is missing, making organs ineffective. The soul in our context is the state capacity - capacity to design and implement policies.

The book discusses a wide range of evidence to arrive at this argument and to support it.

But isn't it equivalent to saying that the problem lies in the implementation? It's close enough but not completely. As someone said, the study of economics doesn't stop with the realization that markets aren't perfect. It starts with that. Similarly, our analysis doesn't stop with the realization that implementation is the problem. It starts with that realization. 

The question now is - if the implementation is the problem, why is that we can conduct world's largest democratic elections but not deliver education.

Argument 3 - State capacity challenge in education is due to the interaction between low capacity eco-systems & high discretionary tasks and their variance across the system. 

Correct. That's nowhere close to a simple and conversational language. It's explained below.

Low (high) capacity ecosystem: Let's suppose that you give some work to lower-level bureaucracy and don't monitor it. If the probability of performing the task without evading the work or indulging in corruption is high, it is a high- capacity eco-system. If the lower-level bureaucracy messes it up, then it's a low-capacity eco-system.

Now, I borrowed an idea from Francis Fukuyama. He argues that high-capacity ecosystems should be given more autonomy as it gives them space to be innovative and response while the discretion should be reduced to low-capacity ecosystems. Since there are no ideal high capacity and low capacity in absolute terms, there is an optimal autonomy point at which you get the optimal outcome.

So, this is about low capacity eco-system, a system where people don't work without stringent monitoring. Discretion has to be reduced and rigid rules are to be set to offset the negative implications of low-capacity. 

Now, let's come to the second term, high discretionary tasks.

High discretionary tasks: This is in reference to Lant Pritchett's classification of government's tasks. Tasks of government can be broadly put into four categories.

Concentrated tasks - These are tasks which can be solved by getting together a group of people and sitting in a room. The necessary actions required are in the form of framing a new law or regulation or amending the existing ones. Designing curriculum is an example of such task in education.

Logistics tasks - Transportation of goods. Processes etc. Building school infrastructure in case of education.

Implementation intensive tasks requiring discretion: These type of tasks require discretion to the frontline worker to be able to do a good job. Take the example of a postman, the last person in the bureaucracy. His job doesn't require judgement to be used on a continuous basis. It's fairly simple. Compare it with the job of a teacher and doctor. Their job requires exercising judgement continuously adjusting to the diverse possibilities.

Wicked problems: Raising performance.

Now that the terminology is clear, the main four challenges are below

- Interaction between low capacity & high discretionary tasks: Discretion to lower bureaucracy should be reduced in low-capacity systems. But what if the low-bureaucracy is responsible for tasks that require high discretion? To give or not to give (discretion)!

If the task to be performed in a low-capacity system was of logistics category, one could still get it done by brute force, with rigid rules or automating systems. The challenge arises when the task requires discretion and is implementation intensive. Note that raising performance in low-capacity eco-systems where even basics aren't in place is also far much difficult from raising performance in high-capacity ecosystems.

- Variance in nature of tasks done by individual or low-bureaucracy: What if the same person performs multiple tasks, where some tasks don't require discretion while some others require discretion. Do you give discretion to that person or not, in a low-capacity system? In such cases, generally the person ends up getting monitored and rewarded on tasks which can be easily monitored through rules, and the others end up getting pushed to low in priority. Read the book for examples!

- Variance of capacities of ecosystems across the system: It's not necessary that the lower bureaucracy is of same nature across the entire system but any rule has to be uniform as per the convention!

-  Transition between stages in poor-good-excellent continuum: The strategy required for moving the system from poor state to good state is different from strategy required to move the system from good state to excellent state.

[You can order the book here if you happen to like the arguments by this point.]

Argument 4 - Theoretical framework to understand state capacity

What about the role of political economy, incentives, technical skill to design policies in state capacity? Good question. The book proposes a theoretical framework to understand the state capacity in the context of education which incorporates all these factors apart from many others.

But why do we need such framework?

Imagine you are cooking food. You take out the soup to taste it and depending on the taste you either add salt or chilli powder. You are able to do this because you are able to pinpoint the problem with the soup (specific taste) and map it to a remedy (salt or chilli powder). You are essentially using a taste-remedy framework inbuilt in your brain. Similarly, such framework is required for education too. Just like cooking, whenever one encounters a problem, such framework will help us to pinpoint the location of the problem and address it accordingly.

Argument 5 - What's wrong with the current approach to education reform?

1. Miscategorization of the nature of problem in education - Implementation intensive problems being categorized as concentrated tasks - Lack of realization that state capacity is the constraint

What do I mean by that? There are two aspects to this problem

(i) In general discourse, the debate on education system ends up being a debate on 'What's education' - How we should have a comprehensive education including values, critical thinking, sports  etc. This is an easier discussion because it's easy to elicit such opinions it's easy to bash government.

There is an underlying assumption that if we get to a consensus on what is education, the problem will be solved. This is categorizing the problem in education as of the category of 'concentrated tasks. When one categorizes the problem as such, the solutions will also then be of same nature. The fact of the matter is that numerous such reports, including NCF 2005 talk about all the good things required in education and as the book argues using evidence, the critical constraint is weak state capacity.

In simple terms, the problem is not of the category of 'concentrated tasks' but that of 'implementation intensive' category.

(ii) There are other discourses where the critical problem is identified not necessarily with 'what's education' but with its individual components. For instance, critical thinking, teacher training etc.

What's wrong with this? There is nothing wrong with identifying these as the problems but what follows this identification is that the reasons for these problems are again miscategorized as 'concentrated tasks'.

For instance, the problem with teacher training is identified as the problem with the content of training (concentrated task) whereas the problem teacher training is primarily is regarding its implementation intensive process, which requires constant iteration and not being amenable to rules. When content is identified as the problem, all efforts towards improving teacher training go towards designing content ignoring the main problem.

Same happens with critical thinking. The moment one talks of critical thinking, the discourse steers towards curriculum (concentrated task). However, the challenge is with its implementation intensive process - the task which requires high discretion but has to be performed in a low-capacity system.

2. Scaling up innovations and setting up parallel structures - Overlaying interventions on low capacity systems

Scaling up innovations is one of the popular approaches to reform. The underlying assumption is that system lacks ideas and hence a good idea has to be infused. When innovations are scaled up in a system where the basics aren't in place in terms of ensuring teacher attendance and where the system doesn't have the capacity to train the teachers, these end up being ineffective. Over the time, it might also end up building backlash from teachers as they start feeling as lab rats.

The other suggested approach is to set up a new system afresh. Overwhelmed with challenges in the existing system, some suggest setting up a new system of schools with a new cadre of teachers. Eventually, the all end up facing same problems as the old ones - teacher absence, lack of appropriate teacher training and so on.

All of this is the result of glossing over state capability deficiencies.

Argument 6: How to approach the education reform?

The first step to reform is to acknowledge and internalize that the critical constraint is weak state capacity and to make it as an anchor for all initiatives. What does this mean?

The book details the broad approach. Sharing the gyst below.

Step 0:  Experience of other countries who have increased capacity of broken systems says that it starts with appointment of motivated people at key positions. These are not the median people whose beaviour changes with incentives. They are strongly committed.

Step 1: Ensure that basics are in place - teacher attendance, process efficiencies etc. This requires brute force and strong political will.

Step 2: The way to address the capacity - autonomy cononondrum is to increase the capacity of eco systems. Capacity is crudely a mix of motivation and skill (more details in the book). Reform approach should address these head on.

Motivation - Experiences and also as documented by reports of CPR suggest that key functionaries in education perceive themselves to be inconsequential. The challenge is to break these mental models. This is only a broad goal but the ways to do it can be different.

Skill - We have to get away from traditional approach of trainings. External organizations who specialize in this area are to be engaged to perform this.

More details in the book.

Needless to say that aspects noted in Argument 6 are to be done away with.

Argument 7: We need a strategic coordination between state, private and community to address the complex challenge of education. They shouldn't be viewed as either-or factors.

Public education system should be strengthened with the approach of enhancing state capacity as the anchor, restrictions on private schools should be eased and should be let to operate and contribute to the extent they can, and long-term efforts must be made to make community part of the governance system.

The book discusses the role of private sector in education, problems in private schooling space, their limitations, advantages. It summarizes evidence on vouchers and discusses its applicability to India.

Further, the book also discusses the oft-talked about solutions - decentralization and monetary incentives. It summarizes the evidence on these and suggests way ahead regarding the same.

[Marketing: You can order the book here]

New ideas:

While I argue that reform in education is a deep surgical process which requires fixing of lots of nuts and bolts, there are some ideas that I consider worth trying. Some of them are already discussed in public domain. Some ideas that I consider new are summarized below.

1. Power to schools and teachers to hire training agencies: The traditional approach to training doesn't seem to be working. It's time to try new approaches where schools or appropriate level (block, district) can be given powers to hire an external agency of their choice to help them with training. The extreme form of this approach can be vouchers to teachers, which can be used to get training from places of their choice.

2. Bi-furcate board exams: Board exams set the standard to a median school. If these are as rote as they can get, it trickles down the system. However, efforts to increase its quality is met with political opposition. One way out of this could be to bifurcate the board exam where students have two options in each subject - basic version and advanced version. The basic version would be same as the current level. Advanced version would test using quality questions.

This provides a chance to students to signal their ability in subjects of their choice by opting for advanced version and at the same time backlash can be avoided as students can always choose the basic version. The idea is to gradually improve the basic version.

3. After-school support systems: Students who once fall back find it difficult to cope up (refer book for evidence). After school support is essential especially for first generation learner and hence needs attention. This is a fertile ground to test the idea of vouchers as vouchers in this aspect doesn't threaten the existence of government schools and teachers thus reducing the political economy hurdles.

4. Skill vouchers to teachers of low-cost private schools: A significant section of students these days attend low-cost private schools. One of the problems in this space is the lack of investment in teacher training owing to constrained revenues. In order to build a better eco-system of teachers in our community and to help students of schools, it is in wider public interest to support training of these teachers. Training to these teachers can be made part of the Skill India program where teachers get skill vouchers which can be used at an institution of their choice.

Hope you liked it. So, now go and buy the book here and read it in detail. In case, if you need assurance for value to your money, you can check the reviews. Sharing a review below.

"A revelation in the policy space of Indian school education

I came across the book as it was launched recently at a prominent school education policy conference in Delhi. Being a school education policy enthusiast, I was eager to browse it. And once I started, I couldn't put it down and read it all the way to the end in one sitting! 

Karthik has really thought about this tremendously important issue from multiple perspectives and provided an unbiased, objective, and informed view of the question that all Indian citizens ask "What is wrong with the Indian education system and how can it be fixed?". I think you should pick and it up and you will find some very insightful answers. Be ready to be surprised as this book is based on original thinking and ideation and not just a re-packaging of the dinner table views that we have all heard ad nauseam. 

Happy reading!"

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