10 pitfalls of Indian education reform discourse

Swarajya Magazine has started a series on education reform. It’s a good initiative to document diverse views. However, most of the discourse is repetitive and also exhibits common pitfalls. I am listing some of them below. 

1. RTE is THE education policy: Most of the education policy discourse in India has been only on RTE, in recent days. The Swarajya series also reflects the same. As I have blogged earlier, RTE is NOT THE education policy. There’s much more to education policy. Also, RTE is NOT the hurdle holding back governments from reforming. 

Think about it — nothing in RTE stops the governments from initiating revamp of critical areas — teacher recruitment, teacher training, infrastructure, strengthening SMCs, providing career counselling to students and so on. Reasons are something else. It’s high time we stop blaming RTE and think beyond it. We should instead focus energies on getting governments to work on these critical areas, instead of being distracted by single point agenda of RTE. 

2. Learning outcomes declining due to RTE: The decline of learning outcomes since 2010 is widely quoted and is attributed to RTE. This isn’t even a problem of “mistaking correlation for causation”. People miss that learning outcomes have been on decline much before RTE, that can observed ever since ASER began in 2006, much before RTE 2010. As I blogged earlier, there is diversity in this. Not all states showed decline. Some in fact have improved. We thus need to look beyond RTE and not attribute the decline solely to it. 

3. No-Detention Policy (NDP) is the cause for declining learning outcomes: Within RTE, NDP is cited as cause for decline. There isn’t strong evidence for this. As I discussed earlier:

a) Outcomes have been declining even before NDP when there was detention in place. They have been on a declining trend ever since ASER started in 2006 (RTE started in 2010). Why were outcomes declining when there was detention in place? It means that NDP is not the sole reason.

b) Learning outcomes in private schools slightly increased after 2010. How does NDP explain this?

c) As per DISE data, even during the pre-NDP era (2006-2010), only 5%-6% students were detained at the maximum. From ASER, we also know that learning outcomes were poor and students weren't at grade levels even during this period. If learning outcomes were poor and students were not at grade level, how is it that only 5%-6% students were detained at the maximum? This raises questions on the feasibility of its implementation.

Overall, it seems that NDP is being made a scape goat for other systemic deficiencies. Excessive emphasis on NDP is shifting our attention away from the other real and important constraints. Doing away with NDP may in fact make us complacent, thinking that we have addressed a major issue, which in fact might not be an issue at all!

4. Misunderstanding of inputs-outcomes evidence: The words “inputs don’t result in outcomes” are being thrown around loosely. The inference being that any initiative on inputs front won’t yield outcomes and hence shouldn’t be taken up or given less priority. This is a complete misreading of evidence. If you do a controlled study of each of the inputs individually, none of them will likely show results. It doesn’t mean that these aren’t essential inputs. It only means that working only on these specific individual inputs may not yield outcomes. There could be many reasons for this, one of which is lack of complementary inputs. 

This calls for initiating reforms across wide spectrum to make these effective. It doesn’t mean we abandon them. Outcomes are necessary but outcomes don’t arise from vacuum. They arise from inputs. These are called inputs for a reason. Inputs are like bare shoes. Laces are the “capacity” that holds these shoes firm, translating it into good experience. We now lack these laces. Abandoning shoes is not the solution for lack of laces. 

5. No need of money or excess money is being spent: As with the case of inputs, only money may not yield outcomes. But it doesn’t mean that money isn’t needed. It is a fact that education system has deficiencies in many critical inputs. Even if one focuses on outcomes, very soon one would realise that it needs addressing challenges in many critical inputs, all of which need money. 

The other strand of criticism is that the per-child spending in public schools is high. This is another misplaced criticism. Governments are obligated to provide education irrespective of financial feasibility of setting up schools in remote areas, even if it means few students. It naturally drives up the per-child costs. This isn’t a metric that the governments shouldn’t be judged up on. 

6. “Focus on outcomes”: "Focus on outcomes and inputs" is another loosely used term. One should be clear on what focusing on outcomes means. If not, it may lead us into same old strategies that led us into this situation. For instance, "focus on outcomes" is taken to be equivalent to focusing only on pedagogy since that’s the one that directly leads to outcomes. This is leading to same old mistake of picking up a complex pedagogy and laying it over a weak system, which will eventually not yield results. Further, initiatives on anything other than the pedagogy, on the input front are blamed for not focusing on outcomes. We need to be thus careful about the meaning of "focus on outcomes".

The traditional approach of reform has been a "sequential approach", where schools are built first, then efforts are made on ensuring student attendance, then textbooks and once all these are resolved, come to the outcomes. When we say "focus on outcomes", what we mean is to reverse this pyramid. Focus on outcomes, and in the process, if you feel the necessity for any input, provide it. In this approach, inputs aren't the end, they are only the means. It's not sequential, it's simultaneous where initiatives are taken across the spectrum simultaneously. This approach also means that one shouldn't completely write off initiatives that focus on inputs, instead one should attempt to create value for the inputs.

7. Language of accountability: “There is lack of accountability” are other loosely used terms in education policy discourse. The language of traditional accountability is for usual situations where outcomes can be measured, in short term, and can be attributed to specific person. All of these don’t hold true in case of education where the mechanisms are fuzzy and often factors are beyond the purview of teachers. 

In fact, as several studies show, there is too much of accountability in system, but on wrong metrics. For instance, teachers are always in a rush to complete syllabus, a metric on which they are made accountable. Similarly, the academic mentors are made accountable for data collection. This form of traditional accountability has reduced the personnel in education bureaucracy into what Yamini Aiyar calls “post-office state” where personnel feel that they are mere cogs in the wheel and are only meant to follow instructions. 

This "let me catch and punish" form of governance, aiming to make people adhere to rigid rules and mechanisms is disastrous in sectors like education where the personnel are supposed to use discretion and empathy. As Akshay Mangla's study shows, places with a healthy dose of discretion perform better than those with rigid bureaucratic structures. The language of "traditional accountability" of "let me catch and punish" paradigm based on inherent suspicion prevents fostering of such practices and hence is antithetical to governance in education.

We thus need to move away from the traditional language of accountability to more dynamic forms suitable to education.  

8. Public schools haven’t worked till now - Private schools are better than public schools: It is often said that public systems haven’t worked till now and hence it’s time to look beyond them. The problem with this inference is — i) nothing worked till now. Neither public schools nor private schools; ii) enough attention has never been paid to public systems till now. We are only doing this slowly, only time. Thus, trying to dismiss something without even trying to do something about it doesn’t make sense. 

Similarly, it is widely believed that low-cost private schools are better than government schools. A wide range of evidence now shows that this isn't necessarily true. The difference in outcomes is driven by the type of people who attend these schools and it has nothing to do with the teaching or value addition of low-cost private schools.

9. "X is the major problem": There is a tendency in policy to advocate their own “pet reform” (X)., which often takes the narrative of "X is the major constraint, we need to address it." For instance, either a recommendation to address political participation of teachers or teacher training etc. Lant Pritchett calls his as "Selling Solutions vs. Selling Problems". It means that you want to suggest teacher training as the solution and hence you being by saying that saying that teacher training is the constraint. 

There's also what I call "expertise bias" driving the piecemeal recommendations. People tend to give recommendations only on aspects of education that one's expert in.

The problem with such diagnosis and recommendations is that such they narrow your vision to only few aspects, neglecting other crucial elements of reform. Once you narrow down teacher as the main problem, you are blinkering yourself to other important aspects like community engagement, career counselling etc.

Often, these "X"s are only symptoms of an underlying problem. For instance, there may be issues with pedagogy. But the more important question is - what is it that made us take so long to recognize this? What is it that's making systems not to address this? Probing in this manner enlarges one's vision.

In other words, "X" may be a problem, but so are "A", "B", "C" and so on. We need to work on all. Thus, what we need is NOT a laundry list of X, Y, Z that blinkers our view and narrows our vision; what we rather need is a strategy that enables us to identify all these and work on all of them simultaneously.

10. Per-student funding and linking outcomes to teacher’s salary: We need to exercise caution over some of these seemingly good ideas. They are incredibly complex and tough to get, especially in context of weak state capacity like India. There’s a reason why they haven’t worked else where in the world. 

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For a detailed diagnosis of Indian public education system and strategy for reform, read my book UnpackED — The black box of Indian school education reform” (pdf is free to download). 

My book seeks to answer two fundamental questions - Why don't government's efforts lead to outcomes? and Why do governments do what they do?

Refer the following four posts for the summary of the main arguments of the book.

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