Channels to contribute to education reform - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.009

[42nd post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 0 more to go]

After all the discussion above, the obvious question to ask is – how can I contribute towards the school education reform? This can be approached in two ways – (i) what is needed? (ii) What is that I can do?

What is needed? -  

Reforming any sector is similar to treating an ailing patient. The nature and intensity of treatment depends on the nature of the ailment. In medicine, we have broadly four approaches - (i) Shock Therapy – a short, intense external stimulus given to a patient; (ii) Physiotherapy – low intensity, repeated exercise to strengthen certain body parts; (iii) Surgery – short but requiring high skill and intensity.

The required reforms can also be categorized similarly depending on the nature of efforts required to advocate and implement them.

(i) Shock therapy reforms are the one time-go reforms where one is advocating for the enactment of a new or for amending a particular rule/law. One can advocate for these by being outside the system and get them done by persuasion or pressurizing. Policies like RTI, Lokpal etc. come under this category.

(ii) Reforms requiring physiotherapy approach are those about deepening the procedures. These can be boring, time taking, have no visibility of immediate outcomes, require regularity and patience and can only be done by those inside the governance system. Just like physiotherapy, the net effect of all these will be visible only after certain time, conditional upon the long term practice. Improving the efficiency of systems and changing the culture of an organization best suit this category.

(iii) Reforms requiring surgical approach are those which require high degree of skill to carefully handle the systems to bring them back to the correct position, at the risk of putting the system on hold for certain time. Drafting regulations and laws and other aspects needing technical skill come under this category.

At times, there is an overlap between (ii) and (iii), as one has to amend the regulations but the necessary loopholes and constraints are known when they are in implementation. At any given point of time, required reforms can be in all these three categories and a particular reform can be in any of these categories at different points of time. Depending on the nature of reform that one is convinced about and their skill set, they can choose any of the three paths above.

This framework helps us to put things in perspective. If one is sensitive to a particular problem, the first question to be asked is - What should be done to fix this? If one has a broad idea or pointers to this question's answer, it is useful to think - Is my idea a shock therapy or a physiotherapy or surgical in nature? This helps one to chalk out the strategy for advocacy and also sometimes useful in choosing the career path and so on. In case of education, as of now, since the critical constraint is weak state capacity, second and third categories are prominent, while there are some major reforms of first category. The problem being, even if one advocates for a law and a change in regulation, it again falls back to second and third category, weak implementation capacity, which is the critical constraint.

What is that "I" can do? –

I. Evidence builders - We still don’t know and don’t understand many aspects of education. In the absence of data, it is difficult to structure the debate and drift it towards a correct direction. Evidence acts as indicator and guiding light in the navigation of complex maze. One can choose to either become an economist or administer surveys like ASER and contribute towards this.

II. Generalists – Generalists are those who can appreciate the problem from different perspectives and can structure the vision and policy. They also help in deciding policy priorities, since they can appreciate multiple perspectives. They are necessary in contexts like education when the sector is extremely specialized and fragmented, to bring unison among them.

III. Teachers with policy perspective – The frontline employees who are actually implementing the policy have rich information about ground zero but they often may not be able to look at these issues from a broad perspective and think of appropriate policy changes. People who are responsible for the designing of policies may lack the rich information that teachers possess. We need people who are at ground zero, experiencing the reality, who can think from a broader perspective.  This needs training in both policy and teaching. This makes Dr. Atul Gawande, the famous public health specialist, unique. He was trained and worked in policy and politics before become a medical doctor. Thus, he brings unique perspectives to problems in health care, taking examples from ground zero and fitting them into policy narrative.

IV. Politicians with conviction to reform – There is no substitute to a strong and committed leader driving the change. It might be possible to do even without them but it will be hard and time taking. A committed leader creates an enabling environment for change and ensures assistance from all organs.

V. Entrepreneurs – There some people who prefer systemic approach and persist for long time to make that happen. There are some who prefer to address the problem immediately even if it is on small scale. For example, it is one thing to say that teaching practices to instill scientific temper and critical thinking skills require strong systemic capacity and hence we have to build that. Entrepreneurs on the other hand create products to make this happen, directly approach the schools, convince them and initiate the change, even if it is small at the moment. As discussed many times, entrepreneurs in education are necessary to bring innovation and support schools who want to genuinely improve.

VI. Activists – Activists mobilize support and help create pressure to bring in the necessary reforms. They also help in enforcing accountability and oversee the implementation of certain government policies. For example, RTI and 25% reserved seats for students of low income communities. Though these policies exist on paper, it is requiring many people across the country to put them into use and in some cases make the local officials implement them, thereby bridging the policy-implementation gap.

VII. Communicators – Communicators are those who take the information to a broader audience, either in terms of cartoons or songs or articles or public speeches. This helps create informed citizenry and the necessary critical mass required to create change.

VIII. Bureaucrats who can improve state capacity – Strengthening the state capacity is in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats at the end of the day and they are the ones who have rich ground zero experience and information. We need bureaucrats can use this experience and think from a broader perspective about ways to strengthen state capacity.

IX. Thinkers and new forms of school transformation – External organizations like think tanks and NGOs generate new ideas; prototype and fine tune them, which may not be possible for the government to do.

X. Starting a school or teaching students in free time – This is a low scale but high impact approach and is most preferred approach. A good school and mentoring students can create significant impact on the children who attend them.  This can also plug gaps in places where there isn’t government’s reach.

-----------This ends the series!----------

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