Is weak state capacity a constraint in Indian public school education? – Micro level evidence : Ensuring a Learning India S4 E.004

The previous post explored the macro level evidence of the relationship between state capacity and learning outcomes in India, in an input-output framework. This post explores this issue in depth to illustrate ‘how is weak state capacity affecting the learning outcomes’. For example, the macro level evidence says that more than half of the schools don’t receive their money by the end of November. This demonstrates the inefficiencies and weak state capacity. The micro level evidence discusses the possible reasons behind this.

The theme on ‘Pedagogy-Curriculum-Assessments’ discussed the need for diagnostic assessments and to incorporate this data into the teaching process. Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) made mandatory by Right to Education Act (2009) is modeled on similar lines. The macro level evidence[i] of the evaluation conducted in two districts of Haryana suggests that CCE in the form as it was then, didn’t have any effect on the learning outcomes of the children in those two districts. While taking the risk of extrapolating this evidence to other contexts, this does hint at the effectiveness of the programme. This doesn’t mean that CCE should be stopped but the lack of effect could be due to its design and mode of implementation.

The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) sub committee’s report[ii] on CCE documents the micro level evidence regarding the implementation of CCE. The report says (page 134)

The most common reasons on why CCE should not be implemented in order of preference by majority were:-
  • Teachers do not have adequate training and support
  • Children do not the required resources to do activities/projects  etc.
  • Teachers do not have the required materials
  •  It is useful but time consuming
  •  It is not useful
In addition, the difficulties usually faced by teachers in order of preference in the implementation of CCE were: -

  •  Lack of adequate resource support
  • Absence of clear cut guidelines
  • Lack of adequate training
  • Textbooks not amenable to CCE
The macro level evidence on the impact of CCE presented above also documents similar observations.

Coupled with our evidence of CCE’s relatively mediocre implementation, these results suggest that the CCE scheme in its current form needs a thorough review in design and appropriateness, as well as in teacher training and implementation. Regular evaluation of pupils is essential to teaching, but the complexity of CCE’s evaluation tools and the lack of a clear connection between such evaluations and specific changes in teaching practices may have limited the usefulness of CCE as it was implemented in our setting. It is conceivable that if CCE focuses on basic and foundational skills rather than on standard-level competencies it may be more effective.”

This re-iterates the point that teacher absenteeism and lack of efforts from teachers are only visible forms of weak state capacity. The challenge is not to just make teachers attend the schools and be present in classrooms but also to help them teach properly. This requires a different approach from those necessary to ensure teachers’ presence in school. It underscores the need for appropriate design of tools considering their feasibility of implementation, adequate training, adapting teachers’ mindsets, monitoring & support through constant engagement. More importantly, this has to be done at scale which brings the challenges of its own. These are the nuts and bolts called state capacity which are essential to ensure success of ideas.

The second evidence is regarding the spending. One level of the debate is that relatively little is being spent on quality enhancement and innovation programmes. PAISA study documents that quality specific programs receive a meager 2% of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’s budget (SSA). The second level of the debate is the macro evidence that half the schools didn’t receive their money by the end of November highlighting the inefficiencies. The third level and the core of the problem is the decision making structure in budgeting and spending. This excerpt[iii] from the summary of PAISA findings illustrates the problem better.

All critical teacher-related decision-making, hiring and salary payment for example, lie with the state administration. Funds for infrastructure development are often channeled to schools; however, key decisions related to implementation - sanctions and procurement are taken by the district administration. While the ASER 2013 12 district takes implementation decisions, priorities on the nature of infrastructure to be created are set by the State government, often in response to pressures placed on it by the Government of India (GOI). For instance, in 2011, the Supreme Court of India issued an order requiring that all schools meet the RTE norms for girls’ toilets by the end of the year. This resulted in a rush of activity in many states to initiate toilet construction. Orders were issued to districts, which in turn directed schools to start construction.

These top-down decisions result in serious distortions during implementation. In 2013, PAISA researchers undertook a workflow analysis to try and understand the consequences of top down decision-making in infrastructure. The following anecdote best illustrates our findings. In a school in Nalanda, Bihar, the Headmaster had received a grant for building a boundary wall in 2012. When asked “When did you make the request for the wall?” here’s what he told our researchers: he never did! The wall was sanctioned at the state level based on DISE data, and finalized at the district level. When asked if he was satisfied with the way the civil works process was conducted, he shrugged his shoulders and said, 'The wall is built, this is good. But the main problem here is the lack of clean water as the children get sick. We don’t know who to talk to about this. And honestly, the DISE form doesn’t ask us for this information'.

Interwoven in this top-down system is an intent to involve schools and parents in decision-making through school management committees. However, in practice, schools and therefore school committees and parents have control over very small amounts of money - in 2012-13, this accounted for a mere 2% of the total SSA budget. These monies arrive in schools as school specific grants (which the PAISA survey in ASER tracks) that are tied to specific expenditure items – so if a school wants to spend its school development grant on buying reading material, well the rules won’t allow it. In essence, then, PAISA has taught us that the top-down decision making governance system in education has resulted in a mismatch between school level needs (even of the most basic things like inputs) and actual expenditure.

The lack of clarity of roles, overlap of decision making powers, external distortions, over centralization, mismatch between demand and supply plague the management practices. These are also again the nuts and bolts called the state capacity which is essential to operate an organization or a policy.

In summary, the discussion above t explored the challenges in the implementation of  programs through the example of Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) and the issues in the administration of organization and decision making structures through the example of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). In the presence of these core issues, even well intentioned and essential policies may not succeed in demonstrating their true effect. For example, it is one thing to realize the need for diagnostic assessments as discussed in the theme on Pedagogy-Curriculum-Assessments. It is another to do in depth research on the pedagogy aspect of it but implementing these in the existing system is another dimension altogether which can alone make or break the ideas.

Three ways to understand state capacity

In the introductory post, we understood state capacity as the invisible glue responsible for functioning of the system. It’s s the nuts and bolts of the system which may not be visible to naked eye but are responsible for holding everything together. It’s like the soul which gives life to the collection of individual entities of the body – heart, lungs, kidneys etc.

State capacity was also understood as the capacity of the state to implement its policies. We discussed two aspects of it - (i) ensuring the successful implementation of a policy, through the example of CCE and; (ii) Inefficiencies in the flow of funds and inefficient decision making structures.

The third way to understand ‘state capacity’ is as the ‘Why of everything’. Pedagogy isn’t appropriate, teachers aren’t putting efforts, students don’t attend schools regularly, learning outcomes of children are poor, and there are huge inefficiencies in the process flow and many other apparent problems. One level of realization is the recognition of these problems but the other level is about ‘Why’ – Why is that the system is the way it is, despite knowing these problems? It may be true that the pedagogy isn’t appropriate but what is in the system which is not recognizing the problem and what is it in the system which is keeping it moving without addressing this problem?[iv] How is that these issues have remained unaddressed since long? The incapability to recognize and adapt is also a feature of weak state capacity.


The macro level evidence says that the weak state capacity is manifested in visible forms of teacher absenteeism and lack of teacher efforts. Successful programmes are being productive outside the regular schooling system when implemented by the same regular teachers but aren’t being productive when they are implemented by the same teachers within in the regular school system. Within the regular school system, changing incentives is leading to outcomes, as compared to status quo.

The micro level evidence says that there is lack of proper implementation of policies. At the end of the day, any idea is as good as its implementation. The expenditure management and other processes are riddled with inefficiencies, and the decision making structures aren’t conducive to address the local needs.

State capacity is often discussed from the perspective of implementation issues, similar to the second way of understanding. This looks at state capacity as a separate issue separate from those of pedagogy, low pay to teachers and other issues. The third way of understanding the state capacity as the ‘why of everything, the capability to recognize and adapt looks at state capacity an umbrella reason responsible for the other visible problems recognizes that weak state capacity is the core of all the problems. If only, we had strong state capacity, the programs would have gotten implemented well. If only we had strong state capacity then the issues related to pedagogy and others would have been recognized and efforts would have been made to address them.

Seen together with both the macro evidence and micro evidence, weak state capacity is the critical constraint in the Indian public school education system today, the core reason for many other visible and invisible issues. We still have a long way to go to address this and as usual, the first step should start with the recognition that weak state capacity is the core of everything and is the critical constraint.

Four 'not so critical' constraints

The sections above discussed the macro level evidence and micro level evidence to and concluded that weak state capacity is the critical constraint in the Indian public school system currently. Sometimes it looks obvious. Who denies that there should be capability to implement? Who denies that nuts and bolts are as essential as everything else? Who denies that recognizing issues and addressing them is important? All of these make intuitive sense and some might argue that one doesn’t need evidence to make such an obvious point. It isn’t actually as obvious as it looks.

It is important to note that we are discussing the ‘critical constraint’ here and not just the constraints. On a broader level, as discussed in the education diagnostics chart, every aspect is necessary and essential. Lack of any of these will become a constraint and in real world, it is possible that there is scope for improvement in all the aspects related to school education. The difference here is whether it is the identification of the issue which is the root cause and not merely a symptom. It is necessary to deal with symptoms as well but the problem here being, there is always a limited bandwidth in the policy discourse and hence prioritization of issues is important.

A simple thumb rule to identify the critical constraint as perceived by people is to just ask them, what do you think is the major problem with the public school education today?  There are four common answers which occupy the major part of the discourse on school education reform and in practice.

Lack of infrastructure: Lack of infrastructure is the most visible of all the problems and hence tends to occupy significant part of the discourse and policy priorities, partly because of its high visibility and is easy to execute and demonstrate. There is no evidence to clearly demonstrate that any of this has led to improvement of student outcomes. This doesn’t mean that infrastructure shouldn’t be built. It only means that this is not the critical constraint blocking the performance of the system and hence we shouldn’t be carried away with the progress on infrastructure aspect or over emphasize it in the policy discourse.

Contract teachers: When asked about the evolution of the public school education in India, often some people comment that government couldn’t keep up with the rising enrolments and resorted to appointing contract teachers and para teachers. This led to de professionalization of education negatively affecting the learning outcomes of the children. If the para teachers are responsible for the poor outcomes of children, then the outcomes of students taught by para teachers should be lower than those taught by the regular teachers.

A large scale field trial was conducted in Andhra Pradesh to explore this question. The evaluation[v] reports “We present experimental evidence from an 'as is' expansion of the existing contract teacher policy, implemented by the AP Government in a randomly selected subset of 100 schools among a representative sample of schools in rural AP. We find that adding a contract teacher significantly improved average learning outcomes in treatment schools, and that contract teachers are no less effective in improving student learning than regular teachers who are more qualified, better trained, and paid five times higher salaries. Thus, the strong beliefs embedded in the education policies of many developing countries that contract teachers are (a) ineffective, and (b) inferior to civil-service teachers (even if effective), are not supported by our evidence.”

The hypothesis that hiring contract teachers led to poor outcomes doesn’t hold against this evidence. If regular teachers and contract teachers are performing similarly in the status quo, then even if all the contract teachers are replaced with regular teachers, the situation wouldn’t have been any better.

Why are regular teachers not any better than the contract teachers who are often under paid and paid only a fraction of the salary that the regular teachers are paid? The answer again goes back to the weak state capacity, a system which doesn’t help people contribute to their maximum extent.

Teacher Pay: Pay to teachers is also cited as one of the common reasons. The fact being the regular teachers all the regular teachers in public school system today receive salaries of the levels of sixth pay commission. Also, if the pay was the core issue then in the study above, regular teachers would have performed better than those receiving only fraction of their salaries.

Passionate people: Lack of passionate people is the often recurring argument across sectors. We need passionate people in politics. We need passionate people as lawyers. We need passionate people as doctors. We need passionate people in bureaucracy. The argument that it is the lack of passion which is the core issue is misleading on two fronts.

One, as discussed in the macro level evidence, even the regular teachers are being effective when working outside the system and the programs successful outside the regular system are failing inside the system and the same regular teachers are performing better when the incentive systems are changed. This clearly shows that lack of passion isn’t a critical issue. Even from a practical sense, finding so many passionate people to fill up all the posts is practically unfeasible. Even if one could do that, weak state capacity and poor incentives means that this passion will die out soon.

Two, focus on only passion as the crucial requirement assumes that constraint is with the people in the system and not the system. A good system is not one which relies on the extremes to perform; it is the one where even the average people are helped to perform to their maximum potential. The current system is exhausting even to the extremes, leave alone bringing up the average people.

This doesn’t mean that infrastructure is unnecessary or we don’t need to pay teachers or we don’t need passionate people. All of these are necessary and can be the constraints but they aren’t the critical constraints. By all means, these should be done as much as the resources permit but portraying these issues as the critical issues, prioritizing them over everything else is an incorrect diagnosis of the situation. It takes the focus away from the root cause and umbrella reason for many issues, the weak state capacity.

One may not have readily available solutions to enhance the state capacity but the one thing that we could immediately do is to decrease the emphasis on the arguments like above, pause before celebrating the pay rise and improving infrastructure, giving more space to the issue of ‘state capacity’ in the policy discourse because lack of recognition of this problem is itself alarming.

1 Duflo, E, Berry, J, Mukerji, S and Shotland, M, 2014. A Wide Angle View of Learning: evaluation of the CCE and LEP Programmes in Haryana, 3ie Grantee Final Report. New Delhi: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)
[ii] Report of CABE Sub-Committee on Assessment & Implementation of CCE & NO Detention Provision (Under the RTE ACT 2009).
[iii] “Money Matters: PAISA and the ASER survey” – Yamini Aiyar, Director, Accountability Initiative
[iv] Arguments inspired from Lant Pritchett’s lecture at the inauguration of RISE program.
[v] "Contract Teachers: Experimental Evidence from India" Karthik Muralidharan, Venkatesh Sundararaman

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