First step to education reform— break the vicious cycle of slow pace of reform

“In a world of limited resources…..” is a commonly cited term in education especially by economists. Everyone takes this as a given, and then approach reform with this presumption. It isn’t hence surprising that ideas for reform which presume limited resources (and efforts by the government) come up with ideas which only have an incremental impact at the best. For instance, the problem of teacher absence is approached by trying to give monetary incentives for attending the school. Such interventions presume the impossibility of governments to make teachers follow the rules. Once in a while, officials like these who take their task seriously, remind us that addressing this challenge is less about technical design of incentives and more about ‘getting things done’.

On observing closely, we note that the root cause is not actually the case of limited resources, it’s the limited political will, reflected in insufficient allocations, weak monitoring etc. The governments with limited will would say—all my money is tied up, how should I adjust others to get money for education. The answer to such question is always a ‘No — there’s no bandwidth for extra money’. The other approach, the one taken by a government with strong will would be

I am first setting aside x% of money for education. How can I adjust the rest money for rest priorities?
I know that allocations don’t mean outcomes but I am trying to make a point here. By the way, in some countries, even getting the required allocations is a big deal, leave alone thinking of how to spend them.
The argument is that most of such problems that are made out to be seemingly insurmountable are only narratives of governments with weak desire for action — they are just alibis or justifications.
Why are such narratives or alibis a problem? It’s because prolonged periods of inaction following from a weak will, results in the following:

1.      Prolonged periods of limited political will is the slowing down of the pace of reform.
It takes ages to get even small thing done. Well, isn’t actually the way the governments function — slow and steady? What’s the problem? Problem is …..
2Slow pace of reform results in crowding out of higher order reforms in the discourse by the small yet immediate needs.
In contexts with slow pace of reform, the problem identification — resolution cycles are long. Only way to get every single minute problem (sometimes obvious) address is to highlighted, advocated for, fought for and its implementation be ensured.
For example, in contexts with slow pace of reform, one has to fight long even for ensuring textbooks and uniform to children. During such time, all the bandwidth in the policy discourse will be occupied by the issue of textbooks and uniforms, crowding out the higher order aspects that are beyond the textbooks, which need attention.
It’s painful to see enormous energies of smart people going into getting little things done, like getting free textbooks from government or sufficient allocations for small aspects etc. Such a waste of precious energy and zeal of motivated people. It can be better leveraged.
3. The other non-rival aspects become zero-sum games.
Should we have schools built? Yes. Should we give free textbooks to children? Yes. Should we give free nutritious food to children? Yes. All of these are fundamental prerequisites which might not be sufficient conditions. However, in contexts with slow pace of reform reflected in lack of attention and funds, each of the above items become a zero-sum game. Is it better to give textbooks or food?
The extension of basket of such prerequisites results in a battle of arguments among change advocates — some argue for teacher training as “the” important aspect and try to highlight that in the discourse, some argue for principal training as “the” important aspect and so on. Each of these people believe that the aspect they are advocating for is the most important thing and see it being neglected by the government and hence want to push that agenda as far as possible. It results in unnecessary friction. The truth being that all are necessary and all are to be done. Food shouldn’t come at the cost of textbooks, neither should teacher training come at the cost of principals’ training.
Our discourse should move ahead of these. We shouldn’t be wasting our energies fighting for the obvious.
4. Damage control becomes primary mode of occupation of change-makers and not constructive contribution.
In a context where government reduces funds for education, the first battle to be picked up is to fight the cuts in fund allocations. All the other important ideas that are to be pursued are crowded out by such actions of governments.
The collective effort of third and fourth phenomenon is that the discourse never gets past the prerequisites, the road after *addressing prerequisites*, which is the crucial part is always dark as we never reach there.
We should get over these problems as soon as possible and arrive at the higher order ‘good to have’ problems.
5. Incremental solutions become the norm
Prolonged periods of slow pace of reform forces people to believe that incremental change is the only way forward. Is that particularly a problem? Yes, it is. Because….
6. Comprehensive solutions which are supposed to be the norm become radical and unacceptable.
Unfortunately, the long term consequence of accepting incremental change as the norm makes people believe that such incremental mode of change is *only* the way forward. Gradually, this begins to mean as *comprehensive change shouldn’t be done*. It follows the logic of:
X isn’t possible to do — > X isn’t done till now — >X shouldn’t be done since X isn’t done till now.
This is the reason the attempts for comprehensive reform, as opposed to traditional incremental reform, are termed as radical, and are seen with suspicion.
7. Fundamentals are ignored in the quest for unique magical solutions
As discussed, the prolonged inaction on fundamentals mean that they become the not-to-venture areas. Subsequently, they are excluded from the radar of policy discourse or proposals for reform. Instead, a quest for ‘ideas’ and ‘solutions’ emerge, glossing over these fundamentals.
One day, I had a good fortune of listening to some expert thinking out loud onideas for reform. The thinking process was —
I should make myself stand out from others proposing solutions. Let me come up with a unique idea which no one has proposed before.
At times, so-called unique ideas emerging out of such thinking aren’t rooted in genuine necessity of such idea or the feasibility and promise of change through that. Such attempts are more of attention seeking exercise by trying to come up with new idea and sounding unique. Such ideas are also in good demand because governments are also in search of exactly such silver bullets, something unique, especially if it’s a bureaucrat who wants to get something to his/her credit before she moves on to another job by next year! One reinforces the other. Such ideas are of no practical significance.
8. Shrinking of imagination.
Accepting incremental change as the norm also shrinks the imagination of what can be done. Imagination gets restricted to incremental changes, in the process you become less ambitious, which is harmful.
The only people that benefit from such situations are researchers. It’s a fertile ground for ideas to tinker at margins, typically through incentives, read ‘RCTs’ or any other fancy ideas advocated by interest groups. In that context, WhatsApp groups for teachers seems to the new fad.
This is not a debate on the utility and role of RCTs or on ideas of any such stand alone incremental interventions. The point I am trying to make here is that meaningful change can never be achieved in long term through incremental approach alone, glossing over fundamentals or forcing oneself to carefully calibrate the trade-offs of the essential prerequisites — textbooks vs. uniform etc.
…the way out of the artificial scarcity of resources or initiatives is NOT the careful calibrating of trade-offs of each resource, NOT the incremental reforms which work around the problems by presuming them to be given constraints, NOT a quest for silver bullets and unique ideas.
The way out is rather to take the bull by its horns — STOP presuming the scarcity, instead increase the available pool (resources/will), and build from there. Don’t take the status quo for granted.
Didn’t we already improve the infrastructure, increase the enrollment? That didn’t result in outcomes. What’s then the utility of addressing the fundamentals?
It’s a fair point but there’s a difference. The earlier efforts were with the objective of ‘infrastructure’ and enrollment as the end goal. However, here, I am arguing that ‘outcomes’ is the end goal and to reach that end goal, one needs to solve the initial heap of visible problems, which are prerequisites for further action, so as to reach a stage of having ‘good-to-solve’ problems. It’s good to have finer aspects of learning as the immediate challenges rather than having lack of toilets as the challenge that needs all our immediate attention. That apart
addressing fundamentals also helps in creating buy-in from personnel (teachers especially) and removes the scope of alibis.
What does that mean? For instance, you visit a school and find that a teacher is teaching a class of 80. You also figure out that students don’t know much. The immediate defense of a teacher is — how can I possibly teach a class of 80 students effectively?
Now, you identify the reason — lack of teacher’s efforts or despite the teacher’s efforts. May be the class size is being used as an alibi by the teacher to justify the non-performance. May be the teacher is struggling hard but class size is the culprit. To the teacher who may be using class size as an alibi, you can’t cite studies on reducing class sizes to tell the teacher — look reducing class size needn’t necessarily yield results. To the teacher who is struggling hard, you can’t tell her to achieve results without promising to reduce the class size.

Thus, addressing such fundamental issues removes the scope of alibis for non-performing teachers and helps create buy-in from teachers putting efforts.

If reducing class size is essential and you have to reduce the class size from 80 to a reasonable state at some point, do it now itself. Why calibrate its trade-offs with others? It’s a non-starter.
Just to be clear — large class sizes is only being taken as an example to illustrate. It doesn’t mean that this is actually a reality. One can take any other example. For instance, it's hard to demand sustained motivation from a teacher who travels 100 km daily to a school, only to face issues due to lack of toilets. No wonder that teachers who reported being happy with their job, in a survey, were the ones who were regularly absent to the school. The ones who attend the school reported being unhappy.

Unfortunately, focus on learning, is being understood in the sense that addressing these fundamental issues is unimportant. Both have to go alongside.
What is the relevance of all the complaining above? What’s the take policy take-away?
The eternal question of every government is — what should we do regarding education? This question is surprising and alarming.
The question is surprising because in case of any typical government in a non-developed country, there is a list of long problems that are known and visible. For instance — ensuring teacher attendance, ensuring that there are no delays in flow of funds, functioning toilets for girls in schools, timely delivery of teacher salaries, timely delivery of necessary academic material to schools, setting up fair and transparent systems for teacher transfers, setting up systems for documenting relevant data and so on. None of these require any fancy special external expert inputs. Even if it’s required, it’s minimal. Majorly, it’s just a matter of getting things done, which of course involves painful and boring job of cleaning up rules and regulations and weeding out inefficiencies. To be fair, some initiatives like ensuring teachers’ attendance in contexts with strong teacher unions requires action on political front but again it’s not a case that requires expert assistance. Solution has to be evolved by the politicians. Despite such long list of problems the question of what should we do? is surprising, as if there are no known problems.
The question “What should we do?” is alarming because the question signifies the neglect of the already existing large elephants in the room. In other words, it indirectly either doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the above listed problems or it signifies a thinking that the above mentioned problems are unsolvable and that the government of the day has internalized these problems to be the constraints which have to be worked around with and not be addressed. When an expert is asked this question — what should we do, it is often with the interest of knowing a single or few big ideas that could yield results, despite the above constraints. Nothing sustaining can be built on such shaky fundamentals and searching for solutions ignoring these is alarming.
So, the takeaways for governments in similar contexts as above are as follows
1. Don’t ignore the visible trivial problems. Don’t presume them as unsolvable and take them as given constraints and try to work around them. Remember that you cannot run away from them.
2. Move quickly — address the first order problems at hand as soon as possible — keep a keen eye on new problems that surface and address them too — progress to a stage beyond all these first order and second order problems where you are confronted with the higher order, good to have problems. Experts are helpful only at this stage and experts should also realize this.
3. ‘Learning’ is the final goal: It’s easy to get carried away by other metrics, mistake efforts for results and get complacent. Don’t get complacent till you reach the final goal.
It may sound counter-intuitive but the first step towards shifting the focus to learning has to be to focus on the fundamentals so that the discourse moves beyond it towards the abstractions of learning.
In summary, having a strong commitment — no alibi attitude, singular focus on the goal (learning — to be specific), quickly addressing all the visible problems steadily progressing to address problems of higher order, while continuously learning and adapting along the path. It’s the true way forward and only it can achieve results in a reasonable time frame; not by ignoring the elephants in the room, not through incremental interventions. Don’t ask — what to do! There’s already a lot to do and most of them don’t need specific advice on how to do.

Appendix: Checklist of first order problems — fundamentals — essential prerequisites
Some may still ask — what are the first order problems? Sharing a generic tentative list below
1.      Do your teachers attend school regularly?
2.      How long does it take for the funds to reach the schools?
3.      How long does it take for the textbooks and uniform to reach the schools?
4.      If there’s a requirement in the school, how long does it take to get it fixed?
5.      What’s the participation of community in the school? — how often do the parents visit the schools?
6.      Do your teachers, principals and other personnel encounter any pressing problems (according) in the process of performance of their duty? If yes, how many of them are genuine and did you resolve them?
7.      Are all positions adequately staffed? What’s the life-cycle of recruitment process of personnel?
8.      Do your teachers feel that they are receiving the training that they need?
9.      Are kids healthy?
10.  Do you have proper data gathering mechanism (administrative, learning) that can give you reliable data at any given point of time?
11.  What’s your mechanism to collect feedback (qualitative and quantitative) or get information on issues from the ground/field?
12.  Do you have a fair and transparent mechanism to decide transfers of personnel?
One can add more to the list. Needless to mention — addressing these problems needn’t guarantee outcomes. They are called first-order for a reason.

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