[UnpackED - 4] Strategy for Indian public education reform

The strategy for Indian public education reform should incorporate the three lessons from previous attempts to reform.

1. No piecemeal reforms. Pursue reforms across wide range.
2. Don't prematurely overload the system. Start simple as per capacity of system. 
3. Don't rely excessively on figuring out workarounds.
4. Think in terms of enhancing capacity, not implementing programmes
5. Don't follow post-office style functioning. Shape norms of education bureaucracy making them conducive to deliver education.

The first step is initiate reforms across wide range. How do we then now the sectors where reforms are to be initiated? We can surely list some of them but listing all may not be possible. Hence, one should use a probe to identify the constraints. This probe should be an intervention aiming at outcomes. On implementing it, we come across the constraints involved in making the system work towards achieving outcomes.

We learnt in second lesson that we shouldn't prematurely overload the system. Hence, this probe should work even in contexts with weak capacity. Pratham's TaRL model suits the specifications of the probe. It's so simple that even 10th grade pass volunteers could use it. Further, it's effectiveness in promoting outcomes is tested and proven by numerous RCTs, satisfying our "outcome" criteria.

The third, fourth and fifth lessons should be kept in mind while implementing this intervention. During the process of implementation, if one realises that textbook delivery is being delayed, one should fix the issues causing delay, instead of resorting to temporary workarounds. If one realises that teachers are not taking this seriously because they are another original mandate of completing the syllabus, such requirement can be done away with. The nature of functioning of academic support personnel can be shaped using this.

If one realises that lack of good role models is the issue, this can be worked out by providing exposure to children. If parent's engagement is weak, efforts can be made to improve the functioning of SMCs and so on.

It should be noted that most of these responsibilities should be devolved to local levels. Ideally, nothing above district level should be involved in this except for overseeing. This has to be coupled with human management strategies. For instance, it's difficult to motivate teachers if they are facing any pressing issues. To bring people on board, one can first talk to teachers, address their problems and thus build a relationship of reciprocity.

Finally, it's important to note that this form of reform is only temporary. It's only till the clogs are cleared in the system, basic things are in place and till the system reaches acceptable levels of capacity. Once that's done, local institutions can be given freedom to pursue their own way. By this time, we would have enhanced the adaptive capacity of the systems. So, the progress goes on.

The advantage of pursuing reform in this manner is that it doesn't leave out any input required for ensuring outcomes. Focusing on the outcome surfaces the constraints and capacity building approach helps people to resolve it in appropriate manner.

Further, this approach disentangles the phrase "focus on outcomes". This phrase has become common parlance these days but it is also being misinterpreted. Some interpret as a recommendation to not focus on any other input to education process. Governments' efforts in infrastructure, motivation building etc. are considered as distraction. The "focus on outcomes" approach interestingly is leading to same age old practices of quest for right pedagogical models and scaling them up. It's because pedagogy is proximate factor in causal link ensuring outcomes. The approach discussed helps us to overcome these traps.

Contrast this with the policy recommendations provided in form of laundry list of tasks to be done. It leaves out many inputs required to ensure outcomes. The diversity of contexts mean that some of these may not be applicable to all cases. Further, resolving individual constraints in silos doesn't channelise the gains into outcomes but focusing on outcomes and resolving constraints faced does.

One can observe that this form of reform doesn't involve specific actionable policy recommendations. It's because the nature of education is such. Recommending bullet points is easy but is misleading. It necessarily needn't lead to outcomes. For a long-lasting reform, one has to essentially pursue own path, continuously adapting in the process, with focus on outcomes.

Having said this, one should also specify four important points. 

One, political will is needed for the reform. Initiating reforms across a wide range of domains isn't an easy task. It can't be driven by top bureaucrat's initiative alone. It's necessary to overcome the political opposition if any. Also, it's required to send a strong message across the bureaucracy to motivate them.

Two, progress fast. The slower one moves, the more complicated things seem. If one's moving fast, then minor deficiencies don't seem prominent. Else, every minor issue gets magnified, seems prominent. The need for most controlled studies aiming to explore individual constraints arose out of slow progress of reform. If reform was fast, questions like should we have toilets or textbooks wouldn't have been a matter of discussion.

Three, basic law and order should be in place. Law and order is a pre requisite for functioning of a civilised society. A poor law and order situation hampers education in numerous ways. It decreases the general seriousness of people towards their duties. It hampers transport of children and so on. Most importantly, a district administration busy with firefighting law and order won't have bandwidth to lead a protracted reform.

Four, this form of reform may not be applicable to tribal areas or violence affected areas. In such cases, bringing all students together to a central place and delivering education through a residential school is the best way forward. Dantewada administration has done excellent work on these lines. It can serve as a basic template and inspiration.


As a citizen, how to know if a government is pursuing right education reform?

In response to criticism on lack of governments' efforts towards reform, governments often lists a set of "schemes" they are pursuing. It is argued that all these numerous initiatives are being taken, displaying their sincerity and commitment. This is not just true for current era governments. Such defence could be put out by any government at any point in time because there will be a set of government schemes at any given point of time. But, as we all know, all of these don't necessarily mean outcomes. How do we then know if a government is pursuing right reform? Here are few metrics 

1. Outcome focused: Governments pursuing right reform will have outcome focused. You can check this in the way they phrase their aims. If their primary initiatives have goals like reducing dropout etc, then they are not pursuing the right path.

You should feel that all the initiatives of government are channelising towards outcomes. If government lists distribution of tablets and computers to schools, construction of xyz schools as their top schemes, without any mention of outcomes, it means that there is no plan to channelise efforts towards outcomes.

2. Reform across a wide range of domains: Governments serious about reforming education will initiate efforts across a wide range of domains. They won't pursue the path of one constraint at a time.

3. Decentralisation: Serious reform involves elements of decentralisation. Without this, a large scale reform of the nature required in education isn't possible.

4. Strong communication highlighting the importance of education and motivating bureaucracy: A serious reform isn't possible with strong communication highlighting the purpose and motivating the employees. You find important political leaders constantly engaging with teacher community, addressing their problems and motivating them.

A strong communication is also important to create a perception of good aura about government schools to break some of the notions about government schools. It also signals the improvement in government schools making people hopeful. Essentially, parents should feel hopeful about sending their kids to government schools.

5. Education reflected in budget priorities: Mere increase in funding may not lead to outcomes. But, money is crucial if one is going for a reform across wide sectors. Allocating significant share of budget for education requires placing education over other priorities of government. It's a signal of the seriousness and intent of the government.

So, is your government pursuing a serious reform? Which state government in India do you think is close to doing the right form of reform?




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[UnpackED - 3] Why do the best of India's private schools fare below average globally?

The first and second posts discussed various issues with the education reform in India. These involved monitoring mechanisms, providing required resources to schools, governance issues etc. All these problems is necessitated because government requires a bureaucracy to administer large number of schools.

Corporate schools don't all these governance and other issues like uneducated parents etc. They should then have been providing the best quality education in the world. But, an assessment finds that students of top Indian private schools are only at an average level on global level (PISA scores). Why is that so?

It's because of two reasons: low expectations from the system and lack of a general environment valuing critical thinking.

Low expectations from system: Good performance can arise in two ways, through self-motivation or through an external pressure. Schools of former category are rare anywhere in the world. Most schools perform as per expectations set for them.

In India, 10th board exams set the expectations of standards for schools. Schools do all that's necessary to enable their students to perform well in these exams. If board exams demand rote learning, schools promote rote learning. If board exam asks questions on critical thinking, schools work on critical thinking. 

Unfortunately, board exams in India are of poor quality, which percolates down to schools through expectations set for them and into teaching practices.

Solution - Reform board exams; introduce basic an advanced version for each subject

The straight forward solution is to then enhance the quality of board exams. Some critics might driving expectations through board exams only institutes teaching to the test and that true learning is not possible through this. This is however not true.  

One, teaching to the test already exists in India. In a developing nation with aspiring parents, there will always be competition to excel well in studies, as board exams signal the capability of the student. This is a stepping stone for future career and is tied up with future significant economic prospects of the children. Hence, parents aren't going to stop doing this. It is impractical in such context to ask people without any security to not focus on marks and study for the sake of pleasure. Instead, we should build on this instrumental purpose of education to imbibe necessarily skills.

Two, if a test is designed properly that doesn't allow people with superficial understanding to get through, the process of preparing for such test itself builds those skills. IIT - JEE exam is a good example for this. The very fact that this exam tests the real understanding of the student, they prepare accordingly.

The other concern with improving quality of board exams is that many students without access to proper resources may fail. This is especially problematic because board exam is used for multiple purposes by the people. Some use it to just get minimum qualifications so that they can pursue some vocational education or alternate career. Some use it to signal their capability, to distinguish themselves from others. Both these purposes can't be solved by the same exam. If we make the exam too tough, people who are using this for qualification purpose lose out. If we make it too easy, every scores high marks and the marks lose the signalling value. 

Additionally, increase in quality can lead to significant resistance from students who lose out.

We can address this issue by conducting two exams for each subject - basic version and advanced version. Students will have choice to choose either of these for each individual subject. One can choose advanced version in Telugu and basic version in Social Studies and so on. Students who want to use board exam for qualification purpose can use the basic version. Others can take advanced version.

There's one issue with this. If passing the advanced version of course is made an eligibility criteria for further education, it leads to sorting at early age disadvantaging people. Hence, it should be strictly mandated that the version of course shouldn't be considered as an eligibility criteria for further education. 

Gradually, as the education improves, one can narrow the gap between basic and advanced versions of the exam.

General environment of society that reinforces conformity and non-critical thinking: Critical thinking, scientific temper etc are not just concepts confined to academics. It's a way of life. Our actions in life outside academics also have impact on the way we think. I don't think this needs to be mentioned but one can easily understand that the current state of society is not conducive to such form of thinking.

Hence, people commanding respect in society have a responsibility to emphasise and communicate the importance of the values of critical thinking and scientific temper.


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[UnpackED - 2] Why do governments do what they do regarding education?

The first post discussed the reasons for unsuccessful translation of governments' efforts to outcomes, in education domain. We discussed that it's primarily due to the way governments pursue reforms. This post discusses the factors that drive governments to pursue those modes of reform.

On Quantity - Reasons for fragmented and piecemeal reform

The first post identified fragmented and piecemeal approach to reform trying to address only one constraint at a time, as one of the reasons. There are several factors that drive governments to pursue this form of reform.

First, a combination of scale of the problem and lack of conducive atmosphere for widespread reforms. Each of the individual constraints in education are significant enough, especially when done at scale. Pursuing multitude of such reforms huge bandwidth of attention. In contexts, where a conducive environment is not present for this, often a result of weak political will, reform is often bureaucrat driven. Given these constraints, bureaucrats choose only one or two things to pursue and focus all their energies on them.

While the first reason has to do with the constraints in the system that lead to piecemeal policies, the other following reasons are to do with the mental models used in analysing reform and language used in communicating reform proposals.

Second, information feeds to policy that use diagnostic framework to analyse education. Have you ever heard of statements like "the main problem is lack of motivation in teachers", "good teacher training and headmaster training are lessons that we can learn from xyz country." This is what I call, a diagnostic framework of analysis. In diagnostic framework, root cause is attributed to one or two specific components (notice the emphasis on "main problem" in "main problem is teacher motivation"). Sometimes, it becomes a laundry list of suggestions that are to be done.

On the face of it, there seems to be nothing wrong with these statements. No one can deny that lack of teacher motivation affects their performance. No one can deny that a good teacher training and headmaster training are essential for a high performing system.

However, the problem with phrasing constraints in this manner is that it leads to piecemeal reforms. If one says that "xyz is the main problem", all the attention in discourse is driven only to this particular issue, leaving other issues unattended. In reality, we need many other along with xyz.

Further, there are two more issues with diagnostic mode of analysis:

i) it emphasises symptoms rather than causes. For instance, diagnostic only points out xyz as a constraint but it doesn't ask, what's the reason for this, why isn't addressed till now? Often the underlying causes for emergence of xyz constraint are also responsible for emergence of many other constraints. By emphasising only this particular xyz, we are crowding out other constraints. 

ii) it communicates necessity to initiate efforts on an issue but conceals the how aspect of it. "We should do teacher training", "we should do headmaster training" etc are the common suggestions, one notices. The point is that the issue is not with the lack of recognition of necessity of teacher training but with the way we do it. If the suggestion is to do teacher training, a teacher training is done to tick a checklist without regards to the way its done.

Thus, by feeding information into policy phrased in a particular manner using diagnostic framework, we are concealing the real issues.

Few other factors make people to phrase policy recommendations in this particular manner. Experts have what I call, expertise bias. It means that experts point only those things as constraints which they are experts in, and suggest recommendations on only those things which they are experts in. Someone tells to do teacher training, some tells to change pedagogy and so on. But no one tells to do everything!

Sometimes bureaucrats also constrain people to recommend policies in a diagnostic framework. Suggestions related to strategy and mental models leading to inappropriate policies is discarded as theory that's not useful for policy purposes. They demand "concrete actionable policy suggestions". It results in a policy recommendations in form of laundry list of individual components of education that are to be focussed upon.

On a related noted, some times the misconceptions regarding policy constraints like teacher salary, guest teachers also feed into policy diverting the attention from others to these specific individual items. Karthik Muralidharan notes that sometimes people just visit few schools and if they notice something like lack of basic things like textbooks, it registers strongly in their memory. A "need for closure" tendency that forces brain to quickly come to a solution aids this process. They then come back and popularise the notion that lack of textbooks is the single biggest constraint in education. Such discourse also drives one piece at a time approach (FYI: Many studies proved that textbooks aren't necessarily the major constraint).

Third, selling problems vs. selling solutions. Lant Pritchett illustrates it using a simple exercise . Simply ask yourselves - "what is the problem you are trying to solve?" Most people come up with statements like "lack of teacher training". Then write down a solution to your problem. If you defined problem as "lack of teacher training", your solution will be "teacher training". Now, write other solutions to your problem. If you have defined teacher training as the problem, you can't write anything else.

Lant Pritchett calls this as selling solutions. You wanted to sell the solution of teacher training, hence you defined the problem as lack of teacher training. The actual problem with education is lack of outcomes. If you define problem in this manner, you can list multiple solutions, apart from teacher training.

One can observe that the solution selling phenomenon leads to emphasis only on few aspects, crowding out others. It finally ends up in fragmented, piecemeal approach to reform.

Four, focus on intermediate outcomes. One of the effects of diagnostic framework of analysis and selling solutions is that governments tend to focus on intermediate outcomes and not final outcome. It is common for many district collectors and state governments to start efforts with "reducing dropout" as final motto. When your final aim is defined as reducing dropouts, it reduces your efforts on all the other things required for final outcome.

Five, misinterpretation of RCTs. The fragmented approach existed much before RCTs but it's getting strengthened due to misunderstanding of RCTs. There are many RCTs in education that consider individual inputs to education (infrastructure, libraries, textbooks, SMCs) and test the effect of addressing them, in a controlled environment. They often don't show positive results. These results are often used by people to criticise efforts on these fronts. It's a misinterpretation of RCT result because the result says that working on libraries alone won't yield results, but it's interpreted as never construct libraries.

The RCT literature is also a part of the problem. Many define the utility of RCTs as follows "governments have limited resources, so we strive to find the initiatives that can maximise the outcome". Framing problems in this manner legitimises the limited resources condition of government. Most often, the limited resources is a function of governments' will and hence can be increased. RCTs take this limited resources as a given and go in search of one particular intervention that yields outcome. Phrasing solutions in form of one particular intervention dilutes the necessity to work on other constraints, leading to fragmented and piecemeal reform.

One piece at a time, diagnostic framework to identify constraints etc. are useful for questions like "What's wrong with my car?", where there are probably only one or two problems. It's not for complex issues like education that involve multiple inputs. Further, there are no meta-problems in cars, meaning there are no such fundamental issues that give rise to numerous other issues. Also, few problems don't mix up to lead to new problems. It isn't the case with education. The underlying meta-problems, a source for the visible constraints exist and few problems can mix up to create new problems. We need a more in-depth analysis here.

On Quality - Reasons for improper implementation 

The first post outlined four reasons for poor quality of reform - i) mismatch between nature of governance required and governance practiced; ii) overlaying scale-ups over weak systems; iii) premature loading of system; iv) focusing programme implementation focus over resolving constraints.

Translating traditional understanding of accountability is the factor that leads to first issue. Programme mode of thinking instead of capacity mode of  thinking is the reason for rest three.

Many problems with government are usually linked to lack of accountability. In daily life parlance, accountability means finding if someone has done something wrong and punishing them for that. This identify and punish approach presumes that we can identify and we can punish. This approach fails when applied to education domain because it's difficult to identify the wrong (outcomes only appear after long time), difficult to monitor because there's no one standard way of teaching against which teacher can be measured. Since this fails, all such dynamic, engagement-intensive tasks are converted to those amenable to rule based monitoring.

Some of this is also reflected in the way some think about the education governance drawing inferences from elections. Some remark that bureaucracy can implement elections because responsibilities are clearly assigned and accountability is fixed. They strive to implement the same in education. As discussed earlier, this usually fails.

All these together lead to a post-office style functioning in education bureaucracy.

The driving factor for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th reasons for poor quality of reform is the programme mode of thinking. Programme mode of thinking is when you immediately think of a programme that can address a particular constraint. This leads to premature loading of systems because this thinking disregards capacity constraints. It leads to repeated imposition of scale-ups because the diagnosis of failure is always attributed to programme. Finally, it leads to temporary workarounds because programme is important here and not resolving constraints.

Instead of programme approach of thinking, we need a capacity approach of thinking. When faced with a constraint, unlike programme approach that thinks of a programme, capacity approach asks the following questions - i) what's the reason behind this problem; ii) what's the nature of capacity required to address this constraint? (increasing SMC involvement requires different type of capacity, teacher training requires different type of capacity and so on); iii) what's the extent of capacity required?

If Finland is revamping curriculum to teach students in terms of themes instead of subjects, before prescribing it, you think of the nature of capacity and extent of capacity required to carry out that reform. While dealing with teacher training, instead of thinking of it in terms of a usual programme implementation, you think of the capacity required and take steps accordingly. This prevents it from being a rule based task.

Thinking in these terms can thus prevent the the trap of programme mode of thinking. Also, read Gulzar Natarajan's insightful post titled "Why do we gloss over state capability deficiencies?" for reasons that span across sectors.

Overall, we can observe that inappropriate mental models and world views are the factors driving the inappropriate nature of reform. Hence, disentangling these models should be the first step towards reform. Unfortunately, this doesn't involve actionable policy recommendations, the only requirement of some, but this is much more powerful than that.

Till now, we have discussed i) why governments' efforts to reform education not yield results?; ii) why do governments do what they do regarding education. Both of these dealt only with public education. The next post will deal with private education. It addresses the question - Why do our private schools not perform better despite not having all the issues of public sector discussed in 1st and 2nd posts.

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[UnpackED - 1] Why do governments' efforts to reform education not yield outcomes?

[This is 200th post on my blog! Came a long way in 1.5 yrs]

This is the first post in the new blog series summarising arguments of my book "UnpackED-The black box of Indian school education reform". [Zeroth post here]

My book is a result of exploration of question "Why do governments' efforts to reform education not yield outcomes?". The standard explanations given to this question like - teacher training is broke, recruitment is broke etc. didn't satisfy me. This is an attempt to give a comprehensive answer to this question.

Governments' reforms to reform education don't yield outcomes because they lack quantity and quality. Quantity is about the "amount of reform", while quality is about the "quality of executing the reform". It may sound intuitive but it isn't. Let's explore each of these.

I. Quantity: Governments' follow a fragmented, piecemeal approach to reform. Only a few constraints are addressed at each point in time. Since, the effectiveness of these initiatives also depends on addressing other complementary constraints (that are left unaddressed), they don't yield outcomes. This is one of the reasons why many controlled experiments seeking to evaluate the effect of adding individual inputs of education (free textbooks, SMCs, infrastructure, diagnostic feedback etc) don't show outcomes.

Reforms, even if incremental, across a wide range of connected domains are essential to translate efforts into outcomes.

II. Quality: Quality of reform is essentially about the "executing" the policy ideas. It is usually termed as "we need to get implementation right" or "we need to implement properly". However, these phrases conceal more than what they reveal. Weak implementation is certainly not the issue with education alone, it's prevalent across many sectors in India. Therefore, one has to identify specific mechanisms that lead to weak implementation and not just simplistically term it as an implementation issue.

The specific reasons for poor quality of reform in education are four fold: 

i) Mismatch between nature of governance required for education and the nature of governance being pursued: In education, the frontline worker (teacher) has to exercise discretion and has to continuously engage with the user (student) for long time. Tasks of this nature aren’t amenable to monitoring through strict rules and rigid mechanisms. This is unlike tasks like delivering post letters with low duration of contact with the user and involves less usage of discretion on postman’s part. Monitoring such tasks is amenable to rigid rules.

Tasks of former nature require fundamentally different form of governance that has more flexible and dynamic forms of bureaucratic interactions, unlike post office or conducting elections where standard operating procedures can be put in place.

The issue with quality of reform in India is that education is being governed with a mindset suitable for post-office like organisations. This primarily involves converting a dynamic, discretion involving, long contact duration task to a rule based task, stripping away the dynamism and discretion. This is reflected in several actions of governments.

For instance, providing academic support to teachers involves continuous long-time engagement with teachers and exercise of creative discretion by mentors in analysing teachers' classroom to provide feedback. Such task of dynamic nature is converted into tasks amenable to rule based monitoring, stripping away dynamism— data gathering, checking compliance of teachers with keeping records updated etc. Similarly, teacher monitoring is reduced to complying with “completion of syllabus”, a metric amenable to rule based monitoring.

It is no surprise that personnel in education bureaucracy feel that they are mere cogs in the wheel and their duty is just to follow instructions from above. There is evidence to suggest that states that enable local initiative and pursue dynamic informal bureaucratic norms at local level are more likely to have higher outcomes. Thus, reforms don’t yield outcomes if people who are supposed to use their discretion creatively are regimented to follow instructions from above.


ii) Overlaying pedagogy interventions over weak systems: Often, reform initiatives in education are reduced to incorporating pedagogy models from abroad or from within India. This presumes that pedagogy is the binding constraint and that if we provide ideal pedagogy to teachers, all problems would be solved.

Pedagogy scale-ups are thus parachuted into classrooms. These mostly fail because the system doesn't have the supporting structures like teacher training capacity etc to enable the intervention. When these scale-ups fail, the particular pedagogy is diagnosed as the issue, ignoring the real reason of the lack of supporting systems. This leads to another pedagogy intervention, which again ends up failing. This cycle goes on.

There is no dearth of good pedagogies. Given a good capacity system, all of them can be made to work out. The issue however is instituting these good capacity systems.

The real question is thus not what pedagogy models are to be parachuted but rather what enables the local systems to come up with methods suitable to them OR why could some local systems come up with innovative models but not others.

iii) Premature loading of system: Weak systems are loaded with programmes that require strong capacity to execute. For instance, CCE is a good idea but it requires strong capacity to execute. When the system is loaded with such complex interventions, it breaks down or doesn't show results. In some cases, such premature loading can lead to negative effects too.

While it's true that we don't always necessarily have the required capacity for interventions and that capacity can be built on the way, care should be taken so that the difference between the existing capacity and capacity required for executing the intervention is not very high. If it's going to take 20 years for the existing system to reach up to the required levels, we are essentially creating destruction during this period. One can rather start slow with simple interventions and gradually build up.

iv) Focus on programme implementation rather than addressing constraints: Often, initiatives to address constraints are pursued in terms of mission mode programmes. If this mission faces any constraints, temporary workaround solutions are employed to just get the task at hand done. For instance, if the programme is to built boundary walls and the money transmission systems are clogged; a temporary special mechanism of transfer is pursued, without addressing the real constraint of clogged money transmission systems. This way, the constraints in system remain forever, necessitating special mechanisms each time.

Overall, governments' efforts to reform education don't yield outcomes because of low quantity of reforms, inappropriate nature of education governance and inappropriate method of pursuing programme implementation with disregard to capacity constraints.

Many others can be pointed out as issues in education but they are symptoms rather than causes. They emanate from these fundamental reasons. There are also issues which are cited as critical constraints but they necessarily aren't - teacher salary, guest teachers etc.

One such often cited constraint, lack of political will, needs particular mention here. Refer the book for details on this. It's often remarked that lack of political will is the fundamental reason for failure of our public education. It's also remarked that it's because education isn't an electoral issue.

While it's true that political will is necessary, as I will argue in my next posts, citing this as fundamental issue brings several issues and doesn't address some questions. One, it attributes reason to something very abstract and unachievable in near future. Two, what happened to those cases when there was a political will? Many of the large interventions had political backup. Three, expecting governments to work on education only if there's an electoral incentive is futile. Election pressure works only in those cases where there exist clear solutions to a problem, government can solve the problems with short-duration reforms, government promises to do these, citizens can feel the change and track it. All these pre requisites aren't satisfied in education. There's no clear one magic wand or few bullet points to address education. It's a long term adaptive process requiring governments' attention throughout the period. Since, electoral pressure is not there round the clock, it requires government to work even in those times when no one cares about it. All of these require self-driven governments and not those who merely respond only when public asks. Such governments who respond only on public demand most probably will appear to do something, without doing the necessary hard work.

Hence, though I believe that political will is a necessary important ingredient, it doesn't completely explain the issues with education reform. One can pursue an inappropriate reform even with political will.

Now that we have established the issues with governments' approach to reform, the next post will deal with "Why do governments do what they do?", outlining the factors that drive this type of reform. Understanding these factors is essential to build strategy for reform.


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[UnpackED - 0] New short blogpost series summarising arguments of my book, "UnpackED"

For long, many people asked me to give one line summary of my book, to write a 750 word article, to give list of "actionable policy recommendations". But, I refused to simplistically reduce my arguments to fit into space, for the sake of convenience. It was mainly due to three reasons.

One,  the underlying theme of the arguments in my book is that the issue with education policy is with the mental models - the way we frame questions and the way we think about solutions. In order to internalise the problems with "ways of thinking", one needs to follow the train of thought and disentangle one's own mental cobwebs. This isn't going to happen with one sentence or few paragraphs.

Two, I used to reply - "Look. The origin of my book is an article. I once wrote an article. Some people called these as superficial arguments. I wrote the book building up the argument from first principles to explain all the details. Now, you are again asking me to get back to article."

Three, I also had a thought at the back of my mind that it's not worth persuading anyone who refuses to make the effort to read because they are not interested enough in education policy, and hence may not matter much.  

The reality slowly sinked in. There were a couple of epiphanies in the due course of time. 

One, not everyone who seems interested is not actually interested in the way I thought. They have just few concerns about the education because they passed through the system but they aren't interested enough to make effort to dissect their thoughts. 

Two, to build a broader discourse, the "concerned" but not "interested enough" people is the first layer to cut through. They act as a significant lever.

Three, I realised that I can convince "concerned but not interested" people if I get their 2 hours of dedicated attention. I did a couple of 2 hour talks, where this was highly applauded. But the point is that no one's going to give me 2 hours of their time to listen to my arguments. Dissemination is severely throttled due to this.

Four, even those who are concerned and interested enough in education policy are too fixated on their world views of education. Essentially, everyone has an agenda of what's to be done and busy promoting it. So, they wouldn't necessarily read something new unless it comes from a famous person. Since I am not famous, there's no way of getting the argument through this section of people.

Five, after examining several books, I realised that "few catchy phrases or lines" that a reader can take home after reading the book, is one of the reasons for their popularity. Only these phrases and lines are going to stay alive in the mainstream discourse. My book had few or none of them.

Six, when writing the book, I had no idea who my audiences are going to be. I never thought about it. I just wrote the book because I felt that those arguments are to be made. I felt like writing. It's something similar to this blog. I just write because I feel like writing, without any conscious effort to market it. Since I was writing with this framework, I didn't make a conscious effort to strategise modes of dissemination as per audience. No market segmentation.

Seven, I realised that there is a better way of phrasing the arguments that I made in the book.

Overall, the final point is that one can't escape away from 1 line summaries and 2 minute pitches. They are necessary to cut through all sections of people - concerned but not interested enough and concerned and interested enough.

So, I am attempting to rephrase the arguments of my book in four short blog posts. I am removing all the "important technical stuff" for the sake of convenience and presenting explanation only in layman terms. I am also removing many other additional topics discussed in the book; just sticking to what's "most important". Hopefully, after some time, I can squeeze these into one page note and finally into 1 sentence.

Links of blog posts below.

4. [UnpackED - 4] Strategy for Indian education reform

Sticking to the "42 blog marathon of one post a day" format that led to this book, I am going to do the same now. I will be posting these 4 blog posts over next four days.

Book Review: How China Escaped The Poverty Trap

The first part of the post had the summary of the book. This part has my comments on the book.

Lessons for India

1.  There’s no escape from decentralizationThis is a seemingly obvious point but all the actions of India’s politicians violate this cardinal principle. There’s an illusion that one can fix things with centralized structures. The sooner we realize the importance of decentralization and empowering the local governments, the better. Even in China, which is a one-party dictatorship, there is in fact a mixture of political centralization and economic decentralization.

China did this through incentivizing local bureaucratic heads, making them accountable for economic performance. India needn’t necessarily follow these precise policies but the general principle can be adopted. For instance, Indian mayors should be made more powerful, and be made responsible for city’s economic growth.


2. Don’t let identity aspects supersede other goals: One of the important lessons from the China’s experience is its laser focus on enhancing economic prosperity. As the book acknowledges, China could set this goal because of its political structure. In other societies, the process of setting up this goal is in the realm of politics, with competing goals.

In most developing countries, politics is not just an instrument to enhance economic prosperity; it is also a platform to negotiate, and also a mechanism to provide empowerment through participation. For instance, the prime issue of some elections need not be economic; it can just be a mere tussle for greater representation of certain communities and so on.

While the questions of identity are important and it’s good politics in long-term to negotiate these differences, one should not exploit these fissures deliberately for political purposes. It’s because once the identity issues become the prime issues, all other critical issues take a back seat. Most of the times, politicians activate these fissures for political purposes. It’s time to realize this and stop it.


 My comments

1. On harnessing weak institutions: I am deliberately playing a devil’s advocate to question the ‘harness weak institutions’ proposal. The counter question is ‘why not attempt to build strong institutions?’ to begin with.

To this, one may respond that institutions and markets have co-evolved in the past and hence they should be so in future. It may be true that markets and institutions co-evolved in the past but it raises two questions.

One, was the coevolution of market-institutions in the past out of necessity or with a complete knowledge of ideal institutions as a goal and with a prior strategy to reach that goal in incremental steps? If the evolution was out of necessity and was not part of a larger strategy with full realization of final goal, then this isn’t exactly the same case as present, when we have full knowledge of the future goal posts. Why should we re-invent the wheel then?

Why should the historical pattern that emerged out of necessity, be followed in the future too? What’s wrong with leapfrogging and creating strong institutions now, instead of waiting for institutions to mature? Will it lead to any repercussions?

Further, the situation in countries in India is not as bad as 1970s China where public bureaucrats are paid below minimum wage. Public employees in India are decently paid compared to the per-capita income. The low pay necessitating creation of other avenues for their income therefore is not a constraint.

One can now argue that proposals to build strong institutions may seem sensible but they don’t exactly layout how to do it?  It’s true that the prescription to build institutions doesn’t tell us what exactly to do but so is the case with the prescription to ‘harness weak institutions’. Ultimately, one has to figure these things out; no one can list them for all cases.

A further problem with the approach of ‘harnessing weak institutions’ is that it isn’t clear if it leads to positive outcomes in all cases. It can lead to creating huge entry barriers for many, keeping many prospective investors out of reach, as is the case with India currently. Such effects may have been less pronounced in case of China, because it was compensated by the strong incentives of bureaucrats to invite investors, which is not the case in all contexts.

Harnessing weak institutions can in fact turnout to be defense of the corrupt in the government, legitimizing their corruption.

Also, harnessing weak institutions inherently involves some amount of deviance from the ideal scenario. It may have worked in the past at times when the consensus on modern day governance principles of transparency, accountability etc., were less rigid and media is not as powerful as today. Today, such consensus is rigid. Any deviation from such consensus, even in good sense, is bound to attract media attention and the wrath of investigation agencies. The recent debate in India on punishing a bureaucrat for awarding coal mine licenses without following procedures is a case in point. The book also talks of similar instances in China. So, the question is – how can we do this in today’s world?

Finally, the prolonged weak institutions in India has resulted in a state of equilibrium where people have found a way around it to start businesses compelled by pressures to sustain themselves. If anything, countries like India might now be suffering from inefficiencies resulting from too much of harnessing weak institutions. The need of the hour is thus to transition to modern institutions and not more of harnessing weak institutions.


2. Petty corruption vs. Growth: The book posits that growth cures petty corruption. The evidence from India necessarily doesn’t support this. One still faces numerous struggles in government offices to get job done, without paying a bribe. There isn’t a perceptible decrease in levels of petty corruption, except in cases where certain services are automated.

3. Meta-Meta institutions: The book talks about meta-institutions that enable adaptability. I argue that we can go even a step back in the causal chain to meta-meta institutions. The meta-meta institutions tell us – what made the governments to enable conditions for adaptability?

This is an important question because there’s certainly something in China that enabled adaptability enabling factors like decentralization. Even if Indian leaders speak volumes about their commitment to growth and decentralization, they haven’t done much on the decentralization front, thereby prohibiting an important factor in enabling adaptability.

May be the meta-meta institutions has to do with the quality of leaders who are truly focused on prosperity and are ready to give away certain privileges for that purpose. This highlights the role of leadership in shaping the economies.

The fundamental causal factor for economic success then becomes leadership with appropriate vision and ability to create adaptability-enabling conditions to build strong institutions.

4. What about other inputs for growth?: The book talks mostly about the efforts of bureaucrats to invite investors and the resultant success. But this couldn’t have been possible without the presence of other complementary factors like skilled labour, education, health care etc., about which there is little description in the book. It would have been good if there was some description of efforts on these fronts, especially because many developing countries are finding it difficult to get these things right.


5. Other forms of institution building: Institution mostly deals with those related to market. Those are only one type of institutions. There are other types of crucial institutions like education, health care etc., which are the wicked-hard problems as Lant Pritchett calls it because of their implementation intensive nature. How did China build these institutions?

Book Summary: How China Escaped Poverty Trap

[From now on I decided to post book reviews in 2 parts. The first part would include two versions of the book summary — a TL;DR summary and a bit detailed summary. The second part would include my comments on the book. This is the 1st part of series on “How China Escaped Poverty Trap” that has its summary]
Author: Prof. Yuen Yuen Ang
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Year: 2016

TL;DR Summary


Chinese growth story is an outlier in the world. It is a versatile example that fits into many narratives, depending on what you look at and at what point of time. The book “How China Escaped The Poverty Trap” is also about China’s growth story but unlike the earlier research that focused only on parts of the puzzle, the book seeks to locate the Chinese story in the context of big questions of development and draws lessons from it for other developing countries. Broadly, the book deals with two big questions, drawing up on Chinese story.
The first question that the book deals with is regarding the growth-institutions debate that is usually posed as a chicken and egg dichotomy: Institutions are necessary for growth vs. Growth is necessary to build institutions. While the former doesn’t tell how to proceed forward starting from weak institutions, the latter doesn’t tell how to achieve the initial growth with weak institutions. What is the way out of this?
The book argues that the way out of poverty traps is to first use existing weak/bad/wrong institutions to build markets. That is the first step of development. Drawing from in-depth analysis of Chinese reforms, US and Europe’s evolution, the book argues that even in the countries that have good institutions now did not kick-start development by first establishing good institutions. They used whatever they had at the time (communal property rights, non-formalized public finance, non-technocratic bureaucracies) to create new markets. The rise of new markets subsequently motivated institutional change. Hence, in Ang’s term, development is “coevolutionary” (bi-causal), rather than in one direction.
Further, the book argues that the popularly cited cases like Glorious Revolution that are used to demonstrate that legislating modern day institutions led to prosperity, only tell a partial story. There’s a long history of co-evolution of markets and institutions much before Glorious Revolution. Glorious Revolution is only one event in that long history.
The pattern of growth-institutions coevolution in the past in China, US, Europe and elsewhere has been an adaptive path of: Harness weak institutions to achieve growth -> Use the growth to develop institutions -> Use these institutions to preserve markets.
While many have studied the second and third steps, the first step is relatively under studied. The book makes an important contribution here drawing from China’s experience. Harnessing weak institutions doesn’t necessarily mean doing the ‘second-best’ thing or ‘minimum possible’ or ‘good enough governance’, as is generally suggested. The key is to do incremental reform but across wide range of connected domains simultaneously, building upon the positives of weak institutions.
The further significance of the three-step pattern is that a) it is no dead end for countries with weak institutions, there’s a way out; b) the market building institutions are different from market preserving institutions and hence are to be dealt differently; and c) there’s no one ‘Chinese Model’ — it changed with time and also across regions within China.
The second question that the book deals with is the underlying conditions that enable the adaptability of institutions. Prof. Ang calls them “meta-institutions”. The idea is that it isn’t enough to merely state that adaptability is necessary to move from 1st step to 3rd step in the three-step pattern discussed above. One has to also identify the factors that enable the adaptability, the meta-institutions.
The book draws from China’s experience to identify those reasons that enable adaptability. China followed what Prof. Ang calls “directed improvisation”. It is a combination of a) appropriate decentralization to balance uniformity and variability b) franchise model of bureaucracy that shaped the incentives at local level, and c) pairing up regions to address regional inequalities.
Finally, the book updates the current general consensus of “man-made political and economic institutions underlie economic success (or lack of it)”, as argued in the book “Why nations fail?”. It posits that the “underlying cause of economic development, if indeed we had to name one, is the construction of an adaptive environment that empowers relevant actors to improvise solutions to continuously evolving problems.”
The lesson for other countries is not the specifics of China’s policy but its broad approach of enabling institutions to adapt themselves.
Now that I have given you the big picture of the book (TL;DR version), the rest of the post is structured as follows.
Section 1 explains the arguments and nuances of the two big questions mentioned above, in detail. This is for those interested in the details of the reform. Section 2 lists the lessons for other developing countries from China’s experience. In Section 3, I try to answer some of the common questions asked regarding China, from what I infer from the book.


Detailed Summary

I. The two big questions

1. Growth-Institutions dichotomy
We discussed that China’s story reflects a three-step pattern of growth-institution co-evolution: harness weak institutions to achieve growth → use growth to develop institutions -> use institutions to preserve markets. The three steps are explained in detail below.
In the first step, when China decided to pursue the prosperity path by promoting investment it had severe constraints as seen from today’s lens of ‘good institutions’. The bureaucracy was under paid, they were oriented in Communist framework and had little experience of promoting capitalism, and the huge size of China added its own complications. However, China still had the commune mindset where the inter-personal relationships were strong. China used this to promote initial growth.
Essentially, local bureaucratic heads were given yearly targets to attract investments. The bureaucrats would be paid as per the tax-revenue generated by the investments they brought. These targets were not just given to one organization, they were given to a wide range of organizations across the board, in some cases to even those organizations like environment department that’s supposed to screen investments. Since the bureaucrats were paid bonuses for bringing the investments, it addressed the problem of low pay. The bureaucrats now went on a major propaganda spree, digging into family networks, friends, relatives and anyone possible, persuading them to invest in their locality. The propaganda experience of Communist era was put to creative use here to attract investments.
One may observe that this is contrary to the modern day maxims of Weberian bureaucracy that emphasizes specialization and impersonality (conduct as per rules, not favouring anyone). There was no specialization here, all organisations were doing the same thing, bring investments. There’s also no impersonality, the investments were essentially based on personal contacts of the bureaucrats. Some times it led to conflict of interest and corruption too.
After this stage, once there were a large number of investments, the local governments started focusing on quality instead of quantity. It was accompanied by the administrative reforms that recognized property rights, reduced bureaucratic extortion etc. Essentially, it built modern day institutions compatible with markets. These institutions now preserve markets.
2. Meta-Institutions: Adaptability enabling factors
The idea of adapting institutions to enable growth before these institutions become ideal ones may not be completely new. Scholars like Qian talked about ‘transition institutions’ that explain the difference between China and Russia, despite Russia having better institutions on traditional metrics of property rights, openness etc.
The book builds on this, goes a step back in the causal chain and identifies the factors that enable the emergence of these transition institutions and their adaptability. China followed what Prof. Ang terms “directed improvisation”, a bundle of strategies that enable adaptation. It included the following.
One, the central bureaucracy categorized local bureaucracy’s tasks into three categories. The first category of tasks included those, which the local bureaucracy is prohibited from doing. The second category of tasks included those, which the local bureaucracy is mandated to do compulsorily. The third category of tasks are those where vague objectives are given but left completely to the local bureaucracy to figure out themselves.
Two, the local bureaucracy is given bonuses linked to the investments they bring in. At some point of time, apparently counties had to deposit some money with the central bureaucracy. Not meeting targets meant that this money wouldn’t be given back to counties.
Three, the well performing coastal states are paired up with inland states to balance regional inequality.

II. Lessons for other developing countries from China’s experience

The book lists six lessons from China’s experience for developing countries.
1. Delimit boundaries of experimentation and flexibilityFree experimentation can lead to chaos and not adaptability. China balanced these by placing limits on experimentation, depending on the policy issue and amount of information leaders had about problems at hand.
2. Activate incremental changes across connected domains simultaneously: Activating incremental changes across many connected domains simultaneously is more likely to stimulate systemic changes of the type seen in China, as opposed to strategies of “do the minimum possible”, “second best-practices” and “good enough governance”.
3. In the beginning, define success narrow: This is to focus the limited bandwidth but it doesn’t mean that one has to do few changes. China defined success narrowly as “economic prosperity” but it required changes across a broad range of issues.
4. Give everyone a personal stake in development process: I suppose this is self-explanatory, though few examples are found in developing countries, where incentives for development are typically lacking.
5. Let some get rich first but pair up the poor and the rich: Suppressing the rich initially to balance the rich and poor might be counter productive, as observed in Mao’s period. Deng chose to open markets and let the natural comparative advantages of coast work.
6. Harness weak institutions to build marketsIt may sound counter intuitive but one can make creative use of local weak institutions, as observed in case of China, Nigeria (Nollywood) etc. The book warns, “Where institutions that foster adaptive processes cannot be provided, it helps to at least not have wrong interventions”.

Section III: Inferring answers to Common FAQs and presumptions on China

Q1. What’s the Chinese model of growth?
A1: There is no single factor. It depends on the region of China you are looking at and at the time point you are looking at. But “directed improvisation” — a package of strategies that fostered adaptation within the bureaucracy — was the underlying system of adaptive development.
Q2: Is China a centralized government?
A2: China is a politically centralized regime, ruled by only one party, but, at the same time, it has one of the most decentralized administrative structures in the world. It has 5 levels of decentralized structures, with high autonomy to local governments.
Q3: Was China’s prosperity possible only because of China’s autocratic approach? If it were a democracy, would this have been possible?
A3: Not necessarily. The specifics of adaptive approach are because of the constraints of China that meant a bureaucracy dominate approach. In democracies, instead of centralized bureaucracy, society would have played a major role.