[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.


Read my book: UnpackED  - The black box of Indian school education reform (pdf, free to download)
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