[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?


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