"Inequality at birth is neither just nor unjust. What's just and unjust is the way institutions deal with it" - John Rawls
"I always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it's necessary to have an "empirical lantern" or a "visit with the patient" before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case" - Albert O. Hirschman
Issues with the 2nd generation of “systemic” reforms in education
The major efforts of systemic reform in earlier days was about implementing a particular pedagogy across all schools. This was typically driven by bureaucrats. The presumption behind this approach was that students aren’t learning because of pedagogy and hence a particular pedagogy was rolled out in all schools.
This top-down approach didn’t work because of what seems to be obvious reasons now. Teachers don’t teach, not necessarily because they don’t know how to teach. Even if they don’t know, it’s a small part of the issue. The larger issue is the underlying constraints that make teachers not put efforts. This along with weak capacity to execute training programmes and other operational constraints meant that most of these didn’t yield fruition.
We are now in a 2nd generation of reforms. They are broadly of two types:
In the first type, there is exclusive focus on one critical issue. Typically, teacher recruitment and training is identified as such issue. For eg: Karnataka and Union government.
Second is the recent NITI Ayog’s approach of SATH (Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital). In this approach, NITI Ayog has partnered with BCG and Piramal Foundation to oversee a systemic transformation of 3 states, spanning over 30 months. It includes baseline diagnostics, goal setting, leadership training to middle level management and so on.
These approaches are different from the 1st generation in the sense that they aren’t trying to overlay a pedagogy on a dysfunctional structure. They have recognised the issues with the underlying “structure” and are trying to mend that. Also, there is an element of continuity inbuilt in the 2nd generation reform, unlike the earlier bureaucrat driven approaches, which fizzled out with the transfer of bureaucrats.
However, these 2nd generation reforms may still fall short of reaching the goals.
Some argue that the issue with centrally driven initiatives is that it kills local initiative. Lant Pritchett has rightly argued so in his review of Yuen Yuen Ang’s book on China’s method of directed improvisation. I am inclined to think that this won’t be an issue in “initial stages”. Threat to local initiative is an issue if there is some local initiative. Currently, I don’t see it prevalent. The current issue seems to be constraints that restrain local initiative. So, at least in the initial stages, reform has to have certain central direction to both remove hurdles to local initiative and shake the system from slumber. So, I am fine with certain amount of centrally led process provided that it’s done appropriately and only in initial stages.
I see other issues.
One, as I blogged earlier, the union government’s and Karnataka government’s approach of exclusive focus on teacher training might not yield outcomes because, one needs improvements across a spectrum of aspects to be able to realise the outcomes.
We may end up in a situation where our teacher training structures are right — i.e. teachers are learning — but they aren’t delivering in the school.
This check list approach, ticking off one reform before moving onto other, delays the process by decades with no substantial benefit meanwhile. We have done this with infrastructure earlier and repeating the same mistake of focusing exclusively on only one issue. This time it’s teacher training.
Two, initiatives like SATH completely sideline the respective state governments. Reform often requires addressing some critical constraints that require strong political will. Else, it will be reduced to doing cosmetic changes in administration.
Seen from this perspective, currently Delhi is the only state that’s doing the right reform in right manner - strong political will with focus on addressing constraints in an adaptive manner, coupled with decentralisation and empowerment. The numerous constraints Delhi encountered in this process highlights the importance of political will. Without such will, these constraints would have been glossed over.
The problem with the “political will” is that it has to be in-born. It’s difficult to induce from outside. Even if some one tries to induce it from outside, governments can pretend to be doing something, without actually doing anything significant. It’s easy to do this in education because results take longer to be visible and there’s easy availability of alibis.
Governments are currently at this stage, where they want to appear to be doing something. It’s resulting in fragmented, low intensity approaches that give an appearance of reform without actually yielding much.
Bottom line is that governments should initiate reforms across a broad spectrum of interconnected aspects, not just on one or two aspects. In this process, no constraint, however big or small should be glossed over for either lack of political will or money.