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A new lesson from school

Education outcomes will improve if governance systems reward problem-solving by local bureaucracies.

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Education outcomes will improve if governance systems reward problem-solving by local bureaucracies.

The Annual Status of Education Report (rural) for 2013 serves as a reminder of the persistent disconnect between action and outcomes in basic education in India. Consistent with previous reports, the 2013 survey highlights that school inputs are improving, steadily reducing the shortfalls with respect to Right to Education norms. But learning outcomes remain stuck at a dismally low level. Only 41 per cent of children in government schools could read a Class II text in 2013, about the same as 2012, but down from 50 per cent in 2009. Learning outcomes in private schools are slightly better (albeit still dismal) and as government school performance has deteriorated, the gap in learning levels between private and public school attendees is widening.

But there is positive news. This year’s ASER comes in the wake of an important shift in the national discourse. Back in 2005, when ASER first made headlines, the challenge was to push India’s education policy towards acknowledging the problem of outcome failures. This has changed. The 12th Five Year Plan adopted in December 2012 and recent policy documents of the ministry of human resource development recognise the outcomes problem and explicitly articulate learning improvements as the stated goal for education policy.

Now, as the goal has shifted and state governments are gearing for action, the country faces the even bigger challenge of how to build a service delivery system that genuinely seeks to improve outcomes, responding to problems as they exist today.

Much of the current debate has focused on the vexed question of “what works”. There is now a carefully developed body of evidence, ranging from curriculum reform that shifts pedagogical strategies away from the current age-grade matrix to one aligned with children’s learning capability, to performance-based pay for teachers. But while the evidence offers an array of specific policies, the real challenge, as Pratham’s Rukmini Banerji has argued, lies in sustaining and scaling them up and ensuring they are embedded in the day-to-day functioning of the local bureaucracy. This requires us to engage with questions of bureaucratic behaviour across the delivery chain — from the state level to the frontline bureaucracy and teachers. It involves wrestling not just with technical issues of curricula and pedagogy, but also with questions of local politics and civil society behaviour.

The good news is that there is much to be learnt from India itself. Take two cases where local bureaucracies have behaved differently. First, take Himachal Pradesh, which has had better education performance for some time (though still way below international norms). Research by Harvard professor Akshay Mangla on the behaviour of Himachal’s education bureaucrats — in comparison with those of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh — finds a striking difference. In Himachal, the bureaucratic culture is embedded in norms that encourage problem-solving. Remarkably for India, Mangla found that senior Himachal bureaucrats have willingly worked with frontline education bureaucrats and teachers, reinterpreting policies to make them locally relevant and forming alliances with civil society groups and politicians to get the job done. Mangla calls these “deliberative norms”. And it is this way of doing business that has enabled Himachal’s bureaucrats to adopt locally relevant solutions to education problems, even if it meant bending rules. Interestingly, Himachal is one of the few states in India to seek community inputs in plans. Uttarakhand and UP stand in sharp contrast to Himachal, where bureaucrats follow traditional hierarchies and stick to guidelines in ways that have constrained them from adopting appropriate strategies to address education challenges.

Himachal’s bureaucratic norms are long-term products of its political formation and social history. But they show that India’s bureaucracies can operate with very different professional norms, which yield better results. And we believe this is a more constructive aspiration than the current emphasis on holding bureaucrats to account through varieties of punitive action.

This takes us to our second case. Bihar is hardly known as a domain of “deliberative bureaucracy”. But a different kind of exploration was undertaken last year, when a district magistrate (DM) sought solutions to the learning challenge. The DM experimented with alternative approaches through a partnership with an NGO. The key to the experiment was putting the much maligned frontline bureaucrats (cluster coordinators in charge of 10-15 schools), at the centre of the action. This cadre was trained and empowered to adopt an alternative pedagogical strategy — for an hour and a half a day, to teach children by their learning level rather than according to their grade. What began as an experiment resulted in a significant shift in bureaucratic behaviour. Instead of blaming schools, teachers and the system, in this intervention, the district administration catalysed the team to lead from the front. Over time, the coordinators gained confidence to take charge and scale up these alternative teaching strategies in their schools. The results are impressive. At the start of the intervention, 40 per cent of students in Class III, IV and V had basic reading skills. Six months later, this improved to 60 per cent.

There remain questions over scaling up this experiment and how these shifts should be embedded in local demand for change. But the lesson from this experiment is that modest changes within the system, empowering rather than denigrating frontline officers, can shift bureaucratic behavioural patterns even in the most hostile of environments.

Building an outcomes-focused delivery system requires substantial shifts in the everyday behaviour of our bureaucracy. These shifts can be enabled through a combination of political pressure and civil society demand. But for this to happen, education outcomes must become genuinely salient in public and political debate. ASER is a remarkable contribution to this, but it is only the beginning. Change will only occur if our governance systems are designed to reward problem-solving by bureaucracies and others, fostering a more local approach to planning and decision-making, with politicians and citizens mobilised around the future of India’s children as opposed to the next round of promised transfers or patronage.

Yamini Aiyar and Michael Walton

Aiyar is at Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research. Walton is at the Harvard Kennedy School and CPR.

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