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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 continued…