Change in India is a complex process of introducing new ideas, dealing with multiple interest groups, and trying to reshape institutions through which activities take place. Nowhere is the need for change more urgent than in the education sector, because the lack of adequate human capital may be the biggest constraint that India faces in seeking faster economic growth. Of course, thinking about education leads to concerns about health and nutrition, physical infrastructure and so on, but let us put those aside for the moment.
What is interesting is how much we have learned in the last decade about the process of education in India. Clearly, the institutional mechanisms work well as screening devices, as well as imparting certain basic skills to a slice of the population. The best products of the system do very well in globally competitive environments, but like many other aspects of Indian life, there is a steep fall off in skills going below the top, much more than the natural distribution of human abilities might predict. As is now clearly understood, national efforts like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) improved access and enrolment numbers, but not necessarily learning outcomes.
A well-known problem is that of teacher absence, or of teacher incentives in general. Teaching aides may have better incentives, and seem to help, but the deeper problem is one of pedagogical methods. The NGO Pratham has been a leader in trying to change the classroom learning process (as well as documenting deficiencies in traditional delivery mechanisms), with measurable positive results. It has also pioneered supplemental approaches such as expanding access to after-school tuition, or in-school remedial education to help learning laggards catch up before they fall permanently behind.
In the past weeks, I attended a conference where one paper documented an experiment seeking to establish whether enabling more students to afford after-school tuition improved learning outcomes—it did not—and another paper that measured whether using adaptive learning software for mathematics improved learning outcomes; it did. These were specific additions to our knowledge, based on careful research. In another conference, a panel on skill development highlighted the breadth of India’s skilling challenge, and left me wondering where and how one should start, beyond simply listing all the needed skills across industries, sectors and jobs. Then I travelled to Punjab, where I learned about a successful remedial learning programme run locally by the Nabha Foundation, dating as far back as Pratham’s first efforts. I also learned about the distance learning program at Punjabi University, Patiala, which is different from larger-scale efforts such as Punjab Technical University, or the 800-pound gorilla that is Indira Gandhi National Open University.
All of these examples were leading me to think of what kinds of changes might be cost-effective, improve learning outcomes simultaneously with access, and be implementable without having to battle entrenched interests and getting swallowed in existing institutional dysfunction. Reading further, I came across what might be the best example of research on how to bring about change in India: the focus is on education, but the lessons may turn out to be very general.
Yamini Aiyar, Vincy Davis and Ambrish Dongre conducted a lengthy detailed qualitative study of frontline education administration in Bihar, with over 100 interviews. What emerged was a picture of “organisational design of the education administration which privileges a top-down, rule-based hierarchy that leaves local administrators little by way of authority” and creates “a narrative of powerlessness.” What led to positive change in some locations? This happened when “district leaders encouraged active dialogue and problem-solving” with frontline administrators, instead of “expressing leadership through hierarchy and demands for compliance.” Indeed, the project showed that Pratham-style pedagogical improvements in the classroom worked, but these were met with pessimism by frontline administrators who saw themselves only as “reporting machines.” This work suggests that marginal changes may never be sustainable, but instead the harder task of modifying institutional structures and attitudes within organisations has to be undertaken for large-scale improvements in education access and outcomes.
We have seen the germ of this story in case studies where local control of schools in India has led to improved teacher accountability and performance. We can also get a sense of why SSA ultimately did not improve learning outcomes. The study’s authors emphasise changing work culture and management practices, but this may also require decentralising the education bureaucracy, so that it permits local improvements, and focuses on providing support rather than enforcing hierarchical compliance. Of course, this is the change needed within every classroom in India. Children in school do better with tailored support than with blanket rules. So do young adults in university or other training venues. And so do government officials, whether in the education bureaucracy or in any other one of India’s many bureaucratic structures. Beginning this change may therefore be the key to effecting real change in India.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz