Five steps that India needs to take to improve learning outcomes

Updated: April 27, 2019 1:12 AM

Truly transforming public education and making a quantum leap in student learning in India will require bold measures. We need to take a comprehensive approach at scale, rethink traditional delivery models and adopt technology at an unprecedented pace. It will require changing the way we manage public finances and making education budgets more flexible. It will also require the public sector to become far more agile in decision-making

quality of public education, education, vocational education, education system, employment, SATH-E states, human resources managementTransforming the quality of education will necessitate that we strengthen the system at all levels.

By Alok Kumar & Seema Bansal

In our first two articles in this series, we described two broad areas of work, and within those five interventions that can significantly improve the quality of public education. The first is to fix education delivery structures by thoughtful consolidation of sub-scale schools, filling teacher vacancies and rationalising excess teachers. This will ensure that the base condition of having a viable-sized school with the right number of teachers exists. The second is to address the core gaps in teaching and learning in these schools—ensuring teachers teach based on students’ learning levels rather than simply completing the prescribed syllabus, far stronger teacher training to improve their own ability to teach, and rethinking secondary, vocational education to provide relevant pathways to higher education and employment.

Also read: Improving learning outcomes: Shifting the focus from syllabus

However, these ideas will be impactful only if we can take them with fidelity to the last mile. And to do that, we need the entire machinery of the education system to come together and make change happen. However, we typically see a few challenges on the ground. Communication channels between the education directorates and the schools are completely broken, with information reaching teachers late or often not at all. There is little data on learning being systematically generated in schools and fed back—so decisions around how to improve education programmes, or even whether to continue them, are often educated guesswork. Across all levels of the system, especially in block and district offices, there are a large number of vacancies. And people in position are burdened with administrative tasks and paperwork, often to the detriment of their actual jobs—like providing academic support to schools.

Transforming the quality of education will necessitate that we strengthen the system at all levels. Only then can what we do in schools or with teachers really make a difference.

Basis our experience across the three SATH-E states and lessons from others, we propose three system-strengthening initiatives that can amplify the impact of all the policies and programmes.

First, we need to strengthen the education organisation. The core academic institutions—the SCERT (State Council of Educational Research and Training) and the DIET (District Institute for Education and Training)—are understaffed and skills like curriculum design or assessment design and analysis are often missing. Additionally, in several states, field offices have vacancies as high as 50%. We need to fill these vacancies with the right people who have the relevant skills.

Maharashtra, for example, has filled SCERT and DIET vacancies by selecting and training qualified teachers from within the system through a competitive process. They have also instituted a stringent annual performance review mechanism. Beyond vacancy filling, we need to make sure that individuals across the organisation have the relevant skills to work with data and technology or planning and performance management, which are becoming increasingly relevant. This will require rewriting job charts, mapping out the skills needed, providing targeted training and, moreover, on-the-job support. The silos and redundancies that have traditionally existed across the organisation also need to be broken down. For example, in most states, teacher salaries are paid by 3-4 different directorates (due to different teacher cadres and different sources of funds)—the department needs to be restructured and common human resources (HR), management information system (MIS), etc, functions created.

Second, we need to put in place strong MIS systems built on real-time, accurate databases. The reasons for this are twofold. A well-planned MIS can drastically reduce the amount of time spent on repeated data collection and paperwork. With process automation, for example, head teachers can spend less time on paperwork (in one state, we saw as many as 40 registers required at the school point) and more time mentoring teachers—and the same is true at all levels of the system. Equally important, without a comprehensive, up-to-date MIS system, there is no single source of truth on metrics like teacher attendance or learning levels, basis which policy decisions can be made. For example, in Jharkhand, with real-time school monitoring data now available, the state can identify the bottom 2,500 schools and provide targeted support. In Odisha, school staffing norms are being revisited and the availability of school-wise enrolment data is enabling the state to accurately assess the financial implications of the changes.

Communication and feedback channels can also be strengthened through technology, eliminating the Chinese whispers that lead to poor implementation at the last mile. In Rajasthan, for every office order released, the state can map through the MIS which district, block officers have logged in and seen it, and can follow up with those who haven’t. The impact of investing in MIS and data systems cannot be overstated.

Finally, we need to radically rethink the culture of the education department. And build one of delivery and accountability, shifting the vocabulary to quality and performance. Every individual needs to have clear outcomes to work towards and a work plan to achieve these, with regular reviews at all levels. Failure to meet academic goals must be called out and dealt with appropriate action, and good performance (on outcomes, not just inputs) should be rewarded. Building a new outcome and purpose-driven culture will take a consistent, top-down push by the leadership. Through harder accountability measures—such as performance reviews and incentives—and equally, softer measures like better communication and empowerment. The pivot to quality outcomes can also be driven by demand from parents and community representatives. Delhi has worked on re-energising school management committees (SMCs) and holding parent-teacher meetings (PTMs) such that parents can participate in the decision-making, partnering with teachers to deliver better learning and holding them accountable.

Truly transforming public education and making a quantum leap in student learning in India will require bold measures. It will require us to take a comprehensive approach at scale, rethinking traditional delivery models and adopting technology at an unprecedented pace. It will require changing the way we manage public finances and making education budgets more flexible. It will require the public sector to become far more agile in its pace of decision-making. All of this will need political will to do and a coming together of the bureaucracy, civil society and the private sector. But the results can be a tangible shift in the quality and competitiveness of our public schools.

Kumar is adviser, NITI Aayog, and Bansal is director, Social Impact, Boston Consulting Group. Views are personal


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