Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

“For assessments to be useful, they need to be aligned to foundational learning skills”

The EDge Editorial Team June 2019

Translating policy into action requires systemic changes, points out Yamini Aiyar, President & Chief Executive of Centre for Policy Research (CPR), as she discusses the draft of the National Education Policy (NEP).

CSF: How far do you think the draft NEP addresses the current learning crisis? If implemented well, what could be its impact on the Indian education system?

Yamini: To my mind, the draft NEP is the first serious policy articulation of the learning crisis that India confronts. The very fact that a high-level policy document has willingly confronted the learning crisis and more importantly, linked it to the failure of India's schools to ensure universal acquisition of foundational learning skills is, I believe, a critical step forward. After all, acknowledging the problem is half the battle to resolving it!

CSF: One of the key bottlenecks you have identified in your research is the limited capacity of the state to design and implement large-scale, complex programs. How would India achieve universal foundational learning in this context? How do you both incentivize the system and build its capacity – from the states to teachers – to focus on quality, while holding it accountable to performance?

Yamini: The Indian state has been infamously characterized by Lant Pritchett as a flailing state – one in which the head is no longer reliably connected via its nerves and sinews to its limbs. Overcoming the challenge posed by this flailing characteristic of the Indian state is, I believe, the biggest challenge to translating this important policy acknowledgment into change on the ground.

Let me put it another way. Through my years of studying the unfolding of education reforms in India's elementary schools, I have been struck by how little attention is paid to the process through which policy reforms – the goals, vision and ideals – get translated, understood and interpreted by those who are actually charged with implementing reforms, i.e., the parents, teachers, headmasters and frontline administrators. These actors are viewed as mere implementors (and often the primary bottleneck to effective implementation) but rarely engaged with as primary agents of change. This has led to what I have described in my work as the ‘post office syndrome,’ where frontline officers have cast themselves in the role of passive rule-followers, following orders mechanically (and resisting change), rather than actual enablers motivated by public service delivery goals.

Part of the reason for this is India's extremely centralized, hierarchical administrative architecture, which has entrenched a culture of rule-following and where decision-making is seen as a matter of hierarchy rather than a deliberative process where all actors are engaged with as active stakeholders. Breaking this culture and restoring the professional identity of education administrators and teachers in a manner that motivates them to function as active participants in the delivery of education holds the key to overcoming the challenge posed by India's flailing state and meeting the goals set by the draft NEP.

CSF: The draft policy calls for a significant increase in public investment in education. How feasible do you think this would be to achieve? How do you see the dynamic between the Centre and the states playing out in order to ensure timely flow, efficient usage and cost-effective deployment of funds?

Yamini: There is no question that India needs greater public investment in education. However, before we move the needle on finding more resources – and frankly, the only path to greater resources is by expanding the taxation capacity of the Indian state – we need to be more realistic about what we are achieving with the limited resources we do put into education. Is our financing structure and associated accountability system designed to prioritize schools and their unique learning needs? Is our governance and fiscal management system designed to be responsive to school needs?

Consider this simple fact – for the last decade, my colleagues and I at CPR’s Accountability Initiative have been tracking financing for elementary education, only to find that schemes and associated fund flows have been designed in a manner that leaves little expenditure discretion at the school level. Even simple tasks like finding funds to buy chalks and registers is tied to a particular expenditure line item, with little discretion for the headmaster to link spending to felt needs in schools. Moreover, infirmaries in our public finance management system mean that money moves slowly, well into the school year. Our PAISA surveys found that only 50% schools received their school grants mid-way through the school year. The remainder had to wait till March when a rush of money reaches accounts (with requirements of quick spending to meet accounting related paperwork) at the end of the government's financial year. Schools, thus, struggle even to make small expenditures related to everyday expenses.

Even learning related interventions often have to wait till halfway through the year before they can start because of funding delays. I recall a remedial program in Bihar which started as late as January because funds to print reading materials did not reach state coffers till December! So, while there is no argument that we need to spend more money on our public education system, this debate must be accompanied by a serious rethink of how we spend our money. Only then can the India state make a convincing case to its citizens for higher and more efficient taxation.

CSF: The draft NEP mentions the importance of collecting and analysing data for improving educational standards. How can we improve the quality of data collection within the system? How can the right kind of data be collected and used to further the improvement of learning outcomes?

Yamini: I think the draft is very realistic in its assessment of the quality of education data in India. It calls for the establishment of a new Central Educational Statistics Division (CESD) as an independent and autonomous entity at the NIEPA (National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration). It has also suggested the creation of a National Repository of Education Data that will include specific indicators. I endorse these suggestions and hope that they will be implemented.

Specifically, on learning outcomes data, I would like to add that the efforts by NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) to initiate reliable and regular collection of data through NAS (National Achievement Survey) is a step in the right direction. However, the current tools are linked to the achievement of grade-level competencies. To be useful, especially at the school level, what they need to capture are gaps in foundational literacy and numeracy. This will enable teachers and planners to assess how far students are from these basic skills. Without this critical data point, states are unable to determine the level at which to orient their learning levels. In sum, for assessments to be useful in addressing the learning crisis, they need to be aligned to foundational learning skills and not grade-level learning outcomes.

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