The REAL Reasons Why Change Is So Difficult In Education

If you're not in the government but are working to bring about change in education in India, you're likely to be using one or a mix of the following strategies:

1. Protest against whatever is going wrong
2. Provide data and evidence that things are not working (and occasionally, for what is working)
3. Intervene in policy and decision-making to the extent possible
4. Develop working models and ask the government or others to take them up
5. Actually take over or supplement the delivery function on behalf of the government

(As of now I can't locate any other strategy in use - but if you are using another one, do let me know so it can be part of this list.)

Here's a quick look at what each of these strategies involve and the kind of impact they seem to be having. (This is only a broad overview and not a nuanced analysis.)

Strategy 1: Protest against whatever is going wrong
From small village committees carrying their demands to block/districts officials, to state-wide forums of NGOs as well as the national RTE forum/s (there seem to be a few of these), various pressure groups have exerted themselves to protest against much that is not being done by the government.

The general notion seems to be that if you criticize the system or are able to make a serious protest - the system will somehow listen and start improving. As of now, there is no evidence that it really does. (It's very good in showing that it does, though! Look at all the advertisements issued by state governments where they list their achievements, including in education.) 

Results: Unsure impact. Getting a decent hearing is not easy, and even where there is a hearing, there is no guarantee that there will be an impact.

Strategy 2: Provide data and evidence that things are not working (and occasionally, for what is working)
The assumption is that if the system and decision-makers realize how wrong things are, or evidence is provided on what works and what doesn't, there will be appropriate changes and things will improve. Or that investment will be made on what is known to work. Partly based on this, a large number of think tanks have emerged (mainly comprising of western educated professionals) and produce a number of evidence-based documents every year. INGOs, donors and now VCs/similar funding agencies also take this view and back such efforts. The expansion of CSR and corporate supported initiatives all bring in this emphasis on 'in data we trust'.

Unfortunately, there is not enough data to show that our education system ever pays serious attention to data on student learning, or classroom processes - and makes a difference accordingly. (That it should is another matter - the fact is that it doesn't.) Though a huge amount of data is collected, and the system itself does a great deal of the collecting, its impact on actual functioning is extremely limited. (For instance, which curricula or textbooks in any state have been influenced by such evidence-based approaches? Or by the NCERT's own data from country-wide surveys of learning levels, or even by ASER?) Where the data is used to some extent - as in the case of DISE - its actual reliability is in question. Attendance data, for example, is routinely manipulated to ensure that others can also get to 'eat'.  

The system has a way of being blind to facts right before its nose. For instance, with a PTR norm of 30:1, in the foreseeable future (i.e. next 30 years), the 'typical' school in India will be the small school multi-grade (with 90-100 children in 5 classes, with 2-3 teachers) - implying that a majority of teachers will be teaching in multi-grade situations. Yet all curricula and training presently assume a mono-grade situation and believe that multi-grade will only be an exception. 

Result: Data flows off the system, usually like water off a duck's back. "That's not how decisions are made" - is a commonly heard statement in government offices, which indicates that there are other reasons why things are done the way they are done!

For those NGOs, donors, VCs and others hoping that 'evidence-based' and 'data-driven' strategies can actually persuade the system to bring about changes, especially those that make a real difference to the lives of the marginalized and the disempowered, there is a serious need to re-examine this strategy.

Strategy 3: Intervene in policy and decision-making to the extent possible
If you've worked hard to reach a position where you can impact policy or decision-making, this is the strategy you would use. The late Vinod Raina is a good example of this, being part of CABE and involved in drafting of the RTE. Not everyone can achieve the status of being an 'eminent' invitee to important bodies and hence this is an option only a very few can access. (And even if invited, having an actual say is very difficult - in typical 'high-power' meetings, participants speak turn by turn, and the Chairman then winds up the meeting!) Most people/organizations trying this route reach only the point where they are part of certain committees or perhaps even the various groups related to the Planning Commission, such as the Steering Committee, etc.

Results: As the fate of some of the crucial RTE provisions shows, the more things change, the more they remain the same! I know this is not exactly true - sometimes, some of the things improve. And sometimes they worsen, as the total mis-communication on CCE indicates. Policies, decisions, projects and programmes all run the risk of being hijacked by mediocre implementation, corruption and deliberate diversion to benefit certain groups. Overall, this strategy definitely gives less than optimal results in today's context (everybody cannot be a Vinod Raina!). The primary reason is that it is governance itself which is the key issue, which often fails to get addressed here.

Strategy 4: Develop working models and ask the government or others to take them up
Eklavya, Digantar, Bodh, Srujanika and hundreds of other organizations and projects have implemented pilot projects, started schools, even initiated small interventions within the government system -- with a view to generate models that will hopefully be 'replicated' or scaled up within the government set up. In fact, government programmes such as DPEP and SSA also incorporate an 'innovation' budget head that enables the setting up of such models that might eventually be expanded to the larger system.

Results: The history of upscaling shows that powerful models often lead to 

•   conflict (as was the case with the Hoshangabad Science Teacher Programme in MP, or the DPEP pedagogy upscaling in Kerala), or to 
•   a major reduction in quality of the original (as in ABL in TN, where only 22% children reached age-appropriate learning levels, as shown in a state-wide study facilitated by me when the programme was at its peak; or in the case of KGBV models that initially started well when run by NGOs)

The rest of the efforts don't really reach scalability, or if they do, they somehow fizzle out without leaving much impact. (Take Digantar's schools in Jaipur, Srujanika's effort in Odisha or the 'Active Schools' of Latur, Maharashtra, or the 'Kunjapuri' model in HP or indeed the various 'Model Schools' set up by the government itself in many states. This is really an endless list.)

Strategy 5: Actually take over the delivery function on behalf of the government
Several organizations are actually working on the ground with the government to improve the service delivery. They could be corporate houses who are taking over the management of schools (as is the case with the Bharti foundation running hundreds of schools for the Government of Haryana) to Azim Premji Foundation, which is creating its own channels (district schools up to the Education University). [As of now, I'm keeping vendors - such as those IT companies implementing Computer Aided Learning on a Build-Own-Transfer model - out of this discussion, as they see themselves more as 'solution-providers' rather than change facilitators.]

Results: The jury is still out on the kind of strategy being implemented by the two organizations mentioned above. However, large-scale efforts of the kind where a group/programme actually took over the government's functions -- such as Lok Jumbish (funded by SIDA initially) or Shiksha Karmi, or APPEP in AP (funded by the then ODA of UK), or Janshala (run by five UN agencies) in some 20+ districts in the country, or the Child-Friendly Schools project of Unicef in many parts of the country -- all generated a great deal of energy in their time and people talk of them with much fondness even now, but those areas still struggle with quality of learning in government schools. 

Even in the NGO sector, many programmes / projects that appeared to have achieved a great deal, now do not show the expected dramatic improvement still surviving on the ground. Take the case of all the areas where Pratham ran its Read India project. If Pratham has stopped working in an area over three years ago, the levels of reading in that area are now likely to be of concern (even if they had improved earlier), and are a part of the 'declining levels of learning' being documented in ASER.

In the early days of DPEP, when it was seen as 'different' from government, states such as Haryana, Assam, Karnataka, UP made radically different textbooks and training (taking over the functions of the SCERTs and DIETs), actually implementing high-energy, high-quality training over 2-3 years across the state. Yet today many of these states are at the forefront of the quality crisis.

Bottom-line: you can bring about change as long as you are there, but things go back to what they used to be once you're not there!

So what is it that makes change in education so difficult? 

Perhaps we need to face up to what really lies behind things being bad in the first place. We tend to assume that there's an inability to make things better. But what if it has more to do with the ability to keep things as they are? This might a little more deliberate than the systemic 'inertia' we're used to talking about (though not necessarily as a conscious conspiracy). To begin 'appreciating' this, take a look who loses what if education, especially in the government system, actually improves.  

•   TEACHERS will find their income from private coaching reduced/lost altogether (this is starkly clear in secondary education, which is one reason why improving classroom processes in secondary schools is very difficult). 
•   PRINCIPALS and OFFICIALS will not have control over teachers/SMCs who teach well and have community support. (Wherever quality improvement efforts have succeeded, conflicts of this kind have increased. Eventually, the more powerful section 'wins'. Several state governments - or rather the education ministers - have had VECs or SMCs reconstituted since they didn't find them 'convenient'; another example: look at how the provision for SMCs to select books for their school libraries is being subverted through various means.)
•   OFFICIALS will also find academically strong teachers/HMs/SMCs and even students do not easily 'comply' - corruption will be difficult to practice. (When more teachers start teaching well, school inspectors always end up making less money. When anyone 'lower' in the hierarchy is empowered, those 'above' have a problem. And as everyone knows, whenever students ask questions, they're told: 'shut up and don't act over-smart!')
•   POLICY-MAKERS will have to create a whole lot of new jobs for the large numbers of the newly educated. (This is clearly not an easy thing to do - and one way to deal with this is to keep people in education for longer, as appears to be the case behind the recent shift to a FOUR YEAR graduation programme in Delhi University, despite various other claims being made for it.)
•   The POLITY will have to face voters who can think and ask questions of them. (In 2000, one political leader actually stopped a state curriculum from being implemented on the grounds that 'if this is what children learn, who will ever vote for us?')
•   Since the majority of people are in some way of the other 'under' someone, the questioning of authority will mean that all kinds of HIERARCHIES will be under threat if education really improves - age, seniority, caste, class, gender, ethnicity, religion! (When young girls refuse to get married, or children ask for reasons behind what they're being told to do, or groups raise voice against discrimination - you can be sure that someone powerful has a problem, and usually manages to find a 'solution'. From rising wages for domestic labour to resenting the 'lower' classes accessing 'higher' levels of goods - such as mobile phones - the middle class too is not comfortable with the spread of education.)

All of which is sufficient to ensure the quality of education will not improve, isn't it? Sure, buildings will be built, as will handpumps and toilets, books will be printed and teachers appointed - since these are opportunities for 'side' income and asserting control over resources and people, or appearing to hand out largesse and thus earning 'gratitude'. However, the actual change in the nature of teaching learning processes, a shift in the kind of relationships practiced, and the levels of learning outcomes attained, especially for the marginalized - does not take place at the same pace at which the provisioning grows. In fact, it is much, much slower, if not actually negative at times.

The "system's" strategies

And how is this ensured? Why does increased provisioning not lead to desired change? As anyone familiar with implementation at the field level will know, a number of powerful strategies are used to to ensure that the 'others' don't get what 'we' have today.  

•   neglect (take the case of DIETs, which continue to be ignored even after the new Teacher Education Scheme; or the case of hard to reach groups such as street children, working children, migrant groups, or those with disability; or how the north-east itself is missing from our history books; or how the knowledge of women is not reflected in the curriculum)
•   selective poor performance (the same government machinery that can do a fairly good job in conducting elections somehow fails at ordinary execution in education; an analysis of which files take the longest to move as against their expected time, will provide a good insight into this)
•   siphoning off inputs meant for the needy (from mid-day meals that kill children, buildings that need to be abandoned within ten years due to poor construction, textbooks on poor paper - name an input and you'll find that what reaches children is well below what should; this includes the teacher's time, which is the minimum the state should be able to guarantee, but is not able to due to the absenteeism that is allowed)
•   wasting time in doing things that appear to be important but are not (such as organizing 'functions' or 'attending' to a visiting officer or collecting data on a whole range of issues, which in turn is not used much either), 
•   rewarding the mediocre (as is common, officers 'attach' certain teachers for their administrative chores, thus relieving them from teaching; and of course everyone knows that the way 'up' the system hierarchy is not mainly through good work...)
•   demonizing and harassing the committed (anyone who works sincerely is usually called 'mad' by others; those who stand up for children and community are often hounded, as can be seen by the number of allegations that they face)
•   creating designs that ensure perpetuation of marginalization (e.g. expecting children to attend school every single day no matter how poor, deprived or ill they are; or using only 'state' language instead of mother-tongue) - and many other such 'devices'. 

Supplementing all this is, of course, the common strategy of deliberate discrimination in the actual teaching learning process, something far too well-known for it to be elaborated upon...

In many ways, such strategies are used in the larger community and society as well, to ensure that that those who have been put in their place, remain in that place. As I was recently reminded by a Facebook comment, ‘If everyone gets educated who will till the fields and who will pick up your trash?’ As anyone above the age of 20 will recall, when mobile phones became cheap, many of the then chatterati were dismayed that ‘even plumbers, vegetable sellers and maids now have mobile phones’. And as can be seen in the middle class response to the admission of children from economically weaker sections in private schools under the RTE (‘they will spoil our children’s education’) – the word ‘system’ should perhaps include the larger society and its network of exploitative relationships in which everyone is complicit.

Thinking ahead

You already know all this very well, of course, and in repeating it here the intention is not to imply that nothing can be done or to mount a raving critique of how bad things are. Instead, in the interest of children, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, this is an appeal to recognize that the 'system' has far more powerful strategies than those seeking to do 'good' are able to put into practice - and the results are visible everywhere.

Should we stop using the five strategies mentioned earlier? No, but it would be better to take a longer, deeper view than we tend to take at present. Perhaps we need to stop underestimating the difficulty of the task and take into account that it is not the system's incompetence at making things better but its competence in keeping things the way they are that needs to be addressed.

What this calls for is a better understanding of the situation, of our own unwitting involvement in perpetuating it – and far, far smarter strategies.