Reforms in the Education Bureaucracy
1 June 2016
The issue of quality in education has caught the attention of the nation like never before. Politicians and lay persons alike are raising questions around classroom transactions, learning levels of students and learning outcomes. In his most recent national address, the Prime Minister also emphasised the importance of shifting the governments’ attention from schooling to learning. But while the policy level rhetoric seems to be pointing in the right direction, translating words into actions is an altogether different ball game.
Our research in unpacking the functioning of the education bureaucracy has taught us some big lessons about the way the “education system” works. If improving learning outcomes is a key objective of the Education Department, then the following factors should be viewed as obstacles on the path of creating an optimum institutional environment to achieve this goal.
- “Status quo-ism”: Looking at the education bureaucracy we learnt that the work culture is geared towards maintaining the status quo, no matter how dysfunctional or detrimental the status quo may be. Priority is given to keeping files and formats in order and rule compliance over substantive matters like assessing and improving teachers’ teaching abilities. Moreover, there is negligible reflection on the wealth of data being collected around learning outcomes.
- Degrees over aptitude: Professional degrees rather than the lived experience of individuals appear to carry more weight in the system. This is reflected in the recruitment processes that sort candidates primarily on the basis of their educational qualifications rather than aptitude or problem solving skills in their field of work.
- Approach towards capacity building: No one is more sensitive to the issues of capacity and unresponsiveness in the bureaucracy than the administrators themselves. Thus calls for capacity building and increased monitoring are frequently made by officials posted at different levels (note that the calls for capacity building and increased monitoring are almost always directed towards subordinates). These are stock responses of the administration. Moreover, when it comes to implementing the training sessions and conducting monitoring, it is not uncommon to see administrators work the same way they perform paperwork i.e. mechanically. The objective of a training session is to improve the functional capacity of those partaking in it. But this gets diluted in the system wherein people are held accountable for the minimum criteria of making sure a training session is conducted rather than the quality of the session or following up with participants. Monitoring is also equated primarily with the idea that an external person’s presence would create fear in the worker leading to better performance.
One could interpret the approach of monitoring, capacity building, and the mechanical prioritisation of degrees as symptoms of the “status quo-ist” nature of the education bureaucracy. To continue this story, my next blog will discuss some of the lessons learnt from our observations and interactions with bureaucrats themselves which carry the seeds of solutions that could break this detrimental equilibrium.
A good starting point is to learn from the bureaucracy itself. Outliers are not as rare as we might think. Occasionally we come across teachers and administrators at different levels who are managing to do their job in both letter and spirit in this very environment. How are they able to do what they do in a system that seems to resist breaks in the status quo?
- Aligning goals and expectations: By studying the implementation process of a Bihar based government programme, we learnt that organisational culture plays an important role, if not more, than the design of a programme. The programme in question was aimed towards improving learning outcomes, and for a short span of time, the same people who seemed to resist change were able to gear up and deliver positive results. What happened in this case? We learnt that results are achieved when goals, actions and performance expectations of all education officials are aligned. During the programme’s active phase, improving learning outcomes was stated as the number one priority of the education administration.
- Leadership matters: The nature of the leadership embodied by relevant stakeholders must be “transformational” rather than “transactional.” During the programme’s active phase, leaders i.e senior officials led by example, inspired workers to look beyond their own self-interest, promoted cooperation, and allowed and enabled workers to be innovative. This was a departure from the status quo where leaders promoted rule compliance and prioritised paperwork over other factors.
- Involving more stakeholders in problem identification and resolution: We learnt that including frontline education officials (who have to implement the programme) in the process of identifying and articulating problems as well as looking for solutions to the problems does wonders in creating a greater feeling of ownership and directly impacts the skills of everyone in the process.
Keeping the system going versus keeping the system growing
These lessons emerged from our study of a programme that was being implemented in “mission mode.” In the government, a programme being implemented in mission mode simply means that extra resources including human attention are diverted to achieve time-bound goals. When the pace of functioning and attention given to one programme inevitably goes down, initial gains may retract. This happens when less or no thought is put in to figure out ways to sustain the momentum, at least on few ends, once the initial flurry of activities subsides.
One way to keep the momentum going is to identify and articulate one or few clear problems, and give the authorisation to relevant people to experiment with different solutions. If capacity is an issue then capacity building could also be done in a more targeted way as a result of this approach. In other words, the implementers could get trained on the skills needed to apply the solution they have come up with (a common grouse of officials is that trainings are usually quite generic. This would address that issue). Enough time and space should be given to those involved in the problem solving to learn through hit and trial, with adequate support provided by trained resource persons, such that growth is incremental. The ‘monitors’ of those who are involved in the experiments should be empowered to give the implementers space and be tolerant of failures in the areas where they are learning.
Adopting this approach would also result in a fundamental shift in the way people perceive the system – from one that is geared towards upholding the status quo to one that takes stock of what it already knows and builds on it such that the system is geared towards growth.
 PM’s national address dated 24th April 2016. http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/Government-Should-Focus-on-Quality-Education-Modi/2016/04/24/article3397716.ece
 In this blog I have primarily referred to the broad lessons learnt through our analysis of Mission Gunvatta – a Bihar based programme aimed at improving teaching learning outcomes. The full working paper can be accessed here: https://accountabilityindia.in/understanddownload/1245
In this blog I have primarily referred to the broad lessons learnt through our analysis of Mission Gunvatta – a Bihar based programme aimed at improving teaching learning outcomes. The full working paper can be accessed here: https://accountabilityindia.in/understanddownload/1245