On a recent trip to rural Bihar, I spent several hours talking with headmasters and cluster officers about how to improve children’s learning in primary school. Their responses were primarily complaints directed at others. Complaints about the administrative tasks expected of them; about the Right To Education Act’s no-detention policy; about parents and their limited interest in the school and about students who rarely attended school.

At no point did the conversation steer towards classroom transactions. No one talked about pedagogical strategy or the futility of focusing on the syllabus and prescribed textbooks when most children in the classroom have fallen far behind grade level expectations.

For decades, India’s education policy has concentrated on increasing education inputs—infrastructure, qualified teachers, mid-day meals—with the underlying assumption that more inputs will result in improved learning outcomes. So busy are our education administrators in the provision of inputs that they have little time or incentive to focus on the classroom. A recent time-use study of block education officers in Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh conducted by Accountability Initiative found that officials spent less than 10% of their time on classroom-related activities.

Reversing this inputs obsession and shifting the focus of our education system to the classroom are India’s newly appointed human resource development (HRD) minister’s greatest challenge. The good news is that this shift has already begun. The 12th Five-Year Plan explicitly articulates improved learning outcomes as its stated goal. And many state governments have begun experimenting. Rajasthan has been implementing a reading improvement programme and Bihar launched a state-wide Mission Gunvatta (Mission quality) under which students are grouped according to their learning levels and given remedial education for two hours every day. The challenge now lies in deepening and strengthening these efforts.

First, the government of India will need to align its policy instruments with the goal of improved learning. The current planning and budgeting instruments are designed for an input-based system. For 2014-15, for instance, the centre has allocated 78% of the approved budget of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to construction and teachers’ salaries. The two-line items that directly fund additional efforts for learning—innovation and learning enhancement—account for less than 1% of the SSA budget. State plans ought to be based on learning goals and financing from the centre should be aligned to state strategies rather than central government diktats.

Second, policy goals will only translate into action if implementing officers are trained to understand the rationale behind the changing goals and empowered to build relevant solutions. In the current system, education officials have little occasion or incentive to engage with the realities of the classroom. Schools are monitored on inputs and classroom engagement is limited to ensuring that the syllabus is taught. Moreover, teachers have few opportunities, outside of formal teacher-training sessions, to discuss the challenges they face in the classroom. Yet, when block and cluster officials are trained and empowered to support teachers, learning gains are significant.

One simple step to bring officials inside the classroom is to involve them in measuring learning and tracking progress. Every year, the centre requires teachers, cluster and block officers to collect data on school inputs that are integrated into a national database. This data collection process could be extended to collecting information on key learning indicators on an annual basis. In May, Bihar experimented with involving students from district training institutes and cluster coordinators in conducting a school-based learning assessment. This model can be scaled up and replicated in other states.

Third, to the elephant in the room: teacher accountability. Teaching, economist Lant Pritchett argues, is a “thick" activity that requires teachers to engage with students in ways that respond to student needs. To teach well, teachers need the autonomy to tailor teaching to the specific conditions of the classroom. Teaching performance can only be monitored effectively if it is based on “thick" information that captures teaching quality.

The debate on teacher accountability in India has focused on punitive action to curb absenteeism on the one hand and building a reward mechanism to motivate performance on the other. Missing from this debate is a discussion on how to capture and act on “thick" information. This will only be achieved if the “middle layers" of the system—district, block and cluster officers—are transformed into active supporters of teachers who engage with them on pedagogical practices and the organization of instruction in classrooms. Teachers are more likely to be motivated to attend school when they are encouraged to “teach" than by punitive action, which they can game.

The issue of monitoring performance is more complex. Developing the right kind of performance metrics needs a wider debate on how to create performance metrics without reducing teaching to meeting testing standards. It also needs extensive discussion on how to monitor and what kind of administrative design—centralized versus local—can ensure autonomy in the classroom and independence to the “middle layer" along with accountability for performance. This is precisely what the central government ought to do—push the debate and initiate research and experimentation to develop appropriate performance metrics, improve the effectiveness of monitoring mechanisms and ways to transform the education administration so that schools receive genuine learning support.

Transforming a system that is widely (and rightly) regarded to be peopled with demotivated, over-paid, low-quality staff might seem an impossible task. However, scattered experiments from around the country show that this can work. But this transformation will only occur if every one from the HRD minister to cluster officers and teachers are actively thinking about how to improve learning in their schools. Initiating this conversation is the new minister’s most urgent and critical task.

Yamini Aiyar is a senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research.

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