India's Unrealised Education Potential

Daniela Scur

Between 2011 and 2013, I had the opportunity to spend some months of my early researcher career doing field work in India, more specifically in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. My own research is focused on organisational practices (i.e. management) and productivity, and in this particular set of projects, my co-authors and I were looking into the quality of school management practices across India. I had the opportunity to visit primary and secondary schools, both public and private.

As a regular visitor, I was heartened by many of the teachers’ and principals’ passion for their work in the schools we visited (although of course we did visit only a selected small set of schools who were willing to see us).  As a researcher, I was struck most by observing the bottlenecks for better performance - both where these bottlenecks were, and how easily some of them could be overcome.

Some schools, for example, had fantastic report cards – in fact, far superior to those my parents and I received during my (private) primary school education in southern Brazil. But when we asked what the headteachers (principals) did with the great information they collected, and how this information helped teachers tailor their classes for greater learning, the answer proved to be revealing. We learned that they showed the individual report cards to parents and students only. The report cards stayed in the school (no copies were made). Nothing much came out of the discussions with parents because the data were not compiled in any way that would have, for example, allowed parents to understand how well their child was doing relative to their peers, or allowed teachers to identify any class-wide opportunities for changes in instructional practices.  This was only one of many anecdotal examples of lost opportunities that we encountered on our visits. The experience gave me some understanding of India’s unrealised education potential. It also showcased the important role that in-depth data and research can play in the effort to improve education: such research can provide the information that educators need to help Indian states and schools do better in educating its students – and perhaps lead to lessons that could be replicable in other countries that need improve student learning.

This is why I am so excited about the RISE Country Research Team’s work plan in India. Education systems are highly complex everywhere, but few places are as complex as India. The sheer size and diversity of culture and politics across state lines make India a fascinating place to study. India has one of the largest absolute number of children attending school in the world, and, in fact, the states that the Country Research Team will study -  Madhya Pradesh and Delhi -  together have nearly 92 million people. Each of the studies in these states aims to understand a different facet of a complex education ecosystem, and hopes to help us de-codify how actors and their inter-related relationships affect the most important outcome in this context: student learning.

This work is important. While enrolment is nearly universal, India is living a learning crisis much like a number of other countries. In 2014, only 48 percent of students in Grade 5 could read a Grade 2 text, and only 26 percent could do simple division. The global learning crisis was the impetus behind the inception of the RISE Programme, and the research in these Indian states will hopefully take us several steps forward in understanding “what works” to improve education systems for greater learning outcomes.

The studies proposed consider a different set of accountability and collaboration relationships between the key actors in an education system - namely the parents, teachers, students and government bureaucrats - and proposes to identify how policy changes in each of these states work through different channels to produce better learning. Even more exciting, though, is that the Principal Investigators of the India Country Research Team are world-renowned scholars and well-known to Indian officials, which give them a unique opportunity to implement a rigorous impact evaluation design to the government interventions in a way that allows for clean identification of the effects. The economist side of me is pleased. Just as importantly, however, the study design also includes strong qualitative content and is based on understanding the effect of levers that can be feasibly pulled to get better learning results, which allows for clear policy implications of their work for India and education research more generally. The policy-relevant side of me is also pleased.

Great and exciting things to come. Watch this space. 

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RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.