The interruption of the educational calendar caused by the COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to re-examine Indian educational policy-making mechanisms that have traditionally been ‘top-down’ and input-driven. ‘Top-down’ as it is used here has two dimensions. First, a few highly educated individuals in state capitals, usually IAS officers and their selected team members, in consultation with the political leadership, identify critical problem areas in the sector and then formulate and implement appropriate responses. In recent times, they have been aided by a variety of consultants and non-governmental actors embedded in the departments of education. The officers may have no formal background in education, and so the ideas they bring to the table might be based on their life experiences or some recent publications they might have come across or some policy prescriptions emanating from non-governmental actors. In short, there is no system in place that feeds policy-relevant knowledge based on empirical, context-sensitive studies into the policymaking process. Nobody talks about supporting evidence for policy decisions, as a result, the process tends to become highly subjective. True there are exceptions; some individuals may have been exposed to relevant research or might have insights that lead to effective policy. But the overall result is that the educational experiences of millions of children get distorted. Since we rarely have empirical examinations of any policy failures and their adverse effects on students, business continues as usual. Policymakers know that if things go wrong and there is a backlash from the grassroots, they can always roll back the policy and shift to a new idea.
The second dimension of ‘top-down’ policymaking is ‘political compulsions’. Educational improvement, where most students achieve grade-level competencies, is complex and time consuming. A small country like Finland (population comparable to Ahmedabad city’s) took more than two decades to transform its education system from a mediocre one to one of the world’s top performing systems. However, politicians in power have limited time. Elections are due after five years, and so there have to be some positive results, clearly understood by the voters, by the end of the third year. Hence the focus is on populist measures such as free meals, scholarships, free stationery and bicycles, and infrastructure. All of these are good; there is some research support that links such initiatives to increased student enrolment and reduced dropout in some contexts. However, a serious assessment of these for wider impact on issues such as learning, is usually missing. Whenever research gets done it is often to demonstrate the success of a particular initiative.
The answer to the drawbacks of this ‘top-down’ policy-making syndrome is two-fold. First, the creation of an educational ecology across various administrative levels – from school and block resource center to the district and state levels. If your idea of education is that a teacher should impart information from a textbook to a group of students in a classroom, then you would think you have done a great job by building a classroom and providing a degree-holder who covers the textbook content. In this view, our educational sector should primarily consist of two professions: teachers and teacher trainers. This is a mockery of the entire discourse on qualitative improvement in school education. If we are serious about building a world-class public-school system, we need highly skilled human resources that include curriculum developers, school administrators, educational data analysts, school psychologists, physical educators, educational test developers and psychometricians, and educational policy evaluators at district and state level, working in concert. The sad part is that we have never bothered to understand the role of these professions in the education system. No wonder our universities, apart from a few exceptions, do not offer any programs for developing such human resources since there is no scope for the employment of their graduates in our education system.
Second, the educational ecology has to be the base for ‘bottom-up’ policy making. Teachers in the same maligned government school system keep demonstrating that things can be turned around despite all constraints. Work at the Ravi J Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at IIMA has shown how such individuals have improved students’ schooling experiences in their own limited local contexts in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and how their experiences can be leveraged for large-scale online professional development program. State policymakers need to draw on the strengths within, while creating the ecology, to address the factors facilitating (or obstructing) effective educational practices and to make effective educational practices part of the norm and not an exception. This is flipping up the current model. Currently, in order to implement state policies, district and then block administrators catch hold of the principal, who in-turn asks teachers to implement the state’s prescriptions. Instead, the principal needs to facilitate the teacher; the block and district administration has to troubleshoot problems of the principal and school; and the state administrators should empower the districts so that they can ensure high quality schooling experiences for all their students. For this, we will need the different types of human resource mentioned earlier at the district level, and a data-driven balance among capacity building, autonomy, and accountability across all levels of administration.
The current pause in the education system due to COVID-19 would be worth it if we put systems in place for bottom-up policymaking. The right investment in the education sector is critically important during the economic downturn. Research also predicts that if the world invests in high-quality basic education system for all children, world GDP can grow at 11% annually for this entire century. Money will come back with high interest, but the question is – do we have it in us to give up our fascination for top-down policy-making and move towards a more decentralized approach?
This article was first published in Business Line on Campus on 19 June 2020.
(Kathan Dushyant Shukla and Vijaya Sherry Chand are faculty members at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, IIM Ahmedabad.)