Narendra Modi’s class act on Teachers’ Day

Indian Express

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But the challenge in education lies in enabling teachers to innovate and individualise pedagogy.

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In his second address to students around the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to them as images of their teachers and reinforced the centrality of schools and teachers in training new generations to move the country forward.

But if students are indeed images of their teachers, their learning outcomes ought to be seen as a reflection of the quality of teaching. It is almost universally acknowledged at this point that our education system — despite noteworthy advances in enrolment over the past 10 years — faces a significant learning crisis, with assessments continually depicting a bleak image of even basic reading and arithmetic skills. Learning levels are closely linked to broader issues of economic development, and research has empirically demonstrated a causal relationship between education outcomes and GDP growth. One hopes that the government is cognisant of this crucial linkage.

The ministry of human resource development has recently commenced a consultative process for a New Education Policy (NEP), which includes elements such as learning outcomes in elementary education; new knowledge and pedagogies for teaching; school standards, assessments and management systems; and reforms in the examination system. This new policy document provides an important opportunity to develop a holistic framework to address the outcomes-related concerns and improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Nudging — or more accurately, pushing — our education system in this direction, we recommend, must begin with defining “quality” and identifying objectives of learning on the one hand and developing mechanisms to evaluate performance against these goals on the other. But, in addition to creating these broad institutional pillars for a quality framework, there is an indisputable need to communicate with the vast and diverse education sector, whose stakeholders — comprising school leaders, teachers, parents, NGOs and social innovators across public, private and supplementary education systems — in the absence of clearly defined goals and metrics, are currently working without much unity.

The value of these Teacher’s Day addresses is that they serve as a starting point for more meaningful conversation with stakeholders. What appears to be an annual exercise must now be used to effect a more profound change in the education system, to reinforce the goals of the sector and evaluate performance against them — a “state of education address”. The next step should be to use this speech as a platform to take stock of education outcomes, and convey the objectives, goals in a clear and concise manner.

Articulating these goals in such a way is crucial because it provides a standard for the myriad actors in this large and heterogeneous sector to work towards, and specifies the goals that stakeholders will be held accountable for. They also serve as valuable ways to enable teachers and last-mile providers to understand the larger context in which education policies are situated and help draw them in as participants. The PM’s address, however, is only one part of the needed communication process. It would be erroneous to think of such communication as merely an annual exercise, or a one-way process.

There is a need for an ongoing communication and information-sharing mechanism to be built into the system, to continually provide a diagnosis of progress. Data on outcomes must be more frequently communicated to all relevant stakeholders in understandable formats — teachers and schools should be able to use this information to improve learning in their classrooms, whereas other stakeholders should use it to gauge the performance of the school system. The Australian government’s “My School” portal, providing data on the performance of nearly 10,000 schools across the country, provides an example of how such a system might work in practice. Such databases and systems facilitate greater transparency, providing information on cities, schools and districts that need intervention to improve outcomes.

But beyond communications to the sector, the key need is to create a system of continuous dialogue, whereby stakeholders at the last mile can respond to and refine education policy. Conversations with such stakeholders reveal that their understanding of ground realities is scarcely taken into account while framing education policy, and if anything, their agency is violated by a centralised, top-down approach, including a stringent curriculum-based approach to education.

Principals and school leaders of government schools similarly complain about being little more than rubber stamps or reporting authorities, with limited disciplinary powers, unable to even hire and fire teachers. A World Bank report on school systems across South Asia reiterates these concerns, stating that the decisions that might have an impact on pedagogic quality — from teacher recruitment and training to curricula and textbooks — rarely fall within the purview of individual schools themselves. If the PM is serious about his belief that the school system should not be producing “robots” and that teachers “provide life” to their students, then it is crucial that teachers have the ability to innovate and individualise pedagogy. The HRD ministry’s consultative process for the NEP has responded to this concern by seeking to bring in grassroots voices. However, empowering last-mile stakeholders is less about having them offer their opinions on a one-off basis and more about fundamentally realigning the autonomy, agency and accountability relations that currently define the education sector.

Ultimately, if we look at defining education goals and testing from a quality-management perspective, there is a need for a policy environment that incentivises outcomes-based quality improvements at each level of the education process. While the institutional framework of setting goals that schools can be held accountable to is a starting point, at the heart of this system-wide transition towards quality management lies the quality of the pedagogic process within a single classroom. Unless the actors in this process are equipped with the ability and authority to manage quality and improve learning, annual addresses, education goals and mechanisms for testing will end up being no more than cosmetic changes.

This article first appeared in The Indian Express, on September 5, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the authors.