Pradeep Mehta and Abhishek Kumar
At two separate public events recently, Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant laid great emphasis on health and education. India, he stressed, cannot register high growth for long without a good education (and healthcare) network; and for a good education system to develop, we must pose a challenge for states and assess their performance on a real-time basis.
This can be achieved by creating a benchmarking framework to compare states with the aim of improving their performance in education. That’s easier said than done, as our education system has complexities such as multiple education boards, different assessment systems, a limited understanding of quality, data relevance issues, a mismatch between public funds and performance, and conflicting theories on the merit of benchmarking itself.
One school of thought favours measurements as a necessary ingredient for better management, but another feels being obsessed with measurements can lead to data manipulation, over-regulation and undermining of widely-held learning theories. It’s different matter that a robust measurement system of any public scheme does not exist, or if it does it’s poor. The result is that policies are designed either whimsically or a commonsense basis. One can imagine the consequences of such decisions.
The moot point is: can there really be a benchmarking framework that gets the best out of states while ensuring that state specificities are not compromised and states adhere to a set of national objectives, while keeping the learner at the centre
The answer, surprisingly, is “yes”. if one evaluates and analyses expert inputs collated over a year by CUTS International in its bid to formulate recommendations for the New Education Policy.
We don’t know yet when the new policy will be out but it can start by creating a fairly robust benchmarking system premised upon key national objectives. To begin with, the policy can spell out a clear definition of what “quality education” means; as it is now unfortunately only equated with learning outcomes. The policy would do well by defining quality education holistically as a combination of inputs, processes and outcomes which may include infrastructure, teacher, classrooms, school functioning, student-teacher interaction, assessments, school environment, curriculum, learning outcomes, retention rates, dropout rates and age-appropriate grade completion. Similarly, “learning” also needs to be looked at holistically to include learning for development of identity, development of the capacity to live in society and development of skills or even learning capacities.
These parameters must be broken down into measurable indicators but this should be done by the states. The lessons from Unesco’s International Standards of Classification of Education will be of immense value to get states on board proactively. In the Indian scenario, the Unesco system can be used effectively by mapping state-specific education programmes. Mapping of different criteria across states on elements such as entry levels and education structure can allow measurement of comparable indicators.
Alternatively, each state can develop its own theory of change. These may not be identical but from different theories a common theory of change can be culled out and some major common indicators can be identified and used to compare the effectiveness of the educational programmes of each state.
Needless to say, data-gathering will be the key. The data from the District Information System for Education and NSSO are not very relevant for states, and the enrolment data is mostly biased. Multiple data sources need to be consulted to cross-validate the data. This means creation of a strong monitoring capacity at the sub-national level. The Niti Aayog’s new Development, Monitoring and Evaluation Office can help in this regard.
On conflicting opinions about benchmarking’s merits, the key aspect to remember is that it should not lead to over-monitoring, over-regulation or standardisation. The Global Monitoring Report 2005 highlights this concern and advocates a balanced approach between socio-cultural realities of learners, their aspirations, and the well-being of the nation.
In other words, we need to be careful that we don’t neglect this balance in our desperation to create skills necessary for economic growth alone.
Regarding assessments, there is a need to link them with curriculum and pedagogy. Assessments are not useful if they are not able to provide feedback into improving the educational system. Linking assessments with pedagogy and curriculum can facilitate a shift from an approach of monitoring to a meaningful diagnosis.
Last but not the least, benchmarking must have a safety valve against political impulses as states may be tempted to understate their performance to get more Central resources, while on the other hand they may inflate their achievements for political gain. The best way to build a safety valve is to increase the states’ autonomy to govern their own educational systems. In this context, reduction of Central funding to states on key educational schemes seems the correct step, but it will remain incomplete if the states fail get their act together.