Outlays to outcomes: Understanding pathways to improving learning outcomes

It is well known that the Indian state suffers from a serious crisis of implementation capability. Economist Lant Pritchett has aptly captured this crisis in his description of the India state as a “flailing state”, one where “the head – its elite institutions at the national and state level- remain sound and functional but where its head is no longer reliably connected to its limbs”. So much so that even the most basic of tasks – like getting officials to show up to work, are near impossible.

Despite widespread recognition of this flailing character, there is remarkably little analytical work on precisely how the Indian state works, particularly at the local level. We know very little about the every day practices of local bureaucrats, the decision-making systems within which they function and the organisational culture and norms that this fosters. Such an understanding is critical both to unpack the flailing character of the Indian state and to understand how reform efforts are institutionalised, interpreted and implemented on the ground. This will enable a more robust analytical assessment of why the flailing character persists, and under what conditions this can be reversed.

Our research is an attempt to contribute to current understandings of the local Indian state by studying the institutionalisation, interpretation and implementation of a unique moment of transition in the Government of Bihar’s (GoB) elementary education policy. In April 2013, the GoB announced an innovative policy called ‘Mission Gunvatta’ (MG) aimed at improving learning outcomes for elementary education in the state. This reform effort comes in the wake of a massive push by the Bihar government to improve public provisioning for education since 2005, which has seen both large scale improvements in education infrastructure (100,000 classrooms have been built and over 200,000 teachers have been recruited) as well as access (the percentage of out of school children dropped from 12.8 in 2006 to about 3 percent in 2011). It is in this context of improvements in infrastructure and access that the state government attempted to shift focus toward learning quality.

The most significant component of the MG is a policy decision to regroup children in classes three to five according to learning levels, and provide them with remedial education for two hours during the school day. This component is particularly interesting because it builds on a homegrown experiment implemented in Jehanabad district in Bihar. Through a partnership with the education NGO Pratham, the Jehanabad experiment challenged mainstream assumptions about classroom organisation (age-grade systems) and teaching based on set curricula by experimenting with re-grouping students according to their learning level and teaching them using materials and activities appropriate to each level. Crucially, this experiment is based on building local administrative capacity to support schools from the bottom up. Significant investments are being made in training the Cluster Resource Centre Coordinators (CRCC) and encouraging them to take leadership of their schools. This is perhaps the first time in the country that an attempt is being made to strengthen CRCC’s capacity to provide academic support to schools.

The uniqueness of this effort provides fertile ground to answer important policy questions that have come to dominate public debates on elementary education in India, and service provision more broadly. On the one hand, there are questions about how outcomes oriented reform efforts are initiated and institutionalised –who/what are the drivers of this shift in state policy? And what are the conditions under which this occurs. Second, there are questions of implementation – how does a reform effort get integrated and absorbed in to the every day workings of the state? In other words, once learning goals are set, how does the governmental machinery – planning, budgeting, decision making system – align itself to meeting these goals? And when and how will change be resisted, subverted or distorted? These questions are the primary concern of this research.

The study will begin by capturing the overarching reform environment – the key drivers of change and their vision of change – through in-depth interviews with the policy makers and other stakeholders that scripted these reforms. It will then focus on implementation in two districts in Bihar – East Champaran and Bhojpur. Mission Gunvatta is being implemented in partnership with Pratham (a national education NGO) in 13 districts in Bihar. To capture this variation we have purposively chosen two districts, one where Pratham is supporting the program (East Champaran) and one where the program is being implemented by the State government machinery. The emphasis of our field work will be on capturing perceptions and experiences of key local level administrators (at the cluster, block and district level) as they began implementing this new reform.

Finally, to understand implementation processes and school level experiences, this study will document the program implementation at the school level. The objective of this documentation is not to monitor implementation progress but to capture school level (teacher, headmaster and parent) perspectives on MG, their sense of ownership toward the program and their perceptions on its effectiveness in improving student learning levels. Data will be collected through focus group discussions at school level in the sampled districts.