To be a child growing up in the Indian state of Haryana is to have access to lush green landscapes, world-famous historical monuments and some of the country’s finest art and culture. They also have access to a sizeable education system – 15,000 public schools and 5,000 private schools – and can count on the reassuring knowledge that theirs is a state that can offer a wealth of career options: manufacturing, IT services and the automobile industry have all made their home there.
So, what’s the problem? Unfortunately, a well-developed school system is no guarantee of strong learning outcomes – and this jarring fact is by no means confined to Haryana’s borders.
Over the last two decades India’s has been a story of divergent trends, with progress on access and equity to both boys and girls undermined by declining academic results, which saw the country finish second last in the OECD’s PISA rankings. In Haryana, the situation is even more severe, with learning outcomes in its public schools even worse than national averages. No wonder, then, that 30% of parents nationally and 50% of parents in Haryana opt for higher-cost private education for their children.
There has long been agreement that Haryana’s education system is ripe for reform. A myriad of efforts from an eclectic range of stakeholders – government, international organisations, education experts, non-profits – have all targeted improvements over the years, but to little avail. In our research we found that over 40 pilot schemes had been introduced in the state’s schools in recent years, but progress had stubbornly refused to materialise.
There are a number of factors to blame. Many have prioritised ‘input’ aspects such as infrastructure and teacher training over ‘outcomes’ – learning impact – while others have deployed a silo approach, zeroing in on a specific issue rather than addressing the problem as a whole. These initiatives are not designed to be able to scale: a high dependence on external resources has meant that they cannot be rolled out statewide to all 15,000 schools. And they have been further diluted by their limited focus on systemic root causes and the fact that many have seen their scope altered due to frequent changes in state leadership.
But that was then. What about now?
In 2013, Haryana’s Department of School Education, with the support of The Boston Consulting Group and funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, set out to make some changes. Unveiling its Quality Improvement Programme (QIP), the department announced that it would be seeking to ensure that all 15,000 schools in the state would become centres of quality education. Targeting access was not enough. Now the focus would be on children’s learning outcomes and this would be prioritised above all else. All initiatives would be designed such that they could scale statewide, and explicit focus would be given to systemic issues like lack of accountability, data systems and organisational capability.
The QIP roadmap – comprehensive, ambitious, achievable – is owned by the state government and is underpinned by three core tracks of interventions.
Firstly, build a strong orientation around outcomes, with clear focus and accountability for students’ results via learning assessments, school inspections, greater community engagement and institutionalised academic reviews and vocabulary.
Secondly, a set of in-school interventions provides tools and training for in-class, in-school improvements. In practical terms, this involves resources such as new textbooks and revised, effective training and mentoring for teachers, especially to cater to first-generation learners with multiple-grade learning deficits.
And thirdly, a set of systemic interventions to strengthen the organisation and enable the new academic agenda to flourish. This is a critical prerequisite for the success of in-school interventions and includes, for example: creating a statewide management information system (MIS); organisation structure changes and capability-building; and provision of sufficient teachers through school consolidation or redistribution.
Although each initiative has been given a detailed three-year implementation road map, the results have so far exceeded expectations in each of the three focus areas. For example, in 18 months we have gone from having no learning assessments of students or systems to learning outcomes being measured, reported and discussed for over 1.8 million students every month. A structured remedial programme has been scaled up to 3,200 primary schools, executed using government resources and government funds, and with external support just for design, hence ensuring scalability. An integrated MIS has replaced multiple individual IT systems and now hosts data on 2.2 million students and 100,000 teachers, leading to data-based accountability and administrative efficiencies.
It has been a challenging journey, to say the least, with frequent changes in state leadership and no means to communicate directly with the schools and teachers that are spread out across 15,000 locations, often without email access and with issues with monitoring initiative roll-outs at scale. While rigorous programme management tools have come to the rescue, several grassroots innovations have proved effective, such as the use of WhatsApp groups, SMSs and mobile-compatible online forms.
There are indicators of early success as the state of Haryana has reversed the decline in learning outcomes, and various third-party studies indicate anywhere between 3%-10% improvement.
Of course, such results are pleasing, but no one in Haryana is pausing to rest on their laurels, and sustained improvement is key. A good quality education opens the door to new horizons, unlocking potential and enabling ideas and dreams to take flight. It’s now down to us to ensure that all children are able to pass through this avenue of opportunity and into a brighter future.
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