Bottom-up policymaking: Keeping schools at the centre

Kathan Shukla and Vijaya Sherry Chand

The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to re-examine public policies concerning India’s school education system. We first discuss three problem areas: a) top-down policymaking with a thin research base, b) policies driven by political compulsions, and c) a narrow view of school education. We then present an approach that places the school at the centre of a decentralized, bottom-up policymaking process.

Fault-lines in the school system
Top-down policy with a thin research-base: It is well-known that a few highly educated individuals, usually IAS officers and their selected team members in state capitals, in consultation with the political leadership, identify critical problem areas and then formulate appropriate responses. Recently, a variety of consultants and non-governmental actors also found their role in these teams. However, we continue not having a system in place that feeds policy-relevant knowledge based on empirical, context-sensitive studies to the policymaking process. For example, the response of States to the rapid growth of low-cost private elementary schooling and the rationalization of public schools can do with more rigorous analysis of evidence. In total, the bureaucrats, though well-meaning, end up drawing on their own experiences, some recent publications they might have come across or some policy prescriptions put out by non-governmental actors.

Policies driven by political compulsions: Politicians in power have limited time. They need positive results, which can be understood by the voters, at least one year before, any elections. Hence the focus tends to gravitate to populist measures such as free meals, scholarships, free stationery and bicycles, and infrastructure. All of these can be justified to an extent. 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. In any case, for any meaningful improvement in children’s schooling experiences, one needs to pay attention to the qualitative improvement of the entire educational ecosystem and not rely on isolated interventions.

Narrow view of school education: The school system seems to be built on the premise that all the state needs to do is provide a classroom and a teacher who will cover the textbook content. Thus, we end up with primarily two professions: teachers and teacher trainers. This narrow understanding of education goes against the entire discourse on qualitative improvement in school education. If we are serious about building an effective public-school system, we need a variety of highly skilled human resources: curriculum developers, school administrators, educational data analysts, school psychologists, 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. We should not be surprised to know that apart from a few exceptions, our universities do not offer any programmes for developing such human resources since there is no scope for the employment of their graduates in our education system.

The overall result of these fault-lines is that the educational experiences of millions of children get distorted. Since we rarely have empirical examinations of policy failures, business continues as usual. Policy makers know that if things go wrong and there is a backlash from the grassroots, they can always rollback the policy and shift to a new idea. The lack of attention to the non-teacher human resources necessary for quality education adds to the distortion of the educational experience. The corrective to be applied lies in taking the development of a decentralized educational ecosystem more seriously and helping schools become the centre of such a system.

Operationalizing bottom-up policymaking
A comprehensive educational improvement, where most students achieve grade-level competencies and respective all-round developmental goals, is complex and time consuming. It is important to note that for a small country like Finland (with a population comparable to Ahmedabad) it took more than two decades to transform its education system from mediocre to one of the world’s top performing systems. For an effective turnaround of our educational context, three major changes, within a decentralized framework, are required: 1) production of policy relevant research 2) generating actionable educational intelligence at the local level and 3) demand from schools for high quality support from the administrators. The change has to start with the support systems that we have at the district level at present.

In the current scenario, it is difficult to take for granted the willingness and capability of the state and district levels for educational research and training (state councils and their district institutes of education and training) to foster a holistic decentralized ecosystem. At the state-level, the councils should develop interdisciplinary expertise on designing relevant interventions, evaluating programs, developing sharp policy reports, and supporting multi-disciplinary teams at the district-level through appropriate recruitment or networking. Such expertise would require a diverse mix of psychologists, curriculum experts, data analysts and psychometricians, pedagogical experts, educational economists, sociologists, and so on. The councils may argue they already have departments with such experts. Unfortunately, the deficiencies of our system become apparent in the relevance and applicability of its outcomes – research that feeds into policy. The councils should open themselves up to an assessment of their knowledge-production performance; policy consulting with state-level administrators; media outreach to convey educational issues and policies to the average citizen; and developing the next generation of researchers for district-level work. As they do this, the councils will obviously have to factor in political compulsions and populism that will dominate in any democratic setup. Therefore, a good council, empowered with a solid research base, should be able to maintain a balance between strategic advice on informed policymaking with tactical ‘schemes’.

Moreover, change is needed at the district level as well. An honest assessment of the quality and relevance of the outputs generated by the district-level counterparts has to be undertaken. Such reflective assessments should open the door to the diversity of expertise needed and to a willingness to examine more localized alternatives to supporting educational achievement. For example, we have in place a huge one-way data-collection system. However, there is hardly any evidence available on how the data (both administrative and academic) from the grassroots flows back to the schools in the form of actionable points for improving quality. What is needed is an approach that ensures data analytical capabilities at decentralized levels. This example can be extended to other areas which call for action: leadership development, school psychology, test development, policy analysis, and so on. Getting the needed human resources for decentralized support through various models of networking is a task for the district levels. Such an ecosystem should be able to provide the necessary inputs and undertake a range of ‘bottom-up’ policy studies: efficacy studies; replication studies to develop a deeper understanding of contextual factors; scaling up interventions that work; evaluation of field practices and so on. In total, by recognizing and integrating the role of specific educational field experts and a data-driven balance among capacity building, autonomy, and accountability across all levels of administration, we can generate a self-sustaining mechanism that drives system improvements over time.

Finally, any decentralized system requires schools to be demanding. For a long time, schools have been subject to paternalistic treatment by the system. It is time schools stand up for themselves and occupy the central role in the ecosystem. Schools need to demand high quality support for improving the schooling experiences of their students from district and state-level administrators. A decentralized, bottom-up perspective has to see itself as serving the school – the entire support system exists because of the school. The idea of even viewing the school as the central focus may be unpalatable to well-entrenched administrative and political interests. Our schools need to learn to look at the district and state administrators as their facilitators and partners and not as some higher-ups. The widely prevalent low learning outcomes are our collective failure, whereas the system tends to blame the teachers and the schools. Why don’t schools question the role of district and state administrators in this collective failure? Our schools will have to learn to demand and expect high quality service.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic slowdown, right investment in the education sector is critically important. Interestingly, research predicts that if the world invests in high quality basic education system for all children, world GDP can grow at 11% annually for the entire century. Money will come back with high interest, but the question is – do we have it in us to put systems in place for bottom-up policymaking?

The authors are faculty members at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, IIM Ahmedabad. They can be reached at [email protected].

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