Reforming education systems


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BACK in 2010, I participated in a meeting on education reforms with some of Bihar government’s senior education officials and reformist politicians. In the course of the discussion, a senior official made an important observation. ‘The government can’, he said (and I paraphrase here) ‘change how it works in short bursts. We can reform teaching practices and innovate in summer camps and mission mode programmes but when it comes to mainstreaming changes in our day-to-day work, we fail.’

A few years later, this same sentiment was echoed by another Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer when he described India as the ‘burial ground of pilots’. Both officers were pointing to an important puzzle that education reform efforts in India must confront. Government education systems are capable of reforms when the change is small-scale, mission oriented and time bound. But when it comes to embedding reforms in its everyday functioning and scaling up, the system fails.

Intrigued by this observation my colleagues and I have spent the last few years studying the education system at the frontlines in an attempt to unpack this puzzle. Our focus has been on understanding the everyday practices of local education bureaucrats, the decision making systems within which they function and the organizational culture and norms that this fosters. We then used this lens to understand how reforms are interpreted, implemented and institutionalized on the ground. To better understand reform failures we were particularly interested in studying how and why reforms are resisted, subverted and ultimately distorted. And of course, what worked.


The first step in our research was a study of how frontline actors (teachers and bureaucrats) interpret their role within the education system. When we asked our interviewees to describe their roles, the most frequently cited self-description was of being powerless cogs in a machine or ‘post offices’ used simply for doing the bidding of higher authorities and ferrying messages between the top and bottom of the education chain.

As one Block Education Officer (BEO) said of one of his critical tasks, managing teacher training – ‘I spend much of my time ensuring everyone knows when the teacher or staff trainings are, ensuring all teachers and my own staff arrive on time and their TA/DA is paid.’ When asked whether he engages with issues related to pedagogical content or teacher training modules, he offers an answer echoed in many of our interviews: ‘I don’t think that’s really my job.’ One reason for this limited understanding of their role is the perception amongst officers that their voices were rarely heard. ‘Humari awaz kaun sunta hai’, was a common response we got when we asked our interviewees whether they had any influence over the decisions regarding implementation.

This sense of powerlessness runs so deep that many intervieweed referred to the ‘Sarkar’ as something outside of themselves and over which they have no control. ‘Agar sarkar chaahti hai to bahut kuch kar sakti hai’, was a frequent response when we asked our interviewees what could be done to improve education. But very few were willing to discuss their potential agency in making this change. This was most visible when we spoke to teachers and school administrators about the challenge of learning in government schools. In 2014, my co-authors Ambrish Dongre, Vincy Davis and I interviewed 110 frontline education administrators in Bihar to capture their perspectives on the constraints to children’s learning in elementary schools. Our interviewees viewed the challenge of learning primarily as a consequence of circumstances outside their control. These included poor policy, poor administration, lack of interest from parents from above, amongst others. But the classroom, the role of teachers and their relationship with students and the interviewees own agency never entered the discussion. Expectedly the solutions too lay outside their domain of influence. After all, if the government wants, it can do anything!


Research on India’s frontline education system has quite conclusively shown the frontline to be powerful, unruly and often corrupt where absenteeism, low effort and apathy are the norm.1 This contrasts sharply with the narrative of powerlessness that the frontline actors we interviewed have crafted for themselves. A narrative that runs so deep that most, as the quote above so effectively demonstrates, consider the state as something outside of the very actors that embody the state. It is easy to dismiss this narrative of powerlessness as a deliberate strategy deployed by an apathetic and corrupt bureaucracy. Regardless, it is important to understand how such an atmosphere is produced and sustained and what impact this has on how implementing agents understand their roles and make meaning of their jobs.

In his analysis of India’s education system, Lant Pritchett hypothesizes that the reason why India (and many other developing countries) demonstrate low progress on basic learning outcomes, is because the education system is designed to cohere only around the goal of schooling inputs (enrolment, access, infrastructure) rather than learning.2 Our exploration into the organizational culture of the frontline education system suggests that this input focused system design has served to produce and entrench the narrative of powerlessness or what my co-author Shrayana Bhattacharya and I define as the post office syndrome.


Arguably, a system designed to produce inputs necessitates a post office culture where implementing agents follow orders, supply information and comply with orders received and monitored from the top. Hierarchy and rules are the hallmark of such a system and this in turn shapes officers account of their jobs and how they go about their daily routines. On two separate occasions (2013 with Block Education Officers – BEOs – and 2014/2015 with Cluster Resource Centre Co-ordinators or CRCCs, administrators charged with providing pedagogical support to teachers), we conducted time-use surveys to discover the extent to which input focused goals and associated orders shape the daily lives and understandings of their role as education administrators.

We usually found that BEOs start their day with phone calls from their district bosses informing them of new input related ‘government orders’ received and the tasks they have to perform. As a result, each day is spent executing unplanned tasks rather than fulfilling the tasks they were hired for. During our study, Bihar’s BEOs were busy implementing orders to organize camps for uniform and scholarship distribution. In Himachal Pradesh, BEOs were busy managing exams while Andhra Pradesh’s BEOs were implementing teacher recruitment orders. During this time, none of the officers found any time to respond to reports received or needs expressed by those who visited their office. In fact, it was common for headmasters (HMs) and village elders who visited the block officers to raise concerns about their schools to be asked to wait while BEOs completed their district specified tasks.


In its functioning, the entire block office appeared to be geared toward responding to orders rather than responding to the needs of the school. In fact ‘learning’ related activities found almost no place in the daily activities of the block office for the time period of this study. This lack of focus on learning was even starker in our study of CRCCs. On an average visit to a school, CRCCs surveyed spent a mere 10-20% of their time in classrooms, choosing instead to use their school visits to collect information and data (on mid-day meals, school infrastructure, follow up on schemes like uniforms and scholarships) demanded by their bosses.

An important consequence of this deeply entrenched input culture is that it legitimizes a narrative of performance defined solely in terms of responsiveness to rules and orders received from above rather than meeting any specific service delivery goals. Such a system makes dialogue, deliberation and problem solving redundant. This was evident when we observed meetings that CRCCs had with their superiors. The mandatory monthly meetings were entirely transactional. Superior requested followed up on progress related to administrative orders and explained requirements of new orders. Amidst these transactions, there was no space for deliberation – views are neither sought nor debated. After all, the main job is to follow orders. And in this atmosphere the real purpose that CRCCs are hired for: supporting classroom pedagogy, are ignored. For instance, all CRCCs were expected to fill a quality monitoring format based on their observations of teaching-learning practices. But these were never ‘requested’ or debated and discussed, giving CRCCs the clear message that academic mentoring was the least relevant aspect of their job. But even more important, this influences the skills and capabilities that officers develop in their jobs. Is it realistic to expect officers schooled in a culture of hierarchy and order following to develop capacities needed for ‘academic support’?


The effects of hierarchy and rules are even more perverse when it comes to the classroom. An input culture only understands what Pritchett describes as ‘thin’ logistical tasks – like constructing a classroom, enrolling students. These are tasks that can be easily monitored through ‘thin’ information (formal qualifications, # of classrooms constructed). Performance in these systems is defined in ‘thin’ terms. In this culture, even the most complex, implementation intensive tasks or what Pritchett calls ‘thick’ tasks like teaching are reduced to thin facts which are used to determine performance. This is precisely what has happened to our classrooms. Easy to measure metrics, ‘syllabus completion’ and ‘pass percentages’ have held our classrooms hostage.

We’ve unconvered the extent of this in an ongoing study with Vincy Davis and Taanya Kapoor on secondary schools in Delhi.3 Across a yearlong interaction with school teachers, we found teachers repeatedly expressing their understanding of performance in these terms. ‘I am well aware of the learning levels of my students… but I still have to complete the syllabus in time,’ said one teacher. Another described why pass percentages matter. ‘In a meeting with a senior education department official,’ he related, ‘every head of school was asked to stand up and answer questions related to their (school performance) in the examination.’


This concern with syllabus completion and pass percentages is entirely a consequence of the fact that these are the two metrics that senior administrators use to measure teacher performance. But administrators aren’t the culprit. The real problem is the organizational culture in which they are schooled which makes ‘pass percentages’ and ‘syllabus completion’ the only rational way of holding the system accountable for learning. This is the norm in a post office state.

Education reforms, especially efforts focused on improving learning and changing classroom transactions, have to engage with this input-focused post office state. In the ultimate analysis, it is the interplay between reform ideas and the post office state that will determine whether a reform effort will succeed or, as the IAS officer reminded us ‘rest in peace’!

Changing system behaviour, is not, as many reforms have tended to assume, a simple matter of changing the metrics of measurement, changing incentives through pay for performance, introducing new pedagogy or even disciplining teachers to ensure they show up, even though each of these are sensible reforms in their own right. For reforms to work, they have to directly address the mindsets and perceptions of frontline actors and how this may influence the way reforms are internalized and implemented.


In our work in Delhi, where the state government is engaged in a unique effort to shift classroom pedagogy and teacher orientation away from pass percentages and syllabus completion toward improving learning, teachers and administrators were flummoxed by reform expectations, at least in the first year that changes were introduced. The primary reform instrument was to reorganize the classroom according to learning levels so that teachers could teach students who were significantly behind curriculum expectations in a manner that allowed them to learn key concepts and eventually catch up.

Teachers were given the flexibility to move away from the syllabus and use alternative pedagogical techniques in these new classrooms. But teachers, whose experience was shaped by a system that required them to teach to the syllabus, found it very difficult to adapt to a flexible and somewhat more ‘learning’ focused system. In the end, our classroom observations found very little difference in teaching practices adopted in the different classrooms.

In fact, in an effort to facilitate ‘differential teaching’, toward the end of the year, the government reduced the syllabus to enable teachers to teach students at a slower pace. We found in the classrooms observed, that most teachers used this as an opportunity to conduct revision classes to ensure maximize pass percentages! And it wasn’t just the teachers. The education administration too found it difficult to adjust to a system that doesn’t measure known metrics and despite repeated assurances by reformers about changes in performance metrics, the everyday interaction between teachers and administrator stuck to the familiar – administrators focused on pass percentages and other administrative targets and teachers complied accordingly.

This is not to suggest that change is not possible. Our research has served to substantiate the puzzle that the officials I quoted in the introduction to this essay presented. Pilots and mission mode programmes succeed. In Bihar, efforts to change classroom process by Pratham worked when the system went into mission mode. Simple, easy to achieve foundational learning goals were clearly articulated and the entire system aligned itself to support teachers with teaching tools, mentoring and monitoring of outcomes. New teaching methods and alternative textbooks were welcomed and adopted.


In Delhi too, the very same teachers who found it difficult to grasp the concept of adapting the syllabus to teach according to student learning levels, were able to very effectively respond to a political call to organize a two month long reading camp with the objective of ensuring that ‘non-readers’ in their schools achieve basic reading capability. Here too, teachers responded to the clear goal, time bound target and willingly took students outside the classroom and using new pedagogical practices, teach them to read.

The problem, just as the IAS officials who motivated our research described, is that when the expectation shifted from mission mode to incorporating change into everyday practice, the system defaulted back to business as usual. Teachers and bureaucrats, in both settings, argued that new methods could not be used regularly in the classroom because they are at odds with the syllabus, and learning gaps are a consequence of problems outside rather than inside the classroom. In the end, the post office syndrome resurfaced as soon as the mission converted to a daily routine.


Our research also points to important levers of long-term change. The pilots we studied in Bihar and Delhi were successful because efforts were made to shift management practices and disrupt the post office syndrome, even if briefly. In Bihar for instance the key to the pilot’s success was a shift in leadership and training style. In the pilot phase, the district leadership encouraged active dialogue and problem solving with CRCCs instead of the usual practice of expressing hierarchy through orders and demanding compliance. This empowered the CRCCs and pushed them to recast themselves as active, empowered agents of change: ‘We had direct access to the DM. We raised the issues... He was listening to us. With the DM’s backing, we (CRCCs) felt extremely empowered.’

This change in leadership style was accompanied with direct hand-holding and regular on the job training which helped the CRCCs build the skills needed to implement the pilots successfully. Scaling this pilot, successfully would have required embedding these management practices and problem solving techniques into the education bureaucracy’s mode of engagement. But getting this right would also require decentralizing the education bureaucracy so that it permits local improvements and focuses on support rather than ‘thin’ compliance.

The issue of performance monitoring and accountability for learning outcomes is far more complex. What are the appropriate ‘thick’ metrics of measurement that can monitor performance and build accountability without reducing teaching to meeting testing standards? What is the appropriate administrative design – centralized versus local – that can ensure autonomy in the classroom and independence to the frontline along with accountability for performance? There are no clear answers to these very complex and system altering questions. What we need, therefore, is a robust debate, rigorous research and a willingness to experiment with new systems design and management principles. But this will only be possible when reformers acknowledge the post office syndrome and are willing to engage with the frontline rather than dismissing it as peopled by an unruly, corrupt force that needs disciplining.

Transforming an entrenched system may seem an impossible task. But to expect a system that is designed and accountable for delivering inputs to cohere around the goal of learning without systemic institutional reforms is a recipe for disaster. Elementary education in India is at an important moment of transition. After decades of focusing almost exclusively on expanding the education system through focused input provision, the system has slowly taken a turn toward shifting the goalpost to improved learning. This is an important and radical change. But to leverage this transition, reformers have to tackle head on the much harder challenge of reforming the education bureaucracy. Only then will good ideas and great pilots succeed and sustain.


* This article draws on research conducted by the author and colleagues at the Centre for Policy Research’s Accountability Initiative. For a more detailed analysis of the ideas and arguments presented here, see Y. Aiyar, S. Bhattacharya, ‘The Post Office Paradox: A Case Study of the Education Block Level Bureaucracy’, Economic and Political Weekly 51(2). March 2016, and Y. Aiyar, A. Dongre and V. Davis. Education Reforms, Bureaucracy and the Puzzles of Implementation: A Case Study From Bihar. IGC Working Paper, 2015, available on: https://www.theigc. org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Aiyar-et-al-2015-Working-paper.pdf


1. K. Muralidharan, J. Das, A. Holla, A. Mohpal, The Fiscal Cost of Weak Governance: Evidence from Teacher Absence in India. Working Paper 20299, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015. Retrieved from

2. L. Pritchett, The Risks of Education Systems from Design Mismatch and Global Isomorphism. Faculty Research Working Paper Series (RWP14-017), Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, 2014; L. Pritchett, Creating Education Systems Coherent for Learning Outcomes: Making the Transition from Schooling to Learning. Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Working Paper, preliminary draft, 2015.

3. This is an ongoing multi-year in-depth study. Findings reported here are preliminary and pertain to the first year of the study (the 2016-17 academic year).