Thoughts on India’s National Education Policy 2020: II

The government of India recently released a new National Education Policy 2020 which offers a peek into its vision of India’s education system. The stated aim is “for India to have an education system by 2040 that is second to none, with equitable access to the highest-quality education for all learners regardless of social or economic background.” On the face of it, it is more of a vision than a policy. It outlines what Indian education system should look like and in that it is progressive and ambitious. Even so, it is ahistorical and lacks specifics.

This is part II of a multi-part series of articles in which I try to describe and analyse some key aspects of the new policy related to teachers and schools. You can find part I, which discusses key aspects of school education, here.

The policy admits that the ‘quality of teacher education, recruitment, deployment, service conditions, and empowerment of teachers is not where it should be’, leading to substandard teacher quality and motivation. To improve quality, the government proposes a large number of merit-based scholarships for studying in 4 year B. Ed. programs. While this may attract more high school graduates, the lowered cost may be more of an incentive than the motivation to become a teacher. A complementary approach may be to offer merit scholarships to college graduates for the shorter B.Ed. program. This may ensure that the teachers have proper motivation, deep subject knowledge as well as pedagogical training.

The government also recognizes that the shortage of teachers is higher in rural areas and seeks to incentivise teaching in rural schools through ‘the provision of local housing near or on the school premises or increased housing allowances’. This has the potential to increase the number of applicants but the incentive again may not be sufficiently education related, given the perks of a government job and lack of high paying non-teaching options. The policy could have studied the model of ‘Teach for India’ and developed a community of motivated college graduates who could potentially become regular teachers. Another idea proposed is ‘local job opportunities to local students, especially female students’. While hiring local graduates as teachers may be useful, the focus on female students has the potential to either improve their economic standing (through new opportunities) or to restrict their career pursuits (if parents see local teaching as the only career option) – these trade-offs need to be studied carefully within different contexts.

Another good element of the policy is the halting of excessive teacher transfers. The government proposes a digital interface to manage transfers and ensure transparency. The government should provide details about criterion and guidelines for teacher transfer, and ensure sufficient longevity of teachers in schools where they perform well. The directive that ‘teachers will not be engaged any longer in work that is not directly related to teaching’ is long overdue.

The policy introduces the idea of recruitment of teachers for groups of schools or sharing of teachers across schools. The government stipulates that this “could automatically create relationships among schools across the school complex; it would also help ensure excellent subject-wise distribution of teachers, creating a more vibrant teacher knowledge base.” While these are encouraging possibilities, collaboration among schools and teachers would be needed to ensure that the differences across schools does not lead to worse outcomes for smaller schools.

The policy also prescribes giving teachers ‘more autonomy in choosing aspects of pedagogy, so that they may teach in the manner they find most effective for the students in their classrooms’. This may help improve student learning, if properly implemented. This will need enhancement of school infrastructure and facilities which teachers can innovatively use to try out new ideas. There is also a provision for giving teachers ‘continuous opportunities for self-improvement and to learn the latest innovations and advances in their professions’. Increasing the number of motivated teachers who understand and implement best pedagogical methods suitable to the local context may benefit student outcomes, both academic and non-academic.

The government has decided to develop a ‘robust merit-based structure of tenure, promotion, and salary structure…with multiple levels within each teacher stage, that incentivises and recognizes outstanding teachers’. Previous policies that also tried to do the same and it is not clear whether they have achieved the desired outcomes. A careful analysis of teachers’, schools’ and students’ incentives is required in order to develop policy interventions that improve educational outcomes. For example, teacher merit pay may be helpful if teachers improve their teaching but can be deleterious if they change the nature of tests to embellish their students’ scores. The appraisal policy for teachers should consider how the incentives change their teaching behavior.

The policy stipulates career growth for teachers within a single school stage (i.e., Foundational, Preparatory, Middle, or Secondary), and no career progression-related incentive to move from being teachers in early stages to later stages or vice versa. The justification for this restriction is not clear. While some teachers may prefer to teach in one school stage throughout their lives, others may decide to move across stages – it is not clear why this is harmful.

The move to gradually integrate teacher education into multidisciplinary colleges and universities is commendable as it may allow B. Ed. students to pursue minors or electives in other fields of interest while allowing non-B.Ed. students to pursue minors or electives in education. It may also be helpful to offer options for senior college students to elect into a double major in education and a specialized subject. More innovative ideas need to be considered while reforming the B. Ed. degree, which the policy stipulates but lacks details on. For example, senior B. Ed. students could be assigned to teach in local schools for a semester as part of their degree completion requirements. 

Due to large fixed costs of running schools, the policy rightly recognizes that ‘small schools present a systemic challenge for governance and management.’ The document states that ‘small school sizes have rendered it economically sub-optimal and operationally complex to run good schools, in terms of deployment of teachers as well as the provision of critical physical resources.’ Hence, the policy recommends school complex/cluster. This may ensure efficient sharing of fixed costs across schools, for example, libraries, laboratories, playgrounds etc. The idea is feasible but there would have to be good coordination among the school managements to ensure that frictions are reduced. For example, a large school with a library, laboratory and playground may not want to share their costly resources if the other schools using them do not use them carefully and judiciously. They may also want the schools using these resources to pay for maintenance and operations. These details will have to be attended to.

The policy proposes that ‘un-utilized capacity of school infrastructure could be used to promote social, intellectual, and volunteer activities for the community and to promote social cohesion during non-teaching / schooling hours and may be used as a “Samajik Chetna Kendra.’ While the intention might be to foster a sense of community, this might lead to diversion of educational resources in ways that worsen student outcomes. Already, government schools are used for events like marriages, political rallies etc. 

The recognition of the public education system as ‘the foundation of a vibrant democratic society’ is commendable. The government states that the ‘current regulatory regime has not been able to curb the commercialization and economic exploitation of parents by many for-profit private schools, yet at the same time it has all too often inadvertently discouraged public-spirited private/philanthropic schools.’ However, the policy does not propose steps that will reduce exploitation or encourage philanthropic schools except for restructuring of the bureaucracy overseeing school education and public disclosure of information. The policy could have offered directions for regulating tuition fee changes, incentives for competition, reforms in the admissions process, school audits etc.

On the bureaucratic front, the policy aims to reduce ‘conflicts of interests and excessive centralized concentration of power’ within agencies. To that end, it proposes that the state’s reformed Department of school education will be responsible for ‘overall monitoring and policy-making for continual improvement of the public education system’; the Directorate of school education will oversee the ‘educational operations and service provision for the public schooling system’; the State School Standards Authority (SSSA) will ‘establish a minimal set of standards’ to be followed by all schools in the state; and the academic matters, including academic standards and curricula in the State will be led by the State Councils for Educational Research and Training (SCERTs). The operational framework that implements this bureaucratic separation will also have to ensure sufficient coordination and alignment of objectives across these branches.

The ideas for improvement in teacher quality and better management of schools are feasible. How the stakeholders respond to the change in incentives and how well it aligns with the objective of improving students outcomes will be key.

Thoughts on India’s National Education Policy 2020: I

The government of India recently released a new National Education Policy 2020 which offers a peek into its vision of India’s education system. The stated aim is “for India to have an education system by 2040 that is second to none, with equitable access to the highest-quality education for all learners regardless of social or economic background.” On the face of it, it is more of a vision than a policy. It outlines what Indian education system should look like and in that it is progressive and ambitious. Even so, it is ahistorical and lacks specifics.

This is part I of a multi-part series of articles in which I try to describe and analyse some key aspects of the new policy. 

The policy stipulates a shift in the school education from the conventional 10+2 structure to 5+3+3+4 structure with special emphasis on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). This focus on ECCE is a change in the right direction, given a vast body of research that shows the long term educational and non-educational benefits of early childhood education. However, the policy seems to be confused between provision and funding of ECCE. It is not clear how far the ‘strong investment’ and ‘universal provisioning’ that the government aims to achieve will be done by the public sector. Training of teachers in this aspect also seems to focus more, at least initially, on ‘allowing teachers to acquire ECCE qualifications’ through online channels rather than rigorous training. For students currently not involved in ECCE, the policy proposes an interim 3-month play-based ‘school preparation module’ before Grade 1. It is not clear how this module will be offered. Pilot modules that study how students respond to this intervention may be more suitable before launching state-wide or nation-wide modules so that there is learning efficacy when a scaled up program is launched.

The policy recognizes the fact that India is in a ‘learning crisis’. Every year for the past few years, the Annual State of Education Report documents the lack of learning at the primary education level that takes place in classrooms all over the country (for example, more than 50% of students in Grade 5 cannot read a Grade 2 text or solve a simple subtraction problem). The focus on attaining universal foundational literacy and numeracy for all children is commendable to ameliorate this gap in student learning. However, the policy fails to diagnose the reasons behind this monumental failure despite rising enrollment rates across the country. Even so, the policy offers solutions.

The policy describes time-bound filling up teacher vacancies as one of the solutions to the problem. There is no doubt that vacancies are a big part of the problem but teacher absenteeism and quality is just as much of an issue. While lowering the pupil-to-teacher ratio may be helpful, it might also lead to filling up schools with untrained teachers, especially in areas having large numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students. If the non-teaching career options available to young college graduates pay less than teaching, the teachers filling these vacancies may not be of good quality, especially if they come into teaching just because of the monetary incentives.

On the curriculum side, the policy aims to introduce a ‘robust system of continuous formative/adaptive assessment to track and thereby individualize and ensure each student’s learning’. However, it does not offer any guidance for how this system will look like – will the assessment be at the school, state or national level? 

The policy also proposes a ‘national repository of high-quality resources on foundational literacy and numeracy’. This is a good idea to help teachers, especially in resource constrained environments. However, the outcomes will depend on the digital training of teachers themselves as well as the access to communications infrastructure that is available to teachers and schools.

The government also plans to inculcate a culture of reading across the country with the introduction and expansion of public and school libraries. This is again a great idea to facilitate learning outside the core textbooks. 

To enhance the nutrition and health of children, the policy stipulates healthy meals and the introduction of well-trained social workers, counsellors, and community involvement into the schooling system. While it is a good idea, the policy fails to document the learnings (successes and failures) of the past years in this aspect. Without a careful reckoning with past policy lessons, any new interventions may be just another shot in the dark. 

The government also recognizes the increasing rate of dropouts as the students move up the grades. However, the policy’s focus on quality of school resources and universal access lends too much on the supply side of the problem. There is no discussion of the demand side – parents may not have the correct idea about the academic ability and progress of their kids, the opportunity cost of education compared to involvement in family work may be high, the returns to education maybe perceived to be present only if they think that the child will complete the 12th grade etc. These issues do not find mention in the policy.

The policy stipulates that ‘requirements for schools will be made less restrictive. The focus will be to have less emphasis on input and greater emphasis on output potential concerning desired learning outcomes’. The document fails to specify, to what extent has the restrictions placed on schools reduced learning outcomes? Moreover, it is not clear how less emphasis on inputs will increase learning outcomes.

The government rightly appreciates the need to reconfigure the curriculum to ‘make it responsive and relevant to the developmental needs and interests of learners’ and to ‘move the education system towards real understanding and towards learning how to learn – and away from the culture of rote learning as is largely present today’. To achieve this, the policy prescribes reduction in curriculum content to its core essentials. What is it about the current curriculum that reduces student learning, does it contain elements that wastes students’ time – the policy offers only silence. While the need to transition to a ‘more critical thinking and more holistic, inquiry-based, discovery-based, discussion-based, and analysis-based learning’ is definitely the need of the hour, there is no evidence that reducing the curriculum content will achieve that. 

The policy also proposes that students will be offered a wide choice of subjects and courses from year to year. At the same time, board exams will be made easier. While this may serve to reduce the workload that students face, it is not clear how the government seeks to help students in making the right choices at such early stages of their life. Meanwhile, the vast number of students dropping out of prestigious colleges every year shows that information about subject choice is limited even after graduating from school. 

More careful thought needs to go into this aspect of curricular change, to decide what the core of the curriculum will be around which students can elect their own choice of subjects. Changing the assessment pattern to make it more holistic is a step in the right direction. However, the changing value of signals with a less competitive assessment system may change how colleges look at school outcomes during admissions. While the current admissions system is not perfect, these changes may exacerbate the distortions that already exist. Non-standardized results that do not convey a meaningful signal to the colleges about student’s quality or that do not lead to sufficient differentiation among students’ outcomes may not lead to the desired outcomes.

Another important proposal of the policy is to dissolve the ‘hard separation among ‘curricular’, ‘extracurricular ’, or ‘co-curricular’, among ‘arts’, ‘humanities’, and ‘sciences’, or between ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ streams. Subjects such as physical education, the arts and crafts, and vocational skills, in addition to science, humanities, and mathematics’. This is again right but only a first step. It is not just the separation among subjects that compartmentalizes learning but also the high paying jobs and economic mobility that this hard separation system has come to offer those specializing in a few subjects. If integration of these disciplines is the goal, the government will have to induce demand, especially in arts, humanities and vocational education through examples of students’ financial success while pursuing these fields.

The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the number of students attending coaching classes at all levels of education. The policy stipulates that the ‘coaching culture’ is harming the students. While it would be a win if the very need for coaching centers is eliminated, the policy offers a very simplistic view of this phenomena. The only reason the government thinks these centers exist is for board and entrance examinations. While that may certainly be a big part of it, students start to take tuition classes from a very early age if their parents can afford it. It is a convenient way for parents who find it difficult to get involved in their child’s daily studies. Moreover, the opportunity cost of not working may be too high. 

The policy also prescribes tracking ‘progress throughout the school years, and not just at the end of Grades 10 and 12’ and offers ‘a high-quality common aptitude test, as well as specialized common subject exams in the sciences, humanities, languages, arts, and vocational subjects, at least twice every year’. While the conventional board exams are cut throat and put too much pressure on students, they also offer a composite way for students to showcase their academic ability in the form of a total score. The stipulated change may not just increase the number of high stakes assessments students have to take but also leave them guessing as to what the criteria for college admissions will be. More careful thought needs to be given before such a change is implemented.

There are too many gaps to be filled before the policy gets a comprehensive shape. 

Read part two of this series, which discusses key aspects of the policy relating to teachers and schools, here.