Yamini Aiyar is the President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, one of India’s leading public policy think tanks. In 2008, she founded the Accountability Initiative at CPR, which is credited with pioneering one of India’s largest expenditure tracking surveys for elementary education.
She is speaking on Rewriting the Grammar of the Education System: Delhi’s Education Reform (A Tale of Creative Resistance and Creative Disruption) at Harvard on Tuesday, November 1 at 5:30pm, as part of the Joint Seminar on South Asian Politics. Yamini spoke with the Mittal Institute about her work, and gave a preview of her talk.
Mittal Institute: Yamini, last year you co-authored a book, Rewriting the Grammar of the Education System: Delhi’s Education Reform (A Tale of Creative Resistance and Creative Disruption), which documents the introduction of education reforms in Delhi public schools. It is one of the first in-depth views on the everyday functioning of public systems, and how reform ideas are interpreted, challenged and distorted at the frontlines. What led you to write the book in the first place, and how did you capture your data?
Yamini Aiyar: Nearly a decade ago, I happened to have the privilege of listening in on a conversation between a leading voice in Indian elementary education reform, an academic, and a senior government official. This was a serious, indepth discussion on how to improve learning levels in primary schools in India, and the government official was deeply committed to helming changes. In the course of the conversation, the official raised his arms in despair and exclaimed – we know how to do the missions, the one-off changes and we have great success that gets documented and talked about all over the world. But when it comes to routinizing these changes and making them part of the everyday bureaucracy, we fail. Indeed, this is not an uncommon phenomenon. It is a well-acknowledged reality that the Indian state is capable when it comes to one-off, mission-mode activity, ranging from running elections to mass-scale immunization (COVID-19 vaccines being the latest example); yet it fails in basic public goods provision. We blame implementation and when we implement reforms aimed at improving implementation—much like in the discussion on elementary education—we seem to fail too, blaming implementation all over again. In more than a decade-long engagement with India’s frontline bureaucracy, this question has been at the front and foremost of my mind. And over the years of routine interactions, I realized that perhaps the answer lies in how we understand reforms and implementation.
In literature and policy praxis, we look for champions, political will, leadership changes, technical fixes and increasingly now technology itself. We ask, in social sciences, ‘what were the conditions under which reforms were adopted and sustained?’ But we never look to those charged with implementation. The very actors at the frontline whom we routinely blame for implementation failure are the ones charged with reform. Yet we know very little about who they are, what motivates them, and, crucially in the case of reforms discourse, how they understand, interpret, distort, and adapt to reforms. Intuitively, I felt the answer to the puzzles laid out by the senior government official over a decade ago lay there. And in the reform effort in Delhi, I found the perfect site to study and understand the frontline and document first hand, their perspectives of reform. India does not have an equivalent of “street-level bureaucracy.” This book is a contribution to building precisely this literature, with school education reforms, a personal passion, a site for this study.
Mittal Institute: When writing the aforementioned book, you said the objective was not to “evaluate” the reform for its “success,” but instead to document what it takes to implement public sector reform, and understand how entrenched systems respond to demand for change. Can you give us some takeaways from the book, and share some challenges and opportunities you anticipate when exploring educational reform?
Yamini Aiyar: Well, change is entirely about steering the frontline along. This was my hypothesis going in and it stands validated. Of course, this is not rocket science. What we learned through this study is not just how much the frontline matters; but also what are the possible levers through which reformers can steer the frontline towards long-term shifts. Crucially, we realized that long-term shifts are not dramatic. They rest in the subtle, difficult to identify, unless you are embedded changes – and for me, the biggest change in three years in Delhi’s schools came from the shifts in discussion in the staff rooms, in how teachers spoke about their students and their learning. Not in the changes in “outcomes.” It made me recognize that when you free yourself from seeking “outcomes,” you learn a lot more about the process of change, development and policy reform. We often forget this in our quest for proving our technical, “expert” fix is the right one. Evaluations that seek changes in outcomes are important, but without deep understandings of the process of change, the quest for outcomes will remain elusive. From a research point of view, we need new methods, new ways of framing research questions that will allow us to get to the heart of these issues.
It made me recognize that when you free yourself from seeking “outcomes,” you learn a lot more about the process of change, development and policy reform. Evaluations that seek changes in outcomes are important, but without deep understandings of the process of change, the quest for outcomes will remain elusive.
Specifically on education reforms, I identify three key elements that enabled the reformers to slowly steer the shift toward change. First, the deep investments in relationship building. Consistent, constant and direct contact between reform champions and the site of reform. This makes the reform ideas more real for the frontline. Second, nurturing disruptive principled agents (change agents) within the system that became the everyday champions of reform. And third, the regular, repeated infusion of “missions” that exposed actors constantly to the possibility of incremental change within the system. In the end, none of this was dramatic or required much technical knowhow. It was about reinstating a sense of purpose, a direction and a sense of professional identity aligned to the mission goals. Restoring (or creating) the “mission mystique” is at the heart of what will make for real, long-lasting reform.
Mittal Institute: How has the pandemic influenced the educational system and educational reforms?
Yamini Aiyar: Hugely. India boasted of having among the longest school closures in the world – schools where fully or partially closed for two years, in a country where many students did not have access to uninterrupted online schooling. This has impacted all children, across all classes and economic privilege. I see the impact on my own primary school-aged children. Schools opened full time only in the 2022 academic year and what worries me most is that with few exceptions—Delhi and Tamil Nadu being two—for most, it has been business as usual, with limited effort to introduce focused remedial teaching to bridge the gap. The costs of these will be visible in the 2022 ASER survey that will be released in January 2023.
There is though, a silver lining, which can be leveraged. Through the pandemic, states (and individual schools and teachers) were forced to innovate and experiment with finding ways to reach students and parents. This, for the first time, brought schools, teachers, and parents in contact. A huge opportunity exists here to leverage this contact and build sustainable forms of interaction between schools and parents, which lies at the heart of accountability and improving learning. How to build on this and create trust between parents and schools—along with an environment that is conducive to improved learning—is something the entire education system should be thinking about. We brought worksheets through WhatsApp to a large number of households during the pandemic. Parents and students were together working to bridge the school gap through these means. Can this be sustained? This is an opportunity we must not lose.
A huge opportunity exists here to leverage this contact and build sustainable forms of interaction between schools and parents, which lies at the heart of accountability and improving learning. How to build on this and create trust between parents and schools—along with an environment that is conducive to improved learning—is something the entire education system should be thinking about.
Mittal Institute: As educational systems in India face funding and curriculum challenges, what is important to focus on in the years ahead?
Yamini Aiyar: On the bright side, we have recognized the relevance of foundational learning and are willing to go at it with guns blazing. If this battle is won, we will have almost won the war. The real challenge will then move to secondary education, where we still have to work through the balance of high stakes exams, building competency, life skills and vocational education. The conversation has not even begun in earnest. This is going to be the next frontier. India needs to focus on these questions now.