Realizing the promise of education


THE Indian schooling system has long been in crisis. As successive waves of Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report have revealed, schools have not provided children with rudimentary skills in reading and arithmetic.1 The last few years were particularly harrowing for schoolchildren. Under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic, prolonged school closures induced learning losses and other disruptions.2 Learning losses are evident globally, more so among children from low-income backgrounds and those without access to digital technology, online resources and educational support at home.3 But because a sizable share of such children reside in India, its response to the current crisis will have global ramifications.

Education experts have called on governments and international aid agencies to place attention on the early years of schooling, to ensure that children gain foundational skills.4 Indian policymakers recognize the need for this and have expressed commitment to achieving quality education for all children. As a signatory to the United Nationals Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) Programme, India has agreed to achieving SDG 4 (Education). These aspirations are made concrete in the new National Policy on Education enacted in 2020 (NPE 2020). States across India have begun implementing NEP 2020.

The moment is thus ripe to reflect on the school system’s performance in recent years, how it has reached its current state and where it is going. The maladies afflicting government schools are many. These include inadequate infrastructure and facilities, erratic student attendance, misallocation of human resources, teacher absence and demonstrably weak learning levels.

Beyond these visible deficiencies are systemic problems of administration, governance and accountability, particularly in the management of school-teachers.5 These education challenges have historical roots. In Lord Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Indian Education, the purpose of education was ‘to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in bloods and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.’6 Colonial education policy produced clerks, inspectors and translators for the British Raj. An exclusionary system of government schooling and publicly aided private schooling was erected on top of a highly unequal social order based on caste and patriarchy.

Following independence, education was not placed among the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution. Instead, it made its way into Article 45 of the Directive Principles of State Policy, aspirational guidelines that were nonjusticiable in court. National leaders, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Maulana Azad, waxed eloquently about the state’s duty to educate the masses. Yet, few concrete policy proposals were put forward. The inadequacy of state policy gained official recognition in the 1966 Kothari Commission. Mass education was deemed ‘vital on grounds of social justice and to help the process of transformation of the national economy.’ The commission called for 6% of GDP to be allocated to education, but this public spending target was never met.

The winds of policy change began to emerge after Indira Gandhi made sweeping changes to the Constitution in the Emergency period. The 42nd Amendment moved education policy from the exclusive purview of state governments to the Concurrent List of policy subjects, affording central
and state governments joint legislative authority. Subsequently, the 1986 National Education Policy enacted under Rajiv Gandhi’s government mandated free and compulsory education, instituted a common school system with no tuition and made improvements in teacher training, pay, education and service conditions.

Fast-forwarding to the 1990s, education policy was linked to India’s economic liberalization. Committed bureaucrats working closely with external agencies, particularly the World Bank to develop subnational interventions, particularly the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). Building from the groundwork of DPEP, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government enacted Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in 2000, India’s flagship universal primary education programme.

These expansive policies sup-ported massive growth of primary school access and helped achieve near-universal enrollment. Still, critical gaps in education services remained. Indian civil society and the judiciary mobilized action to hold the state accountable for implementation. Their efforts culminated in the 2010 Right to Education Act, which recognized free and compulsory education as a fundamental right of all children and set stringent requirements on state governments.

This brief historical review reminds us that primary education policy has been an arena of fractured political will and uneven state capacity for implementation. Postcolonial India did not follow a coherent path of education policy development, as witnessed in parts of East Asia, where public initiative for mass education, backed by strong state institutions, brought denizens in the countryside into schools and then factories, helping to unleash rapid economic growth. Nor could India have mimicked the East Asian path, given a commitment to democracy and pluralism, a point we will return to later.

Beyond the national picture, subnational differences in policy action by state governments merit consideration. Tamil Nadu pioneered the provision of school lunches, which eventually became the national Midday Meal Programme, the largest child nutrition intervention in the world.7 Kerala had long experimented with community-based schools, run by religious and caste authorities, with fiscal support from the state. Himachal Pradesh incorporated rural women into the process of education governance, mobilizing collective action by mahila mandals in the form of Mother Teacher Associations.

The subnational story is not one of uniform state failure, but striking variation in policy development and implementation. Some Indian states have made remarkable progress, while others have stagnated. But even in a laggard state like Uttar Pradesh, notable initiatives have arisen, such as the Mahila Samakhya programme, which has supported girls’ education.8 Recognizing subnational initiatives is important, especially when exploring policy solutions today; it reminds us that policymakers, researchers and technical experts in New Delhi do not hold all the answers.

In that regard, the NEP 2020 is a welcome break from the past. The policy recognizes that state governments need flexibility to adapt policies rules according to their varying contexts. Acknowledging the shortcomings of prior approaches, the new policy calls for an overhaul of school curricula and strengthening of governance structures. Foundational learning is made central, along with systems to assess and track learning outcomes.

The NEP gives much-needed primacy to classroom pedagogy and assessment practices, urging a shift away from the traditional emphasis on rote memorization and completion of overambitious school curricula. Instead, it calls for mastery of essential skills and concepts. To support such a shift, teacher training and academic support are to be revamped. NEP 2020 also calls for universal pre-primary education services, a laudable policy move. Childcare and nutrition centres
created under the Integrated Child Development Services are to be repurposed for delivering preschool classes.

Like so many policies drafted in New Delhi, NEP 2020 ultimately lies in the details of implementation. As the political scientist Myron Weiner recognized long ago, there exists ‘a great hiatus between law and reality’, between the official rhetoric of public policy and the ground-level conditions of public services.9 Addressing systemic gaps in services will ultimately turn on coordinated action by state governments, local district agencies and schools, as well as civil society, panchayats and the communities in which schools are embedded.

How, then, can public agencies overcome implementation hurdles to realize the promise of NEP 2020? One line of thinking suggests that public spending levels are inadequate and government schools need more resources to provide quality education. Observers cite the Kothari Commission’s recommendation for allocating 6% of GDP to education, a target that remains unmet.10 Public spending on education in India has increased substantially since the 1970s, but it peaked in the early 2000s at roughly 4% of GDP and has declined somewhat since then. Recent reductions in public spending are particularly worrying given the damage to schooling systems have faced owing to Covid and the need to recover learning losses.11

Nevertheless, there is also sizable evidence that education expenditures are only part of the story. The ‘business as usual’ approach to policy funding aimed at the provision of schooling inputs has not translated into quality services or robust learning outcomes, even in high-income countries with superior spending patterns.12 How schooling systems manage resources and practically execute policy also matters, more than one might suspect. Development economists have shown that resources mobilized judiciously toward pedagogical improvements can have positive impacts on learning.

A key finding from this work, interventions adopting Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) – this methodology involves grouping students together based on learning levels (rather than age) – are shown to yield superior learning outcomes.13 So too are programmes that help motivate teachers and reward high performance.14 Based on rigorous evidence, this research has contributed significantly to our understanding of both the complexities of education delivery and possible remedies. Reflecting the commonsense adage, ‘what gets measured gets done’, an emphasis on measurement and learning outcomes has entered the policy lexicon of India’s education agencies.

For all its virtues, however, the ‘evidence-based’ approach also raises questions. For one, is it true that a paucity of evidence is the chief binding constraint on education policy and its implementation? If helpful evidence is available, why do policymakers neglect to use it? A common response is that policymaking often succumbs to rent-seeking, patronage and other pathologies of the Indian state. Well designed programmes based on evidence may fizzle out or get distorted due to political interference. Be that as it may, we cannot wish away politics. Nor can we expect researchers’ preferences to the carry the day in policy decisions. That some policymakers engage with researchers and offer to tie their hands with evidence is promising, but it is also puzzling in light of the aforementioned pathologies. Moreover, the provision of expertise can be its own form of politics.

Along with evidence on what ideas work for quality education, we need an account of ‘how’ ideas of education get translated into concrete, system-wide practices. The latter set of concerns requires an engagement with education politics, bureaucracies and governance systems, with their attendant interests, norms and relations. Research on the everyday workings of India’s frontline state offers helpful insights.

In a series of papers, Yamini Aiyar has shown that teachers face pressures to adhere to a ‘classroom consensus’ emphasizing rote learning and memorization, with the aim of syllabus completion and preparation for exams, regardless of whether students were actually learning.15 Teachers, by this reading, are not unaccountable actors who shirk their duties. Rather, they respond actively to organizational pressures and mandates to perform certain tasks, reinforced by peers, administrators and parents. Accountability exists for them, but it means something different from what academic researchers have in mind. Teachers and administrators refer to themselves as ‘post officers’ and ‘reporting machines’, whose task is to complete forms and generate written records, conveying a lack of autonomy on the job.16 

This syndrome, which Aiyar dubs the ‘post office state’, offers a clue as to why education bureaucracies may be reticent to embrace innovative pedagogical techniques. The issue is not that officials are using the wrong evidence or lack concern for learning – these problems also exist and deserve attention – but how measurement is understood and practiced may be divorced from the objectives of delivering quality education.

Organizational pressure to fulfil curricular standards and administrative demands can take a life of its own and divert energy away from complex tasks. There is also a pernicious way in which the pressure to measure and report results stifles innovation. Development scholars Lant Pritchett and Dan  Honig identify this phenomenon as ‘accounting-based accountability’.17 The imposition of technical requirements and thin performance metrics, for example by using cameras and other digital technologies to monitor teachers’ attendance, can undermine the motivation to undertake more meaningful work. Such interventions do little to strengthen the motivation and behaviour of teachers who do show up to school. Technology-enabled performance measurement can also backfire, stamping out intrinsic motivation and preventing the formation of ‘thick’ accountability of frontline staff.18 

My own research suggests that the norms and culture of bureaucracy is a critical ingredient of state capacity for implementation, one that merits far more attention from policymakers.19 Bureaucratic norms are the unwritten rules of that game that guide how public officials behave, practically understand their duties and relate with citizens on the ground. Tracing the implementation process comparatively across states, administrative districts and rural primary schools, I observe systematic differences in the norms that bind public agencies. Where bureaucratic norms promote deliberation, state officials acquire a more flexible, problem-based orientation toward policy and learn to work across administrative boundaries to meet local needs. An example is in Himachal Pradesh, which has made major strides in primary education, notwithstanding challenging geography and weak initial conditions.

Deliberation between the state and society has facilitated the incorporation of rural women and their wider communities in local governance of schooling, encouraging coproduction of education services. Deliberative bureaucratic norms have also facilitated the policy adaptation by state officials, who have worked collectively with non-state actors to meet varying local education needs across the state.20 By contrast, legalistic bureaucratic norms encourage a more uniform commitment to policy rules and maintenance of hierarchical boundaries. Agencies bound by such norms are capable of meeting compliance requirements (e.g. school infrastructure) and execute well on clearly specified targets (e.g. for enrollment).  However, they perform poorly on complex tasks, such as teaching, school monitoring, academic support and community engagement, which are difficult to codify through rules.

Looking ahead, the new education reforms under NEP 2020 are ambitious and call for renewed effort in building state capabilities.21 This includes the strengthened the state’s ability to deliberate over policy problems and adapt during implementation. Take NEP 2020s vision for pre-primary education. Robust deliberation between the Departments of Education, Women and Child Development and other institutions will be necessary to ensure that preschools actually function and achieve their educational objectives. Aanganwadi workers, who are often overburdened, may resist new responsibilities under NEP for running preschool classes. They too will need a deliberative platform to express concerns and identify solutions. Likewise, the requirement for schoolteachers to break from conventional methods of rote, gradewise teaching and embrace new pedagogical practices will require coordination between the administrative functions of teacher training, monitoring and academic support.

It is not difficult to see why the ‘business as usual’ governance approach, of imposing more rules and detailed policy blueprints, is unlikely to stimulate the kind of state capabilities that quality education requires. Recent experience from Bihar offers a case in point.22 After decades of misgovernance, Bihar made significant progress in education and other programmatic domains.23 The attempt to adopt ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ in Bihar floundered, however, despite committed state leadership and expertise from international researchers and leading education agencies such as Pratham. Field-based studies suggest that Bihar’s frontline administration and schoolteachers were ill-prepared to embrace new pedagogical practices. The latter conflicted with a legalistic bureaucratic culture that sought ‘discipline’ through administrative rules.

To support state governments, central agencies envisaged by NEP 2020, like the Foundational Learning Mission, can play a significant role. Central agencies can reinforce broad guidelines and programmatic goals, extending support for state- and local-level innovation and providing a platform to share best practices and encourage learning across geographies. Getting the evidence on learning and teacher incentives right can certainly help, but it is not enough. To elicit the high performance and extra effort that quality education demands requires nothing short of remaining the state and its relationship to teachers, students, parents and communities.

The above discussion has proceeded on the assumption that schooling is meant to achieve learning outcomes, understood in terms of foundational literacy, numeracy and other schools. However, schools perform multiple functions in society, and foundational skills are but one among many issues. Schools are also sites for projecting state power and forging the identities of citizens. The global history of education suggests that these other functions of schooling are as important as skill development, if not more so, in driving political motivation and actions by the state.

There is a need to situate education policy and questions of pedagogy within the larger politics of education. Returning to India’s checkered history of mass education, conflicts over the language of schooling has been a central feature of policy development and resistance.24 School systems impart lessons in civics and citizenship practices. They also contribute to socioeconomic stratification and reinforce status  differences between social groups.

One might ask, for instance, what the implications are of growing privatization of schooling on citizen political preferences, collective behaviour and expectations of the state. In an important study, political scientist Emmerich Davies finds that students attending private schools through a voucher lottery in Andhra Pradesh displayed little improvement in skills (in comparison to those attending government schools). However, exposure to private schooling raised the comfort of households in market-based solutions.25 What ramifications this shift in preferences has for citizen voice and collective demands on the government school system, is worthy of consideration.

Foundational learning is of critical importance for India. But the lessons that schools teach in a polity go well beyond it. To realize the full promise of education, we need robust evidence and field-based knowledge that can inform the technical and administrative issues at hand. Equally, we must grapple with political questions of what education means in the first place.


1. ASER. Annual Status of Education Report 2018 (Rural). Pratham Resource Centre, Mumbai, 2018.

2. ASER. Annual Status of Education Report 2021 (Rural). Pratham Resource Centre Mumbai, 2021.

3. UNESCO, The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery. UNESCO, Paris, 2021.

4. Girindre Beeharry, ‘The Pathway to Progress on Sdg 4 Requires the Global Education Architecture to Focus on Foundational Learning and to Hold Ourselves Accountable for Achieving It’, International Journal of Educational Development 82, 2021, 102375.

5. Vimala Ramachandran, Tara Béteille, Toby Linden, Sangeeta Dey, and Prerna Goel Chatterjee. Getting the Right Teachers into the Right Schools: Managing India’s Teacher Workforce. World Bank, Washington D.C., 2018.

6. B. Harlow and M. Carter (eds.), Archives of Empire, Volume I: From The East India Company to the Suez Canal. Duke University Press, 2004, p. 237.

7. Barbara Harriss-White, Child Nutrition and Poverty in South India: Noon Meals in Tamil Nadu. Concept Publishing, New Delhi, 1991.

8. Akshay Mangla, ‘Social Conflict on the Front Lines of Reform: Institutional Activism and Girls’ Education in Rural India’, Public Administration and Development 42(1), 2022, pp. 95-105.

9. Weiner, Myron, The Politics of Scarcity: Public Pressure and Political Response in India. University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 239. Also see Myron Weiner, The Child and State in India. Princeton University Press, 1991.

10. Jandhyala Tilak, ‘The Kothari Commission and Financing of Education’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(10), 2007, pp. 874-82.

11. Jean Dreze, ‘Where is the Strategy for Dealing With Learning Loss During Covid?’, Indian Express, 17 September 2021,

12. P. Glewwe and K. Muralidharan, ‘Improving Education Outcomes in Devel-oping Countries: Evidence, Knowledge Gaps, and Policy Implications’, in Handbook of the Economics of Education (Vol. 5). Elsevier, 2016, pp. 653-743.

13. A. Banerjee R. Banerji, J. Berry J, E. Duflo, H. Kannan, S. Mukerji, M. Shotland, M. Walton, ‘From Proof of Concept to Scalable Policies: Challenges and Solutions, With an Application’, Journal of Economic Per-spectives 31(4), 2017, pp. 73-102.

14. Karthik Muralidharan and Abhijeet Singh, ‘India’s New National Education Policy: Evidence and Challenges’. Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Insight Note, 14 October 2021.

15. Yamini Aiyar, Vincy Davis, Gokulnath Govindan and Taanya Kapoor, ‘Rewriting the Grammar of the Education System: Delhi’s Education Reform’. Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Working Paper, 2021.

16. Yamini Aiyar, Ambrish Dongre and Vincy Davis, ‘Education Reforms, Bureaucracy and the Puzzles of Implementation: A Case Study from Bihar’. International Growth Centre Working Paper, 2015.

17. Dan Honig and Lant Pritchett, ‘The Limits of Accounting-Based Accountability in Education (and Far Beyond): Why More Accounting Will Rarely Solve Accountability Problems’. Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE), Working Paper No. 19-030, 2019.

18. See, e.g., Sheheryar Banuri and Philip Keefer, ‘Intrinsic Motivation, Effort and the Call to Public Service’. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper #6729, 2013; Dan Honig, Navigation by Judgment: Why and When Top Down Management of Foreign Aid Doesn’t Work. Oxford University Press, New York, 2018.

19. Akshay Mangla, Making Bureaucracy Work: Norms, Education and Public Service Delivery in Rural India. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2022. Also see Stuti Khemani, ‘What Is State Capacity?’ World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 8734, 2019.

20. Mangla, Akshay, Making Bureaucracy Work, pp. 171-218.

21. Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock, Building State Capabilities. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017.

22. Akshay Mangla, Making Bureaucracy Work, pp. 278-295. Yamini Aiyar, Ambrish Dongre and Vincy Davis, ‘Education Reforms, Bureaucracy and the Puzzles of Implementation: A Case Study from Bihar’. International Growth Centre Working Paper, 2015.

23. Rukmini Banerji, ‘Elementary Education: Learning the Hard Way’, in Nand Kishore Singh and Nicholas Stern (eds.), The New Bihar: Rekindling Governance and Develop-ment. Harper Collins India, 2013.

24. Jyotindra Das Gupta, Language Conflict and National Development: Group Politics and National Language Policy in India. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1970.

25. Emmerich Davies, ‘The Lessons Private Schools Teach: Using a Field Experiment to Understand the Effects of Private Services on Political Behaviour’, Comparative Political Studies, 2022.