Education Policy Reform Processes: Lessons from India

Katie Pak
Monday, August 1, 2016


Twenty20

As a research assistant in India this summer, I am able to witness what education policy reform looks like across the globe, as Indian policymakers develop a new National Education Policy (NEP) for the first time since 1986.

India is an incredibly diverse nation, boasting 22 officially recognized languages (though over 2,000 are spoken throughout the country), 29 states, 9 union territories, and an endless array of culture, religion, and heritage. Interestingly, India is also the youngest country in the world, with over 65% of India’s population currently aged 35 or younger. The Indian K-12 and higher education systems therefore serve an immense population in both size and diversity. Imagine developing a national education policy that fulfils the needs and aspirations all of these students, as well as those of other stakeholders invested in India’s educational outcomes.

India’s current National Education Policy is three decades old, having been adopted in 1986 and modified in 1992. Plans are underway to release a new National Education Policy (NEP) in the near future, with the goal of making India “a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge and to eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics and industry.” In preparation for this launch, the Government of India (GoI) has thus far tasked a Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy with producing a set of recommendations, while the Ministry of Human Resource Development (the government ministry overseeing education) (MHRD) has assembled a document, Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy 2016which was released for public viewing on June 29th and outlines the broad contours of the NEP.

Stakeholder engagement

Informing both reports is the GoI’s first-time grassroots consultative process, which reportedly consisted of upwards of 275,000 direct consultations on thirty-three themes with people at the state, district, urban local, block, and village levels across the country. Citizens were also afforded the opportunity to provide feedback online, with the current round of online input on the draft policy open until August 15th. And yet, despite the government’s emphasis on stakeholder consultation, they withheld releasing the actual text of the policy until after every state had provided their opinions on the draft version. Nevertheless, the GoI heralds this approach as participatory democracy in action, which reminds me of similar attempts at democratizing national, state, and local level education policymaking in the United States.

“Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), passed in 2015, highlights the urgent need for stakeholder engagement as we collectively figure out how to implement these changes in federal policy. According to ESSA, governors, state legislators, state board of education members, local education agencies, representatives of Native American tribes, teachers, principals, other school leaders, charter school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, administrators, other staff, and parents need to be consulted in Title I planning. These same local stakeholders, with the addition of students, community-based organizations, local government representatives, and others with relevant expertise are invited to partake in local Title IV planning.

It is critical that the people most directly impacted by education policies are sought out and heard. Stakeholder engagement mechanisms should provide channels for the most disadvantaged voices to shape education reform processes.

As state and district leaders look for models for stakeholder engagement, I urge them to look internationally and initiate conversations with their Indian counterparts, who are in the midst of this very process. Their valuable insights on the successes and challenges of their vast outreach campaigns and their experiences with negotiating many different perspectives, needs, and educational goals could greatly benefit U.S. education leaders, as they embark on similar strategies. It is critical that the people most directly impacted by education policies are sought out and heard. Stakeholder engagement mechanisms should provide channels for the most disadvantaged voices to shape education reform processes.

National standards

Another notable comparison is NEP’s language about norming learning outcomes for Indian students, which is reminiscent of the intended purpose of standards-based reform in the United States. An oft-cited challenge in the Indian education system is that children are not learning basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills during their elementary years. Earlier State efforts at defining and measuring learning outcomes have not yielded much progress, thus compelling the GoI to commit to the development of a learning outcomes policy that will be applied to both government and private schools (note: state academic standards in the U.S. apply only to public school systems). They say that “effective steps will be taken to improve teaching standards in schools” and they go one step further than the United States by explicitly stating an impending, government-created national curriculum in science, mathematics, and English subjects. Social science curriculum will be partially nationalized and partially up to the discretion of each state, which each have their own histories to impart to their students. Infused throughout these curricula will be issues of social justice to teach students about social discrimination, religious amity, and national integration. These decisions to centralize the curriculum and elevate certain values has exacerbated an already contentious debate about the “saffronization of India,” which denotes concerns about nationalist ideologies interfering with the breadth of what children should learn in schools.

These decisions to centralize the curriculum and elevate certain values has exacerbated an already contentious debate about the “saffronization of India,” which denotes concerns about nationalist ideologies interfering with the breadth of what children should learn in schools.

Further, any attempts to establish common learning standards should be met with extreme caution, as the U.S. experience with Common Core State Standards can attest to. These standards represent a national initiative to more rigorously prepare students for the 21st century by addressing the critical thinking skills necessary for college and careers. Critics have claimed that the Common Core do not adequately address students with learning disabilities or bilingual education. The shifts to more conceptual understandings of math and more critical analysis of complex texts have also created more anxiety in some kids, though other teachers have reported more student engagement. From a political point of view, the standards, to some, represent the age-old struggle between federal overreach and states’ rights. Additionally, the rush to implement standards has also led to poor teacher training, insufficient resources to accommodate new learning expectations, and public backlash. If India is indeed proposing to nationalize more rigorously normed learning outcomes, I hope that the U.S.’s mishaps in standards-based reform have offered crucial lessons in inclusivity, developmental appropriateness, decentralized control, and the need for more than adequate implementation support.

Assessments

Accompanying this conversation about Indian learning outcomes is, of course, a debate about assessments. Instituted in 2009, the Indian Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system rejects the exam-centric notion that annual tests, taken in two or three hours, can provide helpful information on student performance. Instead, CCE is a system that continuously assesses grades 6-10 and 12 students throughout the year in a comprehensive manner, meaning that students are evaluated on their aptitude in physical education, creative education, art, music, dance, and other co-scholastic domains relevant to their holistic development. Proponents of CCE claim that teachers are able to utilize different project-based methods to regularly assess students’ development, and that it allows students to feel less exam-related stress. Critics, on the other hand, state that the introduction of CCE was too quick and that teachers were unprepared to formatively and rigorously assess students in these non-academic areas.

The NEP extends these conversations by addressing the very examinations that sparked the move towards CCE’s more formative, non-traditional assessment methods. The policy aims to reduce rote-learning and textbook regurgitation by testing “wider awareness, understanding and comprehension and higher order problem solving skills.” Additionally, the policy has honed in on the high failure rate of class-X examinations in mathematics, science, and English, prompting the NEP to create two tiered examinations: Part-A at a higher level and Part-B at a lower level. These decisions may signal conflicting learning expectations for students while also pressuring teachers to alter their pedagogy (with or without additional professional development) so that they are better preparing their classes for the higher order thinking portions of the examinations.

Assessment reform in India, particularly with regard to the CCE, has often been called a concept “imported from the West.” As the GoI solicits more public input on how, and to what extent, students should be tested, it is important to consider the multiple facets of the debate. Perhaps testing is not the lever to pull to improve student learning, considering that low student achievement rates are more emblematic of systemic poverty, racism, and opportunity gaps than the aptitude of a student. In contrast, perhaps testing and accountability do indeed provide important, actionable data, and it is the state’s, district’s, or school’s responsibility to help teachers ready their students for these tests. The wide spectrum of opinions regarding standards, assessments, and accountability in India is certainly a reality that American education stakeholders can empathize with.

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To read about other key features of the NEP not mentioned in this post, see this summary of the changes being recommended to the national policy landscape. It remains to be seen how India will implement new rigorous standards and what new reforms ultimately end up saying about student assessments. The U.S. should stay abreast of this and other international education reforms, as these experiences are likely to be highly instructive and applicable to our own context.

For another international comparison, see Education Week’s recent blog post about the experiences of U.S. teachers visiting schools in Finland.