Going to Scale with Education Reform: India’s DPEP, 1994

Going To Scale With Education Reform: India’s DPEP: 1995-99 By Raghaw Pandey, Country Studies, Education Reform and Management Publication Series, Volume I, July 2000, the World Bank, Washington, DC 20433 USA.
Copy Right: World Bank

Executive Summary

Since its independence in 1947, India has pursued Universal Elementary Education (UEE) as a cherished goal. The adult literacy rate—only 14 percent at Independence—rose to 52 percent in 1991. The network of primary schools grew to reach 95 percent of the population by the early 1990s. Yet as recently as 1992, 33 percent of all children in the 6-14 age group were still not in school, and two-thirds of those out of school were girls. Underlying the national literacy rate of 52 percent was sharp gender inequality, with female literacy at only 39 percent (compared to 64 percent for males). A 1992 Government of India policy review found the education system functioning at low levels of efficiency and effectiveness, reflected in low rates of participation, retention and learning achieve­ment, and high wastage. The dropout rate for the five-year cycle of primary education was 40 per­cent, and the average completion time was 7.2 years, reflecting 33 percent wastage.

The District Primary Education Program (DPEP), launched in November 1994, was an ambitious attempt to address these challenges and to provide a decisive thrust to universalize and transform the quality of primary education. Within a span of five years, the program has shown encouraging results in improving access, quality, retention, learning achievement and system efficiency, and in reducing gender and social disparities. From a 1994 pilot start in 42 districts spread over seven states (covering 11 percent of primary students), the program has been taken to scale with impressive rapidity and now reaches over 55 percent of India’s 110 million primary students. Moreover, it has had “spread effects” on fundamental aspects of primary education quality across India.

How has this been achieved? In a country where primary education is largely a state-level responsi­bility (89 percent of education funding is from the states), how has a federally launched initiative managed to drive changes in teaching practice and education system performance all the way down to the classroom, even in some of the remotest villages? How have DPEP’s relatively small incre­mental investment resources (10 percent of total annual spending) catalyzed significant changes in education access (particularly for girls and children from disadvantaged groups), curriculum, quality and system efficiency? How has a program planned and financed from the top down achieved a reputation for decentralization, flexibility, empowerment and innovation? How have the political ob­stacles to change on which previous programs floundered—teacher resistance, bureaucratic ineffi­ciency—been overcome to a significant degree in the case of DPEP?

This paper seeks to answer these questions, giving an insider’s perspective to DPEP’s initial design and early implementation history. Without minimizing the substantial remaining challenges in Indian primary education (detailed in Part 7) or the fact that DPEP’s impact has not been equally strong in every district in which it has been implemented, this paper elucidates what has been achieved and reflects on the “success factors” and lessons behind the progress to date. Many of these factors and lessons may be relevant for other countries similarly faced with the challenge of rapidly expanding access to primary education and simultaneously improving its quality. The analysis points to seven specific aspects of DPEP’s design and implementation that have been the clearest drivers of its success. These are:

Strong Focus on Student Learning: Perhaps the single most important factor has been DPEP’s explicit focus on quality and learning in the classroom. All essential elements of the design have come from careful consideration of what works in the classroom to change and support a richer and more inquiry-based interaction between teachers and students—called “joyful learning.” Architects of the pro­gram consistently made the links between all other program interventions (from school construction designs, to Educational Management Information System (EMIS) indicators, to teacher training and sup­port infrastructure) and this vision of a new classroom environment.

Decentralization and Local Empowerment: The program has been rooted in the local community. For the first time, under DPEP the unit of educational planning became the district instead of the state, which allowed a sharper focus on the particular needs, characteristics and resources of different commu­nities. About 80 percent of DPEP funds are spent through local self-government bodies called Panchayats. Each village, school, cluster, block or district can—and is empowered to—look at its own needs and design innovative solutions under the decentralized vision of the program.

Emphasis on Continuous Learning and Innovation: Not only was the design of OPEP based on careful analysis of a wide range of earlier programs, DPEP administrative structures have also con­sciously tried to evolve as learning organizations, promoting experimentation, learning and correction. Despite having been approved for the project period, plans could be changed every year if a better idea emerged. As a result, new interventions were continuously introduced, based on emerging lessons of implementation experience and analysis of newly generated data.

Use of Outside Change Agents and Consultants: To expose the sector to new ideas and ap­proaches, expertise from outside the traditional system was needed. DPEP set up new planning and oversight bodies at the national and state levels that, for the first time, drew in non-governmental organiza­tions (NGOs), private-sector experts and officials from outside the education sector. DPEP’s Technical Support Group (TSG) at the national level was constituted with unprecedented flexibility to hire consult­ants on a long-term as well as short-term basis and to pay market rates of compensation. Although many both inside and outside of India were initially skeptical of setting up parallel administrative systems, the new bodies have been successful in overcoming bureaucratic obstacles that would have otherwise hin­dered program implementation.

Flexible Design and Implementation Across States and Districts: In the pursuit of its “super goals,” DPEP has allowed wide inter-state and inter-district variations in implementation, reflecting the availability of institutional capacity, local administrative culture and local problems. As a result, leadership has emerged at various levels of the program and in different ways. There are numerous instances of teachers and head teachers doing wonders in introducing innovative practices in the school and in manag­ing resources from the community. The style and quality of DPEP leadership at the national level also made a difference. DPEP’s top administrators sought imaginative ways of maintaining the right balance between interference and support, which is critical for successful implementation of decentralized approaches.

Sufficient Preparation Time Before Launch: The program provided for preparation and readiness. A large number of preparatory studies, besides establishing baseline statistics and giving insight into possible interventions, helped to prepare and sensitize the system for implementing the program and to establish a new mode of “thinking through” problems to find more creative and deeper solutions. Another hallmark of the pre-project phase was intensive participation. More than 72,000 people participated in over 1,000 different planning meetings at the sub-district, district and state levels in just the first six states (and 23 districts) to implement the program. The discussions of baseline learning achievement data and other study findings at district, sub-district and even village levels in many cases have been powerful experi­ences.

Constant Concern with Building Capacity: DPEP has striven consistently to build capacity at all levels of the education system, not only through training programs for which content and methodology have been updated, but also through participatory workshops and field visits. Learning while doing has been an important capacity-building strategy.

Beyond these specific success factors, the report suggests that DPEP’s experience may hold additional, broader lessons for countries seeking to chart a road map for educational reform in a context of low education quality, inequitable access and low attainment among disadvantaged groups. These include:

Reform and change are possible with careful design and imaginative implementation. The core DPEP model, based on “homegrown” experiences, has worked satisfactorily in India’s pluralistic diversity. While providing the coherent structure and goals of a national program, DPEP’s guidelines allowed states and districts significant latitude in program design and management to reflect their local contexts. This approach has worked in districts as small as Dang in Gujarat (population 800,000) and as large as districts with populations of 4-5 million, such as in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Success has not been dependent on the “hue” of the political party in power. The program has grown while different political parties have been in power at the central as well as state levels. DPEP has shown that money is necessary but not the sufficient condition for reform to succeed. Strategy is far more important. In DPEP, a 10 percent funding increment stimulated important changes across the entire primary educa­tion system. Through better strategies, cost-effective solutions to the vexing challenge of universalizing access have been found.

Scaling up rapidly is possible if capacity, which is latent and dormant, can be located and tapped. Every district has a large number of teachers and other management staff. At least some of these are interested in reform and are capable, but they usually lack recognition and support With encouragement, these people can become change agents. In every village there are individuals who show enthusiasm in supporting the cause of primary education and who can also be tapped. There are individu­als in government and the private sector who have the natural propensity and skills to promote primary education. DPEP sought to tap these resources through workshops and through “contacts,” providing due recognition and empowering them further. In many places coordinators were appointed not on the basis of seniority, but on the basis of the motivation and capability they exhibited during planning and capacity-building workshops.

Creation of capacity has a chain effect like a lamp lighting another lamp. Persons trained in a state became master trainers and can train many others in that state and others. States have helped one another in subsequent phases of the program. Roping in NGOs, individuals and organizations from outside the education sector, and networking among institutions in the government and the private sector adds to the capacity.

The management role in primary education is critical. In India, the schools and teachers al­ready available from government theoretically reached 95 percent of the children. Yet the deficient quality of education provided by a poorly functioning school system led many students to withdraw from or drop out of school. This is predominantly a management challenge. It is generally believed that primary education is largely and essentially pedagogy, but In another sense it is no exaggeration to say that primary education is 80 percent management To search for and muster support of various kinds, to provide funds to implementing units on time, to increase the cost-effectiveness of resource use, to identify and remove implementation road blocks, to identify and motivate people with the needed capacities, and to continually assess and address systemic issues – these are the challenges of management Success in handling these challenges launches school systems on the “virtuous path” of continuous improvement

Participation and autonomy are the biggest motivators. At DPEP workshops, one could see the physical wave of energy coursing through teachers, community members and others. Teachers vied with one another in demonstrating the teaching/learning materials, which they developed with the annual teacher grant of $12. Village community members who felt part of the system made commendable contributions, even in financial terms. Even in very poor states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, commu­nities raised funds to appoint teachers in cases of adverse pupil-teacher ratios or when teachers were on strike. Participation generates a sense of responsibility, which leads to further participation.

Decentralization without adequate capacity building and support degenerates into non-performance. Building capacity takes time and its adequacy will almost always be in doubt, but that should not serve as justification for not decentralizing. The two can go hand-in-hand. An imaginative manager can find the balance.

One should not wait until ideal conditions for change are available. Total consensus and textbook conditions for change never exist. But reform programs can be launched and succeed without ideal conditions. One need not worry unduly about opposing forces, which, in fact, keep program archi­tects on their toes and can promote better performance. And performance is the most potent antidote to friction and criticism. The turning point in DPEP came with the encouraging results during the first in-depth review in 1997, three years into the program. Since then, the critiques have been giving way to recognition and the roots of the program have been getting stronger.

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