Seema Bansal
1,601,397 views • 14:28

So we all have our own biases. For example, some of us tend to think that it's very difficult to transform failing government systems. When we think of government systems, we tend to think that they're archaic, set in their ways, and perhaps, the leadership is just too bureaucratic to be able to change things. Well, today, I want to challenge that theory. I want to tell you a story of a very large government system that has not only put itself on the path of reform but has also shown fairly spectacular results in less than three years.

This is what a classroom in a public school in India looks like. There are 1 million such schools in India. And even for me, who's lived in India all her life, walking into one of these schools is fairly heartbreaking. By the time kids are 11, 50 percent of them have fallen so far behind in their education that they have no hope to recover. 11-year-olds cannot do simple addition, they cannot construct a grammatically correct sentence. These are things that you and I would expect an 8-year-old to be able to do. By the time kids are 13 or 14, they tend to drop out of schools. In India, public schools not only offer free education — they offer free textbooks, free workbooks, free meals, sometimes even cash scholarships. And yet, 40 percent of the parents today are choosing to pull their children out of public schools and pay out of their pockets to put them in private schools. As a comparison, in a far richer country, the US, that number is only 10 percent. That's a huge statement on how broken the Indian public education system is.

So it was with that background that I got a call in the summer of 2013 from an absolutely brilliant lady called Surina Rajan. She was, at that time, the head of the Department of School Education in a state called Haryana in India. So she said to us, "Look, I've been heading this department for the last two years. I've tried a number of things, and nothing seems to work. Can you possibly help?"

Let me describe Haryana a little bit to you. Haryana is a state which has 30 million people. It has 15,000 public schools and 2 million plus children in those public schools. So basically, with that phone call, I promised to help a state and system which was as large as that of Peru or Canada transform itself. As I started this project, I was very painfully aware of two things. One, that I had never done anything like this before. And two, many others had, perhaps without too much success. As my colleagues and I looked across the country and across the world, we couldn't find another example that we could just pick up and replicate in Haryana. We knew that we had to craft our own journey.

But anyway, we jumped right in and as we jumped in, all sorts of ideas started flying at us. People said, "Let's change the way we recruit teachers, let's hire new principals and train them and send them on international learning tours, let's put technology inside classrooms." By the end of week one, we had 50 ideas on the table, all amazing, all sounded right. There was no way we were going to be able to implement 50 things.

So I said, "Hang on, stop. Let's first at least decide what is it we're trying to achieve." So with a lot of push and pull and debate, Haryana set itself a goal which said: by 2020, we want 80 percent of our children to be at grade-level knowledge. Now the specifics of the goal don't matter here, but what matters is how specific the goal is. Because it really allowed us to take all those ideas which were being thrown at us and say which ones we were going to implement. Does this idea support this goal? If yes, let's keep it. But if it doesn't or we're not sure, then let's put it aside. As simple as it sounds, having a very specific goal right up front has really allowed us to be very sharp and focused in our transformation journey. And looking back over the last two and a half years, that has been a huge positive for us.

So we had the goal, and now we needed to figure out what are the issues, what is broken. Before we went into schools, a lot of people told us that education quality is poor because either the teachers are lazy, they don't come into schools, or they're incapable, they actually don't know how to teach. Well, when we went inside schools, we found something completely different. On most days, most teachers were actually inside schools. And when you spoke with them, you realized they were perfectly capable of teaching elementary classes. But they were not teaching. I went to a school where the teachers were getting the construction of a classroom and a toilet supervised. I went to another school where two of the teachers had gone to a nearby bank branch to deposit scholarship money into kids' accounts. At lunchtime, most teachers were spending all of their time getting the midday meal cooking, supervised and served to the students.

So we asked the teachers, "What's going on, why are you not teaching?" And they said, "This is what's expected of us. When a supervisor comes to visit us, these are exactly the things that he checks. Has the toilet been made, has the meal been served. When my principal goes to a meeting at headquarters, these are exactly the things which are discussed."

You see, what had happened was, over the last two decades, India had been fighting the challenge of access, having enough schools, and enrollment, bringing children into the schools. So the government launched a whole host of programs to address these challenges, and the teachers became the implicit executors of these programs. Not explicitly, but implicitly. And now, what was actually needed was not to actually train teachers further or to monitor their attendance but to tell them that what is most important is for them to go back inside classrooms and teach. They needed to be monitored and measured and awarded on the quality of teaching and not on all sorts of other things.

So as we went through the education system, as we delved into it deeper, we found a few such core root causes which were determining, which were shaping how people behaved in the system. And we realized that unless we change those specific things, we could do a number of other things. We could train, we could put technology into schools, but the system wouldn't change. And addressing these non-obvious core issues became a key part of the program.

So, we had the goal and we had the issues, and now we needed to figure out what the solutions were. We obviously did not want to recreate the wheel, so we said, "Let's look around and see what we can find." And we found these beautiful, small pilot experiments all over the country and all over the world. Small things being done by NGOs, being done by foundations. But what was also interesting was that none of them actually scaled. All of them were limited to 50, 100 or 500 schools. And here, we were looking for a solution for 15,000 schools.

So we looked into why, if these things actually work, why don't they actually scale? What happens is that when a typical NGO comes in, they not only bring in their expertise but they also bring in additional resources. So they might bring in money, they might bring in people, they might bring in technology. And in the 50 or 100 schools that they actually operate in, those additional resources actually create a difference. But now imagine that the head of this NGO goes to the head of the School Education Department and says, "Hey, now let's do this for 15,000 schools." Where is that guy or girl going to find the money to actually scale this up to 15,000 schools? He doesn't have the additional money, he doesn't have the resources. And hence, innovations don't scale. So right at the beginning of the project, what we said was, "Whatever we have to do has to be scalable, it has to work in all 15,000 schools." And hence, it has to work within the existing budgets and resources that the state actually has. Much easier said than done. (Laughter)

I think this was definitely the point in time when my team hated me. We spent a lot of long hours in office, in cafés, sometimes even in bars, scratching out heads and saying, "Where are the solutions, how are we going to solve this problem?"

In the end, I think we did find solutions to many of the issues. I'll give you an example. In the context of effective learning, one of the things people talk about is hands-on learning. Children shouldn't memorize things from books, they should do activities, and that's a more effective way to learn. Which basically means giving students things like beads, learning rods, abacuses. But we did not have the budgets to give that to 15,000 schools, 2 million children. We needed another solution. We couldn't think of anything. One day, one of our team members went to a school and saw a teacher pick up sticks and stones from the garden outside and take them into the classroom and give them to the students. That was a huge eureka moment for us. So what happens now in the textbooks in Haryana is that after every concept, we have a little box which are instructions for the teachers which say, "To teach this concept, here's an activity that you can do. And by the way, in order to actually do this activity, here are things that you can use from your immediate environment, whether it be the garden outside or the classroom inside, which can be used as learning aids for kids." And we see teachers all over Haryana using lots of innovative things to be able to teach students. So in this way, whatever we designed, we were actually able to implement it across all 15,000 schools from day one.

Now, this brings me to my last point. How do you implement something across 15,000 schools and 100,000 teachers? The department used to have a process which is very interesting. I like to call it "The Chain of Hope." They would write a letter from the headquarters and send it to the next level, which was the district offices. They would hope that in each of these district offices, an officer would get the letter, would open it, read it and then forward it to the next level, which was the block offices. And then you would hope that at the block office, somebody else got the letter, opened it, read it and forwarded it eventually to the 15,000 principals. And then one would hope that the principals got the letter, received it, understood it and started implementing it. It was a little bit ridiculous. Now, we knew technology was the answer, but we also knew that most of these schools don't have a computer or email. However, what the teachers do have are smartphones. They're constantly on SMS, on Facebook and on WhatsApp.

So what now happens in Haryana is, all principals and teachers are divided into hundreds of WhatsApp groups and anytime something needs to be communicated, it's just posted across all WhatsApp groups. It spreads like wildfire. You can immediately check who has received it, who has read it. Teachers can ask clarification questions instantaneously. And what's interesting is, it's not just the headquarters who are answering these questions. Another teacher from a completely different part of the state will stand up and answer the question. Everybody's acting as everybody's peer group, and things are getting implemented. So today, when you go to a school in Haryana, things look different. The teachers are back inside classrooms, they're teaching. Often with innovative techniques. When a supervisor comes to visit the classroom, he or she not only checks the construction of the toilet but also what is the quality of teaching. Once a quarter, all students across the state are assessed on their learning outcomes and schools which are doing well are rewarded. And schools which are not doing so well find themselves having difficult conversations. Of course, they also get additional support to be able to do better in the future. In the context of education, it's very difficult to see results quickly.

When people talk about systemic, large-scale change, they talk about periods of 7 years and 10 years. But not in Haryana. In the last one year, there have been three independent studies, all measuring student learning outcomes, which indicate that something fundamental, something unique is happening in Haryana. Learning levels of children have stopped declining, and they have started going up. Haryana is one of the few states in the country which is showing an improvement, and certainly the one that is showing the fastest rate of improvement. These are still early signs, there's a long way to go, but this gives us a lot of hope for the future. I recently went to a school, and as I was leaving, I ran into a lady, her name was Parvati, she was the mother of a child, and she was smiling. And I said, "Why are you smiling, what's going on?" And she said, "I don't know what's going on, but what I do know is that my children are learning, they're having fun, and for the time being, I'll stop my search for a private school to send them to."

So I go back to where I started: Can government systems transform? I certainly believe so. I think if you give them the right levers, they can move mountains.

Thank you.

(Applause)