Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   India

Khushboo Awasthi

Khushboo Awasthi is transforming state education systems across 275,000 schools in India by catalysing collective action between state governments, civil sector organizations, and local school leaders…
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This description of Khushboo Awasthi's work was prepared when Khushboo Awasthi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


Khushboo Awasthi is transforming state education systems across 275,000 schools in India by catalysing collective action between state governments, civil sector organizations, and local school leaders to systemically and holistically address problems faced within the public education system and student development.

The New Idea

Khushboo Awasthi is the founder of Mantra4Change, an NGO transforming state education systems in 275,000 government schools across India. There are thousands of organizations serving the needs of the education sector. Most of them address issues in silos, unable to tackle the interconnectedness of problems that need to be holistically dealt with to improve the quality of the education system as a whole. Alternatively, many organizations build parallel systems to government education, never being able to scale its reach to be able to cover a population mass. Mantra4Change works to bridge these gaps of working in silos and creating parallel solutions by catalysing collaboration and collective action between civil sector organizations and the public education system. The objective is to uplift the quality of education and tackle problems jointly.

Recognized and respected as a systems orchestrator, Khushboo gets invited by state education departments to conduct a systemic needs assessment study of their education system and execute an education transformation plan to effectively tackle the problems within the state. Mantra4Change has receives regular invitations to collaborate with state education departments because of the effectivity of their two innovative tools, School Transformation and Empowerment Project (STEP) and ShikshaLokam. STEP is a holistic needs assessment tool that maps systemic gaps and problem areas in a school education system. ShikshaLokam is a ground level data digital dashboard that helps state officials track the progress of education development in the State.

Khushboo’s idea of catalysing collective action between state governments, civil sector organizations, and local school leaders happens through three simple steps. First, she uses STEP as an assessment tool to map out the critical problems in a state education system. Second, she sets up a Project Management Unit (PMU), bringing together multiple relevant and contextual stakeholders such as the state, policymakers, experts, teachers, and selected NGOs that work to create an education transformation plan and to address the problems identified in the assessment. Finally, she then leverages ShikshaLokam to track the progress of the execution of this plan until completion.

Khushboo thus works as a catalyst to bring together fragmented actors to work together in a cohesive way. State education departments consistently work with Khushboo because she is able to facilitate holistic change in a way that brings together several actors in the system that work in silos. At the school level, Mantra4Change then works to develop local leadership capacity and create change makers that can continue to identify and initiate collaborative, continuous micro-improvement actions on their own so that it pushes the education system into a path of self-improvement and self-healing.

The goal is that collective action and holistically solving problems become the default way of working for education systems and school leaders on the ground, even after Mantra4Change had completed its intervention. With this approach, Khushboo plays the role of an orchestrator, facilitating collaboration at a statewide scale while enabling local school leaders to continue to solve problems and improve education quality within their sphere of influence. She works as an evangelist for this new change-making culture in the education system. 

The Problem

The Indian Ministry of Education assesses the quality of education in each state annually. These are known as the National Achievement Survey (NAS) and the Performance Grading Index (PGI), that rate the quality of education with a weighted ranking. 18 states in India have registered subpar performance on these assessments.  From poor student outcomes, to inadequate teacher training, a lack of school leadership, and outdated assessment evaluations, there are numerous complex issues that riddle the public education system in India. These issues are often intertwined and are a result of many overlapping problems at various levels of the system. The interconnectedness makes it difficult to eliminate a specific long-term problem, for instance poor student outcomes, without addressing the many other associated ones.

There are estimated to be one million government schools in India.  Much of the decisions regarding public schools are controlled centrally at a state educational level. The officials that are seated in these positions of state education usually serve a term lasting two to three years and have several issues to address in their short tenure. Meanwhile, there is a large population of local school leaders and teachers that have been in the system for several years, perceived by the community and public as inefficient and resistant to change.

In turn, the agency and autonomy of the school leaders and teachers, the frontline service providers of education, are severely lacking. They blame the poor enabling environment within the education system for change not happening. The bottom blames the top and the top blames the bottom. This creates a reality where a mass of local school leaders are left to operate fractured systems with limited ownership towards being problem solvers.

Meanwhile, outside of the public education system are thousands of civil sector organizations that are working towards improving education within the country. Because these organizations do not typically partner with the government or collaborate with others, they end up building parallel systems within the state that do not provide solutions at scale or longevity. The civil sector organizations usually tackle specific issues like poor teacher training, lack of parental involvement, or poor foundational learning outcomes. This means that issues are dealt with in silos, resulting in fragmented solutions that are ineffective in making holistic change. They also lack the contextual insights and thus, fail to become relevant.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that NGOs working in the education space often compete with one another for the same pool of resources and step on each other’s toes as they try to implement different interventions in the same schools. Khushboo works to bridge this gap, directing the ecosystem toward a comprehensive and holistic approach. Her idea is to improve the education system through collaboration rather than competition.

The Strategy

Khushboo’s model starts by partnering with the state education department to conduct a needs assessment study of the systemic problems in their education system and come up with a comprehensive action plan to solve them. This partnership occurs either by a direct invitation from the state or Mantra4Change approaching the government.

Public education systems are managed by bureaucratic officials and led by elected politicians. Over every state education system, there is a state education secretary from the government administration and the education minister from the elected representatives. The government representatives serve in office for a fixed term. The education secretary from the bureaucracy is responsible for the effective running of public education in their state, making it a top priority for them to show improvement within their tenure. Their performance is evaluated based on the NAS and PGI assessment conducted by the federal government. These two assessments holistically assess the quality of the state education system by a weighted ranking. Most officials struggle to comprehensively make improvements to the plethora of problems that are faced, incentivizing them to partner with an organization like Mantra4Change to effectively design and execute an education transformation plan.
While there are often significant budgets within state education programs, it is not common for budgets to have allocations for onboarding external organizations in strategizing and designing education transformation plans. Mantra4Change is the perfect partner for a state because they are an externally funded organization that designs and executes these transformation plans to completion. To a government, they are expert knowledge and implementation partners that help improve the rankings of the federal assessments. In turn, Mantra4Change can unlock significant portions of state education budgets for the execution of the transformation plan that is made.

Mantra4Change uses a tool called STEP to thoroughly map problems within a state’s public education system at every level. This process involves mapping interactions between actors at all levels of the education system. These include policies, processes, curriculum, and infrastructure, as well as the competencies and behaviour of the actors. At the core of STEP are student outcomes that are holistically mapped. These are the product of various permutations of interactions between school leaders, teachers, parents, and students which in turn are a product of the school and broader educational ecosystem’s web of actors, interactions, and influences. They then identify the key gaps and flaws and proceed to prioritize which problems to focus on through mutual agreement with stakeholders. This involves deciding which issues are low-hanging fruit and will reap quick wins, determining key focus areas, and where there is an available government budget.

Once the assessment process is finished, Khushboo puts together a PMU of experts, state actors, bureaucrats, stakeholders from the system like teachers and school leaders, and NGOs to devise a cohesive plan of action for the state. The NGOs have expertise in tackling specific issues identified in the assessment with contextual knowledge of the state they are working in. This PMU is where Khushboo fosters a collaborative approach. Beginning with a series of co-creation workshops involving all the PMU members, a shared vision is built to get each member’s buy-in.

The PMU then collectively designs a roadmap for the education transformation plan, clearly defining each member’s role in the plan. This is where contextualized solutions and programs are designed, the responsibility of execution is mapped out, and budgets are assigned accordingly. Mantra4Change organizes and acts as the key facilitator. The key outcome from this workshop is to have a transformation plan representing the shared vision of PMU that is finalized and drafted into an MoU that is signed with the state. A public commitment to the transformation plan and intended impact is made by the PMU collective to the government, highlighting the responsibility and contribution of each member.

The MoU clearly addresses the collective and its members, highlighting each member’s responsibility along with the budget allocation received by each stakeholder in the education transformation. This creates a dynamic where success depends on each member’s participation. An additional layer of governance is formed, as an oversight team of the PMU. On this governance committee are the leaders of each member organization, the education secretary, key advisors from the state, and industry leaders that are invested in the transformation plan. Mantra4Change is usually a co-signer of the MoU, facilitating the execution of the transformation plan to make sure the work stays cohesive and directed toward the improvement of the whole system.

Mantra4Change’s vision is twofold, facilitating a high-performing state education system where collaboration thrives and thus creating an enabling environment, and where every school leader at a local level is an effective changemaker in improving the final delivery of education. The teachers and school management are the frontline service providers of public education. By creating an environment that is focused on improvement and restores agency, Mantra4Change empowers these school leaders to function collaboratively and make continuous micro-improvements within their sphere of work.

The end approach of every program design always ties back to empowering local school leaders that create micro improvements in their local schools. This is how education quality finally improves for the student in the classroom. For effective designing and tracking of the transformation plan at scale, Mantra4Change adopts and leverages the comprehensive open-source technology, the ShikshaLokam platform.

STEP and the ShikshaLokam Platform are both tools that feed towards the effective creation of shared design and execution in state transformation. This enables a systemic improvement that happens collectively. STEP is the needs assessment approach that guides and informs the transformation plan for tackling education system problems at every level. ShikshaLokam offers the technology platform that enables the transformation plan to be effectively executed and measured on the ground, tracking the micro improvements of school leaders, along with the progress of each PMU member. The progress measured on ShikshaLokam is a critical piece for the education secretary because it serves as data that improves the final rating of NAS and PGA assessments. This also aids in creating and encouraging a data driven decision making culture in the education system.

Mantra4Change helps guide the PMU, using the data from the platform powered by ShikshaLokam to facilitate regular meetups, evaluate progress, get feedback, and plan course correction strategies. Currently, Khushboo’s model for collective action has been adopted in 5 states across India (Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar). The education transformation plans have been implemented in 275,000 government schools.

Punjab went from being in the 10 worst-performing states according to the NAS assessment in 2017 to rank 1 in 2020 and 2021 consecutively post the adoption of Khushboo’s education transformation plan. To date, Khushboo has brought together 41 civil sector organizations to collaborate with the public education system across different states.

Khushboo’s long-term vision is twofold. First, to shift the way education ecosystems function at a state level that fosters an environment of collective action to solve problems holistically. Second, in turn, Mantra4Change is working on the ground, leveraging this enabled environment to empower millions of frontline school leaders to also become micro-level changemakers. This is what Mantra4Change describes as leaders driving micro-improvements to create a self-healing system. Their vision is to orchestrate an ecosystem that is collaborative at every level, creating an enabling environment where local leaders drive micro improvements collectively toward mega systemic transformation.

Khushboo takes the measurement of this grand vision very seriously. In order for the government to buy into this change, collaboration to be effective long term, and local school leaders to consistently act as micro-improvers, this entire school improvement process is tracked and measured through a combination of a publicly accessible and a access-controlled dashboard.1 These micro-improvement dashboards, powered by ShikshaLokam, have become so popular with the public education system that the Federal Education Department has adopted them for tracking the quality of national education. As of today, Mantra4Change has recorded 260,000 micro-improvements with evidence of improvement and 598,000 ongoing micro-improvements across 24 states.

The Person

Khushboo Awasthi grew up in a small town in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. She comes from a lower-middle-class family in a society that is extremely patriarchal. She shifted out of Bihar to study engineering on the condition that she would join an all-female engineering college. There were only two all-female engineering colleges in India at the time.

After graduating, she started her career as a project engineer at WIPRO Technologies, one of India’s leading corporations. She enrolled in WIPRO’s employee social responsibility program, volunteering with low-income government schools. It was in this season that Khushboo began to see a larger vision as a social entrepreneur and changemaker.

Khushboo saw the plethora of problems that schools faced. She realized that the civil sector organizations working in these schools functioned in silos, and solved problems in silos as well. They did not treat the school as a single-standing organization with interconnected problems that needed holistic improvement.

Khushboo met her husband Santosh during this journey of corporate social responsibility. He worked as an engineer at a similar large corporation, Infosys. He too shared Khushboo’s passion for solving education problems. Khushboo and Santosh began to dedicate their personal time to volunteering with government schools, mapping out the interconnectedness of problems that were faced.

In 2010, Khushboo and Santosh decided to leave their corporate careers and pursue a future in social development. This was a leap of faith because neither of them came from social backgrounds which gave them a fallback option. Khushboo enrolled in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Santosh enrolled as a Teach for India Fellow. Their objective was to gain an understanding of social development in India, coming from engineering backgrounds with limited exposure to the development sector.

Upon completing their programs, they founded Mantra4Change in 2013 with the mission to holistically transform school systems through collective collaboration. They bootstrapped this vision, dedicating their salaries and savings to hire a team that would help onboard schools on this transformation journey.

They spent their evenings and weekends expanding the cause. Soon they began to gain recognition from industry leaders and pioneers in the development sector for their innovative approach and dedication. Sanjay Purohit, CEO of Societal Thinking, and SD Shibulal, the former CEO of Infosys were early supporters of Mantra4Change’s work. They mentored Khushboo and Santosh in developing their idea and gave them a vision of national impact. Since 2013, Khushboo has been a catalyst within the educational space in creating collective collaboration for addressing systemic issues in state education systems.