Madhukar has identified the untapped potential of middle management in the public education system, as the key to reviving its efficacy and effectiveness to deliver quality education at scale in India.
The New Idea
By strategically supporting the middle tier, Madhukar is acknowledging the important role of an often-overlooked segment of functionaries within state education bodies, towards improving the learning outcomes of students. Through his organization, Leadership For Equity (LFE), he is co-creating government programs in the areas of officer development & teacher support by using existing government resources to create sustainable impact. The resultant creation of low-cost and replicable models for improving teacher skills and officer skills will ultimately lead to improvement in student learning.
By anchoring the co-creation process in patience and empathy for the system, LFE is radically altering the apathy with which organizations and individuals have historically engaged with government functionaries. This empathetic and strategic focus on the middle tier of government officials is resulting in a renewed sense of ownership towards their work and an ethos that refuses to let children down.
“Learning levels of students are indicators of effectiveness or productivity of the education system.” (ASER 2018)
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) highlights an 18% decline in productivity of the education system at the national level over the last decade. This means, the system’s ability to deliver quality education to the approximately 115 million children studying in government schools is steadily deteriorating. While, on the one hand, this statistic reflects a rise in a child’s inability to actualize her, legally actionable, right to education, granted by the Constitution of India, it is also a reflection on the rising ineptness of the public education system. This ineptness is evident by the 3% year-on-year decline in government school enrollments. While the section of children enrolled in private schools in rural India has risen from 22% to 30% in the last decade!
The apathy of the public education system is evident in the subpar indicators. In 2018, only 25% of Grade 3 students were able to read a Grade 1 textbook. And only 15.4% of young adults had the ability to do simple financial calculations.
Not only is the system equipped with the mandate, resources and capacity to deliver at scale failing, but it is creating a population that is “functionally illiterate.” (ASER 2018) With 41% of India’s population under the age of 18 this is deeply disconcerting!
Realizing the scale of the problem at hand, a host of NGOs and not-for-profits have been working towards the goal of ensuring the delivery of quality education through public education systems in India. Unfortunately, the desire to support is further exacerbating the problem at hand. According to an article written by Utkarsh Anand for the Indian Express in 2015, a “first-ever exercise [conducted] by the [Central Bureau of Investigation] to map registered NGOs [in India] has disclosed… at least 31 lakh NGOs — more than double the number of schools in the country…” (India has 31 lakh NGOs, more than double the number of schools, August 1, 2015, accessed August 11, 2019) Indicative of the relative status of education, this statistic tells us another story of multiple interventions, at times, competitive in nature, hindering the system’s overall efficacy.
The problems affecting the education sector persist because, by-and-large, traditional methods, continue to focus their attention on the top, decision-making levels of the institutional hierarchy or at teachers working on the grassroots. Both approaches have proved insufficient for analyzing and solving contemporary problems. By concentrating efforts on either the availability of resources or education policy, practitioners run the risk of designing ineffective solutions. What is entirely missing from the fray is an approach that addresses the causes contributing to ineffective knowledge dissemination and poor personnel capacity resulting in poor student learning outcomes. These are ineffective teacher support (in the form of generic content and pedagogy) that results in suboptimal teaching in the classroom; and a mismatch in policies and on ground implementation resulting in ineffective support outside the classroom. Interventions that work directly with government officials, who are responsible for these outcomes, in this case, education officers (or middle management) are scarce. These individuals are, more often than not, overlooked, their roles taken for granted, contributing further to the apathy and cynicism prevalent within the system.
The result, at present, is a decrepit system where no one, not the student, or the teacher, or the education officers are able to “win”.
In order to transform the public education system, we need to transform the people working in the system. This is Madhukar and LFE’s key insight. While this is not the first time an individual or organization has felt this way, what differentiates LFE’s approach is its human-centered design. Having learnt from previous interventions, their strategy is non-prescriptive. It is practically grounded in co-creation that seeks to empower education officers and spark a cascade effect in the system at large. This is a strategy that is aimed at igniting the entrepreneurial, changemaking acumen currently dormant in state education functionaries in India. According to Madhukar, activating this acumen, with the aim of, achieving sustainable learning outcomes requires leadership development through a deep immersion and continuous practice of reflection within the context of the problems themselves.
In order to realize the above, LFE has adopted a holistic, four-pronged approach that covers the entire education change cycle. The team simultaneously works on:
(1) enabling academic and administrative officers to effectively design and implement programs in addition to efficiently running their departments
(2) facilitating teacher mentors to further build capacity of teachers on foundational learning content and pedagogy, and integrating technology in classroom teaching-learning practices
(3) advising and advocating with senior leadership on designing policies in the areas of teacher development, officer development and education technology,
(4) undertaking research publications in partnership with governments and foundations to re-establish public education systems and inform the larger discourse on strengthening public education systems.
Since 2015, LFE’s team of 30 people have worked with government institutions in Pune, Nashik, Aurangabad and Mumbai, within the state of Maharashtra. This includes the Nashik Zilla Parishad (local education body), Pune Municipal Corporation, State Institute of English for Maharashtra, Maharashtra State Council of Education Research and Training (SCERT), Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research (Balbharti). As of June 2020, in absolute numbers this translates to working with 670+ teacher mentors, 640+ field officers; 33,200+ teachers impacting 14,50,000+ students across the State of Maharashtra.
Through its Teacher Professional Development vertical LFE is enabling teacher mentors (or Sahyogis) to provide effective in-classroom support by integrating technology. Beginning in 2015, in partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), the Sahyogi Dal Project has trained 1500 teachers and supported 27 officers to provide in-classroom support for level-based learning in math and Marathi. LFE’s longest running project began as a solution to address the lack of support for teachers in schools run by the PMC. Through a series of workshops and individual training sessions, the team began the process of assisting the PMC in identifying a cohort of 20 senior and experienced teachers as mentor trainers with the key role to support 1100 teachers in improving their class teaching techniques. As the project developed in 2018 LFE expanded the project’s focus to include assistant administrative officers in the PMC. Anchored once again in peer-to-peer learning, LFE organized 52 cluster review meetings to facilitate a common actionable understanding between the officers and supervisors to lead the project.
Impact numbers indicate that 97.5% of the teachers implemented their learnings from the workshops and training sessions organized by LFE. As a result of which 10% of 45,000 students moved up one level in academic learning outcomes and 76% of the teachers found the Sahyogi support and training effective. The project is set for closure and handing over in 2021. 2018 also witnessed the closure and official handing over of the PMC Model School Project to the municipal corporation by LFE. The project was aimed at creating low-cost, replicable models for improving student learning outcomes and encouraging innovative teaching practices. Since 2015, the project led to 23% growth in student enrolment along with 40% of Grade 3 students achieving the grade appropriate learning outcomes.
In 2017, in partnership with the State Institute of English – Maharashtra, LFE began implementing its Blended Teacher Training Project. The program aims to resolve existing challenges in the current teacher training process, while enabling officers to design, implement, monitor and evaluate these training programs effectively. It is anchored in providing online and in-person support. LFE began by collaborating with Regional Academic Authority – Aurangabad for its Spoken English Program. On a first level, the team validated the process and sampled content with 40 teachers and 2 mentors at the district level. Following which, the organization ran a mini-pilot with 553 teachers and 30 mentors across 6 districts. The course saw a 64% rate of completion, compared to the global average of 7 – 10%. Impact assessments indicate an overall increase in teacher skills for 26 out of the 35 learning outcomes. Teachers also reported an 85% rate of satisfaction for the course content, having found the course easy, engaging and relevant! Most importantly, many reported an increase in their confidence and comfort with speaking and teaching English post training! When the project was scaled, the following were the results:
Confidence: 42% of 12,946+ teachers feel extremely confident while speaking/listening in English as a result of consuming the course and support received by mentors. This is an increase of 21 percentage points as compared to baseline
Aggregate across 19 Learning Outcomes
Mentors: From baseline to endline, we have seen a growth of upto 59%
Teachers: From baseline to endline, we have seen a growth of upto 30%
Similarly, through its Shikshan Parishad Project, implemented in partnership with the Nashik Zilla Parishad, LFE has trained 12,500 teachers and supported 260 education officers last year. The project is designed to enable cluster level teacher mentors to provide in-classroom support to teachers for all school curriculum. The aim of the project is to address a severe resource imbalance with respect to teacher deployment and lack of accountability amongst department officials. In a period of 9 months LFE has helped organise 1640 Shikshan Parishads across 278 clusters in Nashik. 97.5% of the teachers have found this intervention useful.
Since 2016, as part of its Officer Professional Development vertical, LFE has supported 640+ officers, partnering with the Maharashtra SCERT and Nashik Zilla Parishad. As part of its MSCERT Officer Development Project, LFE focused on developing the capacities of education officers through logistical and policy inputs focused towards professional and organizational development. This was done through a blended training program aimed at developing the job specific skills required by the officers to effectively deliver their roles. 32% of the officers reported a growth in role clarity; 90% of the officers felt that the workshops helped improve their overall efficiency; while 87% of the officers found the support to be accessible and helpful.
As part of its advocacy and advisory vertical LFE has been invited by central and state education bodies to participate in policy making exercises like serving on multiple committees at State & NCERT level. The Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research (Balbharati) writes, produces and distributes government textbooks for the state of Maharashtra. Balbharati has undertaken an initiative to establish an apex body for education technology in the state called E-Balbharati. In March 2019, LFE signed an MoU to become the body’s official project management unit. Tasked with providing strategic advice to the Director of the institution and its implementation partners in setting up the platform. As part of this process the organization has been engaged in designing pilot projects aimed at creating affordable and high-quality digital content aligned with the state curriculum. As part of the initiative, LFE is working with vendors to create e-Learning material for Grade 10 students in Marathi, Urdu and English medium schools across Maharashtra.
LFE’s Research vertical has published 6 sectoral publications influencing some of the larger discussions in education like gender equity, teacher need analysis and most recently the system diagnosis for the education landscape in a particular geography. The research vertical has also contributed to 5 articles in leading media outlets like IDR, The Bastion & Better India highlighting the work and learning of LFE from the State.
On a programmatic level, LFE’s working hypothesis, that officers and teachers learn best from their peers, is delivering results. A key part of LFE’s strategy is the recognition that unlike top-tier officials, middle management officers are the only cohort of government functionaries that remain constant to the field or sector they are working in over an extended period of time. Adopting a long-term approach, the organization is investing in these government officials, enabling them to become agents of change within the system.
The critical element of relationship building cannot be overlooked when attempting a behavioral change within state bodies in India. The values of trust and a fundamental belief in the system underpin all of Madhukar’s and LFE’s interventions with government officials. While exercising empathy for the individuals representing the education system is key to their approach, patience and perseverance are consistently called upon. There is an inherent recognition that activating an attitudinal and mind-set shift within these bodies is an iterative exercise, anchored in forging long-term partnerships which essentially believe in the potential of the individuals to become changemakers, taking charge of their individual spheres of influence. Especially when achieving scale is a given when working with government bodies in India.
Finally, the piece that ties the entire strategy together is LFE’s young and dynamic team. Madhukar and his senior management have invested time and effort in building a young and resourceful team that has a fundamental understanding of the public education system in India, and is willing and able to work with it. The aforementioned values quietly seep into these state bodies, as these young people emulate the work ethic they aim to inspire out of the government officials they work. More often than not, attracting individuals within the system who are eager to take ownership and deliver results. The overall impact is a steady and irreversible transformation towards creating a system dedicated to ensuring no child gets left behind.
Leveraging its learnings across all four verticals in Maharashtra, over the next five years LFE plans to expand to three states and impact the learning, enrolment and well-bring outcomes for 15 million students in the public education system. This plan is motivated with the desire to become a national level influencer in education. Keeping this in mind, LFE aims to engage with a strong regional language speaking state from the peninsular region; a Hindi-speaking state from the North; and a state from the historically underserved North East Region. The overarching aim is to build organization wisdom and a predictability of running strong public education systems in India. Over the next decade, Madhukar aims to scale the idea of ‘building effective public education systems’ across India, by building a network of leaders within and outside the system.
Born to middle class parents in South India, Madhukar began his education being exposed to farming and studying in a government run school in his village for the first 7 years of his life. A time that lies at the core of his passion for public education.
Madhukar identifies four distinct inflection points over the course of the last three decades of his life that have led him to where he finds himself today, the founder and CEO of Leadership for Equity.
The first critical moment for him came when his father decided to migrate from their village in Telangana, then Andhra Pradesh to the city of Hyderabad, in search of better economic opportunities. The move got Madhukar to a better school, which he believes substantially changed the life outcomes he would have otherwise had, if the family had continued to stay in their village.
An ambitious student, Madhukar topped the State Board of Andhra Pradesh in Grade 12, securing a 100% scholarship to BIT Pilani, a premier (private) engineering college in the country. 2003 thus marked a second turning point in Madhukar’s life as he moved away from all that was familiar. The extremely diverse student body at college was a great teacher, helping Madhukar understand himself and his ambitions better. Graduating from college, Madhukar began his short-lived corporate career at Larsen & Toubro in Mumbai, only to quit his well-paying job and apply for the first cohort of the Teach For India Fellowship in 2009.
Securing the fellowship, Madhukar found himself teaching 35 Grade 3 students in a low-income school in Pune. During the course of the two-year fellowship Madhukar fundamentally understood how one’s opportunities and ability to make choices in life are determined by their socio-economic status and the access it unlocks. However, more importantly, as a young college graduate grappled with the inadequacies of the public education system and its many shortcomings, the lesson presented itself in the form of empathy. Specifically, developing empathy for the system before we go about the business of changing it. Through his many experiences with key stakeholders, parents, government teachers and officials this lesson was reinforced. Upon graduating from the fellowship, Madhukar joined TFI as full-time staff, taking the lead in developing government relations for the initiative and building a network of allies.
In 2015, Madhukar was invited to lead Pune City Connect, a citywide collective action initiative. The aim was to improve the learning outcomes for 180 Marathi Medium Schools. The work entailed working closely with a diverse group of sector leaders, NGOs, school leaders and government officials. This was the time that honed Madhukar’s skills to work with policy makers, influencing them to anchor their decisions in what would be fundamentally right for the children and teachers. PCC became the fertile ground where the idea for LFE took root. Building Madhukar’s capacity and capability for envisioning a framework grounded in a system change approach.
Ultimately, Madhukar believes in Peter Senge’s saying that ‘transforming systems is about transforming the relationships among the people who shape those systems’. He envisions an India where there is equality in access to excellent education to each and every child irrespective of their birth; where teachers are invested in the learning of their students; where education officers are deeply committed and empowered to support schools; and where the government leaders empower systems with the sole intention to better academic outcomes that prepare students for students for future generations. He is adamant on living this reality in this lifetime.