Human Development

An evidence-based proposal to achieve universal quality primary education in India

  • Blog Post Date 25 November, 2013
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Karthik Muralidharan

University of California, San Diego

It is well established that learning levels in Indian primary schools are unacceptably low. This column proposes a strategy for achieving universal functional literacy and numeracy for all primary school children in India during the 12th Five-Year Plan that is fiscally sustainable, politically feasible, implementable at scale, and based on interventions proven to be effective by rigorous research on education in India.

India has achieved considerable success in increasing primary school enrolments over the past two decades and currently, over 97% of school-age children are enrolled in primary school. Despite this, learning levels are unacceptably low as documented by multiple independent studies.

The quality challenge in primary education in India

With more than 50% of children aged 6-14 not being able to read at a 2nd class level, the quality challenge is almost certainly the biggest crisis in the Indian education system. Long-term annual data on student learning in primary schools in India shows a sharp flattening of learning trajectories after class 2 (Muralidharan and Zieleniak 2013). The most likely reason for this is that the textbooks and syllabus in class 3 and beyond require children to be able to “read to learn” and children who have not attained reading competencies by class 3 sharply fall behind over time.

The essential message from high-quality academic research on the impact of education policies on improving education is that the most expensive components of education spending that have been prioritised in recent years (infrastructure, teacher salaries, teacher training, mid-day meals, and other student inputs) have shown very limited impacts on improving learning outcomes. It is extremely unlikely that a ‘business as usual’ expansion of education spending along current patterns will significantly improve learning outcomes (Muralidharan 2013).

On the other hand, relatively inexpensive interventions such as using modestly trained and paid community volunteers to provide supplemental instruction to children at their level of learning (as opposed to the level dictated by the curriculum or assumed by the textbook) have proven to be highly effective at improving learning outcomes in multiple settings across India (Muralidharan 2013).

The 12th Five-Year Plan recognises the centrality of the quality challenge and has explicitly committed to a target of: "Improving learning outcomes that are measured, monitored, and reported independently at all levels of school education with a special focus on ensuring that all children master basic reading and numeracy skills by class 2 and skills of critical thinking, expression and problem solving by class 5." While investing in education quality is clearly one of the most important priorities for the Government of India, the fiscally-constrained budgetary environment creates an imperative to implement both cost-effective and scalable policies to address this massive challenge.

Proposing a national programme of primary school teaching assistants

To achieve the learning objectives of the 12th Plan in a fiscally and practically sustainable way, I propose a national programme of primary school teaching assistants (TA) through which the main ideas that are supported by the research can be implemented and scaled up. The core idea of the proposal pertains to the stipulation under the Right to Education (RTE) Act to reduce pupil-teacher ratios (PTR) from 40:1 to 30:1. This will involve an expansion of hiring of regular teachers at an estimated additional cost of Rs. 25,000 crores per year, and is one of the most expensive components of the Act. The research evidence (Muralidharan 2013) very strongly suggests that it will be possible to achieve considerably larger improvements in learning outcomes and to significantly improve educational equity and inclusion by spending these same resources a little differently, in the manner outlined in this proposal.

The proposal suggests maintaining the regular teacher norm at 40:1 (subject to a minimum of two regular teachers per school as per original Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) norms) as opposed to 30:1. The same funds that would have been used to achieve the reduction from 40:1 to 30:1 can be used to provide each regular teacher with two TAs from the same village, where the TAs shall have an explicit mandate to focus on first-generation and weaker learners and to provide small-group instruction and tailored attention to these children to enable them to master basic reading and numeracy skills by class 2 or 3 (to be able to “read to learn”) as targeted in the 12th Plan. Such an allocation of TAs to teachers will enable the PTR (defined as the ratio of adults to children in the school) to be reduced to 13.5 (or lower), which will allow for much more individualised attention to children and provide schools with the teaching resources needed to bridge early learning gaps.

The proposal allows for a dramatic reduction in PTR in a fiscally-sustainable way, while also creating employment and skill-building opportunities for educated rural youth.

Qualifications and appointment criteria

  • Appointed candidates will be from the same village (or Panchayat if needed).
  • The minimum qualification for this role will be passing 12th standard, though the most qualified applicants in a village will be prioritised for appointments. Current data (Kingdon and Sipahimalani-Rao 2010) suggests that around half of the appointees will be college graduates, while half will have passed 12th standard.
  • TAs will be appointed for one year at a time with the target duration of total employment being four years. The appointments will be renewed annually subject to meeting performance and training norms.
  • No formal teacher training credentials will be required to join as a TA, but continuous and ongoing training will be required over four years.
  • Since research (Muralidharan and Sheth 2013) suggests that female teachers may be more effective at teaching younger girls (at no cost to boys), each school should target filling 50-75% of these positions with women.
  • Subject to meeting minimum qualifications, preference will be given to candidates in accordance with reservation norms.


A consistent finding in the research (Muralidharan 2013) on education quality in India (and globally) over the past decade is that there is no association between having a formal teacher training credential and teacher effectiveness in improving student learning outcomes. This does not imply that training cannot have an impact on improving teacher effectiveness, but it does suggest that training credentials as currently generated within the system are unlikely to be effective markers of teacher quality, and that it is essential to rethink the approach to teacher training.

Research and practice from around the world suggest that the most effective training programmes are typically those that integrate theory and practice in a continuous manner over time as opposed to pure ‘credentialing’ systems that are based mostly on theory. The TA programme may be an especially promising opportunity to re-imagine training along these lines.

The proposal makes the following suggestions pertaining to TA training:

  • TA’s should participate in a modular training programme, where the Diploma in Education (D.Ed.) qualification is modularised into four modules of three months each (each consisting of a two-month summer session and 2-4 sessions of 1-2 weeks each during the school year).
  • The TA appointment will not require a formal teacher training qualification at the start, but will require the completion of the first module of pre-service training prior to starting in schools (this will be an intense two-month programme with a focus on preparing the TAs to handle classroom situations and to focus on helping children attain basic competencies as opposed to education theory).
  • Over four years, the TAs will complete additional modules of teacher training (including more theoretical components) during the summer break, and spend one month during the school year on continuous training, with a view to passing an exam and obtaining formal teacher training qualifications at the end of the four years.
  • The TAs will be paid their regular salary during this training (subject to passing modular exams), which minimises financial risk to them. Many of these students would have otherwise paid large amounts of money to enrol in low-quality teacher training programmes that do not lead to teaching jobs.

Pay and integration into regular teacher track

  • The salary for this position will range from Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 6,000 per month depending on qualification and experience. As documented in several studies, this pay scale compares very well with the pay offered to similarly qualified candidates in rural India, and is higher than the average salary paid by private schools in rural India. Evidence suggests that there is likely to be an excess supply of suitably qualified candidates at this salary scale (Kingdon and Sipahimalani-Rao 2010).
  • At the end of four years as a TA, candidates who are college graduates and have obtained the D.Ed. equivalent through the modular training programme, can apply to be hired as a regular civil-service teacher by taking the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) and being selected through the standard recruitment procedure, but they will receive additional credit for each year of experience as a TA1.
  • Thus, top-scoring candidates on the TET may qualify for direct recruitment as a regular teacher (without going through the TA experience), but for two candidates with the same exam marks, creditable classroom experience as a TA will significantly enhance the probability of selection as a regular teacher.
  • As a result, the TA position will typically be the first step in a career ladder, and the recruiting system will recognise the value of classroom experience in addition to pure theoretical knowledge as reflected in formal qualifications.
  • Equally importantly, this system will help candidates discover whether they actually enjoy teaching and are good at it before deciding whether teaching should be a life-long career (and reduce the cases of ‘mismatches’ where candidates train to be a teacher and realise later that they actually don’t like the job or are not good fits for it).
  • Candidates who are not college graduates or who do not score high enough on the TET to be selected as regular teachers will receive a lump-sum payment of Rs. 1 lakh on completion of their four-year appointment.
  • Candidates who complete the modular D.Ed. but do not get selected for regular positions through the TET can continue to work as TAs, and make additional attempts to qualify for selection as a regular teacher through the TET (if they are college graduates).
  • Candidates who complete the modular D.Ed. and choose to remain as TAs for the longer-run without aiming for selection as regular teachers (due to not being college graduates or because of not wanting a transferrable job), can be eligible for longer-term T