Human Development

Searching for the 'silver bullet': What works in improving children's learning outcomes?

  • Blog Post Date 06 January, 2014
  • Notes from the Field
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Children’s learning outcomes in primary schools in India are far from satisfactory. In this article, Rukmini Banerji explores the various theories of change and associated implementation strategies that are currently at work for improving the status of learning in schools. She discusses the challenges of balancing and prioritising the different theories of change, and translating them into practice on scale.

In the elementary education sector in India, for the last ten years, the challenge of moving the focus from ‘schooling’ to ‘learning’ has felt like a boulder is being pushed uphill on a steep slope. But now the situation is perceptibly changing. Although debates will continue on what learning to measure and how to do it, there is a growing acknowledgement even within the education establishment that status of children’s learning is far from satisfactory and something needs to be done to change it. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan’s education chapter’s strong focus on learning outcomes has also helped move the needle from inputs to outcomes. Thus, at long last, there is increasing interest among policymakers, planners and bureaucrats in ‘what works’.

Improving learning in primary schools: What works?

Given we are in the early stages of understanding how to improve learning, various things can be done and should be done to fill the many gaps in how the education system is designed and how it functions. Sorting through recent evidence and looking carefully at current experiences both in India and in other countries, many possibilities present themselves, many strategies are possible. But the big question is which path(s) to take and what to prioritise. Underlying each possibility or strategy is a “theory of change”. A theory of change basically states a problem and traces pathways to the solution – that is, the links between what is the problem, what will be the main driver for the solution, what will lead to what and what will be the outcome.

In India today, many theories of change are competing for first place in ‘what works’. As Mukerji and Walton (2013) put it “these interpretations have hugely different implications for policy design”. Each theory of change leads to its own prioritising of what is important to do first, where to begin, where scarce resources (money, people and time) should go and who will push whom to do what. Each theory of change, therefore, has very strong implications for implementation.

Theories of changes and associated pathways of action

In the last year, there have been several reviews of recent empirical evidence where attempts have been made to look at the literature on inputs and processes, causes of and factors associated with learning outcomes and their consequences (Muralidharan 2013, Mukerji and Walton 2013). Adding to this body of knowledge are our own observations based on participation in the implementation of learning improvement interventions in different states in the past year1. Putting all of this together, several theories of change and consequent implementation strategies are clearly visible at work in India’s elementary education sector today. At the risk of sounding simplistic, let me outline some of them:

  • ‘Get inputs in place and then things will be fine’: Proponents of this view argue that if the Right to Education (RTE) norms are implemented, the quality of the education system and its outcomes will improve. Additional resources will help – such as more expenditure, more teachers, more teaching-learning materials.
  • ‘If only everyone did their work, everything would improve’: Tighter monitoring and administrative control would lead to a much better functioning system. For example, preventing or punishing teacher absenteeism would have a positive effect on outcomes. Or tightly run inspection systems would lead to better school functioning.
  • ‘If people had information and ‘voice’, schools would deliver better services’; ‘If teachers had the right incentives they would teach better’: A third broad theory of change straddles a range of issues to do with governance, incentives and accountability. This also includes those who argue for better incentives - teacher contracts, performance pay, compensation structure, rewards and recognition and so on.
  • ‘Teachers are not capable’: This view involves a great deal of long run investment in developing teacher capacities through strengthening of institutional ability for teacher pre-service and in-service training, and reworking teacher preparation curriculums.
  • ‘Misaligned pedagogy’: The believers of this theory of change argue that the fundamental changes need to happen in the organisation of teaching-learning – serious reworking and structural change are needed inside the ‘black box’. Whether it is the Tamil Nadu government led Activity Based Learning (ABL) or Pratham’s “teaching to the right level” efforts, the core idea is to free teaching-learning from the age-grade curriculum constraints of the education system. Children need to be taught from where they are, and enabled to reach where they need to be at. Curriculum needs revision, today’s misaligned pedagogy needs to be fixed, learning goals need to be clearly articulated and teachers need to be supported to reach them.
  • Finally, there are those who think that factors outside the education sector – poverty, malnutrition, family background, opportunity costs of children’s time, need for skills etc., influence children’s outcomes.

Need for focus, balance and scale-up

Even these brief outlines indicate how each theory of change is accompanied by quite different pathways of action. These have implications for what resources will be used by the system, in what way and when. Now that the state system is gearing up for action, it is not uncommon to have many theories of change operating simultaneously within the same state without an explicit acknowledgement that this is going on. Since so much needs to be done, a lot of things begin to be done simultaneously. This leads to confusions in implementation, dilution of effort and eventually weak outcomes, which in turn lead decision makers to get disheartened and demoralised. Acknowledging which theories of change should operate and balancing among them is critical for the success of implementation.

Two recent books – Banerjee and Duflo’s “Poor Economics” and Pritchett’s “Rebirth of Schooling”, are excellent in dealing with different aspects of what the evidence on improving learning outcomes tells us about what to do. Both also stress the fact that although much is known about what is done and what worked in experiments and evaluations, much less is known about how to sustain such changes on large scale or how fundamental change can get embedded in systemic change.

Designing workable/ implementable strategies needs a strategic balance of experience and evidence. A critical factor is the need to remain open-eyed and open-minded as the hard work begins on the ground in rolling out large scale interventions. Each successive round of implementation improves if it incorporates learning from the previous phase. A policy that is not implementable is not a good policy.

In the context of this discussion, it may be relevant to look at Muralidharan’s Teaching Assistant (TA) proposal within the wide-ranging landscape of thought and action on improving learning outcomes in India. The core idea in this proposal is not a new one - hiring local, female teachers for short periods to teach lower classes. This has been tried out in different ways in India in the last 25 years. Some examples include the Shiksha Karmi in Rajasthan, "Guruji"/ Education Guarantee Schools in Madhya Pradesh, and para-teachers of various hues in many states. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, para-teachers called Shiksha Mitra are largely female, local, and usually teach Standards 1 and 2. Officially, they are recruited for 11 months at a time. While there may be variations in recruitment processes across states, new teachers being recruited under various job titles are essentially local, para-teachers in most places.

A few other observations on the TA proposal based on actual experience from the ground: First, often in the presence of other kinds of teachers such as para-teachers or volunteers, regular teachers leave the teaching to these ‘other’ types of teachers. The possibility that ‘supplemental’ instructors become ‘substitute’ teachers is high and real. Second, the actual teacher-student ratio in many schools across the country is not much different from 1:30, if one considers actual attendance of teachers and students in schools. The case of very large school and class sizes is a reality only in very few cases, in high population density areas like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or West Bengal. In fact, in much of India there is a strong and growing trend is towards small schools (schools with enrolment of less than 60) in the government sector. Third, decade long experimentation by Pratham and rigourous impact evaluations by JPAL consistently show the positive impact of community volunteers on children´s learning. Community volunteers are free and hence, an even cheaper resource than the TAs suggested in Muralidharan’s proposal. Clearly effective ways for linking communities to schools is an area that needs to be explored.

Just adding more people to the system is not going to solve the critical problem of children´s learning. The solutions will require some fundamental re-thinking of what we want children to learn, how to reorganise our existing systems/ resources to achieve learning goals, and using existing empirical evidence on ‘what works’ to implement effective strategies more widely, and to experiment on scale with clearly articulated goals and theories of change strategies.

There is no ‘silver bullet’, but there are wars

In conclusion, there is no ‘silver bullet’. But there are wars. And in wars there will be bullets. But it is not the bullet that wins the war. What wins the war is knowing who will fire, who to fire at, when to fire, and what to do next in what circumstances. Even if the bullets are the same, each war is different. Each time, the entire strategy has to be rethought and reworked. The war to improve learning has just begun. And as we fight the war, we will learn a lot that will take us to the next stage of our understanding of what can be done to help children learn better.


  1. The author works with Pratham – a NGO that has worked for close to 20 years with communities and governments on interventions to improve children’s learning.
  2. See for details of impact evaluations of Pratham interventions which focus on teaching at the right level.

Further Reading

  • Banerjee, A. and E. Duflo (2012), Poor Economics: Rethinking Poverty and the Ways to End it, Random House.
  • Mukerji, S. and M. Walton (2013), ‘Learning the Right Lessons: Measurement, Experimentation and the Need to Turn India’s Right to Education Act Upside Down’, India Infrastructure Report 2012, IDFC, Routledge, New Delhi.
  • Muralidharan, K. (2013), ´An evidence-based proposal to achieve universal quality primary education in India´, Ideas for India, 25 November 2013.
  • Muralidharan, K. (2013), ‘Priorities for Primary Education Policy in India´s 12th Five Year Plan’, India Policy Forum 2012-13, 2013, Vol. 9, pp. 1-46.
  • Pritchett, L. (2013), ´The Rebirth of Education: Schooling ain’t Learning´, Center for Global Development, Washington D.C.
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