If You Teach Them They Will Come: A Focus on Learning Pays Off in Bihar

November 04, 2013

Last week, the CGD Understanding India Initiative kicked off its second year with a presentation by Rukmini Banerji, director for programs at Pratham, co-director of the ASER Center, and co-chair of the CGD Study Group on Measuring Learning OutcomesPratham is India’s largest and arguably most successful education NGO, with programs in 20 states that focus on building children’s basic skills in reading and arithmetic. 

While most Pratham programs rely on volunteers to supplement classroom learning after hours, Banerji described a new project that began when leaders in the Jehanabad district of Bihar Bihar (one of India’s most populous states with more than 104 million residents) sought out Pratham’s help and agreed to allow government teachers to implement a Pratham program during the school day. 

What makes this program noteworthy, and why was it successful? First, district leaders were able to use evidence to define the problem precisely. Using some basic indicators, Banerji and her colleagues demonstrated that the district leaders’ initial concern, low attendance, was actually related to a much deeper and more troubling problem: children were not learning.  Next, Pratham showed select administrators how remedial literacy techniques and regrouping children by reading level instead of age could greatly improve reading skills in a short period of time.  Once “converted,” these administrators became enthusiastic ambassadors for the program, training teachers and coordinating the project.

It’s been successful enough for other districts to follow its example. The program is now being rolled out in 12 of Bihar’s 38 districts, and there’s a chance that it could be scaled up to the entire state of Bihar. See Pratham’s video below for more on the Jehanabad project.

Of course, working once is good, but scaling up is better — and much more difficult. Promising interventions can fail to demonstrate the same impacts at larger scales because of a host of challenges from logistical mishaps to political resistances.

As Banerji described, some of the biggest challenges can be political.  Everyone agrees that there are problems with the education system, but consensus on solutions is harder to find. Banerji identified four theories of change and related policies — including the Pratham approach — all competing for politicians’ attention and resources.

  1. Inputs Focus: Politicians choosing this approach focus on increasing the number of teachers and improving class room resources, but as Lant Pritchett shows in his new book The Rebirth of Education, the learning gap in developing countries cannot be filled by inputs alone. 
  2. Administration and monitoring: This perspective implies a focus on teacher performance and increasing punitive actions against teachers who don’t do their jobs.
  3. Increased institutional and human capacity: Adopting this approach would mean providing teacher training and improving teacher training institutions.
  4. Learning improvement: the approach Pratham’s advocates, recognizes Lant Pritchett’s point that overly ambitious curricula have negative consequences and that children acquire basic skills when teachers teach to the right level.

The degree of trust the government placed in Pratham, allowing an outside organization to retool a portion of the school day, was remarkable. More remarkable still is the political risk leaders in Bihar are taking by adopting outcome-focused policies. A focus on inputs is a much safer bet for politicians. It is easier to guarantee renovations to school buildings, more desks and chairs, or new text books, than it is to guarantee improvements in students’ reading skills. 

The efforts were successful in Jehanabad district last year, but how will they fair in the 12 new districts in Bihar that have adopted them this year?   We will be waiting to hear more in the coming months, as the roll out continues. For more on CGD’s Understanding India initiative, please visit this page, and let me ( know if you’d like to receive an invitation to future Understanding India events.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.