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India’s new national education policy: Evidence and challenges

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The global expansion of schooling in the past three decades is unprecedented: Primary school enrollment is near-universal, expected years of schooling have risen rapidly, and the number of children out of school has fallen sharply.

Yet the greatest challenge for the global education system, a “learning crisis” per the World Bank, is that these gains in schooling are not translating into commensurate gains in learning outcomes, according to an analysis by ScienceMag.org.

This crisis is well exemplified by India, which has the largest education system in the world.

Over 95% of children aged 6 to 14 years are in school, but nearly half of students in grade 5 in rural areas cannot read at a grade 2 level, and less than one-third can do basic division (1).

India’s new National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 (the first major revision since 1986) recognizes the centrality of achieving universal foundational literacy and numeracy.

Whether India succeeds in this goal matters intrinsically through its impact on over 200 million children and will also have lessons for another low- and middle-income countries.

We review the NEP’s discussion of school education in light of accumulated research evidence that may be relevant to successfully implementing this ambitious goal.

India has made tremendous progress on access to schooling since the 1990s. Yet multiple nationally representative datasets suggest that learning levels have remained largely flat over the past 15 years.

A large body of evidence has shown that increasing “business as usual” expenditure on education is only weakly correlated with improvement in learning (2). Two key constraints that limit the translation of spending (of time and money) into outcomes are weaknesses in governance and pedagogy.

Governance challenges are exemplified by high rates of teacher absence in public schools, with nearly one in four teachers absent at the time of surprise visits (3). Even when teachers are present, instructional time is low for a variety of reasons, including large amounts of administrative paperwork.

Further, teacher recognition for performance and sanctions for nonperformance are low. Studies in India and elsewhere have shown that even modest amounts of performance-linked bonus pay for teachers can improve student learning in a cost-effective way (4).

By contrast, unconditional increases in teacher pay (the largest component of education budgets) have no impact on student learning (4, 5).

Overall, improving governance and management in public schools may be a much more cost-effective way of improving student learning than simply expanding education spending along with default patterns.

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