What’s the binding constraint in Indian public school education?

What’s the binding constraint in public education or in more layman terms, what’s the bottleneck or the major reason that you think is responsible for ineffective education system? Questions of these nature elicit responses that are across a wide spectrum.

The first category of responses are a list of things such as — lack of motivated teachers, in appropriate curriculum, low teacher salaries, lack of infrastructural facilities in school, administrative work load of teachers etc. All these can be represented in form of an Education Diagnostics map as below.

Figure 1: Education Diagnostics

The blue lines in Figure 1 can be thought of as a pipe facilitating flow of a liquid while the small horizontal dashes on it (for example: horizontal dashes as security, health, access, learning diagnostics etc.) can be thought of the constrictions in the way of liquid flow. When someone says that ‘access’ is ‘the’ issue, they are implying it is the major constriction that’s blocking the liquid flow and that addressing it would solve the problem to a reasonable extent. The problem with this approach is that many other elements in Figure 1 can be cited as binding constraints. When you put some people in a room and ask them to list out problems — typically there is a debate between, what’s the major constrictions among those in Figure 1. How do we then decide what’s the truth? Two questions can help us probe these arguments.

  1. What happens when you address the element that you are citing as the constriction? Does it result in a ‘significant’ improvement in the situation?
  2. In cases, when there were attempts made to address the constriction but weren’t successful in addressing the constraint, why was it so?

Whenever someone says ‘x’ is the binding constraint, ask these two questions. For instance, if ‘lack of infrastructure’ is cited as the binding constraint, ask — Suppose, let’s say we address the infrastructure problem? What happens after that? Does it result in outcomes? — and so on. The other arguments like lazy teachers etc also all apart because there are studies which show that the same public school teachers are being effective when they work outside the regular system and so on. If issues like ‘teacher training is asked which aren’t addressed to be able to see their effect — ask — why aren’t teacher trainings being ineffective? What explains it?

Fortunately, we have evidence to guide us in many of such questions above, thanks to the RCT revolution. This line of reasoning will help us disentangle these elements and in Indian context and all the arguments which cite such elements in Education Diagnostics map as the major constraints fall apart as they can’t explain the picture fully. Please refer chapter 3 of my book where I use the existing evidence to carry out the debunking exercise. I am not doing so here in the interest of the length of the post.

The question then is — if these seemingly major constraints don’t explain the problem, what does then explain the scenario at hand? We will come to this later.

The second category of responses to the ‘binding constraints’ question are those that cite ‘lack of political will’ as the binding constraint. It is a convincing narrative — politicians don’t care about education — hence it ended up being ineffective. If we probe this further, we realize that even it doesn’t give the full picture because — there are cases where there was political will, including bureaucratic will and things were tried out but still weren’t successful.

For instance — consider the famous example of Activity Based Learning, a form of pedagogy that was scaled up throughout Tamil Nadu. It was done with full backing by the minister and the then education secretary but didn’t yield results (spare me for being non-rigorous). A recent example is Mission Gunwatta in Bihar where the government tried implementing the ‘Teach at the Right Level’ (TaRL) programme in Bihar’s schools. It wasn’t successful. Rukmini Banerjee of Pratham, the organization that pioneered the TaRL programme and was part of the Mission Gunwatta programme has a good paper on the experience of this initiative and learnings from the same.

The question again is — what explains such cases — why did initiatives that had both political and bureaucratic will still not succeed? There should be more to this story. Let’s understand.

Assume there’s a body lying on the ground motion less. In the process of finding out the reason for lack of motion, let’s say that some start with liver. They observe that liver isn’t functioning and hence infer that ‘lack of functioning liver’ is the problem and strongly advocate for treating it. For these people, liver seems to be ‘the’ ‘binding constraint’. Some others have started with kidney and find that kidney isn’t functioning. They too infer that ‘lack of functioning kidneys’ is the problem and hence strongly advocate for treating it. Likewise, all those who have started the diagnosis from a particular point figured out that the point at which they diagnosed isn’t working and hence they presume that it’s the binding constraint. What if I say that everyone was diagnosing a dead body to start with?

Pointing out an individual element in Education Diagnostics map as the binding constraint, first category of responses as cited above, is similar to arguing that a particular organ is the constraint for non-movement of a body while it’s dead. Just like the diagnosis that stops with one particular organ incorrectly attributes the reason to that organ, limiting our analysis to a narrow section, a particular element in ED map also leads to incorrect inferences.

Pointing out lack of political will is similar to arguing that body isn’t moving because of lack of intent to move. It’s a tricky argument because it is difficult to differentiate between lack of movement due to lack of intent and lack of movement due to death.

You may ask — “Ok. So what?” The point is that look beyond the immediate causes that might appear to you as ‘the’ constraints, the one’s in ED map. The problem is much deeper and meta. Just as the problem with dead body is the lack of soul and not necessarily the individual organs, the problem in our case is also not necessarily the individual organs but the ‘meta’ thing behind the ED map, which binds them together like soul and responsible for its functioning. This meta soul thing in our case is called the ‘state capacity — the capacity to design and implement policies’.

Of course, in the above example, we assumed that we are in a weird world where you have all the medical technology to diagnose organs but lack knowledge to test a person’s heartbeat to test if the person is alive before embarking upon the diagnosis of organs. It’s an example for the same reason — not possible to find an accurate match but hope the essential point is clear.

To make it more clear, consider another example. This is from a book called ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. It starts with the story of a CEO called Kathryn who took the leadership of a failing company and turned it around. The puzzle of the company is best described in the few lines posted as a question that Kathryn continuously asks her employees so as to probe them.

“We have a more experienced set of executives than any of our competitors. We have more cash than they do. We have better core technology. And we have a more connected board of directors. Yet in spite of all that, we are behind two of our competitors in terms of both revenue and customer growth. Why?”

The lack of performance of a company can be due to various reasons — lack of funds, lack of talented people, lack of good product, lack of good marketing and so on. Kathryn is saying that all of these aren’t problems in the company but still it isn’t growing. Why?

In the story that follows she makes her employees realize that it’s due to lack of coordination or team work between them that doesn’t leverage on all the above factors.

Carrying this to our analogy, the problem in our case is not the lack of money or lack of good people or anything else — it’s the lack of the gel that bonds all together, the soul, that leverages on the above factors.

How does it matter if the problem is due to organ or soul/ people or team work?

It matters to identify the problem correctly because misdiagnosis will result in ineffective solutions or solutions that end up hurting in a negative manner. How?

  1. Missing the bigger picture: One must first understand that getting government to act on a particular aspect in a particular way is difficult. It requires consensus across range of stakeholders. Understandably, everyone is trying to push through ‘what they think is the right thing to do’. So, there’s a competition of ‘ideas’ on ‘what’s to be done?’. It is also the case that there is no space for ‘all’ the ideas in this discourse. One has to keep an idea floating in the discourse for long time for it to be noticed and to be acted upon. In such contexts with precious bandwidth, selecting the ‘idea’ to be pushed through is crucial. Why is that so?

Consider that you misdiagnose the critical constraint as the lack of an element in ED map and advocate relentlessly for that. The entire discourse bandwidth is filled up with it. Finally, you get that done! What’s the result? Nothing. In the process, you crowded out the ‘idea’ that identifies the real cause and may be also costed time, money and efforts. Instead if we have advocated for the right idea, it would have at least highlighted it if not resulting in action. The wastage of political will and capital is a more dangerous casualty. Political will as such is low as people call it, if even that occasional will is squandered on ideas with incorrect approach to reform, it only builds skepticism in the system.

It’s the same happening in education. Whenever there are 10 people in a room, the ideas on what to do range across several elements of ED map. It’s essentially an argument between people as to what’s the element that has to be acted upon on priority? In reality, each of those is a necessary condition and there’s no denying in that. However, when we are thinking of a strategy, we have to take a step back, critically question our arguments for priorities, take a broader look at the picture and act accordingly. Else, it will either end up in fights over priorities or even if the priority is agreed up on, we end up failing to implement it as it has happened till now, resulting in waste of time, energy, money, resources, and more importantly precious political will, building skepticism.

2. Overlaying ideas on dysfunctional foundations

The lack of realization of the nature of the problem that it’s of ‘state capacity’ and not any individual constraint necessarily means that we look for solutions, actionable solutions as they call it, those ‘one’ big things that can pull us out.

This is usually in the form of scale-ups. When nothing seems to work, something that works somewhere gives a ray of hope and there is an urge to immediately implement it everywhere. Hence, governments have an urge to do scale-ups of ‘successful programmes’.

If one doesn’t recognize the nature of problem as that of state capacity, in the above line of thinking, one presumes that all the necessary support structures and prerequisites to make the ‘new idea’ work are in place and that the problem is with the lack of idea which can leverage this foundational structure. Often, it happens that such imported ideas fail when overlaid on weak structures that can’t implement it.

Sometimes such importing of ideas may also driven by the fact of helplessness even if the problem of state capacity is recognized. For instance, an administrator might say — well, reforming entire system to reach the final goal seems like an arduous task, let me settle for those things which yield results despite the dysfunctional system.

3. Setting up new verticals on same dysfunctional foundations

A new idea is gaining ground the education circles — it’s that the current system of schools are dysfunctional and hence government should build new set of schools, with new cadre of teachers etc. Andhra Pradesh has famously done it establishing new school in each mandal (block) to bypass the existing system.

The reality is that the new schools that are setup soon ran into the same problems as their old ones — teacher absenteeism, lack of teacher motivation due to culture of education bureaucracy and so on.

Such incorrect approach to reform is the lack of understanding the role of state capacity, the bedrock of functioning for any such system. The problem is incorrectly identified with something else and it is built on the faulty bedrock, weak state capacity, and we end up with same results.

A similar idea in this genre is to set up chain of schools on the lines of Navodayas and Kendriya Vidyalayas. The narrative is — Navodayas and KVs have worked well — why not extend or scale them up to every village? It sounds convincing but it conceals many nuances.

Navodayas and KVs are in a unique setting, a combination of selection bias, students selected through screening, and those from affluent backgrounds, which majorly drive the results. These aren’t necessarily applicable anywhere outside their working arenas. Scaling up such models as an anchor for reform will also mostly probably meet the same fate as any other initiative because it also tends to overlay ideas on a weak foundation.


Problems are of different nature — problem with individual elements, system level problems, due to lack of political will etc.

The problem with education is due to weak state capacity. Lack of this realization is leading to incorrect approach towards reform wasting precious time, energy and resources.

Framing the binding constraint in public school education in terms of individual elements in ED map like lack of ‘xyz’ sets us on a wrong path to reform.

Next time you think of ‘action points’, one specific element may appear to be the constraint, it is not. Think big.The problem is much deeper.

State Capacity

Why do we then view the problem through a narrow or biased lens? Gulzar Natarajan has a great post on the reasons for such biased perception.