Education: The Accountability Challenge

Education is a labor-intensive activity that depends on well-implemented capacity building policies. Trainers, teachers and students are the conduits of the process. Hence, people management plays a pivotal role in ensuring the success of endeavors in education. In other words, the raw material of social ventures in education is people. My experience with the NGO, Pratham, illustrates that we could explore innovative management policies that are not revenue generating and can still effectively create ownership along the implementation. 

In April 2012, an online questionnaire was sent to all education entrepreneurs within the Ashoka fellowship network in India. The questionnaire was part of a larger study on entrepreneurship in education that was designed to identify and explore common issues faced by those heading initiatives on education. The fellows were invited to grade the relevance of a list of statements with the intent of measuring how challenging those statements were to their endeavors. The response rate was 23 percent. From this sample, 40 percent manage a non-revenue generating model (full charitable model) and 60 percent run ventures with either a full revenue generating model, or a hybrid financial model (combining revenue-generating activities and some financial complement through donation support).

In comparison, one of the outcomes observed was the wide disparity in the way they evaluated the empowerment of people as a critical capability for their work. The results suggest that entrepreneurs that undertake ventures with a revenue generating component judge the ‘empowerment of people to take responsibility’ much less challenging than the leaders of non-revenue models. Only 17 per cent of the ‘revenue group’ classifies it as vital to their initiatives, while 75 per cent of the ‘non-revenue group’ defines it as crucial for their organizations.

This finding seems to converge with American economist, William Easterly’s analysis about aid policies in his book ‘The White Man’s Burden’. According to Easterly, successful aid policies tend to be the ones that strive to tackle a piecemeal area of a social problem and do that with bold feedback and accountability mechanisms in the process. ‘The areas with piecemeal, visible, and individually accountable outcomes are more likely to experience success (…).” (p.181, Easterly, 2006). In his analysis, Easterly explains how the a pragmatic business approach tends to create operations with stronger feedback and accountability built in.

Ashoka fellows are recognized for developing innovative ways of solving social problems. Hence, they can be an important source of knowledge to illustrate how to cope with the accountability challenge. From the set of fellows that engaged with the exploratory part of the research about entrepreneurship on education, the work of Mr. Madhav Chavan with Pratham is the most inspiring. Certain aspects of Pratham’s management practices allow it to overcome such obstacles.

Pratham is a unique endeavor that engages 65,000 volunteers in the role of teaching in different programs across 21 states in India. There is a wide variety of programs that include pre-schools (Balwadis), after-school programs for basic literacy and numeracy (Read India), engaging mothers on teaching activities, and proper community schools called Urban Learning Centers with classes of all standards. The management model is concentrated on content development (methodology), training, and tracking. There are no investments in infrastructure and the core labor force for implementation is composed of volunteers. The light cost structure and simplicity of the model allows it to scale up impressively.
“As a social entrepreneur, instead of thinking that you are going to make a difference, you can say: ‘I’m going to be the catalyst to make hundreds of thousands of people to make a difference’. That is the difference between a project mode and a movement mode,” explains Mr. Madhav Chavan.

Pratham’s implementation team comes from within the community and works to mobilize volunteers for teaching. This team also assumes the responsibility to train the volunteers and provide continuous monitoring and support. After being trained, volunteers receive the teaching materials. The methodology is designed to be simple and didactical, with a weekly activity schedule that the volunteer should go through with the children. The supervisor accompanies the completion of those activities and supports the volunteers by demonstrating how to implement the activities that were identified as difficult by the volunteers. Attendance sheets, individual tests for every child enrolled, and activity schedule are the main tools the supervisors use to track the progress of each ‘school’. Monthly meetings with the volunteers of a village or a city are held to review the experiences and refresh training.

Additionally, a separate team runs periodic tests to assess the levels of learning of the children in randomly sampled villages that have programs in place. Beyond all the internal tools of tracking, Pratham also conducts a larger survey on learning levels in rural India called ASER (Assessment Survey Evaluation Research), which helps advocate the cause and influence government policies.

Drawing a parallel between Easterly’s analysis and Pratham’s activities, measurement is a stronghold of the model. Several tools are used to make the impact visible, and guarantee feedback from the edge of operations. The goals are not broad, both supervisors and teacher volunteers know exactly what is the fragment of the process that they should implement and when. The Read India program (the larger program), focused on basic literacy and numeracy, aims at helping lagging students catch up with the expected level of learning for their age. It is focused on a piecemeal area of the much larger and multilayered education problem.

Infrastructure is most commonly generated from within the community or with another partnership, but it comes from a community engagement to seek for available spaces and resources to implement the ‘schools’. This helps to keep the model low-cost and has an important side effect of increasing the engagement of the community on children’s education. “Because there are local people working with no compensation, more people are willing to help. The program is not seen as one person’s work. We think that community involvement begins with their participation in the planning process,” says Mr. Madhav Chavan.

By Felipe Castro

Felipe Castro has extensive volunteering experience in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. He was also a volunteer at Ashoka India.

Read more articles in the October issue of Fellow Connect>>