Inside the “Delhi Education Revolution”

Better buildings, a “happiness curriculum,” mentor teachers—and higher test scores
Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister, Manish Sisodia seen during a press conference on the eve of Teachers Day at Delhi Secretariat, in New Delhi, September 4, 2021.
Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister, Manish Sisodia seen during a press conference on the eve of Teachers Day at Delhi Secretariat, in New Delhi, September 4, 2021.

Since 2015, the public schools serving 1.5 million students in Delhi, India’s capital, have undergone a remarkable transformation. The budget grew nearly tenfold. Crumbling buildings lacking desks or chairs were replaced by newly renovated classrooms with fresh paint or, in some cases, with entirely new schools. Mentor teachers coached their colleagues and reached out to struggling students. Regular attendance increased, and pass rates on a required standardized test improved.

What the government describes as the “Delhi Education Revolution” has attracted considerable attention. The minister who spearheaded the effort, Manish Sisodia, wrote a book titled Shiksha – My Experiments as an Education Minister. Boston Consulting Group, the management consulting firm known for employing Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, did a study of the reform. The New York Times published an account of the changes headlined “Clean Toilets, Inspired Teachers: How India’s Capital Is Fixing Its Schools.”

For all that, though, the story is relatively unknown in the U.S., where readers may wonder what exactly happened in Delhi and what lessons from these reforms may be relevant or be replicable elsewhere.

The “Facelift” of Delhi Public Schools

Manish Sisodia was elected as the Minister of Education and the First Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi in 2015 from the Aam Aadmi Party, which had campaigned to remove corruption, strengthen the economy and change the public education system. In an endeavor to understand the nature of the problem with Delhi public schools, he started visiting schools in February, 2015. In his book, he recalls what he saw: “Crumbling” classrooms with “ceilings threatening to come crashing down any minute,” were a common sight. All the students had in their classrooms were “a few tattered durries to sit on and broken blackboards hanging precariously from the walls.” There were schools where students were being taught in corridors or hallways, others where walls were barely managing to hold up and some, which, until recently, had no drinking water facilities.

Anju Pathak, a former Mentor teacher within the Delhi public education system, said in an interview that even teachers had to fight for chairs or clean their own desks of dirt, instances that led to teachers simply feeling not welcome in the school environment.

Karan Deep Singh, who wrote an article on these changes for the New York Times, told me, “I spoke to teachers and parents who said that initially the schools looked like an abandoned building, a decrepit room, and in some cases, not even a building – just tin sheds that were serving as classrooms… so they weren’t really motivated to spend any time in the school.”

In 2015, the government calculated that in order to accommodate its present student population, it would need at least 30,000 more classrooms. In a state that caters to more than 1.5 million students enrolled in public schools across 1st grade to 12th, the state’s approach was to increase the share of the budget allotted to education to 25% (about $1.2 billion) from 12% (about $0.2 billion). By 2022, the education budget was up to $1.9 billion, paid for by overall growth and by some increase in government debt. In a 2022 report from the Auditor general of India, Delhi government’s debt rose by nearly 7% from 2015-16 to 2019-20. However, the report also stated that the government’s revenue receipts had steadily risen over the past few years and the revenue surplus that the government had maintained was sufficient to meet the revenue expenditure. Having increased the budget, the government’s focus was now on building new schools while adding rooms to the ones that really needed it: as many as 17,000 broken classrooms were fixed by the AAP government and by 2016, there were about 25,000 newly renovated classrooms in the capital – most schools, which were earlier dilapidated, “got a facelift”. Buildings were repaired, white-washed, and freshly painted, while schools were furnished with labs with modern facilities, well-equipped staff rooms, even swimming pools. The condition of the public schools was changed in its entirety.

In an interview, Shoikat Roy, who authored the Boston Consulting Group Analysis on the Delhi Education Reform Movement, recalled the story of a parent who came from a very marginalized section of society. When Roy asked the father what pushed him into sending his child back to school, he simply replied, “All I know is that this is a Delhi Government School. I don’t need to know anything more – my daughter has rights and she can avail of it, that’s all.”

The root cause of the problem with the school buildings, though, was yet to be solved. The lack of organization of roles and responsibilities within the school system made it difficult for schools to be maintained in the first place. While Sisodia inspected schools across the region, asking for feedback, involving school principals and teachers in the conversation about reform, principals from various schools wrote to him explaining how difficult it was for a single headmaster to oversee every nook and cranny of the school building. There was no one to make sure that school infrastructure was being looked after. Hence, the decrepitude.

In response, the government created posts called Estate Managers, or karamcharis, in every school. That official would be in charge of supervising cleanliness and repairs. A structural division of responsibilities was established—while principals focused on the academic environment at school, the karamcharis took care of the buildings. These public schools also had School Management Committees which usually included the principal, a teacher, a social worker, a local elected representative, and parents or guardians. They were responsible for overseeing the working of the school. Under these reforms, the School Management Committees were significantly strengthened. Their independence in decision-making was bolstered, giving them the power to solve issues directly.

How Did this Affect the Teachers and the Students?

Survey data indicates the improvement in the conditions of schools have had a tremendous effect in boosting morale and encouraging students to attend school. In a Boston Consulting Group parent and teacher survey, about 76% credited improvement in school infrastructure as the primary driver of change towards attitudes in schooling. This connection between physical conditions of the school and learning is widely noted. For example, the World Bank, in its 2019 book The Impact of School Infrastructure and Learning, mentions that “investments in school infrastructure and the physical conditions for learning are not a luxury but a need.” Schoolteachers such as Anju Pathak, who had been working within the system for years, testify to the impact that these changes had, mentioning the infrastructural changes as one of the foremost causes that drove students back to school. School attendance numbers increased exponentially when the schools had desks, boards, and working fans. In one of BCG’s focus group discussions, a student said, “Attendance has increased in school after cleanliness and better plants. It is ‘human nature’ to gravitate towards better environment.”

Teacher Training Programs

While the physical improvements were relatively rapid, the learning gains were more gradual, and were stronger after the government also made changes that went beyond the buildings, focusing directly on the two main components of the education system: the teachers and the students. “A teacher is to a school what a pilot is to an aeroplane. Children are like its passengers,” Sisodia writes in his book. The government moved to strengthen the role of teachers and heads of schools within the school community, training them and pushing them forward as responsible leaders. Delhi invested in offering school principals leadership workshops in consultation with larger institutions such as the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad. Teacher-training programs were organized in partnership with the University of Cambridge and with schools in Finland. “This exposure,” Anju Pathak, a Delhi teacher, explained, “helps you see things differently, it opens your mind. It ignites in you a feeling that if they can do it, so can we.” These trainings were happening in tandem with the state’s attempt to recruit more teachers in the system; there were more teachers, and they were better trained. BCG notes in its analysis that as more well-trained teachers entered the system, the pass percentages of students across 10th and 12th grades shot up by almost 10 percentage points, bringing substantial improvement to the quality of education inside the classroom.

The Mentor Teacher Program

Anju Pathak, a former mentor teacher within the Delhi public education system, cites the Mentor Teacher Program as, by far, the government’s “most successful initiative” without which the Delhi education reform movement would have been impossible. Having established cluster level leadership with principals, estate managers, and school management committees, Delhi’s next step was to focus on individual teachers. Sisodia recognized that often, government school teachers did not have anyone to guide them, no one to help hone their skills or listen to their perspectives. The Directorate of Education—the Indian equivalent of a U.S. state education department, therefore, came up with a Mentor Teacher program. In the Delhi model, mentor teachers not only help build on the teachers’ teaching skills but they also keep their eyes on students. Teachers quoted in Sisodia’s book recount going out into villages to persuade parents to let their children return to school, reaching out to students who have been having a hard time. Pathak said these were the teachers who were most motivated to push through, because they were frustrated, disillusioned with the way public schools had been running. The mentor teachers were given substantial autonomy — something Pathak, who was in the first batch of mentor teachers, said she really appreciated. Sisodia himself tried to connect with teachers first-hand by touring schools, taking feedback and listening to their inputs, and this approach helped to break down existing hierarchies.

All these practices contributed to fostering an overall positive environment in the school. In a BCG poll of 6137 teachers, 41% said that their renewed motivation to teach came from improved teacher training programs, 38% mentioned the role of an overall positive environment, and the rest cited improvements in facilities, leadership, or other factors. This support from the government was crucial towards pushing teachers to show up for work, to teach, and to help inspire the leaders of tomorrow.

How Learning Outcomes of Students Improved in Middle School and Beyond

In collaboration with the teachers, Delhi also launched numerous programs to improve the learning outcomes of students, namely Buniyaad (“Foundation”) and Chunauti (“Challenge”). The government’s National Achievement Survey flagged reading skills and math skills as major areas of concern for students. Chunauti was launched in June 2016 to bridge the learning gaps of 950,000 students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Based on their learning capabilities and standards, students were grouped into three learning sections—capable, satisfactory, and below average—and teachers aimed at bridging those learning gaps among the groups. This further ensured that the teaching of fundamental ideas was done at the right level. Similarly, Buniyaad attempted to make children from grades 3 to 9 be able to read their respective textbooks completely without difficulty and perform basic mathematical calculations. In this effort to strengthen foundational literacy and numeracy skills, Buniyaad classes were offered across several schools in Delhi. The BCG report credits these programs with improving the Foundational Literacy and Numeracy outcomes of students. The percentage of students who could perform division and those who could read advanced stories in Hindi increased by an average of 22% across classes 6 to 8 in 2018 and by 10% in 2019. The government’s aim of eliminating the below-average group was essentially achieved by 2019-20, when only 0.4%-0.7% of students were left in that category. Primary schooling was strengthened as the focus of the education department shifted towards bettering foundational skills: primary school enrollments increased at a rate of about 4.7%, while private schools’ growth slowed to 2.7%, indicating that students were beginning to prefer public schools to private schools to a certain extent. Yet this trend, as Shoikat Roy from Boston Consulting Group said in an interview, “is not fully borne out in the data, …, in the long run, that would be a litmus test.” Some public schools, such as the Schools of Specialized Excellence in Delhi are perceived as competitive with the private schools, but that view doesn’t apply universally. These shifts go hand in hand with recognizing that education reform, in itself, is a much longer process that lasts way beyond the common 5 year election period in India.

The changes also had a substantial impact on high school students. In India, every year students from across public and private schools take a “board exam” which is administered by either the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) or respective State Boards. In Delhi, contrary to most states, all public schools undertake the Central Board of Secondary Education – CBSE examination. Since Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party government came to power and the reforms were implemented, there has been a 10 percentage point increase in pass percentage in the 12th grade board exams and a 13 percentage point increase in 10th grade pass percentage. At least 580 out of 916 schools saw an increase in pass percentage in 2019-20. Statistics from the Central Board indicate that in 12th grade, since the introduction of reforms in 2015, Delhi schools have maintained a much higher pass percentage (98 percent) than the national average (89 percent) and Delhi private schools (92 percent). While the pass percentage in 10th grade is still lower than the national average, they are gradually closing in: while in 2017, public schools were 21 percentage points behind the national average, in 2019-20, they are only 9.8 percentage points behind. However, a lot of work still needs to be done for 9th grade students, primarily because of the low pass percentages therein — and the numbers have not improved significantly despite the reforms that have been applied to students in grades 6-8. This remains as one of Delhi’s core problems, even though the transition rate, calculated as the total class 9 enrollment that is enrolled in 10th grade the successive year, improved marginally between 2015 and 2019. Several stories testify to the fact that even students who had failed in mathematics in 9th grade were channelled into the path that led them to receiving a 96% on their 12th-grade boards.

The Happiness Curriculum

The Delhi government also made multiple attempts to push students beyond the constraints of the prescribed curriculum, endeavoring to provide students with a holistic education through the Happiness Curriculum. The Happiness Curriculum was launched for the first time in 2018 with an objective “to help students lead happier lives, while making meaningful contributions to their communities by practicing mindfulness and by developing skills like empathy, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration to build meaningful relationships.” This was billed as the first time that an educational institution in India had actively tried to promote mindfulness and wellness classes and had tried to integrate them within the general curriculum. The Brookings Institution called the curriculum “a landmark first step in expanding a formal, public education system to focus on the holistic development of all learners, invest in their well-being, and improve the overall quality of education.”

Every day, students have a happiness period that they use to reflect and express their thoughts about a topic chosen by their teachers. There are no textbooks, no rigorous curriculum, just an opportunity for discussion, reflection and self-expression. Per BCG, roughly 30 percent of teachers working under the Delhi Education model cited the Happiness Curriculum as the key learning related intervention in Delhi that changed the perspectives of students and teachers alike. A Brookings analysis, conducted with the organization “Dream a Dream,” found the student-teacher relationship in public schools has considerably improved and students, who used to treat school as a burden, feel more “refreshed” and can concentrate better. The Happiness Curriculum helps to build emotional self-awareness in students with their final goal being helping them grow into better human beings. As many as 87 percent of teachers reported to BCG that the Happiness Curriculum has had a tangible impact on students.

What Remains to Be Done

Delhi’s reforms are incomplete. A lot of work is yet to be done in terms of getting better results from schools, especially in 9th grade, mostly because pass percentages there have still remained pretty low—57.8 percent in the 2018-2019 year—despite the substantial changes brought to the curriculum in grades 6-8. A program the government rolled out to help support struggling students in 9the grade, known as the Patrachar scheme, only reached about 3,000 of them, less than a third of whom passed their exams. A lot of other interventions have yet to reach their optimum potential. Karan Deep Singh of the New York Times mentions how it took years for the government to even get the most basic fundamental changes running – “it took a lot of time for them to make any dent at all.” In the book Delhi’s Education Revolution, Kusha Anand and Marie Lall write that the “declared ‘revolutionising’ of government school education remains a work in progress.” BCG’s Shoikat Roy describes these reforms as the “early seeds of thought and perception that public education can be improved.” This was a shift significant to India, nevertheless, yet to sustain that shift, far more will have to be done—not only in Delhi but also across the country. Many schools and children in India are in rural areas, not cities, and in those areas widespread teacher absences and other longstanding problems such as lack of outreach by the government have contributed to India’s consistently low rankings in international test-based comparisons.

All in all, the Delhi government’s community-oriented, teacher-based responses helped shape the growth that Delhi public schools have had in the last few years. Their approach was holistic and aimed at establishing a positive learning environment for all. Sisodia writes towards the end of his book, “I have said many a time that education is not about making buildings or modern classrooms or adopting technology in classrooms. These are its needs but not its achievements. Education’s biggest achievement is that it can foresee future problems, find solutions and prepare future generations for them.”

Policymakers considering the possibility of replicating Delhi’s reforms elsewhere may want to keep that in mind. For another school system to duplicate the full combination of programs—the budget increases, the building improvements, the estate managers, the School Management Committees, the mentor teachers, the Foundation and Challenge efforts, the Happiness Curriculum—would seem to be a formidable challenge. But the energy, ambition, and thoughtfulness that the Aam Aadmi Party brought to the task of preparing future generations, and the early results that they brought, are well worth emulating.

Saswato Ray, who is from India, is an undergraduate at Harvard studying Social Studies and Economics.

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