Decentralization in School Management and Student Achievement: Evidence from India

A recent paper published in the Journal of Development Studies examines the link between decentralization in school management and student achievement levels in secondary schools in India. The study employs observational data from two school surveys conducted as part of the Young Lives project in the southern Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to create a measure of decentralization as a latent construct. The relationship between decentralization and students’ abilities in mathematics and English is measured using a quantitative (linear mixed effects) models.

Contrary to the expectations in much literature, the authors find a negative association between decentralization and students’ scores on math and English assessments, even when controlling for a variety of individual and school characteristics. The authors suggest that the negative relationship between decentralization and improved student achievement may be caused by the specific approach to sector decentralization followed in India (deconcentration and ‘decentralized’ school-based management rather than meaningful devolution).

Decentralization of education responsibilities in India

Decentralization in India was espoused in the Gandhian tenet of local self-determination which found its validation in the Panchayati Raj amendments to the Indian constitution. The decentralization movement in India (as an ideal rather than an empirically tested measure of administrative efficiency) is closely linked to the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, which seeks to provide local government institutions in villages and cities with greater power over governance.

In practice, however, opposition by teachers/staff (and their unions), a lack of incentives, a lack of support for moving to more innovative approaches to education management, and other political economy forces between different government levels have been among the main hurdles to adopting more meaningful decentralization by way of devolution (transferring powers and responsibilities to local governments). As a result, state governments in India continue to be directly responsible for running public schools, with elected local government often playing a minor role (if any role at all). Instead, in practice, decentralization of education responsibilities in India largely takes on the form of the form of assigning lesser or greater levels of administrative discretion to education officials posted below the state level and/or school administrators.

Beyond constructing and operating public (government) schools, state governments in India provide a broad regulatory framework and rules for functioning for public and well as private schools. The district education officer (a state government official) oversees the administration and operation of public schools within his or her jurisdiction. Teachers and school staff are generally state government employees. Within this structure, a greater or lesser degree of administrative and budgetary decision-making may be delegated to the district level or to the school level. The distribution of responsibility and the level of top-down interference between state officials, district officials and school-level officials varies across states, between school types, and may even vary from one school to another.

Empirical analysis

The study examines the link between multi-stakeholder levels of participation in decision-making and student achievement levels (delimited to math and language scores) in two Indian states (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) in India to infer the role of decentralization in improving student achievement and thus education systems.

To measure the magnitude of decentralization and student achievement, datasets from the Young Lives study are used. The Young Lives study team (a team of researchers primarily housed at Oxford University) designed and conducted a Secondary School Survey comprising around 205 schools and approximately 9000 subjects (comprising of students, teachers and principals) within the schools in 2016–17. The survey captured data on various school level characteristics such as decision-making pertaining to various school related tasks, student background, teacher’s academic capacities and characteristics, and importantly student learning levels.

The measurement of decentralization as a single dimensional construct in this study involves two key considerations: the decentralization of actors and the decentralization of activities. The first of these considerations refers to the extent to which different actors (headteachers, school management committees, district officials, etc.) constitute a decentralized approach to school management. The second consideration refers to the extent to which the range of activities involved in school management (staffing, curriculum, budget) are either decentralized or centralized.

In addition to decentralization and learning outcomes, the researchers include several important control variables in the analysis. These include type of school the child attends, students’ self-reported gender, caste, parental education (the highest of both parents, on an ordinal six-point scale) and a home asset register. School type is a particularly important school-level control variable: because decentralization varies across school types, it would be possible to incorrectly attribute the effects of school type to decentralization if the school type were not included in the analysis.

Based on these data, the authors analyze the relationship between these variables using linear mixed effects models, also known as hierarchical linear models.

Findings, conclusions and lessons

The findings of this study suggest that decentralization has a significant negative association with student learning scores (especially in mathematics). Even after controlling for various proximate factors (including school type – private aided, private unaided or government schools), students in decentralized schools, on an average, tend to perform more poorly than those in schools where decision-making is centralized. The contextual reasons behind this phenomenon in India remain to be explored in detail, but negative associations between decentralization and student outcomes may exist when decentralization does not operate in the manner, nor for the reasons, claimed.

The negative link between decentralization and student achievement can be argued to be relatively weak in magnitude when compared with other covariates such as type of school, caste, gender and the food poverty of the individual. In particular, the results highlight that food poverty and caste continue to remain relevant barriers for student achievement even in the second decade of the 21st century.

Decentralization is not merely the transfer of authority but also the transfer of the burden of responsibility to carry out the functions. It is often resorted to as a means of abdicating the responsibility and obligations of the state or central authority, rather than the need to increase the agency of the local authorities. For instance, decentralization reforms may be used as policy excuse for the lack of funds or cuts in budgets. In this context, the terms community-based financing, performance financing and public-private partnerships may be used as buzzword to cover the underlying logic of de-financing rather than financial delegation.

Open access to the full journal article:

Kalyan Kumar Kameshwara, Robin Shields & Andres Sandoval-Hernandez (2023) Decentralisation in School Management and Student Achievement: Evidence from India, The Journal of Development Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2023.2273800