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Investing in India's Future: Premji's Model Educational Initiative

Patricia A. Gagnon

A ten-day tour of India allows one to view a nation of extremes-lavish water-front homes with waterfalls and temples inside armed gates and within minutes of street-side shanties with children bathing in puddles and grown men lathering up under streetlights; men driving wooden-wheeled, cattle-drawn vegetable carts outside the gates of one of the world's most advanced research and development facilities. Were it not for conversations with some of India's greatest minds, one might wonder if such contradictory juxtapositions were beyond notice of those in a position to make a difference.

In our sixty-minute conversation with Azim Premji, the CEO of Wipro and the wealthiest man in India, it became apparent that such images are foremost in the minds of some of those who wield the greatest power in India. Mr. Premji has a wealth of compassion and commitment to the people of India and he is well on his way to making a difference for both the present and the future of India. Premji realizes that the people of India are its greatest resource and that that resource must be cultivated to its fullest through the instrument of education.

The focus of the Azim Premji Foundation is the universalization of elementary education (UEE). To paraphrase Mr. Premji, " an educated mother will ensure that her children are educated. Education will help India address not only health-related issues, but also those of overpopulation, child labor, religious intolerance and a host of other issues." Mr. Premji also noted that if India-and his company Wipro-is to continue in its pursuit of leadership as a hub for technological research and development and business services, its academic institutions must promote creative and innovative young minds, not only people who have demonstrated the discipline to learn through rote memorization and the traditional "chalk and talk" classroom methodology.

A relatively soft-spoken man, Mr. Premji spoke perhaps more passionately about the work of the Azim Premji Foundation than about anything else we discussed with him at the Wipro campus in Bangalore on March 23, 2003. This paper will outline the primary initiatives of the Foundation, some statistics about the present condition of India's educational system, highlights of the program in its early stages, strategic partnerships, details about short-term goals and outlays and the challenges envisioned by the Foundation.

The success of the Azim Premji Foundation in effecting systemic change in the nation's public education system could have long-term and far-reaching impact on educational systems in both developing and industrialized nations. It is valuable to understand this initiative not only to appreciate the depth of Azim Premji's commitment to his people, but also to appreciate the comprehensive nature of the challenge itself.

Foundation Initiatives

Azim Premji realizes that sustainable improvements in India's educational system will require a comprehensive plan involving partnerships with the government, new strategies to promote innovation and creativity in the classroom, incentives for educators to effect change in schools, incentives for parents to ensure their children's attendance in school, effective communication both to transfer best practices and to inspire change in an ever-expanding network of schools, and a time bound withdrawal plan that hands over the initiative to the key stakeholders over a period of time.

To fulfill this plan, the Foundation has outlined a four-pronged program with specific areas essential for development:
· Capacity Building Programs - preparing a plan for every school involved; includes comprehensive training of education officers, communication and advocacy, and educational MIS
· Specific Interventions for Improvement in Learning - remedial teaching, technology-based initiatives, multi-grade and multi-level teaching
· Learning Guarantee Programs - form of certification for effective schools, highlighting progress and providing sources for best practice ideas
· Guaranteed Learning - defining outcomes and providing incentives for achieving the Learning Guarantee.

To ensure effectiveness of the program, the Foundation has restricted its implementation to a geography consisting of 3700 villages in Karnataka, about 500 villages in Andhra and three cities in Gujarat covering 300 municipal governments.

India's Current Educational System

The initial geographic areas targeted by the Foundation were selected because they exhibit the following factors: 1) high number of out-of-school children; 2) economic backwardness; 3) high number of female children out of school; 4) poor ratio of teachers to children; 5) difficulty in accessing schools; and 6) poor learning levels. Indeed, recent statistics reveal that the literacy rate in rural areas is nearly 20% lower than the literacy rate in urban areas. See Exhibit A.

Exhibit A
National Human Development Report, 2001 Females Males All India
Rural 47% 71% 59%
Urban 73% 86% 80%
All India 54% 76% 65%

These statistics are attributable, in part, to the staggeringly high number of children between the ages 6-14 who are out of school, especially in rural areas. The Foundation reports that of the total 186 million children in this age group nationally, 50 million are not in school. The dropout rate between grades 1 and 5 is 42% and between grades 5 and 8 is 58%. Contributing to the lack of parental support for sending their children to schools is the fact that 60% of schools do not have sanitation facilities and over 30% of schools do not have drinking water facilities. Also contributing to the low literacy rate is the teacher-student ratio in rural schools, with numbers ranging from 40-50 students per teacher in the primary and secondary grades.

Since 92% of the rural schools are public and 95% of the government's $4.6 billion budget for elementary education is spent on teachers' salary, the Premji Foundation must work with the state governments and with the communities to effect change both in the number of students receiving a primary education and in the quality of that education. Dileep Ranjekar, Chief Executive Officer of the Azim Premji Foundation, states that "the most significant benefit of elementary education is developing an ability to make an 'informed choice.'"

Early Program Highlights

Learning Guarantee Program
The Learning Guarantee Program was inaugurated on November 23, 2002 by Azim Premji. The program recognizes and rewards schools that enable children to acquire expected competencies while ensuring universal enrollment and attendance. The program aims at inspiring and motivating teachers and schools to develop processes that will sustain a Learning Guarantee. According to Mr. Premji, the only way children can be retained in schools is when they find their existence inside the school gainful, relevant and beneficial for life.

The pilot model for this program is intended to span three years, 2003-2005 and include a total of 1000 schools. It is intended as a model for further scaling up and for future replication. Schools apply on a first-come-first-served basis to be a part of the program and state the year during which they deem themselves suitable for evaluation. Schools that apply for assessment in the year 2004 would be eligible for the reward for 2 years, 2004 and 2005. The evaluation agency will evaluate the expected learning outcomes of the children in school using "relevant day-to-day life application oriented testing." The eligibility of a school for the learning guarantee award is to be assessed by the external agency in the following manner:
· Category A - 80% of total children between ages 6-10 in the village must attain 90% of the prescribed competencies. This would entitle the school to a sum of Rs. 20,000 for that academic year.
· Category B - 70% of total children between ages 6-10 in the village must attain 90% of the prescribed competencies. This would entitle the school to a sum of Rs. 10,000 for that academic year.
· Category C - 60% of total children between ages 6-10 in the village must attain 90% of the prescribed competencies. This would entitle the school to a sum of Rs. 5,000 for that academic year.

Only those schools which qualify in any of these three categories are eligible for the Learning Guarantee Award. Following the evaluations, research will be carried out to determine the success factors that contribute to learning levels in schools that have received the award. Findings will be incorporated in the second year of the program by propagating the correlation between the identified factors and learning levels. Findings will be broadly disseminated so that all schools and communities will know the key factors or qualities that enabled successful schools to demonstrate Learning Guarantee. This communication is intended to play a significant role in motivating Non Guarantee Schools to adopt such desirable practices and strive to become a Learning Guarantee School.

Some innovative efforts that have arisen in order to prepare students for such evaluation include "catch-up" and "bridging" programs. These programs are remediation programs for which the Azim Premji Foundation was able to secure government support. They grant unprecedented permission for students to return to school at their age-appropriate grade-level, even after 2-3 years out of school, upon successful completion of an intensive remediation program. A team from the Foundation, working with local resource people and teachers with vast experience in pedagogy, produced a training manual which was to be used as a handbook for volunteers trained as remedial teachers. The manual can also be used for students having difficulty keeping pace with standards set in a given class. Bridge programs have already enabled over 50,000 children to return to school and have supported about 35,000 children already in school but in need of special attention. This back to school program is so comprehensive that it involves teachers, education officers, and volunteers to visit all the homes in the villages every Monday and motivate the parents to send their children to school daily. See Appendix A for an article reporting on the initiatives success in a local community.

The Azim Premji Foundation is so determined to see this system succeed that it has undertaken the task of training senior and junior education officers of the government in 3700 villages in order to help them develop tools to monitor the performance of pupils, teachers and schools, to help them harness their creativity and innovativeness, to help them manage people and time, and to sharpen their skills of presentation and persuasion. Other initiatives include the joint review and implementation of competency-based marks across Karnataka, the Vidya Chethana program for school-less habitations covering 1500 children in 150 villages, and competency-based performance measurement of children which have been applied across the state of Karnataka and have impacted four million children.

Technology Initiatives: Community Learning Centers & Young India Fellows

During the first eighteen months of work with rural communities, the Foundation discovered two strong aspirations for their children: a desire to have their children working on computers and a desire for their children to learn English in school. This prompted the Foundation to work with 35 rural schools to implement computer usage in their schools. The two criteria necessary were that the schools have an additional room for 6-9 computers and that the schools have a legal electrical connection. The computers were also set up with Uninterrupted Power Supplies (UPS) with four hours of capacity, given the schools' poor availability of power. Students worked off of CD's developed in-house. The CD's contained curriculum content that was interactive, fun and highly educational. The rooms with the computers were known as "Community Learning Centers" and were available for the community after school hours for learning IT and other IT-related transactions.

The centers became commercially sustainable after sixteen months of operation, either through community support or through the generation of revenues through fees for usage. As a result of the centers, enrollment and attendance improved and so did the learning of the students. To supervise work at the CLC's, young and computer-educated volunteers from the community are nominated as "Young India Fellows." Fellows are trained for two weeks in order that they may ensure the learning of the children, by interacting with parents and other members of the local community, with teachers and with head teachers. Training addresses operational and practical issues related to the government school setting, learning processes in schools, creating local content for CD's, management of CLC's, generating revenue to sustain the CLC's, mobilizing community involvement, usage of hardware and software and maintenance of records. The YIF's either receive a fellowship from the community or can earn money from the utilization of the CLC after school hours. The work of the Young India Fellows has become a significant help to full-time teachers. The Community Learning Center initiative is now in its third phase of expansion. With the government approving the establishment of 135 more centers across the state of Karnataka. Already there are 90 centers in rural higher primary schools in fourteen districts in Karnataka. The program team consisting of staff from the Foundation and the Karnataka government education officers visited more than 270 villages over a span of five weeks to determine the level of interest, participation and eagerness of these communities to have Community Learning Centers in their local government schools.

Wipro Applying Thought in Schools

This educational initiative provides comprehensive training on innovative teaching methods and systems that foster creative and critical thinking abilities in children and supports their active implementation within the classroom. One example of its implementation is that it encourages teachers to test more than the memorization skills of a child, with tests that involve all the five levels of critical thinking skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis. Other concepts are Circle time and Wait time, strategies meant to ensure that more students have the opportunity to speak in class. Each child has a chance to speak about a certain topic and share his or her opinion. This helps a child to listen to others and share ideas in a group situation.

For teachers, the program seeks to improve three crucial skill areas that will positively impact the teaching-learning process: 1) occupational skills related to subject expertise methods and curriculum design; 2) personal skills and attitudes fostering the capacity to interact with people in professional and social settings; 3) and managerial skills such as planning, organizing, creating, communicating, motivating and evaluating. The program neither disrupts existing curricula nor places extra burdens on the teacher or the child. The program covers all teachers teaching in grades three to seven where the child's mind is considered to be most open and impressionable. Wipro is committed to providing resources and support for teachers on a long-term basis to ensure that the program has the desired and widespread impact. The program was launched in Bangalore in May of 2001 and expanded to other cities such as Delhi and Hyderabad. Wipro is committed to its further expansion.

Key Partnerships

Mr. Premji stressed the importance of working in states where the state government will support you, but admits that garnering government support means "giv[ing] them all the credit." Initiatives such as the "catch-up" program required an agreement on the part of state governments which had not historically allowed students to make up for several years of education in less than a year. Following are some of the partnerships with which the Foundation is working to ensure success of this educational initiative over the long-term:
· Governments of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh - to implement joint initiatives and programs
· Government of India - in discussions with Foundation about partnership launching 1000 technology-based centers in schools in process
· Unicef - to bring synergy and a holistic approach with complementary initiatives such as combining focus on in-school processes with hygiene and sanitation
· MV Foundation - the M. Venkatarangaiyha Foundation is an organization working toward the eradication of child labor and to ensure every child in Andhra Pradesh is in school
· Pratham - born out of a Unicef initiative and parented by ICICI Ltd., this body combines the local self-government of Gujarat, the corporate sector and the voluntary sector to achieve "universal primary education."
· International Literacy Institute - based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, brings expertise in research in literacy, teacher training technology based distance education.
· RV Foundation - Rashtreeya Vidyalaya Education Consortium (RVEC) conducts impact assessment studies of the Remedial Teaching program and the Community Learning Initiative. The RVEC was set up in 1994 as a community friendly unit of continuing education for teachers, learners and parents as well as organizations working in the areas of education.

Short-term Goals and Challenges

From April 2002 through June 2003, the Foundation is working with the Government of Karnataka to train nearly 100,000 educators. Also by July of 2003, the goal is to have 50,000 children covered by use of technology, 165 computer-aided learning centers, 6500 schools directly impacted and 13,500 schools indirectly impacted, for a coverage of about 2 million children in grades 1 through 4. For this time period, the Azim Premji Foundation will incur $10 million in costs out of the total $40 million necessary. Permanent manpower for the initiative will reach one hundred people by June 2003 and manpower through partnerships will equal 5600, including remedial teachers, Young India Fellows at community learning centers, community mobilizers, trainers, and facilitators. Going forward, the Foundation is realistic in acknowledging that there are limited resources for managing such a large initiative, both in terms of financial resources and in terms of talent. Such limitations create impediments to scale. It further realizes that some systemic and policy-related issues impacting education will not be addressed in the early stages of the roll-out as some large government stakeholders may not make wholehearted commitments to supporting the partnerships. Even if they do make the commitment, the risk remains that a successful resulting program, when delivered through the government in the long-term, may be diluted. In the coming years, Azim Premji hopes to partner with Bill Gates who has made his primary philanthropic focus in India that of healthcare. Mr. Premji has stated that the two initiatives related to health and education are inextricably related. In the meantime, Azim Premji encourages his own employees at Wipro to contribute to the initiative by offering their time, talent and treasures. The latter is suggested in the form of financial resources both to Foundation programs and to complementary programs. The Foundation also invites Wipro employees to serve as faculty at training programs, as innovative idea contributors, and as participants in advocacy and communication programs related to the mission of UEE. Foundation literature states that "if passion runs high," Wipro and the Foundation may support a sabbatical with the Foundation. In his recent speech to the Asian Regional HRD Conference at the IIM Bangalore, Azim Premji discussed the legacy left to him by his parents relating to the importance of values. Specifically, he discussed the values of honesty, hard work, self-confidence, humility and persistence. He stated, "Ultimately, leadership based on values has long term benefits…. You may call it by any name, but there is a powerful law in nature that returns you many fold whatever good gesture you make towards society." Mr. Premji tirelessly embodies each of the aforementioned values through the countless initiatives he has spear-headed with the Azim Premji Foundation. For these good gestures, he and India are certain to reap returns many fold.


Azim Premji. Speech delivered to the Asian Regional HRD Conference. IIM Bangalore. Business Standard. November 4-5, 2002.
-----. Discussion with MIT Sloan Students at Wipro Campus. Bangalore. March 23, 2003.
Azim Premji Foundation. http://azimpremjifoundation.org. April 20-23, 2003.
Gupta, Vijay, ed. Wipro.com: A House Journal from Corporate Communication. March 2003.
Merchant, Khozem. "Quiet Man with a Powerful Voice." Financial Times. September 9, 2002.
Pillai, Sanjay. "Can Wipro Really Move into the $5 Billion Orbit?" Business Standard. January 1, 2003.
Wipro Applying Thought in Schools. Wipro Corporate Brand Team, ed., 2003.

(Patricia Gagnon recently visited India as part of the course taught by Prof. Amar Gupta at the Sloan School of Mangaement. )

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Patricia Gagnon

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