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Meet the man fixing India’s broken education system

India is home to 300 million young people under the age of 15, more than in any country on Earth. This future workforce—combined with its tech boom and the fact that it’s now  the fastest-growing big economy in the world—means India’s development should skyrocket.

But failures in India’s education system predict a different story. Today, about half of India’s fifth graders cannot read a second-grade text.

In Rajasthan—a northern Indian state with 8 million children in school—the education secretary is determined to change everything. Naresh Gangwar, a soft-spoken bureaucrat who studied communications and technology, has boosted enrollments in public schools by 1.5 million since his appointment in 2013 in Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s administration.

Rajasthan has much to boast of—from coveted textiles to renowned cuisine—but state schools have not been a source of pride. In 2011, literacy levels were the worst in the country, although Rajasthan is the 7th richest state in India. Years of neglect—with teachers suffering an eight-year salary freeze before the current administration—sent many parents looking elsewhere. Almost half the state’s students are going to private schools, many of which are low-fee but also low-quality.

In the face of this challenge, Gangwar focused squarely on teachers. As soon as he was appointed, he welcomed dozens of teachers and their unions to his office. He heard their demands, ignored for so long. Promotions had flagged along with salaries; today, teachers are well-paid and compensated for relocations.

With the support of the teachers behind him, Gangwar undertook a thornier challenge: reassigning teachers and redressing urban bias. Small government schools have mushroomed in rural Rajasthan over the past decade. Meanwhile, over 100,000 schools have just one teacher. This means major inefficiency, with many rural schools under-enrolled and unable to recruit teachers. Gangwar combined schools with less than 100 students and reassigned principals and teachers.

“Counseling,” a euphemism for bribing lawmakers, is how many Indian teachers have traditionally sought reassignments. Gangwar overturned this practice and developed an online portal for teachers to make requests and receive assignments based on their skills and circumstances. “I have had a number of teachers come tell me that they feel their dignity has been restored,” says Urvashi Sahni, founder of India’s Study Hall Foundation and advisor to Gangwar on gender equality.

Communication that rallies key staff around central goals is another hallmark of Gangwar’s leadership. He regularly communicates with ministry employees, principals, and teachers, but his preferred method is WhatsApp rather than winding policy memos. “The most important thing it does is send the message that we care,” said Gangwar.

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