From Surviving to Thriving in Indian Schools – Q&A with Steve Leventhal

By: Steve Leventhal, Executive Director – CorStone


Q1: Could you start out by telling me what brought you to become interested in the education of students in Bihar?

My interest in India really began in 2008, just after I joined CorStone as executive director. I had been working in international development for several years and was frustrated by what I often observed in the sector: a lack of focus on helping people in poverty to ‘thrive’, rather than just survive.

Take improving health and education for girls in poverty, for example, a huge priority in many developing countries. In India, this is especially difficult because we’re dealing with thousands of years of a system in which caste and poverty often go hand in hand, and work together to influence a girl’s understanding of what’s possible and the life choices she makes. Essentially, if you’re a girl, poor, and born into a low caste, that’s three strikes against you, and your prospects are slim to none. And yet from what I’ve seen, education interventions in these settings seldom deal with issues of identity, strengths, or mindset — helping a girl to re-imagine her identity, what she’s capable of, or what her life might look like. I think that it takes more than a new school building to change that. It takes a shift in attitude; it takes a belief in your self-efficacy. It takes an understanding that you can change the trajectory of your life. While there is nascent work in this area for sure, there’s very little rigorous research that shows which programs work and which don’t — particularly at a large scale.

That’s one of the things that really attracted me to launch our Girls First program in India: its sheer size. Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has 100 million people — and that’s just one state! And there’s this extraordinary potential for transformation; a hunger for opportunity among the youth in urban slums and rural villages where we work. I can’t tell you how many times the girls in our programs have said to us, “No one ever told us we had strengths!” And I think that this realization is exactly where we need to start.


Q2: What exactly did CorStone do in Bihar? What did the program entail?

Our Girls First program is a resilience-based curriculum that integrates Positive Psychology, social-emotional learning, emotional intelligence, and restorative circles. Girls attend facilitated peer support groups during the school day for one-hour each week. A typical lesson combines 20-30 minutes of skill building followed by 30 minutes of group discussion and problem solving.

We started small, with a few trials in urban slum communities in Delhi and the city of Surat, to see how relevant the curriculum was to girls’ daily lives, and how feasible it was to work under the really difficult conditions these kids face. Well, within just 3 months we were already seeing quantifiable impact on things like levels of optimism, coping skills, and school attendance. And that got us very excited.

At that point, we were fortunate to gain the attention of David & Lucile Packard Foundation. Packard has been a leader in the field of sexual and reproductive health for many years, and they understood that a focus on building mental and emotional wellbeing could directly impact a girl’s physical health knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Furthermore, it’s well known in international development circles that a girl’s health is often tied to her education. So together with Packard, we saw an opportunity to improve girls’ health while also improving their school attendance and engagement. Prioritizing school is particularly important in Bihar where girls are at a high risk for arranged marriages starting at around age 14, at which point they are often forced to stop attending school. As a result, 95% of women in Bihar have less than 12 years of education, and nearly 70% are pregnant by age 18, which sharply increases health risks.

In international development, there are many interventions out there to improve adolescent health for girls, which are mostly focused on providing training in nutrition, hygiene, reproductive health, etc., often in a school-based setting. Some of these programs do indeed have evidence of impact on health and education, but we wanted to find out whether adding a resilience-based component to such a program would boost this impact.

So, we conducted a 4-arm randomized controlled trial (RCT) of our Girls First program to test a resilience-only curriculum, an adolescent health-only curriculum, and a combination of the two, versus a school-as-usual control. Over 3500 girls in 76 schools participated in the study. To lead the program, we trained over 70 women from local communities in facilitation skills as well as curriculum delivery.


Q3: What were the findings or outcomes from this intervention?

We found that Girls First has had tremendous impact on young women and their communities. Overall, we found that girls in the combined curriculum did better than girls in other conditions on many indicators of psychosocial assets and wellbeing, physical health and education.

The results are preliminary, but we found compared to a group receiving adolescent-health only (AH only), the girls in the combined curriculum improved on:

Gender equality attitudes (2x better than AH only)

Psychological well-being (2x better than AH only)

Emotional resilience (7x better than AH only)

School attendance (2x better than AH only)

Pre-meal hand-washing (3x better than AH only)

School performance (2x better than AH only)

These results are very exciting because they suggest that the status quo (adolescent health training) is good, but that adolescent health training plus resilience training is better. To our knowledge, this study is one of the first to show that tackling issues of identity, strengths, and mindset can indeed amplify impact across many life domains for girls in developing countries, improving their psychosocial health, physical health, and education.


Q4: Numbers aside, could you share one of the more personal, powerful stories of change you experienced working in India?

One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently was from a 15 year old girl named Sandhya, who just finished 8th grade in rural Bihar, India. Before attending Girls First, she had a lot of trouble dealing with her problems. They seemed to take on a life of their own, and in response she either shut down completely or lashed out. There was no in-between, and therefore rarely any positive resolution.

But since participating in Girls First, Sandhya’s world has changed. You can hear it in her voice; you can see it in her face. In the program, she learned assertive communication skills, she came to understand the risks of early marriage, and she discovered her own strengths such as courage and kindness as she began advocating for her rights and the rights of others. And since then, she’s actually prevented four child marriages: her own, her brother’s, another girl’s in her Girls First group, and her cousin’s who was living 1200 miles away! Sandhya has just entered high school, an unlikely achievement in her village. She plans to finish her education, become a teacher, marry (after she reaches her major career goals), have a daughter, and make sure her daughter can do whatever she wants to do in the world and become whomever she wants to become. That’s the kind of real-life success that I really believe in: the building of self-beliefs and strengths that have a ‘ripple effect’, and will live on long after we leave.


Q5: Now that you have seen such success with this program, how do you plan to expand? What are your next steps?

I’ll never forget my first meeting with Packard. As I shared my plans to reach 50,000 girls in India over the next 3 years, I was thinking to myself that’s a high number, this program officer is going to laugh me out of his office! Well, he did laugh — and then said, “We have 100 million girls in India living in poverty, and from day one I want you to consider how you’re going to reach that goal.” That really stuck with me. For many reasons, too many programs ‘test’ successfully but have no chance of reaching scale. They may be too complicated to administer, too expensive, or not practical enough about real life in poor communities.

So, as excited as we are by the scope and success of the RCT, we’re barely out the gate. In Bihar, our next step involves 30,000 kids, boys and girls in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, in over 200 schools. We’re working with the state ministry of education to better understand how to run a large-scale program through schools, using school teachers rather than community women as facilitators. This presents immense challenges: although using schools teachers to deliver the program is a much more cost-effective proposition in the long run, we’re hampered by poor student/teacher ratios (as high as 100 students to 1 teacher), poor teacher motivation, extremely under-resourced schools, and lack of space, not to mention the widespread perception that girls’ education isn’t important.

Outside Bihar, plans are underway for programs in 5 other states in India. We’re also fielding requests to launch in several countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. We’re weighing these opportunities carefully, as maintaining a focus towards evidence-based, sustainable, scalable models is a key consideration for us. On the one hand, we want to reach as many youth as possible. On the other hand, we don’t believe that reach without genuine impact is worthwhile.


Q6: What do you think are the most pressing take-away messages from your work? How can other educational systems learn from your research?

Honestly, every day is an education for us. The girls have taught us more than we’ve taught them, so really I’m just borrowing this answer.

I like to think about bringing together best practices of the heart and the mind. At the mind level, I’d say the most important thing is to think about feasibility and scalability from the word go. Most educators, here in the US or in India, agree with me when I say that it’s crucial to focus on well-being, whether we’re talking about the function of schools, academic success, or building a better, more equitable world for our kids. But you can’t just throw any intervention at the problem. Schools need simple, easy-to-implement programs that are backed by solid evidence and produce measurable results.

At the heart level, we want to help these kids tip the balance in their world just a little more away from fear; just a little more towards love. I’m a big fan of the ‘butterfly effect’, where a very small change in initial conditions can result in significantly different outcomes. So we focus on meeting the girls and their communities where they are, not where we think they should be or where we want them to be, and looking for small levers of change. And I feel so blessed, because then I get to sit back and watch them do the rest themselves.