The solutions lie with teachers
IN early 2017 we published a research report about absence of teachers from public (government) schools.1 The study found about 19% teachers were not in school. Of this 16.5% were out of school for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as, having been sent for training, attending meetings of the education department and having taken leave that was due to them. 2.5% of the teachers were absent from schools without any legitimate reason. It is these 2.5% who were playing truant. When teachers have to be out of school, such as the 16.5%, alternate arrangements should be made for students, and such occurrence should be minimized. But let us focus on the 2.5%.
The repeatedly brandished numbers in many quarters, including by many in education, of truancy of teachers, ranges between 25 and 50%. Though these numbers have no basis, they continue to be talked of as gospel truth. Our research study was one bit of systematic evidence against this falsehood. Teachers who read our report felt vindicated. Many on the ground workers in education and government officials felt relieved that a research study had found what they have been seeing all the while – that teacher truancy is nowhere near what it is alleged to be.
But many others, including some senior government officials, dismissed the findings. They had no basis to dismiss the findings, but somehow they ‘knew’ or ‘felt’ that it was wrong. In each such conversation we invited the people to gather evidence to support their ‘feelings’, perhaps conduct another research study. No one from this crowd has yet done that. A notable number of people working for ‘education reform’, i.e. to improve school education, also ignored the findings. This included researchers and civil society actors.
The findings of our study were not a new discovery. Most other studies on the same matter over the past ten odd years have found teacher truancy, or absence from school without legitimate cause, to be 3-4.5%.2 Unlike our study, where we made categorical statements of the truancy (or absenteeism) number being vastly different from the popularly brandished numbers, most of these studies were inadvertently or advertently silent about the remarkable gap between reality and perception.
This silence has had a deeply damaging outcome. The headline numbers of these reports, which was about 20-28% for overall teacher absence (19% in our study) from schools, was construed to be the number for teacher truancy. This was then continually used as ‘evidence’ to support the notion that a very high proportion of teachers are habitually truant.
Given the history of this issue where matters that are amply clear are routinely obfuscated, let me state something explicitly. Teachers who are truant need to be disciplined and punished. They are personally responsible and accountable for such blatant transgression of basic professional norms.
Let us just call such teachers ‘bad’. Teachers who are absent from school for legitimate reasons are not the same as these truant or ‘bad’ teachers. If such legitimate absence has to be reduced, it needs interventions and decisions at the systemic level. For example, scheduling meetings after school hours, conducting training during school vacations, and recruiting and deploying teachers after factoring for leave available to teachers.
There is a staggering difference between the reality of public schools in India where 2.5-4.5% teachers are truant, versus the imaginary world of public schools that exists in the psyche of a vast number of people, where 25-50% teachers are truant. In this imagined world most teachers are ‘bad’, because that 25-50% number is surely the tip of the iceberg.
This matter of imaginary teacher truancy is emblematic of the deep narrative that these people have in their minds. The narrative is simply that the primary cause of all problems in Indian education is that the teachers are ‘bad’; that a large majority are irresponsible, shirk work and have no professional commitment. Scapegoating the weakest in any system or society, and then embodying them as the cause of all ills is an often observed phenomenon. In India teachers are being scapegoated.
With this narrative of the ‘bad’ teacher being responsible for the ills of India’s education, the solutions are also quite simple. The ‘bad’ teachers need to be fixed and told what to do. The specifics of the solutions vary – hiring only ‘contract’ teachers so that they can be easily fired; installing CCTV cameras in classrooms; having pre-packaged simplified content which teachers must transact with iron clad discipline; using technology to minimize the role of the teacher, are a few amongst many such solutions. The underlying principle of all these solutions and approaches is the same: teachers must be completely controlled and they cannot be trusted.
For the sake of brevity, let’s call this the ‘anti-teacher stance’ (ATS). ATS helps simplify the complexity of education, albeit falsely, which then lends itself to simple solutions. It also helps absolve everyone else of the problems of education. Unfortunately, ATS is widespread in India, even if with varying intensity, including, by many officials who have a broad impact on education and by others working (supposedly) in school education for its improvement. ATS is unjust, educationally dysfunctional and strategically flawed.
It is unjust because the vast majority of teachers are not ‘bad’, though painted as so. It is educationally flawed because the teacher is at the heart of the social-human endeavour called education. Good education can happen only with engaged and high capacity teachers. It is strategically dysfunctional because it makes the teacher, who is actually the front-line of education, into the enemy. This is like going into a war while believing that your own frontline soldiers are the enemy.
All problems in Indian education are not because of ATS. However, a significant explanation for the lack of real improvement in educational outcomes is ATS. That is because ATS does not permit most interventions for improvement to energize and engage the teacher in the efforts for improvement. In fact, often such initiatives alienate and demotivate the teacher, because the very approach and design takes away the teachers’ agency and attempts to closely control her.
At a deeper level, ATS filters out some of the most important issues in school education. This happens because once the teacher is identified as the focus of the problems, there seems no necessity to delve any deeper.
For India to truly improve its education, we need to move from an anti-teacher stance (ATS) to a pro-teacher stance (PTS) in all that we do in education. PTS will manifest in a careful and empathetic assessment of the reality of our teachers’ challenges and circumstances. This would then inform all improvement interventions. As a result, one of the most important impacts of PTS will be that the existing eight million schoolteachers can be fully engaged and energized to lead improvement, instead of the current situation where they are at best on the sidelines and often alienated.
Once the system and its participants adopt PTS, then the priorities and actions will change, reflective of the root causes of the issues in Indian education rather than the convenient and false reduction of all problems to the teacher.
First, there will be a recognition that our public school teachers have extraordinarily challenging roles. While any teacher’s role is complex and challenging, our public schoolteachers face very special and difficult challenges. Most of their students come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, many of them first generation school goers, and often from homes in acute poverty. Most teachers have to handle multiple grades at the same time and often multiple subjects. The schools do not have adequate learning resources and often lack adequate infrastructure.
Second, while the National Curricular Framework 2005 (NCF) is an educationally sound document, the curricula (across states) and its artefacts that the teacher encounters, is often deeply problematic. The syllabus, the textbooks and the examinations are poorly designed and do not reflect either the spirit or the principles of the NCF. The syllabus is content heavy, the textbooks are poorly written and the administrative culture pushes the teacher to ‘cover’ the textbooks. This fosters a culture of rote and the dysfunctional ritualization of educational processes, for example, of the recommendation for continuous comprehensive evaluation.
Third, our pre-service teacher education system is in shambles. It does not prepare our teachers adequately to perform their roles. The academic support available to teachers within the system is very weak and inadequate. The professional development opportunities provided to them are ineffective and desultory.
Fourth, the administrative culture treats the teachers poorly. It also loads them with demands which have little or nothing to do with their educational roles. The system/administration also keeps shifting priorities, moving from one project to another, most of which are superficial and driven by a shallow understanding of education. This continual shift of priorities distracts and confuses the teachers.
Given what our teachers face and deal with, let us turn to some possible actions. First, an adequate number of teachers need to be recruited and deployed. There must be subject-wise and grade-wise teachers. Schools with very small student numbers should be merged to enable this, though with caution and only where the access for students is not severely impacted.
Second, all schools should have basic infrastructure and adequate operating budgets. This includes toilets with running water, electricity and adequate number of rooms. The claim that ‘input’ conditions such as toilets have no effect on learning outcomes, and so we should not bother about them, can only be made by people who are disingenuous and disconnected at a human level. They should try working in offices that have no toilets, water and electricity.
Third, students from homes in poverty need a lot more support than teachers can provide. The minimal that needs to be done is to improve the meals provided in school. The budget allocations to the lunch must be increased and inflation linked. Breakfast (or a second meal) should be provided. Clusters of schools should be resourced with ‘social workers’ who work with communities and families to provide support, ensure attendance and minimize risks of children dropping out of school.
Fourth, curricula needs to be improved. And it must be done keeping in view the contextual reality of the teacher. This means that the textbooks and exams need to be improved. This has to be done across the states. Some states have made a reasonably good start on this.
Fifth, the pre-service teacher education system needs to be completely overhauled. This includes the regulatory approach, the curricula and the institutional approach. A large number of high quality 4-year integrated teacher education programmes need to be started in multidisciplinary institutions. All those teacher education colleges, which are educational institutions only in name, but actually shops selling degrees, must be shut down.
All these actions are equally important and must happen in parallel. Some will require increased public funding and some only political will. Some can be done with a little of both. Before detailing the last action in this admittedly non-comprehensive list, let me share some relevant experience of our work.
Our on-the-ground work is in some of the most disadvantaged districts of the country. In these districts we offer various kinds, called modes, of professional development opportunities for public schoolteachers. Let me use two examples of these modes.
On a couple of days every week, after school hours we organize a 60-90 minute discussion on topics of specific interest to teachers, for example, how to teach/explain the difference between perimeter and area or why corporal punishment has been outlawed. These discussions happen in what we call Teacher Learning Centres (TLCs). These are neat and clean rooms usually in the premises of a public school, with a small library of 1000-2000 books which are useful for the teachers, and a collection of teaching-learning material. We have such TLCs in about 200 small towns, where more than 150 teachers reside, across five states.
With over ten years of experience of doing this, we have observed that over 50% of teachers engage with such a mode. Of this, about 10-25% engage with great regularity. Our analysis suggests that the variation in these numbers is caused by the quality of the work we do, while the teacher populations and their characteristics are similar across all these places. All of this engagement is voluntary on part of the teacher.
A second mode is the 6-7 day residential workshops that we conduct during the summer and winter vacations. The relatively long time frame presents the possibility of going deeper into some matters. For example, how to bridge between the child’s language and the medium of instruction, methods of history, use of local environment for science pedagogy, and so on. Again, participation in these workshops is voluntary for the teachers, meaning they choose to participate and there is no order from the government. In the five states where we work and offer these workshops, thousands of teachers participate, and yet we are not able to handle the number of teachers who want to register, which is many times more. Why do these teachers voluntarily invest so much of their time and energy in such activities? And this is a phenomenon that we observe across the country.
When asked that question the response is always the same – they want to become better teachers so that their students can learn better. This includes young teachers struggling with teaching basic language capacities and tenured ones wanting to do a better job. What I have called the ‘pro-teacher stance’ will harness and enhance this spirit, which we see across the country. The ‘anti-teacher stance’ diminishes it, and wastes this most important resource that already exists for improvement in education.
The last suggestion is that we must set up a vibrant system for continuing professional development (CPD) of teachers. If we want learning to improve, the capacity of our existing teachers must improve. Capacity development that improves effectiveness has a direct positive impact on motivation and engagement, sparking a virtuous spiral in the performance of their roles. A CPD system can have multiple institutional alternatives, including rejuvenated DIETs, BRCs and CRCs, and partnering with civil society institutions. However, any and all such systems to be vibrant and effective, must have the following characteristics and principles.
First, there must an explicit, clean break from the past, implying that the teachers and all stakeholders must understand that the torturous ‘in-service training’ that teachers have been subjected to is stopped and will not be repeated. Second, a high capacity team of 20-75 teacher educators will have to be carefully chosen and developed rigorously for each of the districts. Many of these people can be drawn from the teachers. These teacher educators will need a state level mechanism for their own continuing professional development.
Third, a CPD curricular framework must be developed to guide all CPD efforts. This will ensure that all CPD effort are meaningfully connected to specific objectives of professional development. And that there is connection and continuity across these efforts – which helps the teacher grow in a certain trajectory. Fourth, CPD opportunities must be offered in multiple modes – ranging from short and long workshops, to on-line reading and videos, to exposure visits, to in-school support and many others. All these must be informed by the curricular framework and must have continuity.
Fifth, these multiple modes must be offered in logistically convenient ways to the teachers. This is critical if the CPD efforts have to be continuous and not ‘one-off’. Sixth, the sites where the CPD modes are offered must be welcoming places with clean toilets, decent places to sit and with reasonable arrangements for food. These things matter deeply over the long-term not merely because of the physical discomfort but also because the quality of these things manifest the respect that is given to teachers.
Seventh, while there must be many modes that are based on sessions led by expert teacher educators, there must be a sustained effort to foster and sustain local peer learning networks. The culture of these networks, which must be informal and supportive, will be the key to their success. Eighth, the overall tone and approach must be genuinely such that it sees the teachers as equal partners. The CPD system will become more and more robust as it engages teachers as true partners. Ninth, everything that is done within the CPD system must be designed to be interesting and relevant to the teacher. And the execution must be high quality. Tenth, the choice of what to learn, when to learn and in which mode must rest with the teacher. The teacher must have control over her own development trajectory, with her own learning objectives.
None of the above is easy to do or likely to yield quick results. But there is no other way to improve education but to work on the fundamentals. In fact, the reason that we are using phrases like ‘crisis of learning’ today is because over the past few decades, while the problems of our school education have been clear, we have refused to work on the fundamentals. Instead, we have tried an array of fundamentally flawed or superficial interventions, such as ‘expansion of low cost private schools’, ‘technology for education’, narrowly focused quick-win basic literacy programmes and so on.
All efforts to improve learning in schools will be mediated by teachers. So, improvement in learning in our schools will only track the capacity for improvement of our teachers and their engagement in such efforts. It is because of this that the teacher must be at the centre of all efforts, in a manner that energizes her completely.
1. Teacher Absence Study, Azim Premji Foundation, 2017.