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Belated Teacher Training Revolution in K-12 Education

In all lamentations about the pathetic quality of public education, the elephant in the room which politically correct commentators choose to ignore is the country’s 9 million-strong teachers community and its role in plunging teaching-learning standards to the nadir - Dilip Thakore

The establishment — which also includes captains of Indian industry who incur arguably the highest personnel training costs worldwide and endure rock-bottom labour productivity — is in denial. But there’s a mountain of evidence which testifies that India’s education system from kindergarten to Ph D is slowly sliding towards a deep abyss. The body of evidence is as disturbing as it is overwhelming. 

In early childhood care and education (ECCE), the National Early Childhood Care and Education policy draft approved by the Union cabinet of the Congress-led UPA-II government during its last few days in office, has disappeared into the bureaucratic maze under the rule of the incumbent BJP-led NDA government, which was voted to power at the Centre with an overwhelming majority by an exasperated electorate in General Election 2014. Consequently, only 84 million of the country’s 164 million children under age five are covered by the Central government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme which runs 1.34 million anganwadis (nutrition centres for newborns and lactating mothers which also provide nominal early childhood education) countrywide. Nor has the Union Budget 2017-18 presented in Parliament on February 1, made any meaningful incremental outlay to enable inclusion of the 80 million infants uncovered by the ICDS programme. In this connection, it’s pertinent to note that according to UNDP’s latest Human Development Report 2016 released on March 21, 38.7 percent of India’s 164 million children under age five suffer severe malnutrition and are in danger of stunting and brain damage. 

In primary education, the picture is only marginally better. The authoritative and deeply-researched Annual Status of Education Report 2016 of the widely respected Pratham Education Foundation, released in Delhi on January 16, highlights abysmal learning outcomes in primary education in rural India. In 589 rural districts (out of a total 707 nationwide), 52.2 percent of class V children are unable to read and comprehend class II textbooks. Moreover, 62.3 percent of children in class VII are unable to complete simple division sums and 74.5 percent can’t do subtraction sums correctly. Although 98 percent of India’s children between the ages of 6-14 are enrolled in 1.4 million government and private primary schools countrywide, very little learning is happening inside the nation’s classrooms, especially in public primaries run by the country’s 29 state governments. And ominously as reported by Pratham year after year, the percentage of children in higher primary classes unable to retain what they have — or should have — learned is rising rather than reducing, indicating indifferent teaching and reckless promotion of under-prepared children to senior classes. 

Things are hardly better in secondary education. In 2010 for the first time, a selected batch of secondary students from government and private schools in Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — among the country’s most educationally advanced states — wrote PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) standardised tests in maths and science, administered to 15-year-olds from 74 countries to assess their real learning capabilities. The Indian students’ cohort was ranked 73rd out of the 74 teams that participated. Since then, the Union HRD ministry has opted out of the tri-annual PISA routinely topped by students from Shanghai (China). Foreign evaluation tests such as PISA aside, even in the indigenous National Achievement Survey 2015 in which NCERT (National Council for Educational Research & Training) assessed the real learning outcomes of 277,416 class X students of 7,216 schools affiliated with 33 school-leaving exam boards countrywide through standardised testing, students averaged less than 50 percent in all subjects (English, maths, science and social science) except major Indian language (see EW June 2016). 

Nor does India’s higher education system provide any relief. Except for a handful of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) established half a century ago, and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (estb. 1904), none of India’s 37,000 undergrad colleges and 800 universities is ranked among the global Top 200 by the reputed university ranking agencies QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) and Times Higher Education (THE). Packed with mediocre, time-serving academics — themselves products of a dysfunctional education system — indifferent to knowledge creation and research, most of the country’s institutions of higher education are haphazardly teaching and recklessly certifying an estimated 1.5 million graduates ill-prepared for industry, agriculture and the professions. 

According to a 2005 Nasscom-McKinsey World Institute study, 75 percent of the graduates of India’s 3,470 engineering colleges are unemployable in multinational companies. More recently, another study conducted by Aspiring Minds Assessment Pvt. Ltd (estb.2007), a Delhi-based “employability evaluation and certification company” which publishes annual reports after measuring the learning outcomes of professional college graduates (engineers, MBAs, hospitality grads, etc), only 18 percent of engineers are employable in the software services sector, 3.67 percent in software program development and 40.47 percent in non-functional roles such as business process outsourcing. Both studies indicate that over 80 percent of the country’s arts, science and commerce graduates are unemployable in Indian and foreign multinational companies. 

The prime cause (reiterated ad nauseam by EducationWorld) of the pathetic condition of Indian education — especially public education — is inadequate financial provision for education by the Central and state governments. Despite the country ungraciously hosting the world’s largest child and youth population (550 million), annual expenditure (Centre plus states) on public education has averaged 3.5 percent of GDP as against the global average of 5 percent, and 7-10 percent of industrially developed OECD countries. This original sin of continuous failure of government and the establishment to provide sufficiently for the education, nurturance and health of the world’s largest child population, has been compounded by rigid government control and bureaucratisation of public education institutions. Moreover, these sins of omission and commission of the neta-babu (politician-bureaucrat) brotherhood who formulate national education policies, are exacerbated by the low priority given by Central and state governments to the vital function of teacher training and development, especially for pre-primary and K-12 education. 

Indeed, in all lamentations about the pathetic quality of public education — private schools and universities are an exception — the elephant in the room, which all politically correct commentators choose to ignore, is the country’s 9 million-strong teachers community and its role in plunging teaching-learning standards in Indian education to the nadir. A small minority of academics when questioned, admit that post-independence India’s teachers — especially unionised government school teachers — are among the most indisciplined, irresponsible and unaccountable worldwide, perhaps second only to the powerful and highly-unionised school teachers of Mexico without whose support no candidate can be elected that country’s president. 

Tales of the extent and ubiquity — even after allowing for motivated exaggeration — of malingering, corruption and abuse of power, reminiscent of Dickensian England, within India’s community of teachers are mind-boggling. For a start, it’s common knowledge that the teacher’s vocation is a default career option availed by left-over graduates rejected by organised industry and government. This is also one explanation why the overwhelming majority of teachers in government (and private) schools are relatively underpaid women working mainly to supplement middle class household incomes. It also perhaps explains why 20-25 percent of the 7.5 million (state and local) government school teachers countrywide are absent from their classrooms every day. In the hinterlands of under-governed states such as UP and Bihar, teachers are known to sub-contract their jobs to under-qualified proxies and show up only on pay day. Moreover, most studies measuring student learning outcomes including PROBE 1998 and several ASER surveys note that even when present in classrooms, over 50 percent of teachers don’t engage in teaching. 

The socio-economic consequences of under-funding and continuous neglect of primary-secondary education and teacher training and development, have been devastating. Post-independence India’s economy recorded a rock-bottom average annual GDP growth rate of 3.5 percent for over 40 years during which the country’s population has tripled. Yet despite abysmal learning outcomes in government schools and higher education institutions, they offer teachers total security of tenure and substantial Pay Commission hikes every decade, with the result that the remuneration of government employed teachers is more than three times the average paid by private schools. Unsurprisingly, government teaching jobs are highly prized. In turn, this market distortion has engendered huge teacher testing and recruitment scams across the country. 

On January 16, 2013 after a prolonged judicial process Om Prakash Chauthala, former chief minister of the northern state of Haryana, was sentenced by the Supreme Court to ten years in jail for fraudulently appointing over 3,000 teachers in the state’s government schools. In a public services — including teacher appointments — recruitment scandal in the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh, over 90 witnesses and whistle blowers have died in mysterious accidents and circumstances even as the case involving chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan winds its way through the world’s slowest legal system. And in West Bengal, the recruitment of over 32,000 teachers for government primary schools has been stayed by the courts pending hearing, with scores of writ petitions alleging exam paper leaks and marks tampering. 

Indeed, over the years, government school and university teaching jobs have become a comfortable sinecure for unemployable kith and kin of powerful members of the neta-babu brotherhood, and a reward for foot soldiers of political parties voted to power at the Centre and in the states. But as demonstrated above, the downside of pervasive nepotism in public education is that learning outcomes across the education spectrum have steadily deteriorated with disastrous consequences for industrial and agriculture productivity, and economic development. 

To be sure, a small minority of right-thinking people from within the establishment and academy have warned the public and governments about the disastrous consequences of failing to tighten up teacher recruitment processes and incentivising and raising the prestige of the vocation to attract the best talent into the teaching profession. Right from the Kothari Commission (1966) onwards, intelligent and constructive recommendations of several high-powered commissions, including the National Commission on Teachers (1983-85) and the National Education Policy 1986, to upgrade teacher education and development have been ignored or at best half-heartedly implemented. 

In 2012, appalled by a steady stream of reports indicating teacher absenteeism, negligence and abuse of office in public primary-secondary education, the Supreme Court appointed an expert committee chaired by the late Justice J.S. Verma — a retired chief justice of the apex court, no less — to suggest ways and means to improve the teacher education system. 

Last year, the Committee for Evolution of the New Policy on Education (aka NEP) 2016 chaired by former Union cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, confirming that “extraneous factors relating to improper monetary considerations often become the decisive factor in the (teacher) selection process”, made several constructive suggestions to improve the quality of teacher education. Among them: creation of an autonomous Teachers Recruitment Board, “well thought out teacher preparation systems”, introduction of a four-year post higher secondary integrated BA/B.Sc, B.Ed course in all states, compulsory training every five years for in-service teachers and mandatory licensing or certification for all teachers in government and private schools. 

A paradox at the heart of teacher education in contemporary India is that while the Central and state governments employ over 7 million primary and secondary school teachers, as highlighted by the Justice Verma Commission, 85 percent of the teacher training colleges countrywide are privately-promoted institutions recklessly licensed by the Delhi-based National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). “NCTE, even as a statutory body has not been able to control the proliferation of sub-standard teacher education institutions due to its inability to enforce prescribed norms, and also inability to supervise the institutions recognised by it. This has led to the commercialisation of teacher education, thereby adversely affecting the quality of teacher education,” says the Verma Commission Report in a judicially restrained indictment of rampant corruption and negligence within NCTE. 

In the circumstances, there’s some substance in the dominant Left-liberal viewpoint that the K-12 teachers’ community — especially of state government schools — routinely accused of slacking, malingering and unaccountability, is more sinned against than sinning. According to the All India Primary Teachers Federation (AIPTF, estb. 1954), which claims a nationwide membership of 2.4 million primary school teachers through affiliated unions in 24 states countrywide, the federation is fully committed to child-centric — rather than teacher-centric — universal education. 

At its 27th biennial conference convened in Bangalore on December 19-20, 2015, AIPTF passed 26 resolutions to empower primary teachers to deliver high quality education to all children. Among them: an appeal to the Central and state governments to “appoint only quality trained teachers and simultaneously provide quality training to upgrade their professional skills on a continuing basis”, allocation of 6 percent of GDP for education, “full and proper” implementation of the RTE Act, 2009, introduction of pre-primary education in all government schools, teacher councils in all states and ending the system of appointing para and contractual teachers. In addition, the federation also called for an entrance exam for admission into teacher training colleges. 

Inevitably, AIPTF — essentially a federation of government school teachers unions — also demanded ending “commercialisation of education” by private schools to show them in bad light despite even bottom-of-the-pyramid households preferring to send their children to fees-levying private schools rather than free-of-charge government primaries notorious for absentee teachers and poor learning outcomes. Although AIPTF leaders make politically correct noises about child-centric universal education, it’s essentially a trade union which is against disturbing the unacceptable status quo in primary education, and is mainly focused on improving the pay and work conditions of its members. For instance, it has nothing to say about chronic teacher truancy in government primaries and the deteriorating learning outcomes of their students. 

Nevertheless, some highly respected monitors of the education scene believe the country’s 9 million teachers community is the victim of circumstances and the ‘system’. “The poor learning outcomes of primary, secondary and college/university students are undoubtedly the consequence of poor quality teachers. Because even in the age of the Internet in which self and peer-to-peer learning has become possible and fashionable, the role of classroom teachers remains critically important, especially in K-12 education. Unfortunately, carelessly designed, poor quality syllabuses translated into haphazard curriculums by the country’s low quality teacher training colleges have injected millions of under-qualified teachers into the school system. Regrettably, very little attention is paid to syllabus research and design for teacher education. As a result, the education being dispensed in the vast majority of the country’s schools is archaic, if not obsolete,” says Shomie Das, arguably India’s most respected teacher who after graduating from Cambridge University, began his career teaching physics at the well-known Gordonstoun School, Scotland and after his return to India was appointed headmaster of the top-ranked Mayo College, Ajmer and the Lawrence School Sanawar. Currently, Das is a Dehradun-based education consultant and chairman of the People Combine Educational Initiatives Ltd which has inter alia promoted the thoroughly contemporary Oakridge schools in Hyderabad and Bangalore.

According to Das, in the majority of the country’s 6,076 teacher training colleges, teachers are given no practical training on how to teach students the urgently required skills of enquiry, critical thinking and problem-solving. “Consequently, only a small minority of schools which provide rigorous in-service teacher training or have established contemporary teacher training academies are able to provide children modern education,” says Das. 

Dr. Geeta Kingdon, chair of economics and education, and international development, University College London, blames the poor quality of undergraduate education being dispensed in the country’s arts and science colleges for the low quality of postgrads produced by teacher training colleges. “Undergrad colleges are recklessly graduating students without basic rudimentary knowledge of their chosen subjects. Teacher training colleges must ensure that re-teaching of arts and science subjects is reiterated in their curriculums. They must not assume that graduates have sufficient knowledge of their majors when they enter B.Ed programmes,” says Kingdon, who is also executive director of the City Montessori School, Lucknow, acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest single-city K-12 school (aggregate enrolment; 53,000 students across 20 campuses). 

Although, a growing number of universities have latterly started schools of education offering postgrad teacher education programmes — most notably the Bangalore-based Azim Premji University (estb. 2010) promoted by the eponymous IT tycoon — the most effective response to the challenge of poor quality teacher education has come from private sector education entrepreneurs — the whipping boys of left-liberal academics who dominate the academy and the neta-babu brotherhood which formulates education policy. 

Disillusioned with ill-trained B.Ed teachers entering the teaching profession, the great majority of the country’s Top 1,000 (mainly private) primary-secondaries rated and ranked in the annual EducationWorld India School Rankings, are conducting comprehensive in-service teacher training and development programmes. Some education trusts and school chains have gone a step further and have promoted formal teacher training academies to shape and develop in-service and aspirant teachers equipped with the knowledge and skill-sets required to teach 21st-century learners. 

Interviews with promoters, leaders and directors of some of India’s new genre teacher education academies are interspersed with this narrative. 

 

ITARI’s satisfactory progress

Lt. Gen. Arjun Ray (Retd) PVSM, AVSM, is the founder-CEO of the top-ranked K-12 Indus International day-cum-boarding schools in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune which have an aggregate 3,675 students and 400 teachers from 38 countries around the world on their muster rolls. In 2009, the parent Indus Trust promoted Bangalore-based Indus Training & Research Institute which has thus far trained and certified 789 K-12 teachers.

What were the major factors which prompted you to promote the Indus Training & Research Institute (ITARI) eight years ago? 

Right from the start when the Indus Trust promoted the Indus International School-Bangalore (IIS-B) in 2003, we were aware that high quality teachers with a positive disposition would be needed by Indus and other international schools. We foresaw that with a 10 percent annual increase in the number of international schools in India, there would be an acute shortage of teachers with global perspective and capability to deliver the rigorous International Baccalaureate programmes. Therefore, ITARI was promoted to train and develop teachers for international, particularly IBO-affiliated schools. 

How satisfied are you with the progress of ITARI? 

We are more than satisfied with the progress of ITARI. For one, we have signed up with some of the world’s best teacher development colleges to provide globally comparable teacher training at ITARI. For instance, we offer a 12-month full-time diploma programme in international education in partnership with the University of Birmingham City, open to all college graduates with each batch comprising 75 students. Simultaneously, ITARI offers a six-month certificate course for selected graduates of premium colleges of South India. These students are campus-recruited by us and are provided free accommodation and paid a stipend for the duration of their training, subject to their signing a contract to serve Indus International schools in Bangalore, Hyderabad and/or Pune for a minimum period of three years.

Some educators believe that in this new era of the Internet and self-learning, the role of the classroom teacher has diminished. What’s your comment? 

Although in the Internet era, self-directed learning by students has become very important, teachers will continue to be necessary to teach what Google cannot teach. Therefore for the foreseeable future, teachers — especially well-trained and educated — will continue to play a vital role in developing children to their full potential.


Learning outcomes in India’s pre-primary and primary-secondary schools are way behind the West and even South-east Asian countries. What’s your prescription for closing this gap?

Several reforms are urgently needed in teacher education with strict regulatory controls imposed on B.Ed colleges. Admissions into teacher training colleges should be through a national entrance examination with only the top 10 percent admitted. Secondly, the syllabuses of teacher training colleges should be overhauled and upgraded to international standards, and foreign direct investment in teacher training colleges should be permitted immediately. 

How optimistic are you about the future of Indian education? 

I’m optimistic about the future of Indian education because the ruling party in New Delhi seems to have the political will and mandate to transform India. I’m sure education reforms will form part of the package. Secondly, digital technology in education is becoming ubiquitous and unstoppable. This will force teachers to upgrade their pedagogies.
 

Schools as good as teachers

An education alumna of Delhi & Leicester (UK) universities, Maya Menon has over three decades experience of conceptualising, designing and implementing a wide range of school and teacher-related projects and services. In 2002, she promoted the Bangalore-based The Teacher Training Foundation (TTF) which has trained and mentored over 62,000 K-12 teachers of 3 million children.

TTF objectives. The Teacher Foundation was promoted in 2002 to provide contemporary learning and professional development opportunities for teachers and school leaders countrywide. Our mission is to make schools enabling environments for all children by empowering educators to become energetic, effective, reflective practitioners and life-long learners. We are deeply aware that schools are only as good as their teachers. 

How satisfied are you with the progress of TTF?

I’m fairly satisfied except that the number of children who need well-trained and developed teachers is 260 million. Teachers have been neglected for so long that it will take at least 25 years of sustained training and support before we make a significant dent in improving the learning experiences and outcomes of India’s school-going children.

Some educators believe that in this new era of the Internet and self-learning, the role of the classroom teacher has diminished. What’s your comment? 

This kind of ill-informed babble drowns out the voices of sane educationists around the world. The plain truth is that the single most important factor that influences student achievement in schools is the quality of teachers. Of course ICT and the Internet are important tools for improving learning. But children learn vital life lessons when they attend school daily and interact with peers, teachers and learn to manage social pressures and the emotional highs and lows of school life. A thinking, caring teacher is essential to steer children safely through the minefield of growing up in difficult times and circumstances.

Learning outcomes in India’s pre-primary and primary-secondary schools are way behind the West and even South-east Asian countries. What’s your prescription for closing this gap? 

Yes, internationally our learning outcomes are embarrassingly poor especially for a country that has rather lofty aspirations of being a superpower. Our development priorities are so askew! My prescription for closing this big learning gap is to invest in teachers — both pre-service and in-service. But this is easier said than done because teacher educators need to develop the purpose and imagination to visualise millions of schools across India run by teachers who are caring, competent and teach with pride and authenticity.

How optimistic are you about the future of Indian education? 

I’m disappointed that successive governments at the Centre and in the states have failed to demonstrate any real will and vision to improve school education in India. There has been much tinkering with assessment, curriculum and textbooks. But the proverbial elephant in the room is the absence of a clear strategy for introducing high quality teacher education. By 2020 India will have the largest school-going population in the world. Against this according to various estimates, there’s a shortage of between 500,000 and 1 million teachers nationwide.

 

Teachers can’t be replaced by technology

An alumna of Wharton Business School, USA, Sapna Chauhan is founder-chairperson of five Amiown preschools (estb. 2005) in Delhi NCR, and the Amity Centre for Educational Research and Training. 

What were the prime factors which prompted you to promote the Amity Centre for Educational Research & Training (ACERT), Delhi? 

Twelve years ago when I was setting up the Amiown preschools, I became aware that quality programmes could only be delivered by knowledgeable and qualified teachers. At the time, there weren’t any institutes which delivered high quality teacher training programmes especially for early years education. Therefore, it became necessary to set up a formal institute which could groom and train preschool and primary teachers with understanding of international pedagogies and practices.

How satisfied are you with the progress of ACERT? 

I am very satisfied with the progress and development of ACERT in terms of depth and scope of courses offered, and the impact we have had on the teacher training, teaching and education scenario. Currently, we have seven full-time and 15 visiting faculty/workshop facilitators. Moreover, guest lectures by leaders and experienced professionals are frequently held in ACERT, and we have a 100 percent placement record with all our 1,000-plus graduates employed in top-ranked CBSE, CISCE and IB schools. 

Some educators believe that in this new era of the Internet and self-learning, the role of the classroom teacher has diminished. What’s your comment?

Well-educated and trained teachers willingly embrace technology and use it to support and improve children’s learning. It would be difficult to imagine holistic education being imparted without tech-savvy teachers. However, I also feel the value of a teacher cannot be diminished or replaced by technology. 

Learning outcomes in India’s pre-primary and primary-secondary schools are way behind the West and even South-east Asian countries. What’s your prescription for closing this gap? 

The quality of teaching and classroom interaction is the critical factor. Teacher education programmes in the West and South-east Asian countries are of longer duration, a minimum of three years. We need to take a serious look at teacher education in India and ensure that graduates are put through rigorous theory and practical training programmes that prepare them for the multifarious roles of a teacher. There needs to be better selection criteria for identifying potential teacher trainees as well and school managements should not compromise on hiring well-qualified teachers. 

How optimistic are you about the future of Indian education? 

My sentiments fluctuate. But as a rule, I prefer to be optimistic about the future. 

 

“Demand for good teachers will never diminish”

Dr. Jeremy Williams is academic director of the Asian International College, India (AIC-I, estb. 2015), a subsidiary of the UK-based Busy Bees Group which owns over 400 top-ranked pre-primary schools in the UK and South-east Asia. AIC-I provides in-service and pre-service early childhood care and education training to pre-primary and primary school teachers.

What are the prime factors which prompted you to promote AIC-India last year? 
The Busy Bees Group is expanding globally, and it can’t be a truly global company unless it has a presence in India. There’s a dire shortage of high quality early years educators in this country, and we believe AIC-I can help bridge the gap.

How satisfied are you with the progress of AIC-I? 

Very satisfied, but we can always do better. At AIC-India, we have a small group of core faculty which has developed and delivered an excellent curriculum. We are looking to hire well-qualified adjunct faculty to help cater to the steadily rising demand for our teacher training and development services. During the past 18 months, we have certified close to 400 teachers from our programmes, the majority of whom have been in-service preschool teachers keen to upgrade their skills.

Some educators believe that in this new era of the Internet and self-learning, the role of the classroom teacher has diminished. What’s your comment? 

I completely disagree. The demand for good teachers will never diminish. However, the digital age requires teachers with new and advanced skill-sets. Good teachers need to be equipped with digital literacy and 21st century skills to prepare children for secondary and higher education.

Learning outcomes in India’s pre-primary and primary-secondary schools are way behind the West and even South-east Asian countries. What’s your prescription for closing this gap? 

Learning has to become more authentic and have real-world applicability. At AIC-I, we believe in evidence-based learning, not learning how to pass tests. Ticking the right boxes in a multiple-choice exam doesn’t make you a better preschool or primary teacher.

How optimistic are you about the future of Indian education? 

If the government’s New Education Policy sees the light of day this year, I will be upbeat. Sometimes things in India take a long time to change; but when they do change, the pace is very rapid. It’s high time innovative educators in the private sector were given greater operational freedom. It’s time to let the market decide whether the qualifications they issue are valuable.

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