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Teachers: Overpaid or Overburdened?


10 September 2009

I recently had the opportunity to interview 16 teachers from 7 schools across 2 districts in Uttarakhand as part of a study being conducted by J-PAL, MIT aimed at understanding the institutional dynamics of the Read India programme – an accelerated learning programme launched by the NGO Pratham. We wanted to know what teachers thought of Pratham’s training, materials and monitoring, the difficulties they faced as well as the changes (positive and negative) brought about within the classroom dynamics by using this new teaching method.

While the report itself is still in its draft stages, there were a few points that came out of the teacher interviews, which raise some questions regarding the current system of education and teacher accountability – which is what the blog post is about.

Broadly, there were four things that came up consistently in the teacher interviews. First was the lack of teachers and high pupil-teacher ratios, which according to the teachers, caused difficulties in implementing programmes including Read India. Teachers testified to feeling over-burdened with administrative and other duties such as supervision of the Mid-Day Meal and were thus unable to devote time to new teaching methods like using the Pratham materials. As a teacher said, “In a school that has over 150 students and only 2 teachers, if we were to divide the students up and pay individual attention to the weak students , what would the other students do?”.

This shortage of teachers was reaffirmed by the government block and district officials. In Haridwar for instance, they revealed that of the 117 schools, 42 schools had only one teacher, and 3 schools had no teachers at all!

Second was the constant pressure to finish coursework and curriculum. Pratham spends a lot of time and effort designing materials that will be relevant to the students. Even the teachers testified that the innovativeness of the material increased student enthusiasm, and was a useful learning tool as compared to the rote-learning often used in finishing the curriculum. There did however appear to be a disconnect between the Pratham goals of improving basic learning levels and the government’s emphasis on finishing the school curriculum. The teachers appeared stuck in the middle between these two divergent demands.

Moreover, teachers felt that the training they received were disconnected from many of the real problems afflicting the school– i.e., lack of teachers, disinterested parents, lack of discipline amongst students, and a general disinterest in education.

And finally, all teachers indicated that monitoring was weak and said increased monitoring would be encouraging, when it was of the supportive kind, assisting them in learning new techniques and helping them in their teaching process rather than just requiring them to fill government forms.

While these testimonies from the teachers are by no means unique observations, they do raise some hard questions on our current educational system. Teacher salaries in 2007-08 according to DISE corresponded to 31.48% of the total expenditure done by the SSA. These teachers are costly and we are all contributing to it through the education cess. Estimates indicate that private school teachers earn close to 40% of their government colleagues’ income. Yet, the fact remains that the quality of education remains abysmally low for a vast majority of Indian children, and not much effort is being made to find out the causes.

Through the 1980s and the 1990s, the government focussed all its energies on getting children into schools, and enrolment data became the principle tool for monitoring progress, including of teacher performance. It’s only in the last three to four years that government officials have begun to openly admit that motivation and accountability among teachers is also a big problem. Yet, the tendency has been to regard the lack of learning as being solely due to lack of teacher motivation, and place blame squarely on the teachers, without looking at underlying structure of the educational system which might also be contributing to the problem.

As early as 1999, the PROBE Report (Public Report on Basic Education in India) had found that despite a major increase in the number of teachers appointed, the pupil-teacher ratio in the survey areas has shown little improvement over the years. Today too, according to ASER, 2007 the median pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools remain as high as 39.

Further, in the current structure, monitoring is weak and teacher incentives are skewed. Salaries are not performance-based and there is a constant pressure to finish the curriculum rather than concentrate on helping children to actually learn.

While the current Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill is a great first step, a closer look at the Bill indicates that many of these endemic problems have still not been addressed. According to the Bill, Government schools do not need to meet any norms except the pupil-teacher ratio, and unlike in private schools, there are no consequences for failing to meet this basic norm. Moreover, the Bill legitimises the practice of multi-grade teaching, where more than one grade is being handled by the same teacher, simultaneously. The number of teachers is based on the number of students rather than on grade. So, for instance, a primary school having less than 60 students gets only 2 teachers, regardless of the number of grades in the school.

This commentary is by no means meant to absolve teachers of their shortcomings. Teacher absenteeism is indeed very high in rural areas. The PROBE Report, 1999, showed how 1/3rd of Head Teachers were absent during the study, and even of those present, teachers hardly taught. In another study conducted in 3 states, classroom observations showed, shockingly, that each group of children was taught for only around 25 minutes in a day (Ramchandran et al, 2004)! Teacher ability is also another big problem. A forthcoming study in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar reports that teachers lack even the most basic skills – less than 50% could summarize a class 5 text.

However, as I pointed out above, the problems faced by teachers are also real, and do need to be dealt with. Instead of always thinking about teachers as being overpaid and underperforming workers, maybe it is time for us to start looking into the underlying reasons for their lack of motivation, and think about increasing relevant training and support, and improve their incentives to perform through a more rational accountability structure. Our current educational structure needs a serious revisiting.

Avani Kapur is Researcher and Coordinator of PAISA project at Accountability Initiative

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