Government schools in India are host to a problem that afflicts public schools in several parts of the world today: poor teaching standards and consequent low academic performance coupled with high drop out rates. These trends in public schools stand in stark contrast to trends in private schools. Thus, going by the simplest indicator of academic performance, in 2004 the pass percentage of students in Delhi’s government schools in the Secondary Examination was 50% while that for private schools was 80%.
Teachers constitute the single largest group of educated and professionally qualified workers in India. Regular teachers are government employees with assured lifetime tenure, pension, medical and other welfare benefits. They are governed by strict entry and qualification norms (one to twelve years of general education and minimum two years of diploma or degree in education). Low teaching standards and accompanying problems prevail despite stringent certification requirements and competitive pay scales and welfare benefits. In contrast private schools outperform government schools even though teachers in private schools have, on an average, one fifth the salary of regular government teachers and are not mandated to have formal teaching certification.
In this context a recent study commissioned by the World Bank and conducted by economists at Harvard University called “Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries” has some interesting insights to offer. The study, based on a survey of 3,700 schools across 20 Indian states, concludes that government school teachers represent among the least motivated class of workers in India: they have an absence rate of 25% that is even higher than the absence rate of 10.5% among Indian factory workers who enjoy a great degree of job security owing to India’s rigid labour laws. This prevails on account of poor “daily incentives to work” chief among which are poor monitoring and sanction mechanisms in government schools.
These prevailing ground realities show that teacher performance is neither linked to teacher salary nor to traditional certification requirements. It is instead linked to strong and well functioning systems of accountability. The National Policy on Education, 1986 clearly stipulates laying down of norms of accountability with incentives for good performance and disincentives for non-performance among government school teachers. However, this is far from fact. In the prevailing system all regular school teachers move from one pay scale to the next after nine, eighteen and twenty seven years of “satisfactory service”. Further, what often passes off as supervision is mere collection of data on the enrolment and promotion of students by inspectors.
In response to the increasingly expensive system of maintaining regular teachers and ensuring universal access to elementary education governments in several Indian states have begun operating a parallel system of recruiting para-teachers and contract teachers. These teachers are appointed on a contract basis. They are paid about one sixth of the salary of a regular teacher and are not entitled to any welfare or pension benefits. They are not eligible for promotion and are appointed for a specific school. The system of para and contract teachers is widely viewed as a solution to overcoming the shortage of regular teachers since this category of teachers is not expected to meet the certification norms prescribed for regular teachers. Further, para and contract teachers are viewed as a solution to absenteeism and low accountability among regular teachers since their contract can be terminated at short notice.
Even as this system incorporates sanctions in the form of fixed tenures, the sanctions are not designed to promote higher teaching standards. Equally, the system lacks incentives to promote higher teaching standards. Not surprisingly, the World Bank study cited above concludes that even though the alternative institutional form of providing education through contract teachers is relatively cost efficient, these teachers perform no better than regular teachers.
Clearly, the need of the hour is to identify, retain and promote good quality teachers in government schools. Here, the propositions of America’s Hamilton Project in a paper entitled “Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job” are highly instructive. The fundamental premise of the paper is that a teacher’s performance during the first two years on the job is a far better predictor of long term teacher quality rather than the teacher qualifications at the point of entry into the profession. Therefore policymakers’ traditional approach of improving the quality of the teaching force by raising the certification requirements for entering teachers is flawed.
It therefore proposes that public schools should ignore the traditional system of teacher certification and simply hire teachers with good academic qualifications. Thus new teachers would still be required to have a four year undergraduate degree and demonstrate content knowledge (as in the prevailing American public school scenario) but they would no longer require to be certified. The teaching ability of teachers thus hired would be assessed after two years based on their impact on student achievement, subjective evaluations by principals and peers and parental evaluations. Further, those teachers who receive poor evaluations during their first two years on the job would not be offered permanent positions (tenure) without obtaining approval from the district school authorities. Finally those teachers who receive good evaluations and who work in schools where at least 75% of the students are from low income families would be given bonus pay. The paper recommends that to implement this proposed system of sanctions and incentives for teachers the government must budget for setting up systems for measuring the classroom effectiveness of teachers and for tracking student performance and teacher effectiveness over time.
The Hamilton Project has lessons for Indian education reform since prevailing ground realities vis-à-vis public school education in India correspond to those in America. Both the countries have an impending shortage of regular school teachers coupled with very low performance and sanctions among regular school teachers. Public school reform therefore requires a two-pronged approach. Firstly it requires that the barriers to entry into the teaching profession be removed by overhauling traditional certification requirements and making recruitment contingent on skill. Secondly, it requires instituting performance related sanctions for teachers by ensuring that those teachers who are least effective on the job lose their chances of getting permanent employment or a promotion and those who are most effective get bonuses.
Significantly, both the American and the Indian governments have erred in adhering to the conventional systems of teacher certification, recruitment and promotion in their most far reaching programs of school education reform. America’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act aims to improve the performance of American public schools by increasing the standards of accountability of school districts and schools and giving parents more flexibility in choosing schools for their children. It stipulates the “highly qualified teacher” requirement for all public schools. To be “highly qualified” under the NCLB Act a teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, be fully certified as defined by the concerned state department of education and be able to demonstrate subject area competence in any core subject taught. Likewise, the Indian government’s flagship program on universalizing elementary education, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan provides funds for improving the quality of ongoing in-service training of teachers but does not propose any changes to the existing system of teacher recruitment and promotion.
The Hamilton Project offers valuable and workable lessons in education reform not only for the United States but equally for India. To secure a future for India’s government schools its proposals merit more than a passing glance among policymakers.
The author is a research assistant with Centre for Civil Society