New Delhi: Around this time next year, 100 fresh college graduates will find themselves back in the classroom—but this time they’ll be standing in the front, teaching.
They may not want to be teachers, they may have no teaching degrees, and they may never teach again. But, for two years they’ll work in primary schools as part of the inaugural batch of the Teach For India, or TFI, campaign.
“The essential mission is to expand educational opportunities globally but with local enterprise,” says Puja Sondhi, acting chief operating officer of Teach For All, an umbrella organization that is helping to set up such campaigns in 10 other countries as well.
Quality education: A file photo of a school in Anoopshahr in Uttar Pradesh. The Teach For India campaign is based on the Teach For America programme that was launched in the US in 1989. (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint)
TFI is based on Teach For America, or TFA, a programme that began in 1989 with the express purpose of plucking promising graduates out of college, training them to teach for five intense weeks, and installing them for two years in low-income schools.
The result was what one American journalist called “the Peace Corps for struggling city schools”. Graduates with good intentions found themselves in tough neighbourhoods like New York’s Harlem or the Bronx, facing difficult-to-control students who were exhausting, and in some cases even intimidating.
TFI, funded wholly by a $2.6 million (more than Rs11 crore) grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, started by computer-maker Dell Inc. founder Michael Dell and his wife, will winnow its 100 candidates over a three-month selection process starting in September. Candidates will be trained in March and April, and then sent to 50 schools in Hyderabad and Pune. By 2013, the TFI road map plans to have 2,000 participants across eight locations in India.
The mission to attract applicants has already begun, via a “Teach India” advertising campaign by TFI’s media partner, The Times of India, the newspaper published by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, or BCCL, that also publishes The Economic Times. BCCL competes with HT Media Ltd, publisher of the Hindustan Times and Mint.
“That is the first phase,” Sondhi says. “In the second phase, we’ll invite people to apply directly to us and start the process.” “In Pune, we’ll be working with government schools, as the municipality has been very supportive,” says Shaheen Mistri, the interim leader of TFI. “In Hyderabad, it will be low-income private schools.” TFI initially pitched for Mumbai, “but there was not much enthusiasm on the part of authorities,” he adds.
At least for the first cycle, Mistri admits, the schools chosen will be “difficult but not impossible”. TFI is conscious, she says, “of the risk of putting idealistic people in tough situations, where kids may fail anyway because the system has failed them.” “It may make them cynical and not ready to sign on further. We just need to be smart about it,” she adds.
There will be some key differences between TFI and TFA. TFA Fellows, as they are known, get paid on a par with other teachers, but the TFI model will include higher wages. “Starting salaries in Pune schools are Rs3,000 per month,” Mistri says. “We can’t convince the best and the brightest to work for a few thousand a month.” The schools, therefore, will pay their regular salary, and that income will be supplemented by TFI, a figure, that, Mistri estimates, to be between Rs8,000-Rs10,000 a month.
Those costs, as well as the rest of TFI’s budget, will come out of the two-year grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which has already been extensively involved in urban education projects in India. “We’ve been involved with the TFA programme in America, and we saw an opportunity to support the initiative here as well,” says Barun Mohanty, local director of the foundation. “These graduates have a lot of idealism, new thoughts, freshness of approach. We need that.”
TFI also aims to make its fellows highly employable, to convince graduates that these will not be two lost years. “We go to corporates and make sure they’ll support this, that they’ll hire from this pool,” Mistri says.
ICICI Bank Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd, the Mahindra Group and the Aditya Birla Group “have already agreed,” she says.
Over the years, TFA has gradually become attractive to applicants, both for its experience and for the public-spirited sheen it lends to a résumé. In 2005, as many as 17,000 graduates applied to teach. TFA’s efficacy, though, has on occasion been called into question.
Krishna Kumar, director of the National Council of Education Research and Training, has, over the years, keenly followed the debate over TFA. “It isn’t as if that debate has been settled,” he says. “If you see studies by people in universities, there is deep scepticism in academia about this, a deep sense of crisis about the dilution of teacher education.”
A 2004 report released by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., for instance, compared the impact of TFA candidates with groups of “control” teachers. TFA teachers helped improve the mathematics scores of students, the report said, but they “did not have an impact on average reading achievement.” The report concluded, however, “that the organization is making progress toward its primary mission of reducing inequities in education—it supplies low-income schools with academically talented teachers who contribute to the academic achievement of their students.”
Even as he acknowledges the roughness of his analogy, Kumar says, “This is like handing over security to NGOs (non-government organizations) who will pick out villagers to protect important buildings on Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Our concern should be for the larger system, because the larger system is in trouble.”
Mohanty, though, is comfortable with the TFA model and likes its “endemic” impact measurement techniques. “It’s not THE solution, obviously. Nothing is,” he says. “But the way to do this is to test it, to see what works. Unless you try things like this, you’ll never know what works.”