Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Prioritizing education reforms

Trying to eliminate teacher absenteeism is not only sub-optimal prioritization but also cannot be successful

There is this myth about government school teachers in India that most are usually absent from schools. The reality is different. The Annual Status of Education Report 2014 estimates teacher absence at 15%, but that includes those on approved leave and out of school on any other official work. Absenteeism i.e. absence without permission is probably between 6-8%. Still the myth of rampant absenteeism holds a tight grip over the imagination of people. So the first reform action in education suggested by most, including many within the government is, to tighten governance such that most teachers show up at school. There is no doubt that all teachers should be at school and teaching, and we should make that happen.

However the question to ask is whether amongst all the problems of governance in education, this is of the highest priority, when the actual absenteeism numbers of teachers are not very different from (e.g.) an industrial establishment. However, there is an even more fundamental issue. Let’s consider absenteeism of functionaries in other public institutions and systems. I would guess that absenteeism in colleges, universities, hospitals and almost any government office will be higher than in schools. Why stop at this, we can look at the number for our legislative assemblies and Parliament also.

In this comparative context, it’s quite possible that absenteeism may be least in schools. This shouldn’t surprise us because the nature of a school is such that even a day’s absence of a teacher is obvious. Habitual absence creates complete disruption, especially since a very large number of schools have small teams of three or less teachers. Given the formal, through school monitoring committees (even while they are not very effective), and informal engagement of the local community with the school, it becomes hard for teachers to be absent for long periods.

Let me return to the fundamental point, absenteeism is a malady of our overall systems, with deep sociopolitical roots. While we must improve things operationally, we can’t solve this problem only for schools. Trying to improve governance to eliminate teacher absenteeism is not only sub-optimal prioritization, given the actual numbers, but also cannot be successful, since the issue is common across our systems.

We need to pay close attention to the approach for taking up issues in educational governance; taking on all things at once is unlikely to work. So if governance battles in education have to be chosen and picked, how might it be done?

Let me suggest a simple framework for this prioritization, using two steps. This is not something new; experienced education administrators have been using this for decades. The first step is to not take on anything that is substantially common across systems i.e. pick only matters that are specific to the education system. The broader matters could also be taken on, not within education reform, but as a part of broader cross systemic governance reforms.

The second step is to determine the order of priority of issues on the basis of educational considerations, not on the seeming administrative importance or the outrageousness of the issue. Let me give an example: perhaps a percentage of officials in education departments are involved in graft in the Midday Meal Scheme. Outrageous as it is, tackling that should not be a priority. The priority should be governance issues that have implication on what is happening inside the classroom i.e. what kind of teaching-learning is going on in the school.

Using this two-step process let me draw a partial list of priorities for educational governance. The first set is about teacher preparation and development. The sustained effort required to reform governance of our teacher education institutions, which is at the core of improving how we prepare teachers in India is critical. This will affect over 16,000 colleges, a very large percentage of which will resist every step, given their commercial interests. And so this will require all the political capital that can be mustered. We also need to redesign the system for continuing professional development of teachers; jettison the centralized, once-in-a-year, training-based approach and implement a district-owned curriculum, with continuous, multi-modal approach.

Second is about teacher recruitment and deployment. Recruitment of teachers should be centralized at the state level, with the State Public Service Commissions, using a rigorous assessment process. This will address the matter of quality of intake. The recruitment should be specifically for each district (or region), to help areas with teacher shortage.

Third is organizational. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan structure currently runs in parallel with the state government’s education department structures, building inefficiencies and hindering operations. Both must be integrated for effective functioning; this will also have financial benefits. Some states have already progressed on the second and third issues. Each of these matters may seem very specific and technocratic. They are also particular to the state of our system now. They don’t have the ring of grand governance reforms of popular imagination. What needs to be done should be done, rather than grandstanding on the naturally emotive matter of governance.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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