Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Few teachers, lesser data

Addressing the issue of teacher shortage is about tough political choices at many levels

How many teachers do we need in India? And how many do we have currently?

Most sources, which could have authoritative information on these numbers, candidly admit that the available data is not very good. The data from District Information System for Education (DISE) is our best bet for any such country-wide analysis. The website itself points out that because of methodological issues the data may not be very accurate, but this is the best we have.

Certain kinds of data are likelier to be more accurate in DISE. For example, the number of teachers is probably quite accurate, whereas the number of toilets with water is likely to be less accurate; not only because of the definitional difference of “with water", but also because of what may be seen as the “correct" response by the respondents, that is, the teachers. Be that as it may, let’s go by the DISE data of 2013-14; it is enough to give us an approximate but good enough picture of the situation on the ground.

India has over 7.7 million teachers across 1.5 million schools, which have about 210 million students. The most specific norm that determines how many teachers are required is stated in the form of Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) in the Right to Education Act. The target for this number is 30:1, that is, 1 teacher for 30 students (and slightly higher under certain conditions). At a gross level, we have enough numbers to meet this norm. But as all of us know arithmetic averages hide more than they reveal; the DISE reports also point this out. The variance in PTR is very significant across states.

There is substantial shortage of teachers in most of the eastern and north-eastern states, and in Uttar Pradesh. This shortfall is estimated to be about 1.2 million teachers. While Jharkhand and West Bengal are short by nearly 100,000 teachers each, in the case of Bihar and UP the shortage is more than 300,000. To get a better sense of this issue, we have to go a few levels deeper. For that DISE (or other available data) becomes a rougher guide, and can only be used to broadly validate what we see on the ground.

Let’s look at a two more geographic slices on this matter. Even in the states that seemingly have no shortage at the gross level, there are significant shortages when looked at closely. There are significant regional differences within states. For example, northeast Karnataka has fewer teachers than required, while south Karnataka may have more than the norm. Most states have regions of this nature. For example, southwestern Rajasthan, southwestern Madhya Pradesh, northeastern Maharashtra, where there are significant teacher shortages. The other relevant (and obvious) teacher shortage areas are those that are “difficult to get to". This is not only about schools in sand dunes or up in the mountains, but also places that only need some effort to get to, like rural areas some distance from a city. Here is an example: schools in Chennai have estimated PTR of 15:1 and in the periphery of Chennai that of 28:1; given the size and nature of Chennai, one would have imagined that there is no such divide, but the reality is different. In brief: the disadvantaged (in absolute and relative terms) parts of the country continue to face significant teacher shortages.

Grades 1 to 8 are relatively better off; for grades 9-12 teacher availability drops sharply. Let’s now look at the situation in different subjects. There is an acute scarcity of teachers in math, physics, biology and geography, especially in the higher grades. There is no accurate data available for this, but the estimate of this shortfall is in the range of 50-70%. Also, there is hardly any recruitment happening in these subjects. sports, art and music which are part of the curriculum have hardly any teachers. In even worse condition is the number of Special Education Teachers; there are perhaps a few hundred available for the 3 million children with disabilities who are enrolled in our schools.

These various dimensions of teacher shortage have a multiplicative regressive impact. For example, least number of math teachers will be in rural areas of the disadvantaged regions of some particular states. For now let’s leave aside some very important and complex issues that impact the requirement of teachers, after just listing a few. A very large percentage of teachers handle multiple grades at the same time, which is clearly not desirable. The requirement arising from our curricular goals probably requires better PTR than 30:1. Significant numbers of teachers in many states are “contract teachers", with inadequate preparation as a teacher.

Addressing the issue of teacher shortage is about tough political choices at many levels, it would require significant financial commitment for additional numbers and the willingness to transfer existing teachers where they are required. It will also require creating significantly more capacity of high quality teacher education programs, completely revamping existing teacher education institutions and substantial improvements in overall higher education.

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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