Monday, January 09, 2006

And how do teachers become accountable?

Most of us know that the state of education (or even literacy, which is a very different thing) in India is abysmal. The literacy rate (which comes with the usual fudge factor, and “if you can sign your name you’re literate”) in India is still around 70% for men, and 55 or so percent for women. Most of us have different opinions on why this is so, and different opinions on how to fix it.

There are grand suggestions that all education in India be privatized (since parents prefer private schools anyway, given that most government schools are pathetic). Others want a rapid and massive increase in the money spent on education (currently ~4% of the GDP), or private schools bearing the burden and expense of mass education. Some others want higher salaries and better options for teachers. The first suggestion, of superceding the government completely in all education is quite impractical. In fact, the countries with the best educational levels have excellent public school systems (even the United States) which does serve especially the neglected or poorest sections of society. As far as spending goes, India’s spending is decent (when compared to most countries), and falls in between the middle spenders and the high spenders. And there’s no reason to believe that the same bureaucracy that hasn’t delivered in 58 years is suddenly going to do so. The money spent is probably not going to reach its destination. It hasn’t so far. Even though on paper there’s a primary school within 5 km of every village in most of the country the results are not impressive. And it would be against basic liberties to require private schools to bear the burden of mass education. As far as the third goes, actually government teachers are rather well paid. A teacher can expect to earn about Rs. 10000 a month, with some additional perks. Surprisingly, most private school teachers (especially in smaller schools, which form the vast majority) earn between Rs. 3000-Rs. 6000. Yet, their performance is far better. Why is that?

At a very basic level (with out going in to other aspects) it boils down to two factors: accountability and power.

Government schoolteacher jobs are highly coveted positions, and here’s why. If you are a government teacher in a village, you’re amongst the most well off, and the most powerful. And you don’t need to do any teaching in your life if you don’t want to.

The position is yours for keeps. Appointments are highly affected by political or organizational connections. Once appointed, it’s almost impossible for you to be dismissed from service. There is little in place in terms of inspections (with inspectors actually having the power to dismiss teachers). Teachers are transferred routinely, but if the teacher is “connected”, he/she can avoid transfers, or transfer himself to the neighboring village, 3 kilometers away, and continue to be incompetent. There is no requirement that the teacher actually completes any part of the syllabus given, nor is there any incentive for students of a teacher to “pass” or “fail”. There are many reports of teachers never attending a single day of school, or even them having hired proxy’s to teach in the class (while they run their family business or whatever). Teacher absenteeism is massive (in some states absenteeism is up to 40%, with even more teachers present but not teaching). In contrast, in a private school, even for a teacher earning Rs 3000 a month, if the students perform badly, or there are clear cases of incompetence, the teacher is sacked. There’s no shortage of graduates in the country who want to teach. How good the education they impart is, that is a different matter. But we’ll keep the litmus test for now to students “passing” or being functionally literate.


Government school teachers also happen to be extremely powerful. Why? Because amongst other things, they become election poll officials during elections. And the schools under them become election polling booths. Clearly, the power they wield during an election is obvious. The teacher’s union is not just a small vote bank, but can actually determine the outcome of elections.

Power, and no accountability.

But how can this be fixed? The government has a number of proven and successful options. The first is obviously greater involvement of parents in the running of schools. If there is a parent association (at village levels) actively involved in the school’s functioning, with the power to question or even suspend teachers who do not attend classes or teach, teachers will be forced to do their jobs. Accountability is enforced, and learning indexes dramatically improve. Another proven method are different types of “voucher systems”. An example of a voucher system would be that all poor parents are given a “cash voucher”, with the clause that it can only be redeemed (for it’s value) as school fees for their kids. The parents would be free to enroll their kids in any school, but those vouchers can only be used in lieu of school fees. If there is a surplus, it cannot be encashed. This way the money is used in education alone.

There may be other options as well, that are just as successful. These have been successfully implemented in different parts of the world to varying degrees, and have been successful. Gurucharan Das and Amartya Sen are just a few amongst many who have argued for such reform in their columns or writing.

But how can any such policy be pushed forward in the Indian "system"? The teachers (as a single entity) are important for politicians, who are likely to be disinclined towards giving parents more control (this could cost them their seats). If parent bodies are formed in villages, will they be truly democratic? Will the bureaucracy honestly handle a voucher scheme, or will it be mired in inefficiency and corruption? Will teachers themselves try to oppose a voucher scheme (since that means the school will have to shape up or close down).

Open forum: How can these basic changes be implemented within the Indian system? These changes (I believe) are far more important and effective and likely to have bigger consequences than privatizing all education, or doubling the spending on education.


greatbong said...


As far as the third goes, actually government teachers are rather well paid. A teacher can expect to earn about Rs. 10000 a month, with some additional perks.

I was rather surprised.Govt school teachers getting 10,000 a month ? I would think that school teachers (and I know only of West Bengal) get far less. But since you say so, I am not sure. Do you have any source for this figure?

apu said...

I know government school teachers in TN get paid atleast that much. Plus factor in a lifetime pension, and you know why a teacher's job in the government is so attractive.

Sunil, I saw a programme on NDTV which featured something similar to what you mentioned - a vilage in Nagaland PTA that has got together to monitor the school, with the involvement going to the extent of the more educated parents even volunteering teaching/helping time...Apparently its working very well. The question is, how well can such things be replicated on a larger scale....

Sunil said...

Arnab.....if i have time this evening, i'll dig up some refs. But i've met many many govt teachers on site visits (and also know some directly through family) and the starting salary is ~Rs 7000, which becomes Rs 10000 pretty quickly.

Also, here's a link to the report on teacher absenteeism in India.

Apu....yes....there are many little pockets where such schemes have been implemented. But there's a fair bit of resistance to implement this elsewhere.

Bombayite said...

Hi Sunil,
Have been a regular lurker here for a while, love your blog. Education is the one thing which can, I believe, save India. You raise important points and to my mind the PTA option is one way to improve public schools. The other thing is as the middle-class grows and more and more private schools are opened - due to increasing buying power, the reliance on public schools will hopefully come down. Also I think, the big business houses in India, Tata, Birla, Ambanis etc. should do their charity in this sector and open free schools for poor & unpriveleged children. Actually it would be both enlightened and selfish charity because by giving a good education you are ensuring that these kids become productive members of society and thus hopefully more consumers for your goods. It is my dream to back home and open at least one free school. :)

froginthewell said...

How does their being election poll officials help them wield power?

Now I think the government college faculty members often do a much better job than private school teachers at least in the plus two/pre-degree level. The fact that parents who are pushy about their children send their children to private schools, the fact that private schools being result oriented insist on homeworks ( something American schools are quite strict in implementing ) etc. might contribute to private schools faring better.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
I the Indian education system is what every conservative dreams of and every liberal dreads. It is a system where there are lots of excellent private schools competing for the opportunity to teach the children of the most motivated parents.

But it is also a place where public schooling has more or less collapsed. Support from the middle and upper classes is poor because they send their children to the private schools.

I believe schools tend to reflect the preferences of the parents of the children. If the parents are somewhat apathetic, the school will get fat and lazy. If the parents are very concerned, the school has to respond to that concern. But that does not mean that if the school is fat and lazy that there are no concerned parents. There are always some concerned parents.

I believe that public schooling works best when the funding and the control is local. Then the parents get more involved and they have the power to get rid of a lazy school administration. But if most parents send their kids to private schools, it will be hard to muster public support for change.

Anonymous said...


A few years back, the Digvijay Singh government in MP introduced an innovative schooling policy called Education Guarantee System. This seems to try to address the concerns you have brought up.

I do not know what has come of this scheme, now that the government has changed.

Sunil said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Bombayite.....the question is....why should the role of the government in education be completely superseded by private institutions or private charity? There is a role for charity in this world. And private institutions should be free to ply their trade. But there's no guarantee that their schools will support the education of all, especially the poor. There should be at least a decently good education for all, especially the poor (who cannot afford it). And every "developed" country in the world (the US included) has managed that with decent public schools. ask "How does their being election poll officials help them wield power".
In three ways. 1) Since they control the booth, if they are aligned with any particular party, they allow "booth capturing" by that party. 2) They can enable "vote stuffing", of voters absent. 3) They can actively prevent voters of known ideology (if against the party of their own choice) from voting. There are other ways too when they can influence elections. Because of this they are heavily courted by grassroots politicians. They're also important people in village politics because of this.
At the college're sometimes right. There are many good teachers in govt colleges (i went to one myself).....but the system has been changed substantially there.

Michael.......i liked the way you put the comment through. But about apathetic parents.....sometimes, it cant be helped. The parents often are themselves illiterate, and have never even been inside a school. They have no idea what an education is. So, how do you think they can all be involved, and helpful? You're bang on target about local control. True for many things......a big top-down approach rarely works.

Srikanth......Digvijay Singh had many merits as well as demerits. But he did try to reform the educational sector. During his time, the teacher absentee rate in MP dropped (from being amongst the worst in the country, to actually the best in the country, with a 10-12% absentee rate). But his measures were extremely unpopular with the teachers. The MP teachers union directly opposed him. Singh blames them for his loss in the elections.

I don't know how much of that is true.

Anonymous said...

Give the responsibility of the school to the village, not to some state bureaucrat sitting in the state capital.

Anonymous said...

Arnab, yes I think Sunil is quite right about the salaries govt teachers are paid, especially those with some seniority. My mother is a retired teacher. There are smaller, primary schools that pay less, and this is where most of the problems seem to lie. I don't have any proof of this, but I think the job markets really opening up in many sectors has left the education in a really unenviable position w.r.t attracting sincere, let alone talented, people. Teaching is often the last career option.

I would still say though, given what I have seen, that urban and semi-urban areas are still okay - not to say they're great. The remote areas are altogether different. I've heard from people I know quite well, that people actually pay bribes to get a job in such schools (I'm talking about southern Orissa specifically). They do little or no teaching, in fact hardly go to the school and so have free time to pursue other things.

Anonymous said...

I had my first headhunt in the curikudos job fair held in 2006. And now i think its time to switch over. Can some one let me know when the job fair starts again