Is teacher absence the problem or a symptom of a deeper malaise?

For many years now people who have tried to unravel the problem of teacher absence have grappled with ways to ensure teachers come every day and teach the required number of hours. If we are to look at all the initiatives tried out in different parts of the country one cannot but be reminded of the story of the elephant and four blind men.

Over the years it is recognised that we need a coordinated reform process. Piecemeal approaches to create school level management committees (which have no teeth), install a camera to record teacher attendance (Sewa Mandir, Udaipur), create oversight bodies to ensure attendance compliance, do away with permanent teachers and appoint them on yearly contracts, to name a few, have had limited impact. Another set of strategies tried out, to ensure teachers get regular training, teacher support through Cluster and Block resource centres (which ended up becoming data collection and oversight agencies), again have had limited impact. Why is this so?

Accountability

One, at the root of the problem is the issue of who the teacher is accountable to and who controls the teacher. At one end is Rajasthan where teachers network with local politicians to ensure they are not shunted from one place to another (or pay hefty bribes to stop transfers) and on the other is West Bengal where teachers, though not transferred, are mostly CPI (M) party workers. Among other strategies, the CPI (M) also used teacher appointments as a means to augment their force of rural cadre. Arbitrary transfer does not happen in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A primary school teacher who asks for transfer has to follow a set process. If she upgrades her qualification she can even become a teacher trainer or even the director of a training institute. In Andhra Pradesh, the counselling system has minimised political interference in teacher management. When the counselling process was tried out in Karnataka it was soon withdrawn because of political pressure. Essentially what these experiences tell us is that political interference reduces accountability of teachers to their students and the school while enveloping them in a network of rent-seeking and patronage.

Two, how is the system monitored? For over 30 years now the main monitoring tool is data on enrolment, attendance, transition rate, completion rate etc... No one asks whether the school functions, and is regular teaching and learning happening. Or if the teacher comes regularly, if she actually teaches and if and when she does teach, what and how. No one asks what and how much are children learning? To top it all, the government in its wisdom introduced the no-detention system to prevent children from dropping out (because they were failing in hordes). As a result, children are pushed from one class to the next and no one asks the teacher what they have learnt. Children can reach Class V without knowing how to read or how to do simple mathematical operations! (see ASER reports from 2005 to 2008) The no-detention system ended up doing away what little accountability the teacher had to ensure children learn. And when teachers are transferred every few years (like in Rajasthan) they invariably blame their predecessor. In sum, the government has privileged data over process- or outcome-based monitoring and we are saddled with a system that perpetuates false reporting.

Three, when the government and donors got terribly upset about children not learning, what did they do? Train teachers was the battle cry. So from 1993 we have had an in-service teacher training regime. Notwithstanding good intentions, the teacher training regime is a mechanical process that does not address the real training needs of teachers, it does not ask them what their problems are and what training they need. A centrally rolled out uniform training regime has become a burden for teachers, an opportunity to siphon off funds and a big joke on the teachers and on the system. Unfortunately, teachers who really desire meaningful training have nowhere to go as there is no cadre of competent resource persons who can provide such value-added training. No surprise we are where we are with respect to teacher capacity, subject knowledge and confidence to work in a challenging environment.

Four, when some States were fed up with the powerful, unionised, absent teachers, they decided that contract teachers could do the trick. So way back in 1999 the government of MP decided to do away with a permanent cadre of teachers. Though we now have thousands of contract teachers (euphemistically called para-teachers), yet teacher absence rate is not very different. In many States, para / contract teachers are political appointments.

Doomed to fail

The new mantra is to persuade government to fund schooling of children, not schools. As a result the argument for a voucher-based system is slowly gathering momentum. This, advocates feel, would generate competition and private and government schools will compete for students and the resources that come with it. How, pray, can that be done without dismantling the current government school system? Will the government be obliged to continue paying teachers even when no one really wants to enrol in their schools?

So, at the end of so many years of experimenting with piecemeal strategies/ innovations, we are where we started.

There is a need to recognise that piecemeal and one-off strategies do not work. We just have to turn the system around, free teachers from the clutches of political patronage and rent seeking, simultaneously improve monitoring system, make them accountable to a village level parents’ body that has the power to sign their attendance sheet and deduct pay for the number of days they did not attend school. Equally, we need to give teachers real autonomy in the classroom, provide meaningful on-site training and academic support, enable them to improve their subject knowledge, test learning outcomes of children (periodically) and assess the knowledge, attitudes and practices of teachers...

Changing the rules

We need a multi-pronged strategy. Remember the corporate sector has argued (through the 1990s ad even now) that the economic system could not be liberated from the licence control raj without a systemic overhaul and that the basic rules of the game have to be changed and that the economy democratised. The same holds true for education. There is an urgent need to re-imagine school education. This means that we would have to stand up against vested interests (including in existing institutions created for education, research and training on the one hand and educational management/ regulation on the other from the national to the district level) and overhaul them with determination.

Teacher absence is a symptom of a deeper and systemic problem. Overhauling the system is possible. Once the will is there it is possible to find solutions. There are many brilliant and committed people in the country who would be more than willing to work though the reform process. It needs determined leadership from above.

Can the newly re-elected government in the centre take this up as a challenge? Millions of children and many generations will be grateful if this is done, albeit 62 years late!