Teach for India and “Excellent Education” on the Cheap
On July 01, 2016, journalist George Joseph published in the Nation an investigative piece entitled, “Teach for America Has Gone Global, and Its Board has Strange Ideas About What Poor Kids Need.”
Joseph’s piece is powerful in exposing the callousness of privilege toward the impoverished. His investigation concerns one of the international spinoffs of Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America (TFA), Teach for India (TFI).
Like TFA, TFI purports to confront complex problems exacerbated by a serious lack of funding by sending temporary, minimally-trained “teachers” into classrooms. By doing so, TFI apparently believes that it is living up to its website slogan, “One day all children will attain an excellent education.”
The reality is that TFI is not concerned with the glaring injustice that passes for public education in India, where many public school classrooms are no conducive to learning. The rooms are overcrowded; Joseph describes two students to a desk. The rooms are hot. Bathroom facilities are not a given. The TFI teachers do not necessarily speak the same language as their students. The Indian government is not spending enough on education. (It knows it must spend more but has not.)
As a result, India faces a profound teacher shortage, as Joseph describes:
According to the Right to Education Forum, in the 2013–14 school year, India had 568,000 teaching positions vacant, and only 22 percent of working teachers had ever received in- service training. This massive shortage means that as of 2015, more than half of Indian public schools were unable to comply with the 2009 Right to Education Act’s mandatory class-size ratios (no more than 30 students to one teacher in elementary schools and 35 in secondary schools). Further, a whopping 91,018 Indian public schools function with just one teacher. Also, more than 50 percent of Indian public schools lack handwashing facilities; 15 percent lack girls’ toilets; and nearly 25 percent don’t have libraries. As in many developing countries, these failures fuel the problem of teacher absenteeism in India.
The founder of TFI, Shaheen Mistri, did not come from such a background. Hers was an upbringing of privilege. Joseph describes Mistri’s moment of calling to begin TFI, which occurred sitting in a taxicab (an experience that the poor children in India are not likely to have) while on vacation (again, not an experience of the poor in India).
In short, the wealthy Mistri thought she would “top-down” the poorest in India into pulling themselves out of their own deficits by altering their mindsets.
That’s right: Mind over matter. Forget unmet physical needs.
On the surface, altering the poverty mindset sounds good. I have not experienced the incredible poverty of many children in India, but I did grow up on welfare, and I do remember a time in my young life when I simply had no thoughts about any future other than what I knew growing up on welfare. But what did not happen in my case was encountering individuals clearly much wealthier than I who only told me that I needed to think differently.
Those who did tell me as much also invested in my life by supporting their words of encouragement with finances to broaden my life experiences. Some didn’t even tell me that the world had more to offer that what my limited life experiences revealed. Instead, they simply provided me with experiences– and doing so cost money.
But Mistri’s TFI is short on advocating for the finances necessary for India’s children to have a desk to themselves, or climate-controlled classrooms, or even toilets and handwashing facilities at school.
Mistri’s TFI wants those kids to pull themselves out of their own poverty by drilling into kids that they simply must think differently.
I don’t know how Mistri is able to look squarely at the problems of India’s public schools (and the role that India’s government has played in neglecting to address the fiscal desperation of the public school system) and not truly desire to either financially invest herself or advocate that the government live up to its responsibility and invest in India’s children. But I have an idea how she does it:
Mistri and her TFI do not emotionally connect with the plight of India’s public school children. And why should they? As was true for Kopp, Mistri’s daily life is divorced from the desperate reality she purports to fix. (Mistri’s 2015 annual income from TFI was almost 40 lacs (INR), considered a wealthy salary in India.) Like TFAers, hardly-trained TFIers never plan to stay in the classroom. They provide an endless temp solution, and their presence and convenient “pull-up-by-bootstraps” marketed mindset is appealing to a government that refuses to financially support a permanent system for the education of its young citizens.
Like TFA, TFI peddles a “theory of change” that ignores the impact of systems on the individual– and does not intervene on behalf of individual, physical need even as it tries to alter damaging aspects of the system. Like TFA, the TFI theory of change involves changing the minds of the leaders.
Of course, the five-week-trained TFI recruit supposedly solves the leadership mindset problem. TFIers are the leaders who will solve India’s education crisis by instilling gumption in their hot, crowded, ill-treated students.
Joseph captures this super hero disconnect as he quotes the CEO of another TFA spinoff, Teach for Pakistan:
“Your classrooms may be hot and lack electricity, and you may not have enough desks or books, but we know that a high-quality teacher can do more to change a student’s life than fans and desks,” declared former Teach for Pakistan CEO Khadija S. Bakhtiar, in an address to the organization’s incoming class of 2013 fellows. “Be the teacher and leave your students independent, empowered, and inquisitive.”
This CEO solves all educational problems with the ungrounded notion of the almighty, “high quality” teacher.
These are the same people that train their temps in multi-week stints. Low overhead– a quality worshiped by the business execs willing to fund the likes of TF-whatever. As Joseph rightly notes:
By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the [international TFA organization] Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character. …
Teach for India’s board members are involved in efforts to increase the privatization of India’s schools instead of securing more funding and resources for teachers….
TFI board member Ashish Dhawan believes that the Indian government should not spend money on classroom improvements and instead should focus on these familiar encroachments upon American education: increased use of standardized testing, online instruction, and corporate involvement in education absent the restrictions on class size and professional qualification for teachers. (Think massive transfer of government schools to private operators.)
Education on the cheap. The Indian government gets to relieve itself further of responsibility to its less-privileged citizens, and the private entities taking over answer to no one.
And those TFI alums? You guessed it: Positioned to move onto higher-powered careers as TFI parasites, as Joseph notes:
It is unclear how much students will benefit from this handoff to the private sector, but the Teach for India program certainly strives to enhance its recruits’ future prospects beyond their brief careers in the classroom. To this end, TFI fellows are taught to act more like classroom managers than traditional teachers, learning skills applicable for their expected future positions in government and the corporate world.
But there will be no TFI push for its temp teachers to invest themselves in classroom teaching careers:
Talking to TFI fellows, it became clear that this top-down “Theory of Change” is a necessary consequence of the two-year fellowship structure. After observing classes all day at a school in the Mumbai neighborhood of Goreagon, I asked the three TFI fellows there, Selna, Nikhil, and Priya, how much they worked with the surrounding community to push for better school conditions long-term. “The community-engagement thing is tricky,” Selna replied. “Those [policy] decisions are made at the top anyway,” Priya added. “So what is the point of community engagement? People in the community see us as outsiders or volunteers. It’s like, ‘Why should I listen to you?’”
I pressed this point, asking if this was perhaps why Teach for India fellows should live in these neighborhoods and stick with the schools for more than a couple years. But all three shook their heads.
“It wouldn’t be marketable if it were longer,” Nikhil said.
If TFIers had wanted to dedicate their lives to the classroom, they could have done so.
It’s called majoring in education— a decision that communicates genuine investment in children and their communities rather than in resume-building or meeting some corporate-directed bottom line.
Coming July 08, 2016, from TC Press (revised release date):