Teacher shortage – the tip of the iceberg

Kanupriya J Chatterji

For those of us who work in education, these are exciting times. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RtE) Act (2009) has ensured that all of us – regardless of the sector – private, government, NGO, administration, management, and teachers – are having to engage in a shared discourse. Suddenly, the concerns of the government education system are not the government’s alone, and the hallowed hallways of the most elite private schools are now open to the children of the commonest of common men.

Education is making deep inroads into public consciousness, and the insiders of the world of education have now become de facto purveyors of information and opinion on an Act that is being hailed as India’s passport to superpowerdom in the newly booming knowledge economy of the world.

The Act is revolutionary in that it has finally, after 62 years of independence, recognized the commonsense notion of education as freedom by making education a fundamental right for all children. It has defined some minimum standards and has tried to create benchmarks for what constitutes a school, how schools should be managed and what the overall aims of schools should be. But most importantly it acknowledges the State’s responsibility towards children in a realization of the Supreme Court judgement of 1993 that decreed education to be a fundamental right, one that flows from the right to life and personal liberty. This judgment preserved the spirit of the Constitution of India, and reiterated that leading a life with dignity and personal liberty is not possible unless one has the opportunity for basic education. The Act, thus, ensures that any child who is denied the right to education can now seek redressal in a court of law, and that education and thus the opportunity for a meaningful life is now a justiciable right.

Education, however, is on the concurrent list, and all the good intentions of the Act will remain unfulfilled unless the states, in all their diversity are able to notify rules in cognizance of their unique educational needs and raise the money to create the structures and appoint the personnel to ensure that the provisions of the Act are implemented. The Act has regulated Pupil Teacher Ratios (PTR) to at most 30:1, and has said that this ratio must be met within six months of the commencement of the Act. At first glance, it appears that teacher shortages may be the biggest threat to the implementation of the Act. There are currently 57 lakh sanctioned teaching posts in the government sector, of which about 7 lakh posts remain vacant. It is important to note that the current number of teaching posts is nowhere near adequate, and an alarming 53.2% schools continue to have a PTR much higher than 30:1. It is estimated that in addition to filling existing vacancies, the government will need to appoint an additional 5.1 lakh teachers to meet the 30:1 PTR norm. There is also the matter of high dropout rates (the Prime Minister of India himself put it at 52.79% in February 2005), and the large number of children who continue to remain out of school (about 80 lakh according to recent estimates). Needless to say, once we bring these children (back) to school, we will need teachers for them. The Union HRD Minister has recently said that we need 13 lakh new teachers in order to meet RtE obligations. The Unesco Institute of Statistics, in its report Teachers and Educational Quality: Monitoring Global Needs for 2015 released in June 2010, estimates that to meet the Millennium Development Goal of providing elementary education to all children by 2015, India will need more than 20 lakh new teachers, the greatest inflow of new teachers in the world.

cover-story-2 Various estimates peg the teacher shortage at various levels, but one thing is clear from all estimates, the numbers are daunting and the issues surrounding recruitment and appointment of teachers are complex and cannot be generalized. The average national PTR has improved substantially in the last decade, but this has been mainly due to the en-masse appointment of para-teachers in the states with the highest teacher shortages. This is evident from the fact that in 2000, the national average PTR was 50.2:1; this dropped to an impressive 35.7:1 in 2005-6. It is not surprising that the improvement in PTR has coincided with the appointment of para-teachers across the country. States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, which faced acute teacher shortages and fiscal deficit in the past decade, have had to hire para-teachers to meet their needs. In fact 9.9% of all elementary teachers (about 5.1 lakh in 2006-7) are para-teachers, and the seven states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, employ 68 per cent of all para-teachers.

The issue of para-teachers is significant in the context of the RtE and teacher shortages because parateachers are defined in various ways by various state governments and there is no parity between states on their qualification norms, training requirements, pay scale, and other service requirements. The common understanding is that any teacher who is appointed by a government on terms and conditions that are different from the regular cadre of teachers in the state is a parateacher. This becomes problematic because the Act clearly provides for a centrally notified acceptable level of qualification, and encourages the creation of a “professional and permanent cadre of teachers”. The Act has mandated that all states must notify teacher shortages within six months and fulfill shortages or seek relaxation for a maximum period of 3 years, within one year of commencement of the Act. Furthermore, the Act has specified that qualifications of all teachers will be as notified by a Central authority (the NCTE has been designated this authority), and that all teachers will need to acquire the notified qualifications within a maximum period of five years. In some states, secondary level education is the minimum qualification for primary level parateachers, and the only training that para-teachers receive is an induction training ranging from 7 days to 2 months. It follows then that in order to preserve the legal standing of para- teachers as teachers, states will have to revisit contract rules and ensure that all necessary qualifications and professional training is acquired by these teachers within the next five years. States like Gujarat and Maharashtra, which have equal qualification requirements for para-teachers and regular teachers will probably find it easier to meet the required PTR.

cover-story-5 Average PTRs usually belie the ground reality of the most disadvantaged schools, and as most averages tend to do, they hide the disparities and complexities at various levels of operation. For instance, in many states, although the average state PTR may be acceptable, we will find alarming disparities between districts, blocks, and villages. Urban centres tend to attract more teachers, and needless to say, remote hamlets, which are difficult to access, find it difficult to attract and retain teachers. Sometimes the medium of instruction in the school restricts the number of teachers available. It is far more difficult to find female teachers for girls’ schools in remote areas than it is to find male teachers. At the upperprimary levels, it is more difficult to find math and science teachers, and the norm of at least one teacher per subject group becomes difficult to fulfill. The fallacy of the average PTR becomes evident when we consider that a significant number of schools remain single teacher schools (17.5%, in 2004-5) although average PTRs have consistently improved.

The shortage of teachers is not just about PTR, but more specifically about the rational deployment of teachers with certain qualifications and a certain level of training. The NCTE is currently discussing proposed norms for professional training of teachers with state governments and is likely to make senior secondary followed by 2 years of Diploma in Education (or 4 year B.El.Ed) the minimum norm for primary teachers and graduation followed by B.Ed (or 4 year B.El.Ed) as the norm for upper primary teachers. This will pose a problem for many states whose qualifications do not concur with NCTE norms. As per the current norms, there are 5.48 lakh ‘untrained’ teachers at primary and 2.25 lakh at upper primary levels. The Right to Education Act remains silent on the issue of teacher preparation and development beyond designating NCTE as the authority that will decide norms. In its silence, the Act assumes that the teacher is nothing more than an ‘input’, adequate quantities of which should automatically result in the desired output. This view of teachers tends to strip them of their professional agency and negates the fact that the ethos of teacher preparation and the support systems available to teachers for their own continued professional development are integral in deciding the ethos of the classrooms they teach in and the teaching – learning experiences available to children. When the professional development of teachers is cavalier to the teacher’s professional identity and the social webs of class, caste, gender, language, politics, and various other forms of relational complexities, then these complexities become impossible for the teacher to negotiate on a daily basis, and we have the age old problem of knowledge and skills not being sufficient conditions for motivated teachers and good teaching. Unless policy recognizes that teacher preparation is integral to fulfilling the aims of education – of developing an educated citizenry and thinking individuals who nurture our vibrant democracy – the State guarantee of education will remain only a guarantee of credentials. And teachers will continue to be incapable of unpacking education as freedom, unable to realize the vision of the National Curriculum Framework (2005) of democratic classrooms with authentic learning partnerships between the teacher and the child. Teachers will fail to create the indelible learning experiences, which will inform children’s future life choices, which in turn will determine the fate and future of the spirit of India.

In their 2005 study on ‘Teacher Motivation In India’, for DFID, Vimala Ramachandran and her colleagues have quoted a primary school teacher in Rajasthan as saying, “We have five teachers in our school. One of them is a dakia, who responds to enquiries that come from above and dispatches data/information to the district or block office. The other is a halwai, who manages the midday meal. The third one is perpetually on training, and the fourth is a clerk who has to maintain accounts and pay salaries. Who, then, is left to manage five classes and teach around 200 children?” This teacher’s question highlights a serious concern for the implementation of the RtE Act. The act has relieved teachers of all nonacademic duties, but it is silent on who will take on these non-academic responsibilities. The shortage is not just a shortage of teachers, but a shortage of personnel in the entire education machinery, starting from teacher educators, to mentors, to supervisors, to clerks, to accountants. The repeated highlighting of teacher shortages overshadows these deeper concerns and results in us brushing the elephant in the room (of systemic rust) under the carpet (of teacher shortage).

Some experts actually feel that low qualifications, less training, and low pay is more cost effective, because assessment of student achievement does not show any significant improvement for classrooms in which teachers are more qualified and/or better trained. These findings are usually from comparative analyses of para-teachers with regular teachers. But the evidence is unable to prove causality and ends up supporting the ‘something is better than nothing’ way of thinking. We need to consider the possibility that historically, teacher preparation in our country is so poorly designed and executed that its influence in the classroom is negligible at best, and fails to encourage the teacher in his/her professional path. When teachers teach well and are motivated to understand children and share meaningfully in their learning, it usually represents a supportive environment that may comprise of simple tangible conditions such as good school infrastructure with clean drinking water, a paved approach road as well as intangible support structures such as an effective head teacher and school management, a career path with the option of continued professional development, incentives for good teaching, and a system of mentoring and the opportunity to exercise one’s agency.

The world over, successful education systems are those that have been able to uphold the status of the teaching profession, attracting the best talent and providing pay and professional development opportunities comparable to other professions needing similar levels of qualification and training. The Right to Education Act has set high benchmarks and expectations for the future of education in our country. However, a failure to understand the complexity of this system, and an overemphasis on the hyperbole of teacher shortage will mean that the deeper issues that are the actual disease will get overshadowed by the symptom of teacher shortage. We will rush to hire and train teachers in the next five years, and end up treating the symptom, while the disease will continue to fester, ultimately resulting in a failure of the Right to Education Act. The fear is that there are already enough vested interests waiting for this failure to happen, and once this happens they will grab the opportunity to label it as a failure of education itself. We will have defeated ourselves and our aims of education, and should then stand prepared to be corrected by a market that will take education into its own hands, privileging education only as a vehicle to superpowerdom in the newly booming knowledge economy of the world. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.

Gandhi Kingdon,Geeta, Vandana Sipahimalani-rao, Para-Teachers in India: Status and Impact, Economic & Political Weekly, March 20, 2010 vol xlv no 12

Minutes of The Meeting of State Education Secretaries, held on 28th-30th January, 2010, at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education and Literacy

Teacher Development and Management, Discussions and suggestions for policy and practice emerging from an International Conference on Teacher Development and Management held at Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur from 23rd to 25th February 2009

Vimala Ramachandran and Madhumita Pal, Educational Resource Unit and Dr. Sharada Jain, Sunil Shekar, Jitendra Sharma of Sandhan, Jaipur, Teacher Motivation in India, DFID.

The author is an independent consultant with an active interest in issues of equity in education. She has a Master’s in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She can be reached at kanupriya.jhunjhunwala@gmail.com.

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