When ASER first started publishing learning outcome surveys, their data was met with outrage.
A few years ago, a video filmed by a news agency inside a classroom went viral. It showed government teachers in Bihar struggling to spell simple words and do basic arithmetic. The video would have made for a comical parody had it not been reflective of the grim reality at most government schools. Teacher unions protested in rage at the perceived defamation resulting in a ban on any news crew filming inside a classroom. Both reactions neatly sidestep the disquieting reality of school education in India—while the video was perhaps an extreme outlier, many of our teachers are not adequately skilled to teach.
When ASER first started publishing learning outcome surveys, their data was met with outrage. It has taken 10-plus years for states to accept this reality. It is going to take longer to realise that some of our teachers are not all that much better off than our students. A recent Teacher Needs Assessment carried out in a reasonably large and representative state suggests that 76% of primary teachers are not proficient in grade 5 competencies and 70% of upper primary teachers struggle with grade 8 competencies. Currently, 6.6 lakh teachers lack even the paper qualifications required for the job.
We have generations of teachers who enter schools without adequate knowledge—English and higher grade maths and sciences are the biggest challenges. Even those who know the content do not really know how to teach children who are first-generation learners, have no academic support at home, and often come from difficult social contexts. Teachers need subject knowledge, but also pedagogical grounding and a range of skills, from classroom management, basic school administration to something as complex as dealing with child adversity through a knowledge of child psychology. Poor quality of teachers is primarily rooted in a dysfunctional teacher education system.
There are four key challenges. First, most states train teachers for 7-10 days in a year, which doesn’t even address the large capacity gap in teachers. Second, almost none of the teacher training is on basic content. Attending a typical teacher training programme is a curious sight—peppered with ice-breakers and teachers singing and dancing, or it goes into complex pedagogical philosophies far removed from reality. Third, teacher training is usually delivered through a three-level cascade of a maser trainer, trainer and then the teacher. This manifests itself as the game of Chinese whispers, where the delivery to the end-user is an extremely diluted form of original content. Fourth, training content is not personalised to the needs of the teacher and never translates to change in strategies inside the classroom.
Every state needs re-envisioning of teacher training—not as ‘training’ in its narrow sense, but a ‘back to school’ programme for teachers. The first step is to conduct a rigorous and externally implemented Teacher Needs Assessment that can identify learning gaps and group teachers based on their abilities such that personalised learning pathways could be created for each. Next, design a comprehensive curriculum for each group of teachers that is responsive to their specific needs and mapped to the wide gulf that exists in teacher knowledge. It has to cover grade-wise content for teachers who are themselves unfamiliar with basic concepts, and must include teaching strategies and pedagogy relevant to the realities of a government classroom, as well as tools to deal with challenges associated with teaching first-generation learners from underprivileged backgrounds.
Training delivery should be through a blended learning model where on-site physical training is supplemented by high-quality, targeted, scalable digital content hosted on platforms like DIKSHA. Lecture-mode sessions must be augmented by peer learning groups at cluster level and in-classroom action research projects that can be implemented through NGO support. To upskill teachers, this means at least 100-200 hours of digital content and assessments (collated across platforms) and 20-30 days of in-person training per year.
There are constrains to such deployment but these can be overcome. Teachers have to be motivated through structured incentives and disincentives linked to service conditions. A dedicated pool of quality trainers needs to be created to minimise cascade dilution. States need to commit to round-the-year training and mobilise funding including infrastructure development at DIETs and BRCs—roughly `100-plus crore for a midsized state (it is barely 1-2% of state budget).
Academic literature from around the world suggests that a teacher’s quality, knowledge and pedagogical skill is the most critical factor affecting a child’s learning outcomes. To address the deep learning crisis in the country, we need to start by investing massively in our teachers today.
By Seema Bansal and Shoikat Roy. Bansal is the director of Social Impact Practice, Roy is an education consultant, BCG India