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Teach for Who?

By Joyeeta Dey

The Teach for India program is part of the umbrella of the international Teach for All initiative that was set into motion after what was considered the success of Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America chapter. Kopp’s approach to tackling educational inequality essentially consisted of recruiting graduates from prestigious universities and placing them as teachers in K-12 classrooms of low-income schools for a two-year stint. This idea spread to 32 countries in Europe, USA, Asia and Australia. With the passing of twenty-three years since the implementation of the program’s first version, its effects have begun to become palpable and to simultaneously garner a growing critique from several communities. As there is no published research on the effects of TFI available in India (which in itself poses interesting questions), it could be valuable to logically analyze the potential relevance of the most commonly forwarded disagreements with Kopp’s approach to the Indian context.

The community of education professionals is most visibly concerned about the scanty training that the programs equip their Fellows with before giving them the responsibility of teaching a class. In the midst of national policy reform that is geared towards extending the training period for a teacher from one to two years (seeing the current duration as inadequate), TFI expects their fellows to be ready for the same profession at the end of a five-week training process. This is seen as communicating a dangerous belief in the irrelevance of teacher education. While such an idea is counter-intuitive to most of the professionals one must also take into account the great deal of research that attempts to prove the same, citing the candidates’ own experience of being taught in school, the inputs of senior colleagues in their workplace and personal experience as teachers as being stronger formative factors of a teacher’s ability than their training. In which case, the fellows who have graduated from premier institutes and, therefore, potentially benefitted from good teaching should require less formal training (granting that this would still leave gaps in their theoretical understanding of pedagogy). Even that may not be an adequate argument here because many of the teachers in question have been removed from the classroom environment for many years. The TFI structure for the recruitment of Fellows isn’t merely from a pool of fresh college graduates but also from the professional community, and to thrust this group into schools having provided minimal training could be doubly dangerous.

Given the history of the program, there is an unsurprising resistance to it from those groups that are keen to avoid further private interventions in the primary education sector. Originating in the business schools of America and being funded by corporate philanthropy, the program is associated with a neo-liberal agenda. The support to TFI granted by corporate giants in the country, such as the Reliance Foundation and J.P. Morgan further reinforces this association. It is feared that the corporate-driven reform initiatives will distract attention from the urgent need to strengthen state infrastructure (for e.g. building state Teacher Training Colleges), and further private interventions instead. In the TFA program the easy availability of cheap contract teachers allowed the schools to avoid employing permanent teachers and providing employment security and benefits. It has been argued that this threatened employment opportunities and caused damage to the working conditions of qualified teachers, consequently weakening the already poor attractiveness of the teaching profession. While there are no records of protests by teacher unions in India (such as the resistance led by the Chicago Teacher Union), the potential for this happening in the Indian context is stronger because here the Fellows are salaried staff of TFI and therefore a free resource for the government schools. Secondly, the website proudly announces that the demand for TFI fellows from these schools is strong (roughly 85%) and growing, though this fact can be explained away with the severe gap in the demand and supply of qualified teachers in the country. (For more on these arguments, see here.)

The defence available for its current structure is that there is a logical need for philanthropic activity – most substantially available from the corporate sector in areas where there is a coincidence of government and market failure i.e. where the government due to factors inherent to its structure is consistently performing poorly and there is no incentive for the profit motivated organizations to enter. Also, the McKinsey report on philanthropy in India shows that currently there is excessive donation towards direct delivery of goods or services to beneficiaries and not enough towards crucial programs that provide support to government organizations through the creation of personnel and critical resources. Therefore, it can be argued that TFI, which aims to involve talented minds in the hope that the alumni will continue contributing to the sector in different capacities, occupies a strategic position and addresses a critical gap in investment. Apart from the ideological resistance to corporate philanthropy which is seen as a ‘safety valve’ to soften popular resentment against other human rights violations carried out by these companies, there is also skepticism displayed first about the numerical adequacy of the Fellows to meet the current needs, and secondly about their retention rate in the domain of government education (the claim being that most use it as a springboard to corporate careers). While that claim may or may not be valid, there is wariness about the direction of reform advocated by the alumni. One such controversial example is Gaurav Singh from Mumbai who Post-TFI initiated the rough equivalent of charter schools under the auspices of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. (Editor’s note: Read Gaurav Singh’s piece in this issue here.)

Even their strategy to combat inequality is contested. The organization’s pride in evidence-based policies is dismissed as being too numeric-driven in operation related decisions and too test-driven in their understanding of student achievement. This is seen as reflective of the conceptually thin corporate culture it inherits. Secondly, their vision of attacking the cycle of class by achieving the ordinarily unlikely event of getting privileged/high quality teachers to government schools is also shown as having a flip-side. The very privilege of the teachers could create a huge socio-cultural gap between the teacher and the taught causing significant difficulties in communication. The privilege of the recruits can also potentially pose a hindrance to the scalability of the program as the current spread of TFI is restricted to urban locations (Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi, Chennai, and Hyderabad), locations which might inspire greater mobility within this pool than the 10 less urbane cities it is planning to expand operations to.

It has also been alleged that the TFA initiative is implicitly imperial in its structure as the outlines of it were generated in America and are now being applied in dramatically different contexts like India and China. This particular criticism has been dismissed by Kopp by pointing out that countries freely redesign the program to suit individual conditions, as was done by the Shaheen Mistri (CEO of TFI), informed by the McKinsey research study on the relevance/implementability of this idea to India. At the same time, some aspects of the program such as its language policy (which in this case results in teaching many first generation learners in English) can be seen as insufficiently reflective about context. (Editor’s note: Read Soorya Hariharan’s piece in this issue here.)  This is especially important in the light of evidence from a study conducted in collaboration with the Azim Premji Foundation in Andhra Pradesh that supports the theory that greater learning gains are visible when these students are taught through the medium of their mother tongue.

With the program set to increase scale of operations within the country, it is becoming increasingly imperative to generate empirical evidence to answer the multiple questions it raises with regard to its implementation and vision. Without this, education reform is left to the dangerous whims of ideology.


Joyeeta Dey is currently working with a non-profit organization. She has a Masters degree in Sociology of Education from the Institute of Education, University of London and Bachelors in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. She most enjoys contemporary poetry and modern art.

[This piece was first published in the web journal of The Scribbler.]


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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