Reforming teacher management in the public school system

Our over-stretched and creaking support structures, at the block and district levels, need a major overhaul

A recent study of teacher management systems in public elementary education (Draft Report of Teachers in the Indian Education System: Synthesis of a Nine-State Study, National University of Educational Planning and Administration and the World Bank, 2015) noted that no state—teachers in the public system are funded and managed by the state governments—has a comprehensive teacher management policy.

True, some states have addressed certain aspects of teacher management successfully; for instance, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have streamlined their recruitment processes to make them transparent. But the overall picture is one of fragmentation, ad hoc responses and inefficiencies. While one cannot disagree with the picture presented, what is missing in the discourse on reforming teacher management is the role of two key principles in making future teacher management policies truly “comprehensive”. First, teacher management cannot be divorced from the capabilities and capacities that exist at the intermediary (mainly district) levels of the hierarchy that deal with policy interpretation for the schools. Second, our teacher management systems must be reoriented to identifying, learning from and building on the excellence that exists within the system.

Lack of intermediary-level capabilities

An ongoing study at IIM Ahmedabad has mapped the “policy objects” that an average school received—more than 450 orders, guidelines, suggestions and other communications—in the past 10 years. Many of these are directly related to teacher management, such as training, and are from multiple sources: Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan authorities, district education offices, academic support structures such as the District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs), the panchayat system and other relevant departments like tribal welfare. More than the lack of coherence that inevitably results, the lack of attention to how the various communications are reinterpreted by the teachers, especially in crucial matters like implementing continuous and comprehensive evaluation or facilitating school management committees, is glaring.

Policy interpretation at the intermediary level, at the moment, is not driven by the purpose that recent macro-level policy formulation has promoted: teacher management has to address the issues of quality of education and improving learning outcomes. It continues to be driven by a supply-oriented traditional administrative approach. This may be necessary, given the large number of teachers in the public system—more than 360,000 in the government elementary system alone, with a mid-sized state having close to 200,000-250,000 teachers—but the consequence is a failure to stress the academic purpose of a school.

This failure can be largely addressed by acknowledging that new capabilities and capacities at the district levels are needed. The most critical of these capabilities is in information technology (IT). Many states have developed centralized information systems, but these are primarily geared to gathering data on schools and schooling. Some states have used IT for teacher management issues such as transfers, but the mundane, and often contentious, areas of teacher management, like teacher loans, festival advances, gratuity and related settlements that take a lot of a district officer’s time have not merited adequate attention.

The district and sub-district levels do not have the capability to take action to reduce inefficiencies in such areas. An example is the monthly status report that teachers fill out; sheer drudgery, since much of the information gets repeated month after month. Wherever mobile technology has reached, a simple app for the head teachers should help. In fact, a government teacher being supported by IIMA has developed one such app. Computer-based alternatives are also possible. Such initiatives can release more time for academic work at the school and for planning and supervision at the intermediary levels.

If teacher management has to address the issue of quality of learning, our over-stretched and creaking support structures, at the block and district levels, need a major overhaul. They just do not have the capacities to undertake regular inspection and assessment given the expansion in schooling that has happened over the past two decades (an average district now has around 8,000 teachers). A similar situation exists with regard to teacher training. The institution-based, expert-driven, face-to-face model of training has been criticized regularly, but the capability to visualize alternative models, perhaps IT-based, is missing. More experiments with alternative methods of peer-learning and peer-driven assessments have to be encouraged. But before doing that, one needs to overcome a major barrier—our thinking on teacher management systems is not oriented to identifying and learning from the excellence that exists within the system.

Learning and building on excellence within

An ongoing project at IIMA seeks to demonstrate, in partnership with the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra, a model that has at its core learning from those who have achieved their educational goals in spite of the constraints that are common to many teachers. The project acts as a hub for a decentralized peer-driven professional development network and as a tool for developing a culture of innovation in the public system. Just one example to illustrate the potential of this approach: One of the teachers covered by the project, Sandeep Gund, has taken information and communication technology to more than 200 government schools, with low-cost equipment and non-governmental (mainly parents’) funding. He uses solar-powered equipment, an integrated computer-projector, tablets for children and digital content of Classes I to V (in Marathi) developed by teachers like him or sourced from elsewhere.

There are many other examples, a few outstanding, and many worthy of attention. The work of nearly 10,500 teachers has been identified so far; about a third of this work has been rated by a team of teachers as suitable for peer learning. The dissemination of this work has relied on the use of mobile phones (discussion forums) and social media (posting of innovative solutions to common, but difficult educational problems)—assuming that Internet connectivity and smartphone penetration are bound to improve. In Gujarat, the involvement of DIETs in the project has been crucial, and the innovation cells set up under the project in the DIETs aim to experiment with this approach to professional development and peer learning.

This may be just a demonstration project, but the principle is important: state governments have to build on the strengths that exist at the grassroots level, if the growing deficiencies of the intermediary levels of the educational hierarchy are to be countered. This, along with an integrated view of management that encompasses the teacher level as well as those intermediary levels that direct teacher management, may provide fresh insights into developing truly comprehensive teacher management policies that are in line with the macro-policy goal of improving educational outcomes in a system that is increasingly catering to just our socially and economically marginalized communities.

Vijaya Sherry Chand is professor and chairperson, Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.