Diverse in India: Students in Urban Areas May Benefit From Fellows of Teach for India.

MUMBAI, India — Were it not for the voices of the children inside the Karmavir Bhaurao Patil English School here in one of this city’s former shanty villages, it would be easy to pass by the building and never know it was a school.

The school occupies the first floor of an apartment building where residents come and go. Only a locked metal grate separates the classrooms from the apartments.

Nothing in the area suggests you’re in a school zone. In fact, just across the street — at least on one recent rain-laden day — a bony white cow was feeding on a big trash heap. The area is so dirty the students are not allowed to go outside to play.

Recess, if you can call it that, is held inside the cramped classrooms, where students sit two or three each at bench-style desks. The student-teacher ratio at this school can be as high as 60- or 70-to-1. So it is understandable that the classes might get a little noisy.

One class, however, is a little bit noisier than the rest.

It’s not that the 6-year-olds inside this particular classroom are more unruly than their schoolmates. Rather, the children’s noisiness stems from the fact that they’re being engaged by a dynamic teacher duo that is a lot more kinetic when it comes to teachingthan their peers.

This class is led by Sudhanshu, a 21-year-old economics graduate from Bombay University, and Abhisek, a 26-year-old former software consultant with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and an MBA. They teach the second standard, which is basically the second-grade. (Indian students start their standards about a year or so sooner than American students start their grades.)

In their classroom, right answers are rewarded with high fives. The four rows of students are divided into teams with names like “rainbow” and “water” and they enthusiastically compete for points. And the class gets visits from “Mr. Phonics,” which is actually a gray sock with a red magic marker-drawn face that Sudhanshu brings to life on his fist, as he moves it like a puppet when teaching sounds from the English alphabet.

Whereas students in other classrooms might get hit if they get out of line, Abhisek rewards positive behavior by saying “thank you” to students for being on task, paying attention, or making the effort to speak complete sentences in English.

School officials say all of the school’s teachers should start teaching like Sudhanshu and Abhisek.

“They are teaching nicely,” said Kgarote, who identified himself as secretary of the school.

“Even we are trying to teach like them, because their teaching is very effective,” Kgarote says in reference to the teachers’ body language. “I like it.”    

If the tactics that Sudhanshu and Abhisek have in their repertoire sound vaguely familiar, it’s because they got them from an organization called Teach for India.

And as followers of education reform in the United States can probably figure out from the organization’s name, Teach for India is both inspired by and patterned after Teach for America, the U.S.-based teacher corps organization that recruits college graduates, gives them intense summer training and gets them to commit to two years of teaching in a low-income school. Its goal — like so many organizations in the United States — is to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their more well-to-do peers.

Teach for India also seeks to improve educational outcomes for this nation’s poor by tapping top-notch college graduates to commit to teaching for two years in the schools that serve India’s most economically challenged families, of which there are many.

The key question, of course, is whether the teachers who go through the six-week  training run by Teach for India are any more effective than regular schoolteachers when it comes to measurable results.

In other words, does it really matter that Sudhanshu and Abhisek use a little more verve than regular teachers when it comes to teaching?

As a sign posted just outside Sudhanshu’s and Abhisek’s class states so poignantly and so relevantly to the situation at hand, Change is one thing. Progress is another.

If the Teach for America experiment in the United States offers any insight into the matter, perhaps the best answer to the question of whether Teach for India teachers are more effective than traditional Indian teachers is: potentially.

Evaluations have found that Teach for America teachers are often more effective than their colleagues, particularly when it comes to math. However, Teach for America teachers aren’t universally more effective than their non-Teach for America peers, and retention after that initial two-year commitment is over has been shown to be problematic.

But whatever the case may be in America, this is India, a place that is still considered a “developing nation,” and where educational reform means something a lot different than it does in the United States.

For instance, it was only last year that a law known as the Right of Compulsory Education Act went into effect.

The landmark legislation builds on the 2001 Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan central government program, which aimed for universal enrollment and retention at the elementary level by 2010, notes an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report titled Improving Access and Quality in the Indian Education System.

“The cornerstone of the Right to Free Education Act is the provision of free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six and 14 and a commitment to ensure access to a neighborhood elementary school throughout the country by 2013,” the report states.

The report goes on to note that the government has set “ambitious goals” to raise participation in the secondary and tertiary education levels. By “ambitious,” it means universal enrollments at the lower secondary level, which means up to and including 10th grade.

The report says currently only about three-fourths of India’s first-graders make it to the fifth grade, even fewer make it to secondary school, and less than a fifth make it to college.

If you ask the founder of Teach for India, within that select few who make it to college, it is the bottom 20 percent who will choose teaching as a profession.

“I think for me, the static problem is the kind of people we’re attracting into teacher training college,” Shaheen Mistri told Diverse during an interview at a coffee shop located in one of Mumbai’s malls. “That’s part of the problem. Teaching is not well-respected. It’s not aspirational.”

The other problem, she said, is teacher training colleges are of varying degrees of quality, and too often that quality is at the lower end of the spectrum.

In an effort to turn the situation around, Teach for India seeks what Mistri says are the best college students.

“One of the biggest things we do is we are extremely selective about who we bring into the program,” Mistri said. “Unlike a lot of teacher education programs who are getting a lot of people in who that’s their last option, we’re choosing people who have the maximum options.

“They’re there with a sense of mission and a strong passion. I think that makes a huge difference.”

She says the training Teach for India provides is practical, whereas most teacher training in India is “very theoretical and content-based.”

“So our program is based on how you teach and the skills, versus the content and what’s in the textbooks,” Mistri said.

Teach for India also provides its teachers with a network of other teaching fellows. “They have a community that pushes each other’s development,” Mistri said, whereas regular teachers have no opportunities for ongoing development.

Next year, Mistri said, Teach for India expects to have between 600 and 700 teaching fellows in various cities, including this one, Pune and New Delhi.

The organization operates on 180 million rupees, or about $4 million, a year. Sixty-percent of the money goes to provide stipends for the fellows.

For Abhisek, one of the Teach for India teachers at Patil, that means 15,000 rupees a month, or about $325, plus a rent stipend of 7,000 rupees per month. By comparison, the other teachers only make 6,000 rupees a month, about the same as a full-time employee at an India KFC.

Early indications are the Teach for India organization’s efforts are paying off.

Here at Patil English school, the principal says the Teach for India teachers stand out from the rest.

“The fellows are putting in a lot of effort. They are very innovative, very creative,” says school Principal Kiran Chopre. “I wish when I was in school I had got the opportunity to learn from Teach for India. It would be amazing.”

As for Abhisek and Sudhanshu, both are very idealistic about their roles in education.

Abhisek says he joined Teach for India because education is “the need of the day.” He counts the fact that he has helped get his students to become conversant in English – a language of vital importance in the IT sector and other sectors in India – as one of his biggest accomplishments since he started teaching this summer. He speaks of using his Teach for India experience as a platform to launch an entrepreneurial program of his own in the education sector.

Sudhanshu speaks of Teach for India as something that should spur broad-based reforms.

“Very honestly speaking, if I were to look at Teach for India from an outside perspective, Teach for India is sort of an intervention,” Sudhanshu says. “I used the word ‘intervention’ because it’s a way of telling the government that they have somewhat failed as far as giving quality education goes.

“Teach for India is a reminder of that, that all you need is a certain amount of dedication,” Sudhanshu says. “Ultimately, and this is sort of looking at this with a very utopian perspective, but ultimately what would be the best part is when you really don’t need Teach for India anymore.”