Alisa Currimjee, a second-year Teach for India fellow, is struggling in the classroom today. She points down the hall toward her pupils and grimaces: “They haven’t been very well-behaved.” As she enters the classroom, I wait outside with Hemangi Joshi, a teacher-training expert. We cringe as Currimjee yells until her voice is hoarse, shouting at a classroom of 34 boys sitting two to a desk, with barely any room to move. It’s hot, and so it’s hard to hear Currimjee over the fans. “What does ‘analyze’ mean?” she demands, as kids in the back rows doze off right in front of us. She looks frustrated, calling on student after student, until one of them recites the definition he has scribbled in his notebook. Joshi whispers to me, “She is the only one talking, explaining… and she’s just sticking to the textbook. This is not much different from rote memorization.”
Currimjee is a Teach for India fellow from Mauritius, an island closer to Madagascar than India. She doesn’t speak Marathi, her students’ native language. This forces her to bellow in her clearest, most basic English, in the hope that her volume will help words like “represent” and “interpret” make more sense. She tells us that she received five weeks of training from Teach for India, a sister organization of the troubled Teach for America, which places the graduates of elite colleges into low-income classrooms as teachers.
TFI, according to its official account, sprang to life after Shaheen Mistri, a prominent nonprofit leader in Mumbai, walked into the Manhattan office of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp in 2007 and declared, “We have to start Teach for India, and I need your help!” Teach for America has become famous for tackling inequality in education by training young graduates from elite schools to teach in public schools for two years and then become advocates for “education reform”—a contested agenda that includes increasing the number of privately operated charter schools and limiting the power of teachers’ unions. TFA’s critics say that inexperienced teachers make educational inequality worse, and that the organization has become a Trojan horse for the private takeover of public-sector resources. And TFA’s recruiting numbers have dropped in recent years, as skepticism of the once-lauded organization grows.
In India, meanwhile, the education system is rife with problems even more daunting than in the United States. In 1966, during the country’s post- partition development period, the Kothari Commission declared that India needed to spend at least 6 percent of its GDP on education. Like most South Asian countries, it failed to come close to this figure. In recent years, despite India’s incredible economic growth, the most it has ever spent on education was 4.4 percent of its GDP, in 2000.
The results have been predictably appalling. According to the Right to Education Forum, in the 2013–14 school year, India had 568,000 teaching positions vacant, and only 22 percent of working teachers had ever received in- service training. This massive shortage means that as of 2015, more than half of Indian public schools were unable to comply with the 2009 Right to Education Act’s mandatory class-size ratios (no more than 30 students to one teacher in elementary schools and 35 in grades six through eight). Further, a whopping 91,018 Indian public schools function with just one teacher. Also, more than 50 percent of Indian public schools lack handwashing facilities; 15 percent lack girls’ toilets; and nearly 25 percent don’t have libraries. As in many developing countries, these failures fuel the problem of teacher absenteeism in India.
Like TFA founder Kopp, a Princeton graduate who realized that a career in finance was not for her, Mistri began her forays into educational reform from the outside looking in. Every bit the “global citizen,” Mistri describes her privileged upbringing, including traveling first class from “sandy coves on Greek islands” to “the Austrian countryside,” in her book on TFI’s founding. After a year at Tufts University, she experienced her epiphany while sitting in a taxicab on a family vacation in Mumbai. “Three children ran up to my window, smiling and begging, and in that moment I had a flash of introspection,” Mistri writes. “I suddenly knew that my life would have more meaning if I stayed in India. I saw potential in that fleeting moment—in the children at my open window and in myself.”
From that point on, Mistri dedicated herself to India. She raised funds from friends of her father, a Citibank executive, and built an educational nonprofit, Akanksha, that she modeled on charter schools in the West (where “a nonprofit could adopt and run a government school with a high degree of independence, using government resources, while being held to rigorous academic standards”). “The toughest part of educating India’s children would not be teaching,” Mistri continues, “it would be changing the mindsets of the people who believed these children could not succeed.”
Fifteen years later, she wanted to do something bigger, and Teach for India seemed like the perfect way to get there. So Mistri took Kopp and Anu Aga, the former chairwoman of the energy and engineering firm Thermax and Kopp’s longtime financier, on a tour of Mumbai. She introduced them to corporate leaders and students at elite colleges, and showed them classrooms in government-run schools “without learning.” During the trip, Mistri recalls, they passed an old man whose feet “had open wounds.” A few minutes later, Aga decided to commit five crore (over $740,000) to Teach for India. Mistri was stunned: “I remember what that meant to me—that only in a place of such inequity could there be such generosity.”
Having secured some initial finances and Kopp’s blessing, Mistri and Aga began to hash out a plan, spending an arduous three months at the Mumbai office of the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Despite this intensive work, however, the blueprint they came up with was almost identical to Teach for America’s: Teach for India would recruit elite students, train them for five weeks, and then send them out to teach the urban poor.
Two years after her first meeting with Kopp, Mistri sent out the organization’s first batch of 87 fellows in Mumbai and Pune. Since then, Teach for India has spread to Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore, with over 1,000 fellows teaching approximately 40,000 students. According to its annual report, TFI spent over $6.3 million from 2014 to ’15.
Since 2007, adaptations of Teach for America’s controversial model have been implemented in 40 countries, on every continent except Antarctica, thanks to Kopp’s Teach for All network. Though the organizations are financed through varying mixes of corporate, foundation, and state funding, there’s a remarkable continuity in the network’s so-called “Theory of Change,” regardless of national differences in teacher training, student enrollment, and infrastructure quality. Given the burgeoning presence of Teach for India in the nation’s troubled school system, the project of exporting the Teach for America model is being put to a high-profile test. If deemed successful, this model will be poised to deliver large portions of India’s education system—and, indeed, others all over the world—into the control of the private sector on a for-profit basis.
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Meghna Rakshit, now Teach for India’s director of communications, believes deeply in the “Theory of Change.” I’ve arranged to meet her at TFI’s Mumbai headquarters, housed in the Godrej Corporation’s campus—a world away from the municipal and low-income private schools in which its fellows teach. When I pass through the enormous glass doors, I’m met by friendly receptionists, whose smiles contrast with the frowns of the armed security guards in black military-style uniforms. Shortly, I’m led up an enormous escalator. A guard snaps at me, “No pictures!” I can’t help but gape at the shiny white floors, walls of glass, and manicured gardens—sights that I have never seen in my years traversing India.
After about five minutes, Rakshit strides over from the other side of the grand atrium, a confident figure in Western fusion clothing. We shake hands, and she fires back answers to my questions in polished English—a PowerPoint presentation in the flesh.
“Oftentimes, you blame the system,” Rakshit says, when I ask her about the inadequate state of India’s education system. “But our core belief is that it’s the people who are putting the system together—that’s the problem. Underlying all these issues is a lack of leadership. It’s not a systemic problem; it’s a problem of people.”
In Rakshit’s view, problems like poverty and underfunded schools reinforce an invidious belief that poor children can’t match the educational achievements of their wealthier peers. Teach for All organizations challenge this notion by deploying “transformational” teaching fellows, who will gain “valuable understanding of the challenges facing the underserved populations” and go on to “provide political leadership aimed at devoting more resources to solving the problem of educational inequity.”
“If you say it requires a group of smart, dedicated, committed people, it becomes easy,” Rakshit beams at me in conclusion. “Or, well, not easy—but possible!”
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“Your classrooms may be hot and lack electricity, and you may not have enough desks or books, but we know that a high-quality teacher can do more to change a student’s life than fans and desks,” declared former Teach for Pakistan CEO Khadija S. Bakhtiar, in an address to the organization’s incoming class of 2013 fellows. “Be the teacher and leave your students independent, empowered, and inquisitive.”
It is this sort of promise that makes Teach for All so enticing to sponsors like the World Bank, which have long pushed developing countries to slash and privatize their public health-care and education systems. As Chaitra Murlidhar, a Thermax corporate social-responsibility representative (and former TFI fellow), explained in a phone call: “We don’t think it would be fair to ask companies to pay higher taxes for education. The problem is not one of funding, but how that funding is spent.”
By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character. For the purpose of comparison, I visited a public school in the same area untouched by Teach for India’s embrace. In Ms. D’s second-grade classroom, the effects of the cuts in education spending by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (a close friend of Teach for India’s corporate patrons) and the failure of the Indian state to properly develop a public-school system were immediately noticeable, even in India’s financial capital.
Ms. D is every bit as young and energetic as the Teach for India fellows who teach in the same building, but her class is very different. She is most definitely not a “global citizen”: She wears a traditional salwar kameez, speaks English in a thick Indian accent (the kind that would probably preclude her from being accepted by Teach for India), and occasionally swats her students—a common classroom practice that TFI fellows often cited when discussing the allegedly brutal public-sector “culture” they were fighting to transform.
On this day, Ms. D’s class has 22 desks and 36 students—about the same as the Teach for India classroom down the hall. But unlike the TFI fellows, she has never had a “coteacher” or “parateacher” to help with this load. The class size, Ms. D readily tells me, is clearly in violation of the Right to Education Act—but she goes on, attempting to do right by her students.
“There are 40 students normally. If I had any more, even this would be impossible,” she says. Her only assistance comes from a student who helps pass out papers. When I ask her what her biggest classroom problems are, Ms. D responds simply, “I wish I had more enrichment materials for English activities…. We really need more materials in general,” she adds, nodding at the sparsely equipped classroom.
Given this lack of assistance, Ms. D teaches her students in eight-minute stints, leaving them to practice lessons with each other as she hunches over her desk, furiously completing the paperwork necessary to get the state-provided amenities to which the students are entitled. Judging by the labor she was expected to do alone, Ms. D isn’t only a teacher; she is also a janitor and a clerical worker. Perhaps when Mistri wrote about showing Kopp classrooms in India where “no learning” was happening, what she saw was really something like this: a teacher struggling to do three jobs all by herself.
Then again, given the way Mumbai prioritizes public education, Ms. D’s students are lucky to even have schools to attend. For years, the city government has failed to comply with the Right to Education Act, depriving thousands of children access to education by failing to build schools to serve them up to eighth grade. This lack of educational access is common knowledge in Mumbai, where middle-school-age kids can be seen serving tea or shining shoes at street stands every day. During my visit, Mumbai’s municipal trade union was locked in a legal battle with the city corporation over building enough schools and hiring enough teachers to provide up to an eighth-grade education for some 107,000 students.
“The actual violation they are alleging is that the [Right to Education Act] is supposed to guarantee education to all children up to the age of 14,” explains Vivek Vellanki, a former TFI fellow and now a graduate student at Michigan State. “However, government schools have been stratified into primary, upper primary, and secondary schools. In Maharashtra, a disproportionate number of schools run from first to fourth grade or fifth to seventh grade. A student, after completing the highest grade in the school, is given a school leaving certificate, but doesn’t necessarily have another school to go to in the neighborhood.”
As many scholars have pointed out, Mumbai’s refusal to bolster its public-school system disproportionately affects the poorest of the poor, who can’t afford private school and so require strong public institutions willing to serve them regardless of caste or religious background. Anand Teltumbde, writing in Economic & Political Weekly, observes that Mumbai, the so-called “first city of India,” accounts for “more than 33 percent of the nation’s tax collection and [has] the highest per capita income of Rs 65,361 in the country, more than twice the country’s average of Rs 29,3982, [and yet] has more than four million people earning less than Rs 20 a day. It is these people mainly belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, Other Backward Classes [an official term for those who are seriously disadvantaged educationally and socially], Muslims and Christians who send their children to BMC [public] schools.”
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Teach for India’s board members are involved in efforts to increase the privatization of India’s schools instead of securing more funding and resources for teachers like Ms. D. Take Ashish Dhawan, a TFI board member and one of the most successful private-equity players in the country today. Dhawan’s name isn’t as famous as those of TFI’s other board members, several of whom come from India’s dynastic industrial families. But over the last five years, Dhawan has become one of the country’s youngest big-time philanthropists, funding numerous education-reform groups that draw on the language of the so-called liberalization era of the 1990s, when the government privatized former state industries, welcomed foreign investment, and began to abandon its historically progressive role in economic development.
In interviews, Dhawan explains that education reform will allow the corporate sector to “unlock the true potential” of India’s human capital. Informed by his success during the country’s IT/outsourcing boom, Dhawan claims that the Indian government needs to shift its focus from “inputs” like infrastructure and classroom size and turn its attention to producing higher “outputs.” To do this, he has advocated the increased use of standardized tests, the introduction of cheaper forms of instruction like MOOCs (massive online open courses), and increased private-sector participation in Indian education, freed from teacher-licensing and class-size regulations.
Dhawan currently sits on the board or education committee of virtually every pro-privatization “reform” group in India, from nonprofits like Akanksha to advocacy organizations like the India School Leadership Institute, the libertarian Centre for Civil Society, and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. For years, these groups have waged public campaigns to promote the privatization of the education sector, from public-private partnerships (PPPs) to full-blown voucher schemes for private schools.
But Dhawan has done more than just advocate. In 2012, he created a PPP framework with consultants from McKinsey and then pitched it to Mumbai city officials. “They finally accepted it, signed it and it was eventually passed by the house,” Dhawan recalled in an interview with Livemint. “That’s an example of being active on the ground to show that something is working and then to translate it to actual policy.” Following Dhawan’s plan, Mumbai opened up 1,174 government schools to private operators, offering them the opportunity to do everything from provide specific school services to run schools entirely with their own privately hired (and often inexperienced and nonunionized) teachers.
The drastic move, which was decided without any popular referendum, generated controversy in the city’s public sector, particularly with teachers’ unions and progressive parties. Despite protests by thousands of people in 2012 and 2013, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation adopted the privatization proposal in January 2013, fueling concerns that similar efforts will now be under way across the country. Since the successful Mumbai takeover, Dhawan’s Central Square Foundation has created the Education Alliance, a coalition whose express purpose is to “facilitate public-private partnerships” nationwide. The alliance enjoys support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Absolute Return for Kids and is already working with policy-makers in South Delhi, Chennai, and Mahdya Pradesh to develop PPP frameworks similar to the one adopted in Mumbai. And according to Dhawan, Indian states, including Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan, are looking into such partnerships.
Geetha Nambissan, a professor of sociology in education at Jawaharlal Nehru University, calls these PPPs “a ‘creeping’ form of privatisation where private organisations are given easy access to public institutions and resources while not subjecting them to public scrutiny.”
Thus, while Teach for India often describes its mission as “the second freedom struggle,” its actions and supporters seem more in line with Prime Minister Modi’s promise for a second economic liberalization. Modi’s right-wing BJP party recently pushed through a drastic 22 percent cut to the central government’s elementary-education program, a 28.7 percent cut to its secondary-education program, and even a 16.4 percent cut to India’s landmark school-lunch program. Despite these brutal reductions, Teach for India–affiliated groups like the Central Square Foundation and the Centre for Civil Society have hailed Modi’s education policies, satisfied with his willingness to slash regulations on private-school operators and focus on “student-learning outcomes,” presumably instead of “inputs” like bathrooms and running water.
Some teachers are trying to resist the relentless expansion of Teach for India and the education-reform movement in general, but their public mobilizations have been few and far between. “We are trying to push them off and we are trying very hard, but they have very powerful people behind them,” notes Firoz Ahmad, a primary-school teacher in Delhi. “For the last few years, we have been hearing about ‘vocational information.’ We are quite afraid they are going to use early screening and labeling to screen [students] into vocational courses… purely economic schooling. This is not just Modi, but they are obviously more aggressive. And this not just in India.”
It is unclear how much students will benefit from this handoff to the private sector, but the Teach for India program certainly strives to enhance its recruits’ future prospects beyond their brief careers in the classroom. To this end, TFI fellows are taught to act more like classroom managers than traditional teachers, learning skills applicable for their expected future positions in government and the corporate world.
Most TFI classrooms had boards up on which the students’ “misbehavior” could be publicly tallied; high-performing students were offered gold stars, which they could then exchange for prizes. Similarly, many of the TFI fellows I observed in Mumbai had dire “consequence plans” on display at the front of their classrooms, detailing the various potential “crimes” and escalating “punishments” that the students would face. Alongside these were other signs that attempted to encourage a more work-oriented culture, as in many American charter schools, with messages like “Work Hard Together,” “Grit,” and “Sit in Your Own Place, Move if Asked.”
Talking to TFI fellows, it became clear that this top-down “Theory of Change” is a necessary consequence of the two-year fellowship structure. After observing classes all day at a school in the Mumbai neighborhood of Goreagon, I asked the three TFI fellows there, Selna, Nikhil, and Priya, how much they worked with the surrounding community to push for better school conditions long-term. “The community-engagement thing is tricky,” Selna replied. “Those [policy] decisions are made at the top anyway,” Priya added. “So what is the point of community engagement? People in the community see us as outsiders or volunteers. It’s like, ‘Why should I listen to you?’”
I pressed this point, asking if this was perhaps why Teach for India fellows should live in these neighborhoods and stick with the schools for more than a couple years. But all three shook their heads.
“It wouldn’t be marketable if it were longer,” Nikhil said.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that India’s 2009 Right to Education Act mandates class-size ratios of no more than 35 students to one teacher in secondary schools. It should have said in grades six through eight. The text has been updated.