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.