Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dreaming on a Toilet Seat

Teacher Absenteeism in Indian Schools

A democracy thrives best when its citizens have the ability to make the right choices for themselves and for their societies. With 35% of its population illiterate(1), and an even higher percentage lacking in functional literacy, the efficacy of democracy in India stands seriously undermined. The 2007 Annual Status of Education Report(2) (Rural) has found that “it takes the middle of class VII for 80% children to be able to read a class II text”. One of the most important causes of bad quality of education in rural India is the high rate of teacher absenteeism. The Kremer et al (2004) study(3), reported that one in four teachers were absent from school, and among those present, only about half were teaching, during the unannounced visits on a nationally representative sample of government primary schools in India. The Paul Glewwe(4) et al (2008) study finds that in developing countries including India, teachers face weak incentives to put effort into their teaching. The study also finds that dismissals of teachers for repeated absenteeism are only 0.03% in public schools, and 6% in private schools, clearly implying that accountability structures are simply nonexistent. However, the National Knowledge Commission Recommendations(5) on School Education is surprisingly silent about the problem of teacher absenteeism.

The problem of teacher absenteeism in India should be tackled by adopting a two pronged approach: First, at micro management level, incentives not limited to financial benefits, must be provided for teachers to come to work; Second, at policy management level, workable mechanisms of empowered structures to ensure accountability of teachers and schools must be institutionalised and sustained.

Paul Glewwe et al (2008) report that absenteeism in more in schools which are away from paved roads, and less in schools which has better infrastructure. The teachers posted to rural schools have no proper housing facilities, and many take up houses in nearby towns.
The DISE statistics on School Indicators(6) states that 44.22% of all schools in rural India are located at distances more than 10Kms from the nearest block HQs. But the public transport systems are very frugal and teachers find it difficult to commute to rural schools from towns. The government must provide housing and pooled transport to help teachers perform their duties. Basic necessities such as toilets must be provided in schools. Teachers posted in rural areas must be also compensated with a special hard duty allowance. Teachers must be allotted a pool with equal distribution of schools from all categories of degree of difficulty, and rotated on posting to schools only within their pool. This will give teachers the ownership to the development of their schools especially once they know that they would be back to the same school again in future, and provide strong emotional incentives to remain accountable to the local community.

In rural India, teachers are the opinion makers. Teachers also perform the crucial election duties. Therefore, the political class is unwilling to estrange teachers. Further, the local community is not powerful enough to demand accountability. In the year 2000, the Uttar Pradesh government initiated
Village Education Committees(7) (VEC) to monitor school performance and promote demand for accountability at community levels. But studies(8) revealed that 92 percent of households surveyed did not even know that a VEC existed. In such scenarios, any demand for accountability from inside the system is not likely to be met.

There is definitely a need to create empowered structures from the outside, to monitor school performance and demand accountability from teachers. The central government must institute a multi stake holder, independent
Schools Monitoring Agency(9) on the models of investment rating agencies. The agency must monitor the quality of delivery of education services, teacher attendance and performance, school outputs etc, and continuously assign ratings to school systems in states. Corporate India must be encouraged to consider the ratings of this agency before investing in a state, because industry is one of the major end users of human resources. It is in the longer interests of the businesses to demand accountability from schools and teachers as majority of the labour force employed by businesses are the very product of these schools. Education is a state subject. The policy directions must be fine tuned as per requirements of each State, but individual states must implement reforms wholeheartedly. The central government could give tax concessions for businesses investing in states that have higher school performance ratings. This will provide incentives for the states to improve their school systems in order to attract higher investments.

Technology solutions must be explored to institutionalise effective systems to monitor teacher presence in schools. An
experiment(10) by Duflo, Hanna, and Ryan (2007) in Non Formal Education Centres in Rajastan, using tamper proof cameras to monitor teacher attendance reported 50% decline in absenteeism rates, and improved student performance. Similar methods can be co-opted into the existing mobile communication infrastructure in rural areas. For example, a tamper proof camera enabled mobile phone can be used to send an MMS message with a photo of the teacher along with the children in classroom, to the teacher monitoring body, on demand.

As with solving any other public management problem, a committed leadership is essential to solve the problem of teacher absenteeism in India. The strong teacher unions, and the teacher politician nexus, are stumbling blocks for demand for accountability of teachers. It will take years to reach the desirable end state of improving quality of education, but it will be an effort worth made, because good education is fundamental for good citizenship, and good democracy.

Works Cited:

(1)Premi, Mahendra K, (2002) India’s Literacy Panorama,

(2)Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2007

(3)Kremer, Michael; Chaudhury, Nazmul; Rogers, F Halsey; Muralidharan, Karthik and Hammer, Jeffrey (2005), “Teacher Absence in India: A Snapshot”

(4) Glewwe, Paul; Holla, Alaka; Kremer, Michael (2008), “ Teacher Incentives in the Developing World”

(5) National Knowledge Commission Recommendations on School Education in India (2008)
(6) DISE Statistics on School Indicators (2006-07),
http://www.dise.in/Downloads/Rural 2006-07/School Related Indicators.pdf

(7) Glewwe, Paul; Holla, Alaka; Kremer, Michael (2008), “ Teacher Incentives in the Developing World”

(8) Abhijit Banerjee, and others, “Can Informational Campaigns Spark Local Participation and Improve Outcomes: A Study of Primary Education in Uttar Pradesh, India,” World Bank Policy Working Paper 3967 (The World Bank, 2006).

(9) The National Knowledge Commission, in a letter to the Prime Minister of India, has proposed setting up of a National evaluation body for monitoring quality. However, no details about composition or functioning have been elaborated. Para 9, p7,

(10) Duflo, Esther; Hanna,Rema; Ryan, Stephen ; (2007): “Monitoring Works: Getting Teachers to Come to School”


alps said...

very well written karthik and this is absolutely true...somewhere our sysytem and also our educated class lacks the sensitivity when it comes to put the canvas on a large scale...the pics we see are small and larger picture not viewed at all...each one of us can make a difference here if one needs to do sumthing about it...

have u read white tiger by arvind adiga???

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Anubhav said...


Nice blog post. At least someone's trying to think of solutions rather than restating the problem.

I am aware of most of the works you cited although the proposal of a school monitoring agency is one that I wasn't aware of...

Interesting post overall and shows a certain depth of thought and research which our country desperately needs.

p.s. - we are trying to initiate a discussion on this (and other topics) on our blog - would be great if you could share some of your thoughts and ideas on the same.


Ajay Singh said...

Nice Article, So when you visit Primary School in India
look to see if teachers smile and are generally encouraging of children. Look to see how the teachers interact with the other children in the classroom and if there seem to be strong connections between them. Also talk to parents at the school about their experience.

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