This article is from our archives and was originally published in February 2014.

India is awash with NGOs and Teach for India is one of the more prominent organizations in the education sector. While the philosophy and the praxis of the “Teach For” model have come under the scanner in recent years, Teach for India has largely escaped serious scrutiny. This changed a few days ago when an opinion piece titled “Teach for Who” started doing the rounds on social media. Lots of TFI fellows have reacted reflexively in defense of the organization, leading to vigorous debates on online forums and a slight blurring of the issues which the article raised. Let me attempt a brief analysis and a close reading of the relevant article.

“ The community of education professionals is most visibly concerned about the scanty training that the programs equip their Fellows with before giving them the responsibility of teaching a class. In the midst of national policy reform that is geared towards extending the training period for a teacher from one to two years (seeing the current duration as inadequate), TFI expects their fellows to be ready for the same profession at the end of a five-week training process. This is seen as communicating a dangerous belief in the irrelevance of teacher education.”

This is probably the most damning argument against TFI. A lot of other NGOs work in this sector and take painstaking effort to ensure that the professionals in the field are properly trained. Five weeks do not, a good teacher make. The ensuing problems that the fellows face in their first year as full time teachers generates a lot of attrition, disillusionment and inefficiency for TFI.

The article then goes on to raise ethical issues about the neo-liberal ideology that TFI apparently espouses. Is this corporate philanthropy a “safety valve” for companies like Reliance and J.P. Morgan to distract attention from human rights violations? Could this be true? Yes. Does it matter to TFI where its money comes from and does it influence the daily experience of students and teachers?

I vehemently disagree. The world, which the less-privileged students and the fellows inhabit , is so far removed from the nefarious realities of corporate sponsorship and promotional activities that it doesn’t matter. The parents, the students do not care. They want a good education. And as the proverb goes, “Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow”.

“Even their strategy to combat inequality is contested. The organization’s pride in evidence-based policies is dismissed as being too numeric-driven in operation related decisions and too test-driven in their understanding of student achievement. This is seen as reflective of the conceptually thin corporate culture it inherits. “

It sounds like a case of desperately trying to pick faults. Maybe it’s my intellectual naivete or an engineer’s pragmatism, but I don’t think there is any real alternative to evidence-based policies. When the dysfunction in our education setup is so dire, nothing but proven, quantitative methods can be trusted. Having had a brief stint in TFI, I can vouch for the extremely rational, performance-driven strategies of the organization.

“The privilege of the recruits can also potentially pose a hindrance to the scalability of the program as the current spread of TFI is restricted to urban locations (Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi, Chennai, and Hyderabad), locations which might inspire greater mobility within this pool than the 10 less urbane cities it is planning to expand operations to. “

This is a very legitimate concern and I think the TFI model is not amenable to major expansion in an Indian context while retaining the quality of the fellows it claims to aspire for. The alternative would be to shelve the idea of expansion in other cities and instead direct all the funding into working in the existing Teach for India schools. Summer training courses for interested permanent teachers, infrastructure support, provisions for learning aids and educational resources would go a long way in leveraging the hard work of the fellows and building lasting relationships which benefit entire communities. This would be a more grounded, more demanding and definitely a longer-term investment for the future.

“At the same time, some aspects of the program such as its language policy (which in this case results in teaching many first generation learners in English) can be seen as insufficiently reflective about context. This is especially important in the light of evidence from a study conducted in collaboration with the Azim Premji Foundation in Andhra Pradesh that supports the theory that greater learning gains are visible when these students are taught through the medium of their mother tongue. “

The research is not conclusive in this regard and the enormous importance of English education as a factor in increased upward social mobility in India cannot be easily discounted. Hence the article’s call for further research in this field is well received. However the tendency to pillory the organization, for making a difficult, politically incorrect choice of English-teaching in the hope that it would lead to a greater positive impact in students’ lives, is questionable.

I think the entire debate suffers from a myopic lack of perspective about the abysmal state of affairs in our schools. Academic debates about ideologies, tacit assumptions inherent in TFI philosophy, have a place in the rarefied circle of armchair critics, but quickly lose their relevance when faced with the actual good that the organization accomplishes on a daily basis. I know Teach for India fellows who are imparting real lessons on communal harmony and religious tolerance to kids in grade 3, via field trips and pen-friendships. Nothing beats that.

Ashish Kashyap graduated with a Masters in Computer Science from IIT Madras. He spends his time wishing he could write like Milan Kundera.