India's troubling truants: teachers
A new study finds 25 percent of teachers absent on any given day.
Twice a day, vegetable salesman Kamakhya Singh takes time off to balance his three children on a bike for their school commute only to learn, too often, that the teachers are absent.Skip to next paragraph
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"We are poor people, but we want our children to get a good education," says Mr. Singh, who works outside Delhi. "I am not so sure teachers care so much because sometimes my children walk home if no one is instructing them."
Parents and students in India have complained for years about teachers who frequently miss work. But the extent of teacher truancy has been unclear until recently when a team of economists from Harvard University and the World Bank scrutinized it in detail.
They hired research firms to make three surprise visits to 3,700 randomly selected government primary schools, largely in rural areas, in 20 Indian states. The study concluded that, at any time, 25 percent of the teachers were absent from schools. In a one-room school, that often meant an empty, padlocked building.
Studies conducted in other countries showed India to be one of the worst cases. Bangladesh's teacher-truancy rate was 16 percent. Zambia's was 17 percent. Only Uganda was worse, with 27 percent. In the US, the rate as of 1993-94 was between 5 and 6 percent.
This research came on the heels of another telling report. UNESCO released its 2005 Global Education Monitoring Report revealing that India is home to 34 percent of the world's illiterate people. The country performed poorly even when compared with other developing countries with large populations like China, which comes in second at 11 percent of the global total.
India's Congress government came to power in May on promises of spreading the spoils of the new economy more broadly across the country. Improving education in rural and poor districts would be a crucial move toward meeting that goal - as well as the long-term aim of being able to compete with China.
For the time being, it's parents, students, and administrators who are suffering.
"It's just sad," says Jeffrey Hammer, one of the World Bank study's economists. "What bothers me is that many teachers are taking government money and essentially doing nothing for it, and as always, the disadvantaged and poor suffer."
In Delhi, the Monitor witnessed several instances of instructor absence while touring primary schools. At Timarpur MCD Primary School for Girls, only four of eight teachers were present one morning at the school, which has 285 students. Headmistress Raj Bala Aggarwal said that two instructors were on casual leave, one on earned leave and one on maternity leave.
"It's a bit of problem when teachers aren't coming," says Ms. Aggarwal. "We combine classes so there are sometimes 70 or 80 students for one to supervise." She explained it was exam time and also nearing year-end, so teachers wanted to use up leave days.
Teachers in India are permitted eight casual and 10 medical leave days annually. But Mr. Hammer was skeptical about the Timarpur situation. It's common knowledge that excess leave days are not recorded in official logs, he says.