In a crumbling, cement-block public school hidden within the sprawling slums of this megacity, recent college graduate Rohita Kilachand instructs 45 fidgety second-graders to put on their "magic glasses."
Together they "step" into a white room, a pink room, through a big door, and out a small window. This imaginary journey is actually a lesson in English vocabulary.
Ms. Kilachand's co-teacher, Ruhi Marne, gently keeps the young students on task from the back of the classroom.
Both of them work with an organization modeled off of the US-based organization Teach for America, and the methods the women use here are unconventional in a country where learning by rote remains the norm in all but the most progressive – and expensive – private schools.
The challenges faced by the novice teachers are as enormous as India's newfound global ambitions. Of the 220 million Indian children in Grades 1 through 8 (compared with 55 million children in US primary and secondary schools combined), about 16 percent of them will pass 10th grade, according to the Azim Premji Foundation, an education nonprofit based in Bangalore. Among fifth-graders in India, about 1 in 3 cannot read or write.
"How do you fix a problem like that?" asks Ashok Kamath, chairman of the Akshara Foundation, an education nongovernmental organization based in Bangalore. "If you don't fix it, your dropouts start to increase from the fifth or sixth grade onward. Then you're in a demographic disaster zone. If 100-plus million kids are not able to read, how will you ever gainfully employ them?"
Mr. Kamath is leading a team of young professionals to build a database to track the academic progress of each of the 10 million students in Bangalore's state of Karnataka. Soon, his database will be open to any organization that works with children – groups that measure nutritional attainment, for example, or poverty rates. School and regional results will be shared with parents, businesspeople, politicians – anyone with a stake in educational success.
"We're basically going to leverage the power of the information in our hands," says Kamath. "And we can start to create messaging about it – collected not by us alone, but by a large community within the city."
Mumbai (Bombay) natives Kilachand and Ms. Marne could have had their pick of high-paying jobs after graduating at the top of their class from Indian universities; instead, they chose more idealistic pursuits.
Teach for India is one of 18 global offshoots of a Teach for America affiliate called Teach for All. (Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates in low-income schools, was founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990.)
"It's the hardest job I've done so far," Kilachand says. "I've taken several internships and worked for several different companies – this doesn't compare."
India has one of the largest of Teach for All's programs, with 300 new teachers expected this year, and 1,000 per year in at least eight major cities by 2016.
The organization, only in its second year, recently won a contract from Mumbai to train each of the city's 1,400 public school headmasters. That was both a coup for Teach for India founder Shaheen Mistri and a reality check. "This is part of what's exciting and depressing about education in India," she says.
"There's such a dearth of good people in the education sector that you get pulled into more, frankly, than you're equipped for."