This chapter describes the political power of school teachers in India, and the role played by teachers’ unions in influencing education reform efforts in the country. India has done well in terms of rapidly expanding access to elementary education over the past 15–20 years. Today, 236 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools (grade 1–10), and are taught by 8.3 million teachers. The success in improving access to elementary schools is associated with two center-state programs: the District Primary Education Program and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE) has also aimed to make schooling available to every child aged 6–14 years.
Unfortunately, India's tremendous success in expanding elementary-level schooling since the 1990s has not been accompanied by commensurate gains in student learning (Dundar et al., 2014). This is not surprising. Access-oriented reforms tend to be politically popular and relatively easier to implement, with few opponents. They provide more jobs for teachers, administrators, service personnel, construction workers, and textbook and school equipment manufacturers – tangible resources that politicians are happy to distribute to their constituencies. In contrast, quality-enhancing reforms focus on accountability and cost-effectiveness. These reforms threaten many of the entities benefiting from expansionary policies, and are therefore frequently blocked by them (Grindle, 2004).
Improving quality in government schools in India is, of course, no easy task, given that the country has the largest number of school-age children relative to any other country, many of whom are first generation school-goers. Further, there is considerable variation in the linguistic and socio-economic background of students (and their teachers), all of which combine to make teaching in government schools in India a particularly challenging task.
These challenges in improving education quality and student learning in India are compounded by low teacher accountability: schools in large parts of India suffer from high rates of teacher absenteeism, with a national absenteeism rate of 25 percent – a problem similar to Mexico, also discussed in this book (Kremer et al., 2005; Muralidharan et al., 2014). This rate has not changed much over the past ten years, despite this being the era of major school reform in India.