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The Education Question | Mustafa Zafar

Can Pakistan’s top graduates solve its education crisis?

Teach for Pakistan (TFP), a leadership development fellowship for the country’s brightest graduates and young professionals who commit to two years of teaching students in an under-resourced school and transform academic outcomes, believed that its model would create a ‘movement’ which would eliminate the problem of educational inequity in Pakistan. Yet after only five years the organisation has decided to wind down its operation and dissolve its partnership with Teach for All from where TFP inherits its ‘teaching as leadership’ model. The question as to why the organisation has decided to shut down poses a very serious problem within private sector initiatives of educational reform in Pakistan.

One can find fault lines within the borrowing and wholesale adoption of a western educational reform model that is based on the American idea of meritocracy and the power of the individual. Hence, the inherent flaw with the Teach for All model is that it tries to apply a western remedy to educational reform in Pakistan where even the basic semantics of education inequity are not comparative.

It is not surprising that the Teach for America’s (TFA) model has been replicated not just in Pakistan but in over 35 countries around the world as well. With an operating budget of$321 million dollars as of 2014, TFA has received excellent media coverage and praise for fighting educational inequity and its impact has been sizeable.

The highly selective recruitment procedures for corps member goes to show the success the Teach for All model has had as a career path for fresh graduates and young professionals.

Wendy Kopp, founder of both Teach for America (TFA) and the Teach for All Network, envisioned it as a leadership programme in which corps member other than teaching are expected to have a lasting impact on education reform and public policy. TFA has been successful in that regard as over 84% of its 42,000 alumni are still working in the education sector in which 90 of the alums hold public office.

Teach for Pakistan, understandably smaller in size in comparison to TFA, also saw the potential for Pakistan’s brightest graduates to apply for the programme and there was a definite demand as well. The recruitment figures for the fellowship go on to show that over 6,000 university students and young professionals applied to the fellowship and the rigorous selection process has per year accepted less than 5% of the aspiring applicants.

While the demand for the programme exists and the number of recruits has risen since 2011, the TFA model is still intrinsically built to tackle a first world problem in the educational field.

In the United States, along with racial bias there is a constant rift between desegregation of schools through the differential funding of school districts. Public schools in wealthier neighbourhoods have an advantage over schools in low-income neighbourhoods within the same districts. This inequity is indicative of why students in wealthier neighbourhoods who go to public school get better results and provides an analytical framework of how extra-school resources and conducive academic environments can be created for under-resourced schools in the country.

Hence, this opens a floodgate towards various facets on the bridging of the achievement gap and provides a backdrop for what role TFA corps member can potentially play wthin the public school system.

This is not to say that there has been an uncritical acceptance of the model in America. There is a growing resistance and critique about TFA and its corporate education reformwhich allies with the increasing opposition towards the privatisation of education in America.

Educationists argue that as TFA raises more than $300 million of public and private dollars, the organisation significantly overhypes its overall impact. Many also call the programme a simple CV booster for the new inexperienced American graduate who has no formal training in teaching.

TFA illustrates how power works in America, as it is essentially a private organisation working for public reform due to the swelling problem of income inequality, evidence of which can be found in the statistics of how the top 1% controls 43% of the wealth in America. As TFA’s “justificatory narratives of individualism and meritocracy” only reinforce inequity, the problem then lies within the nexus of neo-liberal “racist capitalism” that has become the backbone of the American economy.

The teaching as leadership model through Kopp’s own words dictates that there is nothing “elusive” about successful teaching and that individuals simply need to “work hard and be disciplined”. Critics are right to then emphasise that the “justificatory narratives of individualism and meritocracy” then encapsulate an uncritical agreement with the American dream and in doing so TFA actually reseats inequity.

For the Pakistani education reformer who accepts this model for expanding educational opportunity, there is then a firm belief in the power of the individual; a grassroots-bottom up approach towards the global movement of education inequity, yet the tools provided within the model cater to first world problems.

Nearly half of all children in Pakistan, that is 25 million boys and girls, are currently out of school. Nearly half of all government schools are currently in a dangerous or dilapidated condition and lack the most basic facilities of a boundary wall, items of furniture, bathrooms, running water and electricity.

Where, on the one hand, the problem in America is of differential funding in school districts and how TFA corps member can fit within that economic cycle for impact based change, half of the public schools in Pakistan don’t even have boundary walls.

At the stage at which the Pakistani economy stands, to cure education inequity is surely a matter of urgency. The cure to this however is not in application of a model that caters to the problem of inequity in an economy that is at a different stage in its lifecycle.

TFA’s model is more likely to work in a conducive environment with a basic structural and institutional framework. When you pay a public primary school teacher roughly betweenRs1,400 and Rs2,860 ($13 to $30) per month, motivation levels of the teachers are likely to falter. While there is a public vs privatisation debate in the US context and the question of differential funding, in Pakistan government spending on education is abysmal.

Despite there being repeated assurances by the present government to raise the share of education allocation to 4% GDP over the next five years, Pakistan still allots 1.9% of GDP on education, ranking it fifth amongst the countries that spend the least on education.

There is no doubt that teachers and students can make extraordinary academic gains regardless of educational inequity but the problem is not one of individual effort as the cause and the symptom of education inequity of Pakistan lies within the state structure and its economy.

The relationship between a Pakistani public school student and that of a fresh graduate, which emphasises on equipping students with better tools for social mobilisation through individual effort, academic gain and over all leadership, then takes place in a decontextualised economic environment.

While expanding educational opportunity is a shared universal concept, the wholesale adoption of the TFA model, which itself is very controversial keeping in mind the critique of privatisation and economic inequity in the west, will provide no development in the field of education here in Pakistan. There comes a responsibility with the limited resource allocation that we have to make sure that it is spent effectively and not through references and ideas of development set out in the severely differing economic climates of the west.

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