Ninety percent of children across the developing world are now enrolled in primary school—a testament to the efforts of governments, donors, and nonprofits in improving education access. But 240 million of these children, despite the fact that they are enrolled, are learning almost nothing; they are victims of the global learning crisis. This crisis threatens to be the civil rights issue of our time, preventing a whole generation of children from realizing their potential and fully participating in their societies. 

It’s hard to ignore the role of teachers in this crisis. Many perceive them as the main culprits in failing schools—a perception that’s not entirely unfounded. In many developing countries, 25 percent of teachers are absent on any given day; when they do show up, they spend less than half their time teaching, and when they do teach, instruction quality is extremely poor. But if we look deeper, it’s clear that much of the underlying problem lies in the interplay between teachers and the education systems in which they operate. 

At STIR, a nonprofit that has worked intensively with 12,000 teachers across India and Uganda, we believe that teachers can form the solution to the learning crisis. But to realize this vision, we need to create a “New Deal” between teachers and their education systems, based on a new mutual accountability, with four core tenants in mind:

1. We need to start by re-igniting the professional spark in teachers and to bring back the intrinsic motivation of teaching. Teacher motivation is fragile and nuanced; education systems need to move beyond blunt “carrots and sticks.”

Teacher morale is at an all-time low—for example, according to a national poll, 84 percent of Ugandan teachers want to quit the profession. Rather than adopt the deficit model that underpins most teacher training, our organization starts with the positive. For example, we’ve found that taking part in a micro-innovation search—where teachers share their classroom innovations with each other—generates huge, positive buzz among teachers and helps restore their intrinsic motivation. 

Mansi Gupta, a STIR teacher in a government school in Delhi, India, with her students. (Photo courtesy of STIR Education)

Government-run schools today tend to use blunt carrots and sticks—from biometric fingerprinting to performance-related pay —but our teachers tell us time and time again that what they most crave is recognition from other teachers, parents, and local officials. We have developed an aspirational pathway—modelled on the Royal Colleges in fields such as medicine and surgery—where teachers begin their journey as an associate teacher changemaker and can progress up five “rungs” to distinguished fellow. We are also experimenting with a number of mechanisms to sustain teacher motivation—rewards such as featuring their picture in a local poster campaign, lunch with a local district official, or learning visits to neighboring schools. We believe these motivators are much more enduring, cost-effective, and scalable for education systems, and strengthen the intrinsic motivation for teaching. 

2. If we invest in the right structures and support for sustained teacher collaboration, skill improvement will follow. 

There is no doubt that teachers’ skills need to improve in a whole host of areas—less than 10 percent of current teachers in many Indian states, for example, pass basic competency tests. In development, we often dump well-intentioned, one-off “training” programs on teachers, where teachers have no real ownership over their learning and there is no chance of sustained improvement. Some estimates by NGOs in Uganda show that only 10 percent of teachers who receive one-off training change their behavior in the long term. 

We believe that the best investment in educational training is enabling collaboration between teachers over a number of years. Ideally programs embed collaboration into existing, enduring support and training structures. At STIR we do this through teacher-changemaker networks—30 to 50 teachers from different local schools who meet monthly to discuss issues they are facing and work together to develop solutions. Through this process, teachers become students again; they develop inquisitiveness, desire for improvement, and confidence that learning is possible. They develop professional and 21st-century skills (such as collaboration, communication, reflection, and critical thinking) that will last a lifetime and that they can impart to their students. They also challenge each other to change mindsets about their students—specifically, that all children on their watch are capable of learning. 

Once the social capital of these networks has been built, we find they can be very effective vectors for all kinds of further skills-based training. For example, we have launched reading and classroom management “challenges” that expose teachers to key evidence-based practices in these areas, and then challenge them to innovate and put these into practice in their classrooms. The response from our teacher networks has been overwhelming.

3. We need to build “tipping points” in the teacher base at the local level—in schools and across districts—to provide the foundation for a behaviour shift across the system and profession. 

Teachers really are the best missionaries for their own cause. We’ve found that behavior change spreads organically when teachers themselves role-model new behaviors and invite their peers to join them. When peers see STIR teachers looking more fulfilled and supported in their classrooms, they ask how they can join in. We also create incentive mechanisms between schools, encouraging teachers to reciprocate the support STIR provided by inviting others in their schools and local areas to join the STIR movement. In this way, we believe that the teachers themselves can reclaim a sense of moral purpose and status in their work. We hope to reach 10-20 percent of the teacher base in geographies we operate—a tipping point that will enable social norms to change among teachers. 

4. We need to temper our obsession with changing education structures. We could achieve more by nurturing people within the education system, and building a movement of “policy changemakers” at the local, regional, and national levels.

We are constantly reminded how important it is to create a positive enabling environment for teachers. And many of the same motivators (peer recognition, keenness to network with peers, opportunities to develop learning and skills) also apply to officials and policymakers, and we are now creating a policy-changemaker program to recognize this. As we build this movement, we hope these policy changemakers can address deeper, structural issues that impede teachers’ ability to improve learning. 

To solve the global learning crisis, teachers and education systems need to forge a New Deal based on mutual accountability. We have seen dozens of great education organizations—including such as Pratham, Educate Girls, and Educate!—develop fantastic innovations that improve learning in areas such as assessment, reading, girls education, and 21st century skills. We hope that by forging a New Deal we can collectively create a positive enabling environment around these innovations so that teachers become hungry to improve learning for children and know how to put new innovations to their best use. At STIR we hope to support education systems—in India and Uganda, and eventually beyond—in achieving this, such that we improve learning for 4 million children by 2020 and be on a path towards 40 million children by 2025. 

Forging any kind of New Deal is initially painful, but if we can really empower our teachers and education systems to solve the learning crisis together, it will surely be worth it.