Sunday, 3 July 2016

How not to report a story

This article is a response to another article. So before you read any further, please make sure that you read 'Teach for America has gone global and its board has strange ideas about what poor kids need' by Mr George Joseph. 

I am a Teach for India staff member and I was a fellow before that. All the views/opinions in this post are my personal views and do not represent the views of the organisation. Although I might use 'we' multiple times in the article, the views are still personal. 

I felt it was necessary to write something after I read the article because it hurt me and I thought it was only fair that an article which maligns people and organisations gets a thorough fact check. 

Mr George Joseph, hereinafter mentioned as 'the author', wrote the article which was published on July 1 and it went viral across the education sector social media space in India pretty soon. Albeit it is slightly small group so I can't say it went viral. 

I got it as a part of my Google Alert in the morning. I read it while getting ready for the day and was shocked to say the least. I have been associated with Teach for India for a little more than 3 years now having spent two years as a fellow and one year on staff. I could not believe the number of unsubstantiated claims and pot shots that the author had pulled in one article. 

Teach for India is a 7-8 year old organisation and over the years, there have been really sweeping changes in the way the organisation works. This has happened because of the organisations commitment to continuously improve. The organisation never claims to be perfect and neither does it ever say that we have all the answers. The changes and the growth of the organisation has been possible due to the constructive criticism it has received from everyone in the education sector and even outside it. 

The organisations approach towards teaching and leadership development have undergone tremendous changes over the last few years which the author would have found out if he had researched and asked proper questions. 

I am now going to pin point different parts of the article which I personally did not appreciate:

  • The start of the article paints a rather unattractive picture of a fellow's fellowship experience. I believe that Ms Alisa Currimjee might have wanted to say something about Ms Hemangi Joshi's opinion of her teaching technique. I also believe that even if Ms Hemangi's opinion was correct, it is unfair to judge a teacher based on one observation. I don't know how Ms Hemangi concluded that sticking to the textbook amounts to rote learning. The author writes about how the place where Ms Alisa is from stops her from being an effective teacher because she doesn't know the local language. How the author reached the conclusion about Ms Currimjee's competence in such a short span of time is something that surprises me. I believe that author should watch this video on the danger of a single story
  • The author mentions that Teach for India is a sister organisation of Teach for America but fails to mention about Teach for All which is the main umbrella which coordinates between 40 odd such networks until later on in the article. The author fails to write about how 'Theory of Change' of different organisations are different based on their circumstances and ground realities. Just because there is similarity in the model, doesn't mean that they are 'one size fits all'. I would even go to the extent of saying that if a model works effectively in different countries, what's the harm in replicating?
  • The author's description of Ms Wendy Kopp's and Shaheen's education seems very sarcastic to me. In my opinion, the author is trying to hint, not so subtly, that Ms Kopp and Ms Shaheen went to elite schools and somehow that's a bad thing. The quotes are taken from Ms Shaheen's book and seem disjointed and out of context at best. 
  • The five line summary of 'why' Teach for India came into being does absolutely no justice to the effort and thought that so many people put in at the start of the organisation. If the author had read the book more thoroughly and interviewed people, he would have found out. 
  • "Despite this intensive work, however, the blueprint they came up with was almost identical to Teach for America's: Teach for India would recruit elite students, train them for five weeks, and then send them out to teach the urban poor." I believe the author's definition of 'almost identical' is very different from any dictionary definition. There are quite a few things similar between Teach for America's model and Teach for India's model but there are also a LOT of differences. Also, throughout the article, the author harps on the fact that the teachers get five weeks of training but fails to mention the ongoing training and support that fellows receive throughout the two years of the fellowship. 
  • "If deemed successful, this model will be poised to deliver large portions of India’s education system—and, indeed, others all over the world—into the control of the private sector on a for-profit basis." There is absolutely no evidence or data provided on how the author reached a conclusion that Teach for India is trying to privatize education or is even campaigning for a ‘for profit’ solution to the education crisis. The author does talk about Mr Ashish Dhawan funding organisations that are advocating for privatisation but there is no evidence provided to substantiate the author’s claim that Teach for India is trying to do it.
  • The author’s description of Ms Meghna Rakshit is nauseating and unneccesary. I don’t know why the author needs to write about Ms Rakshit’s clothes and the way she speaks. I don’t know if the quotes in the article were all that Ms Rakshit had to say about the education crisis. I have a feeling they were not.
  • By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character.” I don’t know how the author concluded that Teach for India or Teach for All don’t consider material deficits as a problem. Yet another unsubstantiated claim.
  • The author then describes another teachers class whom the author addresses as Ms D. I don’t know why the author choose to use Ms Alisa Currimjee’s full name and even go into details of her native place. I hope that proper permissions were taken before using Ms Alisa’s name and other details.
  • The author goes on to talk about how Narendra Modi government’s funding cuts have affected classrooms. There is also a line about how Teach for India’s patrons are friends with the Prime Minister. If this is the author’s attempt of giving this some political colour then I think the author should also have found out that Teach for India no political allegiances and that the organisation has an alum who works for the Congress party and also had Mr Arvind Kejriwal as a chief guest in one of its event a couple of years back. All this would have come out if the author had researched but it is not as easy as throwing allegations.
  • The author claims that only people who are ‘global citizens’ and don’t speak English in a ‘thick Indian accent’ are likely to become Teach for India fellows. I believe that the author again has no idea of the different places from where Teach for India recruits and has probably never interacted with more than a handful of fellows.
  • Also, ‘occasionally swatting’ students is illegal in the country. I am glad you did not mention Ms D’s real identity. I would urge you to talk to her about this ‘swatting’ and explain to her the mental trauma it causes students.
  • Another sentence which shows the complete lack of research from the author’s part is the author’s belief that all Teach for India classrooms have a ‘Coteacher’ and that there are less than 40 students in Teach for India classrooms. The author himself, in the beginning of the article, talks about how student teacher ratio in the country is very extreme. Ms D or any other Teach for India classroom is no different. I think it would be a good idea to go visit some Teach for India classrooms to see the numbers.
  • Ms D is not the only one doing three jobs. All fellows who work in government or private schools are required to do all that the other school teachers are required to do save election duty and census. So well, everyone is doing multiple jobs.
  • Author claims that Teach for India often describes its movement as the second freedom struggle yet provides not even one instance where it has done so. If it happened so ‘often’, should a reporter share those instances?
  • Author links budget cuts to economic liberalization. A link that has no logical connection. It is my opinion that the author does not understand economic liberalization.  Moving the focus from inputs to student outcomes is a decision state government get to make independently. Neither the central government and definitely not Teach for India has any say in it. Right to Education gives the states the power to do this.
  • Some teachers are trying to resist the relentless expansion of Teach for India and the education-reform movement in general  First of all, Teach for India never has and can never force any school or teacher to do anything. Expansion happens when both parties are willing and see value in the relationship. Also, is the author trying to suggest that there are teachers who are trying to resist education reform movement? Wow.
  • We are quite afraid they are going to use early screening and labeling to screen [students] into vocational courses… purely economic schooling. This is not just Modi, but they are obviously more aggressive. And this not just in India. How is one person’s fear backed by no proff at all being considered as a threat? Just to clarify, Teach for India never labels children or screens them into vocational courses at any point of time. Maybe Mr Firoz Ahmed needs to talk to someone and find out more about what is really happening.
  • It is unclear how much students will benefit from this handoff to the private sector NO ONE IS HANDING OFF STUDENTS TO ANYONE!!!
  • The author talks about how there are charts with dire consequences plans. It would be great if he would have mentioned one of them. Fellows are taught how to manage classroom behaviour in such a way that student dignity is maintained and still behaviour of the class is conducive to learning. This is done because traditionally, ‘swatting students’ like Ms D was the method used. Given Teach for India’s commitment towards Child Protection Policy, fellows are trained to use techniques which involve rewarding good behaviour with stars and tokens and there are consequences for bad behaviour which are generally taking away those stars and tokens. The most dire consequences are staying back for some time after school and having a conversation with the teacher so that the student understands the value of behaving in class and the importance of it in their education. Apparently trying to instil a work oriented culture is a crime. All this the author would have known if the author had not climbed the Ladder of Inference so fast.
  • The article ends with the author talking to three fellows about their community engagement techniques to which the fellows respond by saying that it is decided top down and that communities treat them as outsiders. [Update: fellows who are quoted in the article have informed others who reached out to them that they have been misquoted.] It is true that this happens when fellows aren’t able to build those relations with the community members. If the author had researched about the different community projects that fellows in Mumbai have undertaken, he would have gotten a second opinion. There are community centres which are started by fellows and are now run by community members. The trust that fellows share with the community is different for different fellows because the effort put in and the results achieved by different fellows are different. To judge an entire organisation’s community relations effort based on what 3 out of the 1000 fellows had to say is not right.
  • About the fellowship being marketable enough. I think the author would love to know that we maintain a 7-8% acceptance rate for fellows and an even lower rate for staff members. The organisation attracts top talent already and marketing is done to spread more awareness about the education equity gap more than anything else. There are reasons for why it is a two year fellowship. Also, there are fellows who are selected to do a third year of the fellowship and there are quite a few fellows who live in the community that they work in.

In my personal opinion, the author’s article is more of a rant rather than an article. The indiscriminate use of quotes out of context and judgemental sentences prove that this was not an article written in good faith. I believe the author owes Ms Rakshit and Ms Currimjee an apology. 

The author has no flow in the article and keeps shifting focus. The article’s title is about Teach for America’s board but it talks about about one Teach for India fellow and one Teach for India staff member in not so polite way, Teach for India’s beginning and Teach for India’s purpose. The article goes on to talk about Mumbai’s education crisis and problems with the RTE, Mr Ashish Dhawan’s quotes from different interviews and his investments, allegations about Teach for India’s forced expansion and fear of screening and labelling. It also claims that Teach for India is advocating for privatisation, it is not doing community engagement well and it struggling to market the fellowship. I personally did not find any common theme or a flow in the way the author communicated. 

As I mentioned before, constructive criticism is what the organisation thrives on. I agree that there are different ways of doing different things and that there might be idealogical differences that the author has with the way the organisation works. If the author had communicated it that way, I have full faith that someone from the organisation would have brought it up in a meeting and would have given the suggestions some thought. I would urge anyone who has any idea to share with the organisation on what is should it should not do should reach out to the organisation. I can guarantee that there will always be someone who will listen to you patiently and intently.

But this article is not constructive criticism. This is not even criticism. This is a really sad attempt to malign the reputation of an organisation and some of its employees. I don’t think the author even understand the situation or the organisation properly. The author is so busy making sensational claims that he forgets to fact check them or even ask someone to back it up. I respect the fact that the author has the right to free speech but to be very frank he is abusing that right here.

The title of the article states that this article is about Teach for America’s board but in the entire article, the only person mentioned who is associated to Teach for America is Ms Wendy Kopp. Also, nowhere has the author talked about how anyone is claiming to know what poor kids need. Hence I don’t know why the article is titled this way.

I took time out of my schedule to write this reply because I care. I care about the people mentioned in the article. I care because the education sector already has a lot of challenges and can do without fear mongering ‘reporters’ who write articles with sensational claims without substantiating any of them. 

It is my humble request to Mr George Joseph to get in touch with me or any Teach for India staff member to better understand the work that we do. I am sure he will be pleasantly surprised. Mr George, I know that you, like us, want the best for the children of our country. Let us work towards it rather spend your time in manufacturing conspiracies and spreading negativity. 

Thank you,

Your friend in the fight against education inequity


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  4. In my personal opinion, the author’s article is more of a rant rather than an article. The indiscriminate use of quotes out of context and judgemental sentences prove that this was not an article written in good faith. I believe the author owes Ms Rakshit and Ms Currimjee an apology. SY0-501 exam dump

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