Teacher absence ranges from 20% to over 50% in different states of India, and makes a mockery of free and universal education. In such circumstances, the government's plan to double spending on education will simply double the waste. One possible solution comes from Sewa Mandir, an NGO, whose experiment has been analysed in a research paper by two American scholars (Monitoring Works: Getting Teachers to Come to School, by Esther Duflo of MIT and Rema Hagner of New York University) Sewa Mandir runs non-formal schools in hilly, scattered villages of Udaipur district.
As an experiment in 2003, it equipped 60 schools with cameras having a tamper-proof time-and-date function. Each teacher had to ask a student to take a photo of himself/herself along with at least eight other students at the start and end of school, which had to be at least five hours apart. The teaching record of these camera schools was then compared with that of 60 other normal schools in the neighbourhood.
In normal schools, teachers earned a flat INR 1,000/month. In camera schools, teachers got a base salary of INR 1,000 for 21 days a month; a bonus of INR 50 for every extra day worked; and a fine of INR 50 for every day absent (maximum fine INR 500). So, salaries in camera schools ranged from INR 500 to INR 1,300/month. Over 18 months, the camera schools recorded teacher absence of 22%, against 42% for normal schools (and 44% for all schools before the experiment). Hence, cameras almost halved teacher absence. Teachers were present over 90% of the time in 35% of camera schools, against just 1% of normal schools. Best of all, random checks suggested that teacher presence remained high in the camera schools even after the experiment ended: the mindset had changed. Teachers were not hostile. On feedback forms, many said the programme had instilled a new sense of discipline that they liked, apart from linking performance to pay.
Teachers said that the cameras enabled them to better resist pressures from local elites to do tasks other than teaching. But some complained that kids might arrive too late for the morning photo. Children in camera schools received 10% more teaching time (or 34 more days per year) than in normal schools. Tests before and one year after the programme started showed that children in camera schools scored significantly higher (0.17 standard deviations) than in normal schools, and were 40% more likely to be admitted later into regular government schools. The sharpest improvement was recorded by children with higher initial scores: the impact was negligible for the bottom half of students.