Sharath has launched an international movement of teacher changemakers who are innovating, implementing and influencing others to spread best practices of teaching. Growing to 30,000 teacher changemakers over the next three years, Sharath is catalyzing a teacher-led movement to improve learning outcomes for children.
The New Idea
Sharath is creating local ‘teacher innovator networks’ across India and Uganda as a strategy to empower committed teachers to collaborate and co-construct solutions to improve larger educational systems. He takes teachers from government and affordable private schools through a deep process to innovate, implement, and influence the spread of ideas to address the challenges they face.
Understanding that empowered and motivated teachers are key to educational success, Sharath is building a teacher-led movement for the change of educational practices and systems. He enables teachers to connect regularly and re-imagine their role in leading change in their classrooms and schools by spreading solutions they themselves designed. He also connects motivated teachers to a rich ecosystem of partners who can provide an array of further opportunities, skills, and learning solutions. Using positive peer-pressure, recognition, soft incentives, social networking opportunities, and partnerships, Sharath develops teacher changemakers who can innovate in their classrooms, implement new practices, and influence peers and policy-makers – all to improve student learning.
100% of teacher changemakers from his pilot in Delhi reported higher levels of motivation and self-efficacy. They also identified that improved opportunities for inter-school collaboration had increased their repertoire of effective teaching and school management practices. Further, 80% led change to improve the educational experience within their school. Sharath is now expanding these self-replicating networks through partnerships with the Government and citizen sector organizations to reach 30,000 teachers over the next three years.
With over 95% enrollment, The Indian Right to Education Act of 2009 has given a strong impetus to improving access to education and basic school infrastructure. However, recurring surveys indicate that quality of education, especially in government and affordable private schools, remains alarmingly low. The last six years’ data from ASER (an annual survey conducted by people outside the government in India using a common framework) indicates that 50% of Class V children are not able to read Class II-level text fluently. The arithmetic findings are even less satisfactory. The problem does not improve even in urban areas. Independent sample studies indicate wide variations in student learning outcomes across gender, caste, first generation learners, school type and zones in Delhi (NIEPA 2000). Even across so called ‘better off’ states like Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, Programme for International Student Assessment of Students (PISA) results indicate that Indian 8th graders have math skills comparable to South Korean 3rd graders. As per the PISA results, India ranks 72nd out of 74 countries (2009). This learning crisis isn’t endemic to India; globally 300,000,000 - or one in four children in poor countries - are now in school but are unable to read or do basic arithmetic (UNESCO, 2014).
Based on an analysis of best performing educational systems, a 2007 McKinsey report suggests that the two factors that contribute most to educational success are getting the right people to become teachers and developing their capability to become effective teachers. Committed, open-minded, capable teachers could make the single biggest difference to addressing this learning crisis. But in practice, teachers are demotivated, disempowered and underequipped. One in four Indian teachers is absent on any given school day, and 84% of Ugandan teachers surveyed want to quit teaching. Job morale and satisfaction is at an all-time low.
Traditional approaches to address these issues include top-down accountability measures (which teachers quickly learn to game), paying teachers financial bonuses (which can be unsustainable and have mixed results), or training without genuine teacher commitment to yield results (Indian government teachers now receive more than 20 days of mandatory ‘training’ each year). Education reformists have failed to hear or recognize the ideas and voices of teachers, who are exploring ways to reduce absenteesim, effectively engage parents, and improve learning outcomes. The lack of any career path or platforms to incentivize such committed teachers to share and build their ideas demotivates them.
Recent international education research (in the most successful school systems such as Scandinavia or East Asia) show that for teachers to feel responsible and able to lead improvement, it is necessary to create a sense of ‘ownership’ through a local solutions approach. There is a need to create a culture of recognizing the insights of committed teachers and celebrating them as innovators. Teachers need to be motivated and empowered to work collaboratively such that they can improve both their own practice and student learning.
Sharath saw an opportunity in creating local hubs that carefully select teachers and engage them to share ideas to ‘innovate’ in addressing challenges, ‘implement’ solutions in classrooms, and ‘influence’ other teachers to improve educational methods and practices. He founded STIR Education Initiative in 2012 to create these local ‘teacher innovator networks’ that recognize and motivate the ‘bright spots’ among teachers. With the vision to build such local networks globally, he chose to test the idea from inception in different strategic countries like India and Uganda and gain feedback.
To assess and refine the idea first hand, Sharath built a local team in Delhi that launched ‘teacher innovator networks.’ Simultaneously, he partnered with CSOs and the Government in different parts of India and Uganda to launch and spread similar networks in their own geographies. Sharath uses the pilot in Delhi as a lab to research, test and refine what works most effectively to spur such networks. He uses the learnings from the networks in Delhi to inform the spread strategy through partner organizations and the Government.
To ensure that these networks work effectively at scale, Sharath developed a simple, disciplined process with strong reporting cycles. First, through its partners and strong outreach program, STIR searches the country for teachers and schools who are already implementing small-scale, low or zero cost practices ( ‘micro-innovations’) that directly or indirectly improve education quality. From these, the most innovative ideas are shortlisted and selected through teacher, partner and expert feedback. For instance, in 2013, STIR mapped 1300 schools in India and selected 55 ideas from 2500 applications that highlighted micro-innovations. These included simple ideas like using new words in Hindi and English, instead of the child’s name, during attendance to improve vocabulary, surveys among parents to understand the support children receive at home, creating student safety cards to ensure the child is in safe hands when picked up from school, and using music to teach poems and grammar. The process of articulating their practices and innovation in itself makes teachers see themselves differently.
Through these ‘search conferences’, STIR and its partners bring in carefully selected teachers who show a spark of commitment and innovation into the local ‘teacher innovation networks.’ Each network comprises of 40-50 teachers, divided into smaller clusters, and is facilitated by an ‘education leader,’ trained and supported by STIR or the partner organization. Over the course of a year’s deep engagement, the ‘education leaders’ help teachers develop the mindset and behavior of a changemaker – innovating, implementing, and influencing - through regular meetings and structured guidance. The ‘education leaders’ help teachers prioritize their challenges and improvement opportunities at their schools and understand solutions to those challenges. The sourced micro-solutions are documented and widely disseminated within these teacher innovation networks.
The process of learning from peers and adapting ideas creates a greater sense of ownership among teachers. The simplicity of the solutions and their relevance to the contexts also increases adoption rates of ideas. Teachers implement solutions in their classes and regularly review the success of the solution. They connect with peers to address challenges in implementation and influence other teachers / principals in their schools to spread the idea. The network effect breathes in a fresh sense of hope for teachers, and helps them see how they can change the otherwise deadweight of their institutions. To date, STIR has developed five networks in Delhi, another seven networks across six states in India, and 20 other networks in Uganda (run through partner organizations). The networks collectively include 1200 teachers or approximately 48000 children.
After spending a year within the network, STIR creates an ecosystem of ‘next-step service partners’ who can provide relevant programs and services for teachers and schools. These partners provide further quality enhancing services in areas such as pedagogy, teacher professional development, and parental and community engagement. To date, these partners include organizations that help develop leadership skills (ISLI) and provide training for teachers ( LRTT and Impact Teachers). Changemaking teachers are also given opportunities to attend national and international conferences to present their ideas, including a national ‘teacher changemaker summit’ to celebrate network teachers and partners and open further opportunities for them. This summit helps teachers see themselves as a part of a larger movement.
Going forward, Sharath plans to leverage the collective voice of STIR’s teacher movement to influence structural changes in policy that are focused on improving learning. Sharath is using the national summit as a platform to get teachers to engage with policy makers and provide practical suggestions on how policy can be better implemented on the ground. He is already creating such policy platforms at a city (e.g. Delhi), state (e.g. Uttar Pradesh) and national (Ministry of Human Resource Development) level in India; and is in discussions around a similar platform with the Ministry of Education in Uganda. STIR is also partnering with strong independent evaluation organizations, namely, Columbia University, ID Insight, J-PAL and Pratham (ASER) towards measuring impact of STIR model in terms of the change on teacher motivation, behaviours and practices, as well as the further progression of teachers in leading change; while also measuring medium term impact on child learning outcomes.
Sharath plans to scale the networks by partnering with the Government and CSO’s to reach and deepen engagement with 30,000 teachers over the next three years. He already has partnered with credible CSOs in India and Uganda who see value in complementing their programs with STIR’s programs. More recently, he has also partnered with the Government of Uttar Pradesh to embed the STIR framework in the Government infrastructure. This helps the Government re-energize and highlight their high performing staff and teachers.
Sharath grew up in a family of doctors, between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. After completing his bachelors at Cambridge University and working a short stint at Booze & Co., Sharath took a sabbatical to work with Action Aid, assisting with its marketing and operations. This experience provided him with significant insight into how traditional development organizations function and operate.
Realizing that the classical developmental approach in large organizations was not for him, Sharath then moved on to set up a dot.com company in 2000 that attracted $1.8 million in venture capital funding. The experience provided him with many powerful and painful lessons in entrepreneurship.
After completing his MBA from INSEAD, Sharath went back to Booz & Co., where he gained experience in strategic, organizational, and operational consulting at senior levels across a range of sectors including corporate and government. However, by 2005, Sharath sought to engage with the social space and established a new social venture within eBay, ‘eBay for Charity’, where the proceeds from transactions between buyers and sellers would go to thousands of non-profit organizations. He established a clear internal business case and won the support from the most senior levels of eBay management. The scheme has now raised over $100 million for non-profits in the UK and over $500 million for non-profits globally.
As this division in eBay matured, Sharath moved on to bring the GlobalGiving model to the UK and enable grassroots projects all over the developing world to benefit from UK donors. He created innovative corporate partnerships with the likes of Standard Chartered, Expedia and the Guardian, and attracted support from DfID as well as influencing wider UK international aid policy.
These engagements with the citizen sector slowly convinced Sharath that simply pushing money at the citizen sector was not enough. His passion for education led him to found “Teaching Leaders,” a non-profit focused on developing a new generation of school leaders across the UK’s most challenging inner-city schools. Structured like an MBA program for leaders in schools, Teaching Leaders demonstrated strong results within five years of inception. It received a $25m grant from the UK government to take its model to every disadvantaged school in the UK, and was also replicated in 6 US cities with the support of the Obama Administration and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
This experience gave Sharath the opportunity to reflect more deeply about the needs of the sector. He recalls a meeting with the Education Minister of a Caribbean country, who intended spend a quarter of its education budget on buying a laptop for every child, without an understanding of how that would really help improve learning outcomes for children. At the same time, he read about a teacher in Kenya who achieved the second highest mathematics results in the country through small scale-changes in the way he organized the year. The contrast between those two interactions – both within a matter of weeks – inspired the thinking behind STIR. He was convinced that teachers, not ministers, are the agents of change who can really improve student learning – they really are the ones closest to the problem. Seeing his role to provide them with the motivation, tools and ecosystem to do so, he set up STIR.