This interview with Shaheen Mistri is part of the Asia program’s Women You Should Know in India Project, produced by Senior Fellow Manjari Chatterjee Miller and Research Associate Zoe Jordan, featuring influential women in India’s political, economic, technological, and social fields whose work matters for the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and India’s relationship with the world.
Shaheen Mistri is the CEO of Teach For India, an educational nonprofit that runs a two year fellowship program and alumni network to foster educational excellence and leadership in India. She is also the founder of the Akanksha Foundation, established in 1989, to work with and educate children from low-income communities. She has been an Ashoka Fellow (2001), a Global Leader for Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum (2002), and an Asia Society 21 Leader (2006). She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Manchester, England. Teach For India was launched in 2008, and has recruited, trained, and placed nearly 3,800 Fellows in schools across India.
Ms. Mistri, who was born in Mumbai and grew up in 13 different countries, believes committed and motivated leadership is key to providing an excellent, equitable education for each child in India.
What do audiences in the United States commonly misunderstand about the field of education, pedagogy, and nonprofit work in India?
American audiences may not appreciate just how dire the state of education is in India. Access to education and the quality of the education offered is hugely problematic across the country. This is because India has one of the most complex education systems in the world. This complexity is due to India’s large and ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse population and its high levels of poverty. The sheer scale of how many need to be educated—320 million children—along with their diverse needs results in many challenges at different levels.
There are kids who are not in the school system at all. Once kids are in school the quality of education is uneven. There are massive issues with infrastructure. There are wide disparities between private schools and government (public) schools. Even leadership is a problem. There are 14,000 teacher training institutes in India but less than 12 percent of teachers successfully complete the national qualification exam. More than 100,000 schools across the country have one single teacher catering to all grades in the school - this means that one teacher is responsible for teaching all the subjects for all the students enrolled in grades one through grade five. In some states, up to 65 percent of public schools do not even have a school principal. The pandemic and online learning has made things even worse. 40 to 70 percent of the rural population in India does not have access to the internet, and up to 70 percent of all children do not have a device at home.
To tackle these serious challenges, it is not enough for education non-profits to simply apply global best practices in education intervention and pedagogy. They have to also customize these solutions for the Indian environment to get different stakeholders to work together.
What are the most consequential factors in your field that you think will play a role in India’s relationship with the United States or the world over the next 3-5 years?
India is a leader in education technology (ed-tech). The Indian ed-tech market has received USD four billion in venture capital inflows since January 2020 (including by global and U.S. venture capitalists such as Sequoia, Blackrock, and General Atlantic). Bengaluru-based Byju’s is the world’s highest-valued ed-tech company as of today. These ed-tech solutions are largely focused on large-scale content delivery that provides foundational literacy and numeracy. Google, for example, has a “Read India” program to boost literacy. But, while ed-tech is important, one thing that the pandemic has taught us is that children don’t go to school just for content. School and education is so much more than that.
The closure of schools and the disruption of learning to our children caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest challenges that not just India but the United States too has faced over the past two years. But the national responses have been different. The length of school closure has not been the same. India has taken a much more conservative approach than the United States—schools even now are not fully open across the country. In India, there were guidelines for when to open transport and restaurants and bars and malls but none for schools. Opening schools was not looked at with the same level of seriousness.
Over the next few years, India should join the United States to unpack how education disruptions have impacted a whole generation. In India, there has been a 490 percent reported increase in child rescue requests, and 35 percent of children did not get mid-day meals while schools were closed. What I would love to see is for decision makers to care—to create a shared narrative about the long-term ramifications of school disruptions, and remedial efforts to collectively move forward. There could be shared guidelines drawn on solid scientific and medical data for example around school openings and closures, and at the very least there could at least be more learning across cultures.
Can you speak to the status of women in the work that you do?
The status of women is a cause for concern for both the beneficiaries of our work, and for colleagues working in the sector.
India still has far to go to provide equal opportunities at the level of school, college, and the workplace to our girls. As per India’s National Statistical Office, women’s literacy rate in India is 70.3 percent as compared to 84.7 percent for men. This is even lower for minority populations such as Muslims in India—per the 2011 census only 52 percent of Indian Muslim women are literate.
While working in education nonprofits attracts more women than the private sector, there is a distinct lack of female representation in leadership roles.
We are trying to change this at Teach for India which I modeled on Teach for America. We run a fellowship program where 70 percent of our fellows are women. And we created an alumni network to build a movement of leaders who can impact the education system through positions in government as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. At the leadership level, 56 percent of our team are women.
Teach for India fellows are also trained to ensure that their students have equal opportunities to meet educational goals, and all curricula and activities are welcoming of both boys and girls. We implement a systematic and strong child protection policy to prevent cases of violence or harassment.
What inspired you to pursue your career path? How does your personal background inform your work?
The seeds of the work I do started many, many years ago when I was twelve. At the time, we lived in Indonesia and I spent time volunteering over summer vacations with children. As we travelled from country to country, and I studied in ten different schools, I learned to adapt and appreciate difference, and our common humanity. My own education—the schools spanned the French, International, U.S. and British education systems—showed me what education was and wasn't. Later, I volunteered with visually impaired children in India, children with autism in the United States, and orphaned children in Indonesia. I was able to understand the privilege I had, and the impact that a lack of educational opportunity can have on so many.
So much of what I do comes not only from travel and changing schools but also from my family—from my parents who are caring, disciplined and generous, and my Nani who is a creative free-spirit. They have been a huge influence.
When you look at the state of education, schooling, and grassroots community-building, what concerns you most or brings you hope? What are the most pressing priorities for you and your colleagues?
I'm deeply concerned about the state of education in India—from how we define the purpose of education, to how we impart it, to how we measure learning. I believe that there isn’t a silver bullet solution, but we do need leadership committed to improving—radically—everything in the system. This includes who we recruit into the system, how we train, support, and value our teachers, how our curriculums foster not just the building of knowledge but also the development of 21st century skills, how our assessment systems become holistic, and how we treat our children with respect and as partners in the journey of their learning. It is also critical to enable digital access to all children in a world where learning is constantly interrupted. We need to draw in political leadership who will prioritize education in the national budget, and emphasize the importance of education. There are hopeful examples today where education is beginning to be a priority for state political leaders. Notably, in Delhi, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) recently fought elections on the issue of education, which we have not seen before in India. It also allotted a significantly higher proportion of the state budget to education when typically the allotment is quite low.
We need to think of the education system as a complex puzzle that requires committed, equipped leadership working with the community to fit in each piece of the puzzle with clarity, conviction and staying power until we are able to start shifting the needle on learning outcomes. My own piece in this puzzle is offering a supply of trained pedagogical talent. I see education as the most powerful instrument we have to shape our ability to live our greatest potential.