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RAMYA VENKATARAMAN

India,

Ramya believes that to truly transform the quality of education in India, teaching as a profession needs significant impetus and transformation. She recognizes the need for it to systemically incentivise performance and provide an accelerated growth path to teachers - thus becoming a self-regulated ecosystem that inspires excellence.

This profile below was prepared when Ramya Venkataraman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.

INTRODUCTION

Ramya believes that to truly transform the quality of education in India, teaching as a profession needs significant impetus and transformation. She recognizes the need for it to systemically incentivise performance and provide an accelerated growth path to teachers - thus becoming a self-regulated ecosystem that inspires excellence.




THE NEW IDEA

Ramya is driving this fundamental shift by creating an ecosystem that values great teachers and has the capacity to demonstrate that value. In collaboration with key national and international institutions, teachers and thought leaders, she and her organization, Centre for Teacher Accreditation (CENTA) have created an independent and unique teacher certification framework that can assess teachers’ skills and knowledge and also touch upon mindsets. By linking this certification to professional growth opportunities, they are inspiring teachers, for the first time in India, to take ownership of their own professional development. They are aligning positive change or competencies with tangible and strategic incentives- monetary, opportunities for career growth and visibility- to create the demand among teachers (not only institutions) for the certification. She believes shifting the onus of growth to teachers is to unravel exceptional teachers and drive transformational change.  The Teaching Professionals’ Olympiad (TPO) announced by CENTA as the first step towards building this ecosystem of rewarding quality saw teachers participating from close to 300 cities/towns across 25 states/Union territories, travelling to one of the 7 cities where TPO 2015 was held. 




THE PROBLEM

According to estimates by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), India currently faces a shortage of over 12 lakhs (1.2 million) teachers. Even amongst the existing pool of teachers, there are quality issues, as evidenced by the performance in the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) - a prequalifying test for applying for teaching positions in government schools after the B.Ed. / D.Ed. courses, which primarily test the aspirants' knowledge of English, mathematics and environmental science. Further, apart from a smaller number of progressive private as well as government schools, teachers by and large get limited support or incentive to improve their own professional competencies.
Raising the quality of education is an urgent need for the education sector. However, to improve the quality in Indian education, it is imperative that we support our teachers in improving their competencies and also attract high quality talent into the profession. Unfortunately, teaching is no longer an aspirational profession. While we continue to have several people join teaching by choice, the majority of young people in India seem to view teaching as a last-resort career option. In contrast, Finland, South Korea and Singapore recruit teachers from the top third of the graduating class in high school. 
A key reason for the failure of the field to attract and retain best talent is that unlike all other professions, there is no systemic differential recognition or incentive for better performing teachers.  For most part, there are no clear opportunities for growth or career progression. For example, a regular teacher is typically promoted to the position of the school principal only on the basis of seniority, rather than performance. Further, an outstanding teacher who says that he/she wants to remain a teacher, has even fewer growth opportunities. Prof. Karthik Muralidharan's (a maven in the field) research in Andhra Pradesh demonstrated that a nominal 3% performance incentive resulted in significant positive outcomes. Even the many teacher training programs that exist are ad hoc. At best they provide localised certifications and recognition platforms that are not linked to growth pathways or career progression opportunities. Especially as most of these come as top-down mandates by institutions, it is not surprising that 55% of teachers find in-service training to be irrelevant (National Council of Educational Research and Training, 2009). 

These factors naturally translate to relatively low motivation amongst teachers to take ownership of their professional development and improve learning outcomes for children. 

There is a clear opportunity to build an eco-system that not only motivates, rewards and recognises exceptional teachers but also one that inspires a much larger population of teachers to keep improving their own competencies.




THE STRATEGY

Ramya, along with a co-founder Nalini Haridas, founded CENTA – Centre for Teacher Accreditation in Dec 2014 to empower teachers and catalyze their professional development by certifying outstanding teachers and teacher candidates and creating a range of career, recognition and professional development opportunities for them.

To establish a first of its kind benchmark professional teaching certification, they have set up CENTA as an independent body akin to third party organisations that offer certifications in other professions such as Certified Internal Auditor. They have formulated the CENTA standards through a collaborative process involving all key stakeholders. The standards draw from 10 international frameworks as well as national inputs from the documented work of NCTE, UNICEF, MHRD, the National Curriculum Framework, CTET, Azim Premji Foundation, among others. They also consulted with over 100 educators and specialists. 

As a result of this collaborative process, the standards that have evolved are holistic, spanning three categories of competencies. First, technical competencies (competencies specific to teaching as a profession). Second, core competencies (fundamental competencies of an individual). Third, professional competencies (competencies relevant for effective interactions in a professional environment). Each category contains six to eight sets of standards. The standards are defined in the form of measurable or observable knowledge, understanding, skills and behaviours. The accreditation promises to be a first of its kind in depth and breadth.

The accreditation is a two-part process comprising an objective assessment and a subjective section. The objective assessment itself is based in classroom practice and is not purely theoretical. It tests Classroom practice, logical ability as well as subject knowledge by different subject grade tracks across primary, middle and high school segments. The objective assessment has been designed to help CENTA gain initial rapid scale and traction and shall give teachers a feel of what performance based career progression incentives look like. The subjective segment includes a portfolio submission by the teacher and a centre based evaluation. The portfolio submission comprises lesson plans, essays as well as videos of the teacher’s classroom. The Centre based evaluation will take place on video with a panel of experts from across the country and over time, across the globe. Surveys across the student community, peers and school management shall contribute to the score on the certification. 

Ramya and her colleagues have put in intensive effort in designing the certification as they believe that the quality of the certification will determine the quality of the preparation, i.e. the improvements teachers try to make in their own competencies. They envision the teacher training infrastructure stepping up to meet the increased demand of good preparation from the teachers. 

The fundamental design principle behind CENTA is for it to be lead and demanded by the teacher and Ramya and her colleagues are aligning all factors toward this end. Therefore, opportunity creation is core to the certification. In order to lay the foundation of building recognition within the system for exemplary professionals, Ramya and her colleagues are getting schools from within and outside the country to give weightage to the CENTA Certification in their recruiting, promotion and compensation cycles. 

To gain early traction and demonstrate the model, CENTA held its first Teaching Professionals’ Olympiad (TPO) on December 5th 2015, across 7 cities of India. TPO 2015 was supported by The Hindu (a leading news and media company)  and HCL (a leading technology company with a learning subsidiary) as primary partners. The professional incentives associated with the Olympiad included a range of incentives- monetary, opportunity and visibility. For example, toppers received cash awards (ranging from INR 5,000 to 1, 00,000), and got the opportunity to attend international conferences - Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF) by Varkey Foundation and Kaizen-INSEAD-New York University Education Symposium (KINSES). To build visibility for them and showcase them as role models, CENTA also partnered with The Hindu to profile the teachers/ winners. HCL provided a short training program on technology in education to 500 winners. Going forward, CENTA plans to systematize such and more opportunities into the certification process.

Ramya and her colleagues are committed to building retail (individual teachers, not only institutions) demand for the certification. For them, this signifies the ownership among teachers for their own professional development. As a testimony to the same, the TPO has seen 60%+ retail registrations.

Ramya and her colleagues are also committed to maintaining the fidelity of the data collected by CENTA by not sharing detailed teacher reports with schools or other institutions. The data is purely for the consumption of the teacher to understand his/her competencies and the only individual aspect available in the public domain will be the grant of the CENTA certification. This, they feel, will allow teachers to take the certification “safely” without any worry of failure. At the same time, school level consolidated reports provide schools with an in-depth view of the professional development needs of their teachers.

As CENTA builds acceptance for its certification, creating the necessary surrounding ecosystem to set it up for success, the team will be tracking impact through various parameters – such as measuring the co-relation between the CENTA certification and actual classroom performance ( measured through student performance, student opinion and peer opinion) and in the long term tracking the average percentage scores of grade 10 and 12 students who enter teaching as a profession, to gauge whether a demand for the profession is being built. CENTA also aspires to partner with universities or individual researchers for longitudinal studies to track classrooms of CENTA certified teachers and correlate the findings with teacher competencies. 

While the full certification will be priced reasonably at INR 6000 to 7000 (USD 100 to 120), CENTA provides a dipstick view with the low-priced Olympiad (priced at sub INR 500 or USD 8) and the team envisages raising institutional grants and partial sponsorships for teachers from low income backgrounds to make the certification accessible. In the long term, Ramya and her colleagues are establishing an ecosystem that not only values a skilled teacher but also has the capacity to demonstrate that value.




THE PERSON

Ramya Venkataraman, a focused and aspirational child, grew up in an encouraging home that valued all-round development and education. Ramya was the head-girl of her school and found an opportunity to play a leadership role in a setting that truly encouraged student opinion and focused on a range of extra-curricular activities for students. At the same time, this role also brought Ramya to close quarters with school decision-making and she saw the many different complexities of each decision and the impact on students, sometimes inadvertently. She also got the opportunity to interact with students from a range of other schools and noticed the wide variation in students’ views of their own schools – some loved their school life, some hated it. Ramya successfully organized many extra-curricular activities for her school, pioneered new areas of interest and also pushed for even greater student-centred decision-making, which many of her teachers and principal appreciated. The experience sparked in her a passion to create a school herself.    

With her interest in maths and science, she ended up at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Continuing on her thoughts of an ideal schooling space, she started volunteering through NSS (National Service Scheme – an all-India government scheme to engage college students in social sector volunteering). Here, although she taught students, she did not find it satisfying, as they were more inclined towards mundane task-driven studying rather than concept learning. This made her realise the enormity of what she was trying to change, and the vast amount of experience she would need to tackle it. She remained an active student leader through her days at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, leading several large scale and pioneering initiatives, and also forming deep relationships that continue to this day. Her co-founder at CENTA, for example, is a fellow alum from IIT Delhi and a close friend. 

After doing her masters at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, she joined McKinsey. At McKinsey too, while working in a range of other sectors and across several geographies, she continued volunteering, contributing to her area of passion – education. What started then continues to this day; her volunteering tryst with Akanksha – Ashoka Fellow Shaheen Mistry’s organisation, considered one of the most successful remedial education organisations in the South Asian region. She said the viscous there, for her, was the idea of ‘Excellence in education’ that was pushing all borders of the sector.

After almost 10 years in McKinsey, Ramya realized that much as she loved her core work (in manufacturing and heavy industries), her thoughts were constantly surrounding education and she wanted to “take the plunge” into the sector so to say. She set a spark to this passion by formally starting and completely building McKinsey’s education practice during 2009-14. As leader of the education practice, Ramya did extensive work in helping set up the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), therefore catalysing private sector involvement in the country’s skilling landscape, and drove the landmark Mumbai School Excellence Program (SEP) with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) that has laid the ground for many other school system transformations in the country currently. She also drove the pioneering Public Private Partnership (PPP) policy for schools in Mumbai, which again forms the template for many other PPP policies in this sector. She and her teams have also supported many other education organizations, non-profit and for-profit in their growth strategies and operations. In a space with several complicated dynamics, Ramya has demonstrated the ability to take people along and the theme of the energy from collegiality and self-motivation has been integral to her journey. Ramya also headed the McKinsey team that developed the blue-print for Teach for India. She had therefore looked at the question of quality for a long time and had hung in there for many years to know what it takes. The further and deeper she ventured in this realm, she found a new angle to the ‘problem’ she was exploring. She realised Teacher Training – one aspect of reaching excellence in education, wasn’t really lacking supply, it was lacking demand. From there, the gears of brain set to work on creating demand and CENTA was born. The work began in January 2014 and the company was incorporated by December 2014.




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