Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rare is a government school alum among the Indians in America?

The school that my father and his brother attended in the small village of Pattamadai was established by a family and was a private school.  Even back in those days, they had to pay fees, which was not affordable for many.  Not that grandmother was rich.  To make things worse, she was barely 18 when she was widowed with a two year old and a two-month old, and had to be ultra-careful with how she spent the assets.  (Thus, my father did not even have footwear until he was in high school!)

Literacy was expensive, and was a privilege that only the middle and upper classes could afford.

An independent India understood the importance of education and literacy and established government schools.

In the town where I grew up, we siblings went to a private school. Whenever we kids teased grandmother about her not knowing anything in English, her humorous comeback was (in Tamil, of course) "I didn't pay fees and study in an English-medium school."  Her schooling until the fourth grade was in Tamil.

Thanks to the British, English had become the language of commerce and government in the Subcontinent and, therefore, there was a recognition early on that schooling with English as the medium of instruction might payoff.  At the school that I attended, English was the instructional language.  Some teachers were maniacal enough about English that they faulted us kids if they overheard us chatting in a language other than English.

Horsing around by the playground during the high school reunion, 2011

However, government schools often tended to instruct students in the local vernacular, of which there are plenty in India. Thus, in Tamil Nadu, Tamil was often the medium of instruction in government schools, with a few rare ones offering an English-medium option.

Over the decades, English has gained even more ground as the global language of commerce and science, and the poor in India, too, are acutely aware of it.  They then face roughly two options: send their kids to government schools or to private schools.  The former almost always in the local language and also at atrocious quality, whereas the private schools promise better quality and, more importantly, with English as the instructional language.

Is it any surprise that even the poor choose to send their kids to privately run English-medium schools?
In rural India, 24 to 40 percent of children are enrolled in private schools. In poor urban areas, the figure is at least 65 percent. These low-cost private schools provide even the poorest parents value for their investment. (To give just one example, they are much likelier than government schools to provide instruction in English, a skill that can raise hourly wages by 34 percent.)
This news is not new, really; studies have often reported similar decisions that even the poor in India make:
Researchers tracked 3,000 children who were randomly selected from different social and economic backgrounds in Andhra Pradesh.
They found that in 2002 about one quarter (24 per cent) of seven and eight year olds attended private schools, but by 2009 the rate had almost doubled to 44 per cent.
The study suggests that the trend is fuelled by the availability of low fee-paying private schools, and the perception among parents that children will make better educational progress in private schools.
Parents said they valued English-medium teaching offered by private schools, whereas government schools mostly teach in the regional language, Telugu, the statement added.
The poor--even when illiterate--know the value of a good education for their kids, as I noted in this post from more than three years ago:
many of the schools Tooley visited were tucked away in poorly lit, dilapidated, smelly buildings without toilets, and teachers there did lack government training certificates, and were paid less than in the public system. But Tooley found that in low-cost private schools, across the board, classroom sizes were smaller, and teachers were much more likely to be found teaching during an unannounced visit. They are also achieving better results: the students in private schools outperformed their public school peers in nearly every subject they were tested in.
When there are such consistently strong trends, then one might wonder why the market hasn't jumped on this opportunity.  Schumpeter's column, a couple of months ago, in the Economist was about this very issue:
That poor parents will pay for something the state provides free speaks volumes. India’s state schools pay their teachers far more than private ones, yet they are often worse. Surveys suggest that a quarter or more of government teachers are absent at any given time. Unions prevent the authorities from disciplining slackers or rewarding good teachers.
The willingness of poor parents to pay is also a sign of something more positive: ordinary Indians’ passion for education. Slums like Brahmpuri are full of garish advertisements for makeshift computer-training colleges and English schools. (Workers who are fluent in English earn 34% more than those who are not.) 
Politics and teachers unions make for a nasty combination anywhere on the planet, I suppose.  As Schumpeter notes there, the healthcare industry in India, on the other hand, innovates to serve the domestic and foreign demand.

India's polity recognized this and, as with everything else, they came up with a quota system!
Many of the world's top private schools offer scholarships to smart poor kids. But India's plan is more sweeping: It reserves a quarter of admissions for underprivileged kids. Rules prohibit admission-testing of students, rich or poor, although private schools can set some parameters, such as nearness to the school or gender.
But, a mere quota system does nothing to level the playing field:
One recent morning, teachers Sujata Gupta and Shilki Sawhney asked their class of 4-year-olds to name examples of purple things. The rich kids shouted out "blackberries," "blackcurrant ice cream" and "potassium permanganate," a chemical used to clean fruits and vegetables.
None of the seven low-income kids raised their hands. Unlike the wealthier children, they hadn't learned their colors at home, spoke no English, and were further confused by examples of things they had never heard of.
The teachers, repeating everything in Hindi for the poor kids, then asked anyone wearing a purple T-shirt to stand. Nitin Raj, saucer-eyed and wearing green, rose.
"He's not understanding at all," Ms. Gupta said.
Not to forget that India being the India, class and caste matter a lot even after all these years!:
 Resistance has also come from some private school parents. School officials in New Delhi who asked not to be named told of parents requesting that their children not be seated next to poorer classmates or telling their children not to befriend poorer students.
Sunil and Elizabeth Mehta, who run Muktangan, a nonprofit group that provides English-language education to 1,800 poor children in public schools in Mumbai, said that if parents were made aware of the importance of expanding access to quality education, prejudices would eventually melt away.
“People are socially sensitive if something is explained to them,” Mr. Mehta said. “But you can’t expect them to change right away.”
Nope. Change does not happen overnight. It is a slow incremental process.  But, the good thing is that change is happening.         

It is such complications in India that Americans fail to notice.  But, I don't blame my fellow citizens and our leaders.  After all, they only get to see the successful Indians--here in the US or back in India--and very, very rarely is any of the success stories a product of a government run school in India.  If only politicians here in the US would understand that people like me do not represent the average person in India.


Ramesh said...

You raise a whole host of issues in this post that a sensible comment would be as long as your post. I'll only touch upon one issue - that off English as the medium of instruction.

Yes, knowing English is a competitive advantage, but its not as big or maniacal a deal as it is made out to be. The real problems is the lack of quality education in the schools that teach in Indian languages. In China, where almost all education is in Chinese, there are superb schools and the children who can't speak a word of English do exceptionally well. As you observed, many government schools are a joke - it can be fixed as some places have done, but these are islands in a whole ocean of abysmal performance.

Sriram Khé said...

Re. China, yes and no ...
English is not the language of government in China as much as it is in India. English is not necessarily the language of commerce either. So, the China comparison for English as the instructional language doesn't work.
But, even in such an environment, most students are required to learn English right from their 3rd or 4th grades ...

Anyway, in India, it is awful how much teachers in government schools get paid and how they don't do any work for it ... I wonder how things got so bad so fast in India ... a tragedy :(

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