Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Olympic Sized Diversion

The summer Olympics ended with a bang last weekend. US won the most medals, while China won the most golds. By this time the people in the US olympic committee are probably strategizing as to how to win the most golds in London in 2012. It is natural in a culture that prides itself of athletic prowess. But while the eyes of the world were fixated on the grandest ever Olympic closing ceremony, two seemingly disconnected articles appeared in two separate corners of the world this weekend. One was in the Boston Globe, the other on the Yahoo! India website. Here are the links to both:

First, the Boston Globe editorial by Derrick Jackson, titled Going for Gold in India, an editorial describing the first ever olympic individual gold medal won by an Indian athlete.

The second, titled "India to have fourth of global workforce by 2020: PM", is a report on the announcement by the Prime Minister of India to Quintuple the investment in Education, and create a world class workforce of 500 million people by year 2020.

The Boston Globe editorial chronicles the story of Abhinav Bhindra, a 25 year old from Delhi. The first individual medal won by an Indian was a big deal, and Bhindra became an instant national hero. However, Derrick had a different slant on this victory - "But as every American who ever needed computer support knows, India is the 100-pound weakling laughing all the way to the global awards stand. As China and the United States produce athletes in very different, yet equally obsessive ways - and as we treat college and pro athletes as demigods and allow our children to become enslaved to high school coaches and suburban soccer programs - India is producing brainpower." I could not have said it better myself. As if to rub salt in the wound, the article goes on to say "But it is also interesting that the nation's first individual gold medalist also happens to be the 25-year-old chief executive of a company that makes controllers for computer games. While many half-educated American athletes retire into a fog to find meaning in the rest of their lives, Bindra wins the gold, then mints more gold as our children become zombies playing with his products."

As if by coincidence, the Indian prime minister's speech appeared on the newswires. Here is the first line "India is expected to account for a fourth of the world's total skilled workforce by 2020 and the central government is according top priority to higher education, allocating Rs.275,000 crore (Rs.2.75 trillion) to the sector, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said here Tuesday." and it continues further "'We have significantly increased allocation to the education sector with a five fold increase to an unprecedented Rs.275,000 crore,(Rs.2.75 trillion)' he said while addressing faculty and students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Guwahati." Five fold increase? A country that already produces 6 times the number of engineers and 10 times the number of computer programmers as the US to increase the investment in education by 500%? The investment will also be more broad based "Approval had already been granted for eight new IITs, seven Indian Institutes of Management, 16 central universities, 14 world class universities, five Indian Institutes of Science, 10 new National Institutes of Technologie, 20 Information Technology Institutes, and 1,000 polytechnics, he added." Admittedly, much of this newly educated workforce will be needed to support a projected population of 1.5 billion by 2020. At this rate, the proportion of the population engaged in high paying occupations will be way out of proportion compared to the US. Finally, Mr. Singh declared "This big and unique opportunity for India will come from an education revolution that we must undertake as our most important national endeavour.'" Now, we have heard just about every US president declare the same thing for the last 30 years. Billions were spent to rectify the problems found in the 1983 study "A Nation At Risk". The result? Education achievement has been flat to down. Even fewer students graduating with technical degrees. At the same time, the India has gone from a third world apology for an economy, to the second largest technical workforce by 2008, and in the next decade, is poised to be the largest.

How will we deal with this new reality? A country that is already committed to producing $20 computers and $2500 cars that get 50 mpg will be hard to ignore by anyone's standards, especially by the beaten down middle class teetering at the edge of poverty.

In the meantime, will we still continue to focus on winning more Olympic gold medals in 2012? Will parents push their kids harder on the parallel bars, or win more golds in swimming than Michael Phelps? Will the youth of the country focus all their energies on the next olympics? Or will we be mature enough to treat the situation for what it really is - an Olympic sized diversion.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wealth - Create or distribute? You make the call.

I wrote the following as a response to a mail thread from Wheresthemath group. The discussion started out on a commentary on the complacency that is apparent in the public education establishment.

"As a person who has spent over 25 years in high tech private sector, I can vouch with personal experience that there is a dire need for both the industry and education to inform each other. I got involved when a group of administrators toured the Intel facility in the late 1980s, and asked managers like me what they would like to see improved. I recall telling them “build teamwork skills”. I had no idea that they would throw everything else out in the process, or at least it seemed like it. It was not until I started volunteering in class rooms that I really started seeing the difference in mind sets. After watching this unfold over a decade, here is the pattern I see emerging.

If one looks at the economy as a whole, where goods and services are provided and consumed, one can broadly classify them as wealth producing and wealth redistribution. In this economy, most of the wealth producing activities like R&D, Engineering, Science, Technology, are in the private sector. The public sector has the lock on wealth redistribution, with programs like social security, medicare, etc. Public education seems to be in a no man’s land in between. Its charter should be enabling wealth creation, by providing skilled and knowledgeable labor pool to the private sector. Yet, because they are funded from the wealth redistribution side of the economy, that is all it seems to appreciate. Layers upon layers of educrats in the system and the colleges of education seem to reinforce the “mission” that instilling a sense of social justice in the students more important than providing them with world class skills to compete in an increasingly global economy.

I think the only way people will appreciate what is going on is for reality to continuously reinforce that they are on the wrong thought process. A prolonged recession, a depression, unemployed kids moving back in with their fixed income parents, all will go up with time. I just wonder how much worse it has to get before the tide turns."


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doing the Right Thing

Niki Hayes, a former Washington state elementary principal wrote recently about parents who defend the "conceptual math" that is all the rage in Washington and Oregon schools. They, like the education establishment, are clueless when it comes to why kids learn math at all. If they learn what they need to learn, they would find it easy to get into any college in any field, right? Wrong!! Millions of parents in California found the hard way that the UC system, still regarded as world class, does not care much for the conceptual math. The students simply did not have the skills to pass a rudimentary math placement test. But Washington parents, even some who are close to the school establishment, defend it. How can they realize that it is not what it seems to be? That their kids are headed for a life that they may not have envisioned?

Niki wrote - "Usually the only way to change a person's opinion, even passion, is for reality to hit them hard personally." Here is some equivalent political humor, this being an election year and all, - "A Conservative is a Liberal who has been mugged."

In our case, it did hit home early. But the fun part (if you can call it that) was to watch other parents go through their own "Ouch!" moments, when reality finally bit them in the butt.

The occasion was freshman orientation for my son at Oregon State U, year 2004. I went to the 2 day event to relive my own college days. Hundreds of freshmen came to attend the event, one of a dozen or so orientations scheduled throughout the summer. The first thing everyone was asked to do was to take a math placement test. The exceptions were those who had already passed the AP Calculus exam (my son had, so he did not have to take the test). Anyway, the next day, the chief freshman counselor had a big meeting in a large auditorium, and announced that about 60% of those who took the test had placed in the beginning Algebra class, and could expect their "4 year" college diploma to take anywhere from 5 and a half to 6 years. Many placed even below that. Only a few placed into Trig and Calculus. Some parents who sat in my vicinity were visibly shell shocked. They kept repeating that something must be wrong - their son/daughter was a star math student in their school, and got all A's and B's throughout high school. A large crowd gathered around the chief counselor to complain, who was probably jaded after years of such repeated scenes. He basically said "tough luck - welcome to college". Many decided to skip majors requiring higher math altogether, and decided to go into "softer" fields such as English or Psych.

Now, my younger son did some math on a couple of scenarios. Let us take the example of a student who is brave enough to go through the 5.5 to 6 years of college. The extra cost with in-state tuition, in the most optimistic scenario, is as follows:

Direct cost: 1.5 years x $20,000 (in-state tuition plus expenses) = $30,000
Opportunity cost: 1.5 years x $60,000 (what he could have earned if graduated earlier) = $90,000
Total Cost of not placing into Freshman Calculus: $120,000 (low side)

If we take the example of those who chose the softer fields, it gets even worse. Recent data show that those with non technical degrees earn on an average $30,000 less per year. Over their life times, this adds up to over a million dollars. Now, a million dollars would at least buy a few more gallons of gas to fill up those Suburbans, wouldn't they?

When I meet people who have not had these "ouch!" moments, I recall a Winston Churchill quip - "Americans always try to do the right thing - after they have tried everything else".

I think we have tried everything else. Now, it is time to do the right thing.