Sunday, October 25, 2009

VSD Board Candidates - A review

Most of the articles on this blog so far have been on global, national or state level issues. But since the local schools are where my kids get educated, I decided to drill down to my own district in Vancouver, and talk to some of the candidates. In this highly unscientific interview, I asked each one some standard questions. But mostly, it was an opportunity for me to get to know them as people. After all, they have come forward to volunteer their time and energy as the representatives of the parents, and by proxy the students, of the district. At times like these when money is scarce and student performance is lagging, I thought my blog can add some value to the decision making process of the voters.

Now, for the candidates themselves. For Position 2, we have Mark Stoker(Incumbent) and Chris Peppers, and for Position 3, two newcomers Nelson Holmberg and Kathy Gillespie. In general, the candidates all came across as passionate about something, which I think is good. All of them had a long history with Vancouver. Each one has a website that gives their detailed positions on issues they care about. I have attached URLs for each under the summary.

First, let me articulate what I consider to be my priorities, and then compare them to the candidates'. I believe the top priority and the prime directive of any board member should be student achievement. The data from the district screams lagging math and science scores, widening achievement gap, and huge dropout rates. If our schools are the only public institutions chartered with providing education, and if they are not meeting the charter, it automatically becomes the #1 issue in my mind. Everything else sort of falls out of this prime directive. Secondly, I wanted to see if anyone cared about STEM - Science, Math, Engineering and Mathematics. This has been clearly articulated as a priority by Arne Duncan, the national education secretary, and international competitive data on our school kid's STEM ability is now near the bottom of the list. Third, I wanted our candidates to demand more transparency and accountability in the dealings of the district. As one of the candidates pointed out, VSD meetings happen too early in the day for most parents to attend, they are not televised or archived on line for everyone to see, and the written minutes are not available for public viewing. What's up with that? Then there are issues that I do not consider as priorities. First is the fixation that more money will fix everything, in spite of data that show it does not. I would like the new board to address unnecessary spending first.

So moving right along, my review here is going to go after what they thought were their top three priorities, and my general impression of them as a candidate.

Position 2 - Mark Stoker (incumbent) - Top 3 issues 1. The Levy 2. Achievement Gap 3. Graduation Rate. On the whole, I found Mark to be pleasant and approachable. I was happy to see achievement related issues make it to the top three - both achievement gap as well as graduation rate made it. The levy is something that would have been an appropriate issue during good times, but I believe these are the times to figure out how to do more with less. I thought his second and third priorities were right on the money. Also on the plus side, he is the more experienced candidate for the race.

Position 2 - Chris Peppers (challenger) - Top 3 issues 1. Transparency of board operations 2. Community engagement 3. Accountability. Chris was probably the most curious of the four, asking for inputs and data where he felt he did not understand something. I think this is a good trait. However, studnet achievement was only mentioned as a part of transparency. While I agree that the line items on his priority list are important, I think they will automatically fall out of making student achievement the prime directive.

Position 3 - Kathy Gillespie - Top 3 issues 1. Academic achievement 2. A budget that is aligned to academic acheivement 3. Connect academics with career goals - esp. high schoolers. I think Kathy's first two priorities were right along mine. She also mentioned STEM as part of her first priority, which I consider a plus for her. She has a lot of volunteer experience in schools, and as a former newspaper editor, she can be an effective communicator.

Position 4 - Nelson Holmberg - Top 3 issues 1. Funding 2. Safety and Security in Schools 3. Realistic Learning Standards. The only priority that somewhat aligned with student achievement was the last one. Although Nelson was very passionate about transparency and accountability in his conversation, somehow it did not make his top 3. He also believed in bringing new "out of the box" thinking into the board, which I thought was refreshing.

So, in summary, if I look at alignment to my own set of priotities, the edge goes to Mark Stoker and Kathy Gillespie. However, with that comes the challege of what is not on their list - Accountabily and Transparency in board operations. I hope they put this on their list to address, as we will need the entire community to pull us through the education crisis. But no matter who wins, I don't expect the school board to perform dramatically better than the last one. I would love to be proven wrong, though.

Finally, I would urge the voters to make their own priority lists, and compare them to those of the candidates', and also study the candidate's web sites.

Friday, October 23, 2009

How To Reach A Market Of 3 Billion Poor

Poor and market? Isn't that an oxymoron? Aren't the poor just supposed to live on the charity of others? And isn't the business of selling to them considered suicide?

Well, this blog is a slight diversion before my planned review of Vancouver School District Board candidates. Sort of like an appetizer. But to see the connection, it takes careful connecting of the dots.

I will start with a short story I used to hear from my best friend in college. There was once a private school for the rich, where only the country club crowd sent their kids. But the teachers wanted to show that these children understood the plight of the poor. So they asked them to write an essay to describe a poor family. One little girl wrote "Once upon a time, there was a very poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the butler was poor, the chauffeur was poor, the gardner was poor, the maids were poor....". Well, you get the idea. The "poor" girl, and many like her, had absolutely no concept of poverty.

One of the popular images of the poor is that they are always looking for a handout, living by the good graces of the wealthy. One person from Bangladesh proved them wrong. He is Mohammad Yunus, the winner of the Nobel Peace prize. Now, if you think our President's preemptive award was a long shot, consider this - Mr. Yunus was not a peacenik. He did not broker any agreements between warring nations or religions. He did not take care of sick and dying lepers in the streets of Calcutta. He is a banker and an economist by profession. Why did he not get his Nobel Prize for Economics instead? Was the Nobel committee bonkers to give him the award? I think not. If I recall their rationale correctly, they gave it to him because his actions of empowering the poor to be financially independent and self sufficient were a greater contributor to world peace than someone brokering a peace agreement between two warring factions, only to see it flare up a few years later.

So, now the question comes up - what exactly did he do? First, he started with one of the poorest economies of the world - Bangladesh. Their per capita GDP is about $500 per year, a pittance compared to the US at about $47,000 per year. Second, most of the economy of Bangladesh is still rural and agrarian. The urban employment model has still not reached the masses. Third, the people who run the agrarian economy were self employed farmers and their families. The men do most of the manual labor, the women do the housework and sometimes weave baskets for extra cash. Unfortunately, the people who lent them money to buy the raw materials were unscrupulous loan sharks, which left them with very little after they sold their wares. Enter Mr. Yunus. He set up a new private banking institution called "Grameen Bank" (translates to "Rural Bank" from Bengali). His bankers did not sit in posh, air conditioned buildings waiting for business to come to them. They rode their bicycles from town to town, squatting on raw dirt to do business with housewives who wanted to borrow money, as little as $10 at a time. Yunus somehow must have intuitively felt that the empowered women would return his capital with the above market interest he charged. After all, he was not doing this for charity. He was a businessman. He did not have any market research, because there was none. Even if he paid someone to do it, they would have walked away, thinking he was nuts.

But no one could argue with the results. His on-time capital recovery rate is over 98%, and over 90% of its customers are women. The bank has grown to almost $100 million in revenue, an astonishing sum for a poor country. His model is now being emulated in other Asian nations and in Africa. At the bottom of all this is the faith that everyone has the ability to earn a dignified living, if only the system would allow it. And only someone who lived in that environment could see value in such an enterprise.

Now, you must be wondering - what is the point of all this? Well, I believe that the "New World Order" and the new buzz phrase "21st Century Economy" is going be defined by those who see gold in dirt. There are a lot more people below the poverty level in this world than there are rich. And the traditionally rich, developed economies are aging fast. Even China is aging faster than the other nations in Asia, sans Japan and Korea. And the products that have received a lot of attention lately for sheer value (the Tata Nano, the $2500 "real" car, for example), have come from industrialists and entrepreneurs who saw something no other conventional businessman did. The opportunity that lay behind empowering the poor. And there are products following from other established as well as smaller companies, like a $70 battery powered refrigerator for remote locations. And there are more on the way. Is this profitable? You betcha! Does it improve the standard of living of the dirt poor? Undoubtedly. This is the only scenario I have seen that would make both Adam Smith and Carl Marx happy. Is this a "win-win" scenario or what?

The challenge lies in how we train our young. Not only will they need sharp minds, great math and science skills, prodigious knowledge of history and literature, they will need to learn to empathize with those who need the most support - not by giving them a handout, but by offering a holding hand. To teach them how to fish, not just give them fish. Let them feel that they do have the power to control their own destinies. I read the other day that Princeton university is now offering all their freshmen a chance to live abroad for a year before coming back to their sophomore year. Bravo! We need more universities like that. Then we won't have sheltered, rich school kids writing absurd essays about the poor.

"The meek shall inherit the earth" - J. Christ


Saturday, September 26, 2009

DVD Review - 2 Million Minutes - The 21st Century Solution

When the DVD 2 Million Minutes first came out, I was late to the party in writing a review on this blog. It was a ground breaking portrayal of the contrast in some of the largest economies of the world. But the blog did have an impact - I was surprised to see how many people had not heard about until they read my blog. This time, I was determined not to be late. So here it is.

First of all, this DVD is not a direct sequel to the first 2 MM DVD. It is the fourth in a series, the second and third were a more in-depth look at the Indian and the Chinese education systems respectively. But the latest one is a drastic change in its focus. After telling us how well the Chinese and the Indians are being educated, Bob has now found an oasis of excellence in the US. And to help make the point, he has interviewed Craig Barrett, the recently retired Chairman of Intel Corp., the largest semiconductor company in the world.

To help find his success story, Bob went to the Newsweek rankings of high school, and picked the top school - Basis Charter school, which started in Tucson, AZ, and now has a second campus in Scottsdale, AZ. For those who are not familiar with Newsweek rankings, it picks its candidates from schools that have the highest AP test takers. Its challenge index, which divides the number of AP tests taken by the number of graduating seniors, is the primary benchmark. The Basis Charter school topped their 2008 survey, with a challenge index score of 17.167 - which means their graduating seniors had taken an average of 17 AP classes (equivalent to about 2 years in a regular college). One other unique feature of this school is that it is not a school for gifted and/or talented students, nor is it a magnet school. Anyone who applies get in, provided they can stand the rigor. One other big difference I found was that they start with 6th grade. This gives those students who are behind a chance to catch up to the rigors of its high school program. They do this in spite of the fact their charter schools get about $1000 per student less than other public schools.

How rigorous is the program? Let us take math, for example, which is the Achilles heel of most public schools. The expectation in Basis Charter Schools is that ALL STUDENTS take AP Calculus exam by 10th grade. This forms the basis for their calculus based science classes in 11th and 12th grades. So, in order to take AP Calculus, they have to take Pre-Calculus in 9th grade, Algebra II in 8th grade, Geometry in 7th grade, and Algebra I in 6th grade. Impossible, you say? Data show that this is not much different from top performing nations in Asia and Europe, and some developing countries in the world. Our best high school is about as good as an average or slightly above average school in those nations. But I digress. Once the gatekeeper requirement of Math is behind them, the students are ready to take other higher level science courses in their junior and senior years.

The result? The school has 100% college placement rate. Their students enter college better prepared than most other high school graduates. All this at a cost about 10% lower than sending an average student to school.

The main video could have been a bit shorter, in my mind. Or including a piece on K-5 school with similar attributes would have rounded it out more. These are minor quibbles. I thought that its main goal, of pointing out that excellence can be achieved within the public school system, at a lower cost, by those who had the fortitude to go against the entrenched monopoly of our public institutions, was achieved.

The one gem in this DVD is the extended interview with Craig Barrett. Although the DVD has snippets of the interview spread throughout the main feature, what really stands out is the added bonus feature. I think it is worth the entire cost ($25) of the DVD. In that interview, Craig answers a few personal questions, along with other questions on his view of the state of public education in the US. The one observation that he makes stuck in my mind as very astute. We have a dichotomy in this country. We have arguably the best post-secondary university system, both public and private, and arguably one of the most mediocre public K-12 education systems by international standards. He pins the underlying difference to the basic structure of these institutions. Our universities, both public and private, have to compete for the best students, the best faculty, and the best learning environment. When institutions compete, the customers, in this case, the students and their parents, win. The public K-12 system is devoid of any competition. Absence of competition, or a monopoly system, according to economists, leads to the lowest quality at the highest possible cost. So, the natural conclusion is - how do we introduce competition in our public education system? I will make this the topic of my next blog.

In the meantime, get your copy of the DVD, sit back, enjoy! Highly recommended.

Here is the publisher's site:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Real Tragedy at Yale

I just got back from a college tour of Harvard, Yale and MIT, as part of a ritual, or rite of passage if you will, for one of my kids. Being back on a college campus brought back memories buried deep within. The intellectual freedom, world class student body, fantastic faculty, and then...some tragedy.

It happened when we visited Yale campus in New Haven, CT. The local populace was reeling from the news of the murder of a graduate student. On the day of the visit, the campus newspaper had large headlines "Suspect Arrested", followed by all the gory details of how the body was discovered, and probable cause of death. The admissions seminar, usually an upbeat session, had a somber mood, with a lot of parents asking how safe the campus was.

This was the overwhelming story that drowned out what I thought was another tragedy. The admissions officer mentioned that the directors of Yale had decided to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields their top priority because "we are not producing enough scientists and engineers, and we are importing them from other countries". Well duh! This has been going on for over three decades, and it has taken so long for it to filter down to one of our elite schools. But wait! There's more. He also mentioned that Yale just spent over $1 billion to build a brand new engineering building, they have a student to faculty ratio of almost 1:1, and they would love to have their students take advantage of it. He said the biggest problem was students enrolling into the school as prospective engineering students, and then switching to some other field during their stay at Yale. Now let's see - you have an ABET accredited engineering program, you are spending over $10 million per engineering student to build a brand new building, and arguably the best student-faculty ratio anywhere, why would anyone want to leave the program?

I asked the gentleman from admissions if he had any solution to the problem. He said he had no idea. But I have a few thoughts as to why students getting into Yale may want to switch fields. Let me count the ways.

1. When one thinks of Yale, one conjures up law, business, and liberal arts. Engineering does not compute.

2. Those who enroll as engieering students have to take a much more rigorous course load compared to their peers in other fields, which makes them feel left out.

3. The Yale dorms, or "colleges" as they are called, are deliberately mixed in more ways than one. The main intent appears to be to cross pollinate different thoughts and ideas, but it also makes the engineering students feel like they are being punished - having to study long hours or do experiments in labs while their dorm mates may be having group discussions on world hunger.

4. On top of all this, a Yale graduate in a liberal arts degree will probably end up with as good a job as a Yale engineer today, although this point is arguable.

No wonder students who enter wanting to be engineers switch to other fields. As if to prove my point, the next admissions officer we met was an engineering graduate from Yale, who chose to work as an admissions officer after graduation. When asked, he said his future plans did not include an engineering career, although I hope he changes his mind.

The reader may be wondering - why is this such a tragedy? After all, students must be free to choose whatever they want. If they want to be doctors or lawyers, it is their choice. I agree to some extent. However, when taken in the larger context of how bad a shape our economy is in, and how we got here, I see a different imperative. We do not have enough professionals working in wealth creating STEM fields. As a corollary, we don't have enough graduates coming out of our colleges with STEM degrees. The new developing economies churn out several times the number of engineers and scientists compared to the US. If we want the economic recovery to have some legs, we need more people working to invent new things that create new wealth. Doctors, lawyers, and liberal arts majors rely on an economy that creates new wealth, and they suffer equally when the economy is in the tank. This implies that if we have a few precious students with talent and motivation in the STEM fields, we should be doing everything we can to nurture them, so they achieve their fullest potential. It is hard enough to keep a student motivated through high school so that he/she takes the most rigorous math and science classes. Do we want to waste the effort by having them switch to another field just because of the college environment?

Fortunately, I found the answer to Yale's problem was only 120 miles away - at MIT. It is a place where talent and achievement in STEM is not only nurtured, but celebrated. Not only do the incoming freshmen feel like they belong there, they go on to achieve at a stunning rate in scientific and engineering fields. Their peers, professors, the entire support system exists to promote technical excellence. They are not alone. There are others like Harvey Mudd, Cal Tech, Rensselaer, RIT, Olin College, and Rose-Hulman, just to name a few, that cater to excellent technical minds. All Yale needs to do is compare how their engineering students are treated versus those in the other tech schools, and they will get their answer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Want a Harvard degree cheap? Go to India!

Well maybe in a couple of years, if all goes well in the Indian parliament.

You see, the newly elected UPA (United Progressive Alliance party) government, which has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi's Indian National Congress party, has taken it upon itself to make higher education more international and more competitive. In a recent article on the Times of India (URL below)

Excerpt: "University presidential delegations from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Purdue have come to India in the past few years to learn more about and from the country. Last week, a team from Imperial College met Sibal and also visited Maharashtra. Several foreign universities keen on coming to India have already moved beyond the spadework—Georgia Tech has bought land in Hyderabad and the Schulich School of Business at York University is “committed’’ to setting up a campus in Mumbai. To mark its presence in the financial capital, this Canada-based management school is offering MBA programmes by partnering with the S P Jain Institute of Management and Research. If all goes as planned, the world will be in the classroom called India by 2010. "

Why would these ivy league colleges look to India to expand their campuses even if it means discounting their normal $50,000 a year in education expenses? Here are my educated guesses:

1. Economics: Most of these universities are research institutions, which charge a fee to do research on various subjects. Most of the research is done by what we grad students used to call "slave labor". Fully qualified graduates who could be earning a living with their bachelor's degrees, but choose to do research in a university at near minimum wage, because it is part of their degree requirement. Well, these bachelor's graduates are plentiful in India, and the minimum wage is about a dollar an hour. This year alone, India graduated over 400,000 engineers, and 300,000 are still looking for work. What better way to get them to do research on the cheap than to entice them with a Masters degree from Harvard?

2. Demographics: India is young, and its baby boomers are still in their teens. Which means more and more qualified people will be graduating from high schools and colleges looking for better opportunities. The US is aging, and the declining incomes of families is unlikely to keep students from attending expensive private schools.

3. Survival: Let's face it. The 21st century will be shaped by growing economies in Asia. Universities like Harvard and Imperial College need to maintain a global footprint, or they will be considered perochial and irrelevant. It would not be out of the realm of possibility for these institutions to have their largest campuses outside their countries of origin in a couple of decades. It has already happened to high tech companies like Hewlett Packard.

It is not like India does not have Internationally recognized private universities. There is the Birla Institute of Science and Technology in Pilani, and the Manipal University in Manipal, which have international reputations already. And hundreds of other private colleges have sprung up to educate the workforce for a booming software industry. But there is a cachet to the presence of institutions that one reads about only in newspapers, and whose alumni are often in international limelight. The new twist is having these universities charge competitive tuitions with local private universities, sort of like selling Cadillacs for the price of a Tata Nano. But, if all goes according to plan, sure as sunrise in the morning, it will happen.

So maybe the next Harvard graduate you meet will proabably sport a Malayali or Gujarati accent. It will be interesting to see how they will compete with the already "world class" graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology or the Indian Institutes of Management.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Conversation with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

We interrupt our regularly scheduled summer vacation to bring you this blog.

What am I saying? Summer officially got over on Labor Day. And what better way to end it than a chat with Arne Duncan?

Frankly, it didn't "just happen". Back in May, Secretary Duncan held an electronic town hall asking for inputs from people all over the country on his proposal to raise the education standards. I wrote a response (see below), along with hundreds of others. I did not expect much to happen as a result, and promptly forgot about it. A couple of months later, I got an email from his press office saying that Secretary Duncan read my comment, and would like to follow up with a phone call. The call was scheduled for this morning, and happened right on schedule - at 5:30 am Pacific Time. In the call, Secretary Duncan asked me when I sensed something was amiss with our public education, and how I got involved in the issues. I summarized what I had found (already in my previous blogs, I think), what some business leaders have said already, and finally, what is happening locally. He also mentioned he believed in more focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and that he believed math and science teachers need to be paid more. I gave him a brief summary of the local non profit nConnect, and what they are trying to do to promote STEM in local schools. He mentioned that more funding is going to be made available to help achieve his goals, and finally encouraged me to "keep pushing, and don't stop". I thought it was a nice, personal touch. Everything he mentioned resonated with what we are trying to accomplish in our schools, but somehow never get to. Even though it lasted only a few minutes, I felt a lot was communicated by both.

Coincidentally, today also happens to be the day that President Obama speaks to the K-12 students of the nation. His address got some flak from some even before it was given. I read the text of the speech, and could not figure out what the controversy was about. All I saw was emphasis on good old fashioned American values, and encouragement to study more, try harder, and stay in school. I encourage all students to watch the address.

My comment on Secretary Duncan's electronic town hall is attached below:

Dear Secretary Duncan:

Thank you for soliciting inputs on what I consider one of the most important issues that this administration faces. Most of the inputs so far appear to be from those close to the education system. I am a first generation immigrant, worked briefly as a university faculty, and spent my entire career as a high tech researcher/manager for a high tech company, before retiring early. Having spent equal time in India and the US, I believe I can bring a fresh perspective to this thread, starting with the following three reasons:

First, I think the US stands in the most critical point in its history, when decisions made can affect the future generations for decades. From what I gather, the total debt (public+private+individual) currently stands at above $50 trillion. Projected unfunded obligations in social security and medicare, plus growth in federal debt, also are projected to be over $50 trillion. These are both over three times our GDP. Never before in our history have we faced such a challenge, not even during the great depression. But it is our children who will be stuck paying the bill for this decades long party. It is our solemn duty to equip them with the best education on earth before they face a life vastly more perilous than what their parents and grandparents did.

Secondly, we are no longer the leading nation when it comes to getting children ready for what lies ahead in the 21st century. Those in the education establishment may argue otherwise, but I have had to hire, train and supervise multi national employees for over two decades. I have seen how other nations prepare their workers better in science and technology. Many multi national high tech companies have already moved their R&D centers off shore, where most of the intellectual property is developed, and all the high paying R&D jobs with them. As far as I am concerned, we have a lot of catching up to do here.

Third, I think we are on the wrong end of demographics when it comes to training young graduates into high paying jobs. We are an aging nation. Growth through immigration is coming from the bottom end of the pay range. So, in my assessment, each student in the pipeline now will have to carry a larger burden compared to the previous generation.

So, do I think we need to improve our standards? You bet. In my mind, it is not a matter of choice any more. In my humble opinion, here are some things I would do:

1. I would start with the most stringent worldwide standards to be our national standards to begin with, and then challenge the states to match them. I feel this is a necessary first step.

2. High standards will be meaningless if the same system of training, evaluating and rewarding our teachers continues. The best performing nations choose their best to go into teaching, and then give them rigorous training to do their jobs. The same cannot be said about us.

3. Parents and community leaders need to espouse academic achievement as a priority over extra curricular activities. Too many dollars today get spent on things that have no effect on student achievement, and the popular culture seems to encourage it. You and your boss have done an admirable job of elevating this issue and bringing it to the public limelight. Please continue to hammer the message in.

4. We need the equivalent of a national emergency action to pull out all stops on STEM education. Math and science have suffered greatly in what you refer to as “the race to the bottom”. What passes for some math curricula today will be considered trash in just about any other nation today. Many teachers who teach elementary or middle schools do not have degrees in math and science. Our ability to generate new intellectual property will continue to be hammered due to lack of proper math and science education, especially in early grades.

Once again, thanks for soliciting our collective inputs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Bill Gates of India" to endow first education university

Whoever has heard of Azim Premji?

For starters, he was listed as the richest man in India several times on the Forbe's list. He is the founder/chairman of Wipro, one of the largest software companies in the world, employing about 100,000 techies. And he is a minority Muslim in a predominantly Hindu India. He made his fortune with owner's stock in one of the world's largest software companies. I guess he could have taken his billions and retired comfortably. He is a very international person, with a fluent command of the english language. One of his interviews with Charlie Rose can be seen here:

Instead, Mr. Premji has decided to invest a good part of his fortune to start the first private university dedicated to train K-12 teachers. This seems like overkill in a country obsessed with education, where the movie "2 Million Minutes" chronicled high school kids studying up to 50% longer than their American counterparts. Wonder why he has taken this step?

For starters, my guess is that it is because the Indian education system, in spite of its tremendous accomplishments of turning out millions of college graduates a year, is comparatively low tech. Very few classrooms have computers, and teachers are not very comfortable using technology. Use of technology can make the Indian youth more at home working in the highly competitive 21st century business environment. More important, the teachers themselves need to be comfortable with technology in order to be effective. If the teachers cannot teach, student's won't learn. There is always this "guru", the "master who knows everything", image of a teacher so ingrained in Indian minds, that not knowing technology is a surefire way for a teacher to lose credibility with and respect of their students. Enter Mr. Premji with his education university idea.

This idea is by no means a done deal, it is awaiting an expected legislative approval from the state government. But it is akin to Bill Gates saying that he will build a $1 Billion university just to train K-12 teachers. All classrooms would be equipped with the latest Microsoft technology, and the teachers who graduate will be knowledgeable in their field, productive in their classrooms, and will turn out world class minds out of their schools. They would all get high paying jobs and pay down our national debt, and still have money left over to pay into social security and medicare. But.but....hey, who woke me up?! I was having a heck of a daydream!!

Check out the whole article here:

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Book Review: Why Don't Students Like School?

Rarely do I use my blog for a book review. As a matter of fact, this is the first time. But once in a while, a rare gem comes along that just screams "please tell others about it - it may save them in the future". This book is one of them.

It is authored not by a teacher or principal or a district official, although the title kind of implies it. It is written by Daniel Willingham, who has a doctorate from Harvard University in cognitive psychology. Why is this relevant? Simply because cognitive psychologists are true scientists, and their work is peer reviewed by other scientists before it gets published. Education schools are notorious for their lack of respect by the scientific community. Indeed, the recently published National Math Advisory Panel report observed that out of 17,000 education publications, less than 1% met the criteria for scientific validity. Enough said.

The book has a simple format. First, it is easily understood by an average reader. Each chapter introduces an assertion, followed by simple explanations and experimental evidence, followed by a Q&A section that has FAQs for teachers to modify their teaching techniques based on the assertion. What is novel here is that most of the assertions are exactly opposite of what the popular education school literature claims. I have listed a few nuggets below:

1. People are naturally curious, but they are not good thinkers: Why is this relevant? Because schools of education have focused on building "critical thinking" as one of their missions. However, if the brain is not designed well for thinking, it is good information to know. One needs to go to the following chapters to understand what is the secret of good critical thinkers.

2. Factual knowledge MUST precede skill: This is a corollary to the first assertion. Critical thinking needs factual knowledge first. Mathematical skills require mastery of multiplication facts. Throwing facts out just to concentrate on critical thinking is just not possible, because critical thinking is dependent on preceding factual knowledge. Indeed, critical thinkers tend to be only good in their narrow field of expertise (read - where they possess a lot of factual knowledge), and take a long time to gain the proficiency in a brand new field.

3. Memory is the residue of thought: This is a "duh" observation for me. What the mind dwells on the most, it tends to remember. This explains a lot, for example, why a few days after the test, those who cram for a test tend not to remember much of what they crammed. It may work to get a good grade on a test, but does not help retain what was learned.

4. New things are understood in the context of what we already know: This is the knowledge equivalent of "the rich getting richer". I had a boss once, a very smart fellow, who used to say "the brain is a difference engine". What he meant was that the brain internalizes what it knows with almost no effort, and leaves room to think about and interpret only the new information. So, those students who have been exposed to rich knowledge content early in their life tend to peel away from the rest of the pack very early. The author correlates this to the higher academic performance by those who come from families with educated parents, or higher socioeconomic background.

5. Proficiency requires practice: Another "duh" assertion. The author emphasizes that "It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice". Even experts need practice in basic skills sometimes, he says. I have observed that some mathematics curricula do not require extended practice, which is probably why they fail to produce results.

6. Cognition is fundamentally different in early and late training: Probably a corollary to assertion #4, although the author does not present it that way. A novice perceives new information in fundamentally different way than someone who is an expert. So, for example, emulating how scientists or mathematicians perform their jobs and trying to implement it in a classroom is bound to fail.

7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning: This assertion completely refutes one of the axioms used by curriculum designers, based on the theory of multiple intelligences, and multiple learning styles. The author does not deny that there are multiple abilities, but "intelligence" is a term he reserves for how quickly the brain can process information. This fundamental difference between the author and many of the theories based on which our schools are designed, is tremendously significant. The author has one big thing going for him - results. Math curricula designed for direct instruction (a certain type of pedagogy) have consistently outperformed curricula designed around the theory of multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles.

8. Intelligence can be changed with sustained hard work: And you thought heavy lifting was only good for building six-pack abs. This assertion refutes another assumption prevalent in education schools - that intelligence is static. One is either born to be good in math or not. This has a huge implication of how students get rewarded. In a simple experiment, students who were praised for how hard they worked performed better in the long run than students who were praised for being "smart".

9. Teaching is a complex cognitive skill, and can be improved: In other words, follow the first eight rules, and one can be a good teacher. This assertion leaves a glimmer of hope for those who had subject knowledge in math, science or another area of specialty, but convinced themselves that they "just ain't got it" when it comes to teaching.

All in all, the book, at a short 165 pages, was very much worth the read. Highly recommended. Five stars! (out of five)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

When you are being chased by a bear...

When I look at the nationwide education scene, I often get reminded of this old joke:

Two buddies were hiking bare feet on a hiking trail, when a huge bear spotted them and started running towards them.

One of the buddies quickly grabbed his backpack, took his sneakers out and started putting them on.

The other one, now panicking, was puzzled. He said "Are you crazy? You can't outrun the bear in those sneakers!"

The first one replied "I don't HAVE to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU!"

Unlike many developed or developing countries, the US has a decentralized education system. Almost all decisions were made at a local level at one time, until the state governments started funding schools. That has led to some interesting developments. Some states have realized, like the smart one in the story, that they just have to outrun the rest of the states in education in order to attract new businesses and promote economic growth. In these tough economic times, that rings true more than ever. Here are just a few examples of what different states have done, or are in the process of doing.

* Massachusetts, Indiana and California were some of the early pioneers in toughening up their math standards so that everyone gets college ready by graduation. They have realized that just because there are jobs for high school dropouts today, they will soon vanish. The future belongs to those who have the fundamentals in reading, writing, and math honed enough to switch to another field mid career. Career changes will be a necessity, not a luxury according to experts. So, let's say in 2020, when RoboX corporation wants to convert the old GM assembly plant in Fremont and build robots instead, they will be looking for technicians and programmers, not a high school dropout who puts bolts on nuts.

* Texas has made four years of Math and Science mandatory for all their high school graduates. When one thinks of high tech, Texas is unlikely to pop first into anyone's head, but I think they too realize that the days of big oil are limited, and the future belongs to those who understand technology. This makes their economy virtually future proof, because their graduates will most likely be CREATING the future we will all live in.

* Massachusetts and Minnesota have now asked to be separated out of the national pack in the TIMSS international study, which measures achievement in Math and Science over several grades. In the latest study, Massachusetts came in favorably compared to the top achieving nations in the world, such as Hong Kong and Finland. This pretty much validated their decision to set very high standards for all their students.

* New Hampshire, the tiny state which goes back into hibernation after the presidential primaries, has eliminated the 11th and 12th grades from their schools. Instead, the students go directly into community colleges, either to learn a trade or as freshmen in a 2 or 4 year college track. This has pretty much compressed what is taught in 12 years in 13 years of a typical K-12 curriculum into 11 years. Given that most curricula used in schools these days are thoroughly unchallenging even for an average student, this move is a bold but sensible one.

When I look at these examples, I pity the rest of the states that are scrambling to catch up. Many other states are now scrambling to catch up, and there is even talk of national standards. However, in my opinion, these attempts are only one small part of what is needed to compete. Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have been very eloquent in their support of education reform. However, they do not have direct control over what happens in schools. Each state, each district, each school, and each classroom has challenges that will need to be identified and worked out. In my home state of Washington, when I look at what is being done, it is clear to me that we will lag the rest of the states by a long shot. The big bear of international economic competition is merciless and relentless. Even when the US economy recovers, it appears that other states will have a jump on it before us, in terms of a well trained workforce.

Something better get done quickly before the kids in Washington state become (economic) bear fodder.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama - The Captain of the Economic Ship

Obama survived the first 100 days. And with record approval ratings to boot.

Hooray! Who'd have thunk, right?

Bank defaults, no problem. Obama the CEO to the rescue. GM and Chrysler going under? No sweat, Obama the Chairman of the Board is there to fire the CEO of GM, and order Chrysler to go bankrupt. Millions in the nation needing health care? No problem. Obama the healer is there to help. Bring peace and prosperity to the world? Obama the conciliator is there to bring long lost respect to the US in international arena. So, Obama the miracle worker should be able to get Americans healthy, wealthy and wise once more, and bring the good old days back, right?

I think "not so fast".

This economic ship called the US of A, captained by our own Barak H Obama, has at least three boat anchors that need to be dealt with before it can be turned around, and set sail into clear waters.

Let me elaborate.

The first boat anchor is the demographics. America is aging. There are more and more people reaching retirement age, with fewer and fewer people feeding into the social security system. If it was not for immigration, we would have gone into negative population growth. But a large portion of the immigrants barely make minimum wage. And therein lies the rub. No matter how hard we try, the math of getting more taxpayers paying into the social security trust fund is not going to work, unless they increase the retirement age, cut benefits, or both. So there goes the historical standard of living. Both the young and the old, rich or poor, will have to pay more to keep even bare bones benefits alive. This is a structural issue - which means there are no feasible solutions in sight under the current legal and economic structure, without burning a huge hole into people's wallets.

The second boat anchor is the total debt in the system. I have blogged about his before, but I strongly feel it needs to be stated again. The total debt, which is the combined debt of local, state and federal governments, individuals, and businesses, is now over 50 trillion dollars. Even with 1 trillion dollar government bailout, which is a drop in the bucket, the debt is about 3.5 times the GDP. In comparison, the total debt was about 2.5 times GDP during the height of the great depression. A healthy, self sustaining economy can handle a debt load of 1.5 times GDP. So, we have about 2.0 times GDP's worth of debt to work out. That is like saying a person's maximum tolerable weight is 220 pounds, but the current weight is 500 pounds, and he needs to lose 280 pounds pronto! Those who have lost weight know, this ain't gonna happen overnight. Maybe over years, if we are lucky. And the agony will come when the governments will tax us more just to service debt, companies will charge more for their products and services, and individuals will cut down spending just to survive.

The third boat anchor is our public education system, especially the K-12. Much has been said, correctly I might add, by Obama and his ed sec Arne Duncan, on how dire the issue is. After all, it has been proven beyond doubt that a well educated workforce is more productive, and a more productive workforce can outproduce the competition and bring prosperity and wealth back to this country. But by many accounts, the system is so stuck in its own little world, blissfully oblivious of the raging storm, that any meaningful change will take more than an act of Congress to occur. I have heard archived speeches of every president of the United States, starting in the 1960's that the US will be #1 in education in the world. I have yet to see objective data that show that the goal has been achieved. If anything, in many ways, we have fallen behind more nations in the rest of the world. The worst indictment, I think, is that we are yet to officially convert to the metric system. We are not the only one, we have a banana republic (Myanmar) and a ship licensing republic (Liberia) to keep us company. The rest of the world has moved on...

I wish President Obama the best of luck as he navigates through his next 100 days!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Friedman Nails It - Again

Thomas Friedman is one of my favorite columnists. His columns continue to shed new light on the issues he brought up in his groundbreaking book "The World Is Flat". (It is now one of the required reading books for students of International Economics course at local Clark College.) In his most recent op-ed article, published in the New York Times, he sheds new light on how the lack of progress in K-12 education has hurt the US economy.

Headlined "Swimming Without a Suit", it has some shocking numbers. One of the estimates of the cost of poor showing in our K-12 system is summed up here: "If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher." In percentage terms, the GDP would have been roughly 10 to 18 percent higher. Which in turn would have meant we did not have to have the recession we are going through now, because the economy would still be growing, instead of shrinking.

If there is a bright spot, the article mentions that more and more top Ivy league graduates are signing up for "Teach For America", an organization that provides college scholarships in exchange for two years of teaching in inner city schools. It has produced produced such distinguished alumni as Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of Washington DC schools. For many years, they have attracted top graduates from various fields, with an average college GPA above 3.5. Apparently their applications are up 40 percent this year, and most of them are graduates of top schools such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard.

One small problem for those living in the Pacific Northwest. Teach For America does not operate here. Wonder why?

Thanks to Charles Hoff for sending me the link.

Monday, April 20, 2009

College Freshmen Still Struggle with Basic Algebra

I found this on another web group on math. It quotes an article from the campus newspaper at Oregon State University, the premier state "tech", known for its strong engineering department. Now, you need to realize that this is a student run paper, with a staff made up entirely of students. Even they are now sensing that something is fishy. Maybe they are not so naive as we think. Another thing to note is that Math 111 is college algebra, which is a remedial math course, about the same level as a rigorous high school Algebra 2 course, for those who do not pass the college math placement test. Here is the headline:

"Math 111 continues to be slippery slope for OSU students
Problems with Math 111 are believed to stem from students' inadequate grade school teaching in math"

The article goes on to say "Math 111 has been rumored throughout campus to be one of the most failed classes at Oregon State. Many students go into class with that expectation."
and an observation from a freshman math professor "After 10 years of teaching the course, Argyres said he felt that many students go into the course feeling they can just memorize things, but he said it's really all about understanding concepts. He said he feels that this issue originates in elementary school." "When students never learned the basic information appropriately in high school, or earlier, it is significantly more difficult for them to succeed when they get to college algebra."

I was aware that the school district that my kids attended in Oregon used "Mathland" for elementary schools in the early 2000's, and switched to "Investigations" around 2005. Now they are moving to "Everyday Math". In other words, they have hopped from one reform curriculum to another, without really making a substantial move towards what I consider real math. Here is a quote from the OSU professor which pretty much sums it up:

"Mathematics is densely a foreign language with a foreign spelling routine with all these different symbols," Argyres said. "Part of [understanding the language] is understanding what we mean by the symbols."

Read the full article here:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Boeing Opens R&D Center in Bangalore

Here is a new article that came over the newswires. The link below is for a local on line newspaper in India.

Here are some exerpts that caught my eye:

Bangalore, March 31 (IANS) Global aerospace major Boeing has set up a research and technology lab here to develop advanced aerospace technologies and solutions for its next-generation products and services, a senior official said Tuesday.

The India lab, Boeing's third of its kind outside the US, will initially have 30 aerospace engineers working on multiple projects that include advanced aircraft and spacecraft designs and new structure and materials technologies.

"Another 100 engineers will collaborate with our various projects being carried out with Indian academia, research and development (R&D) institutions and private and public enterprises," Boeing chief technology officer John J. Tracy told reporters at the unveiling of the lab here.

"The investments are in millions of dollars from our global R&D budget, which runs into billions of dollars per annum," Tracy added.

Boeing has six advanced R&D labs across the US, and one overseas lab each in Australia and Spain - which together employ about 4,100 engineers.

Clarifying that Boeing was not downsizing its operations in the recession-hit US or shipping projects to this country, Tracy said India's exceptional talent pool with high math quotient and analysis skill was the prime reason for locating its third overseas R&D lab in Bangalore.

"Core technologies are vital for global aerospace eco-system comprising R&D, engineering and IT (software). The criteria is to develop cutting-edge technologies to ensure affordability, breakthrough performance, sustainability and eco-friendly products and services to our customers worldwide," Tracy affirmed.

It is interesting to note that Boeing has specifically called out the "high math quotient and analysis skill" of Engineers trained in India.

The question in my mind - why go halfway across the world just to hire 130 engineers? Can't we get them here in Seattle? Don't our engineers have high math quotients and analysis skills?

What am I missing?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Brother, can you please spare a Nano?

Say what?

No, I did not mean to imply the cute little portable music machines the fruit company puts out. They are now very ubiquitous, and a fashion statement to boot. I was pointing to the equally cute, and soon to be ubiquitous mode of transportation for the masses - in the developing world.

You see, it appears that history is about to repeat itself. Back in the 1920's, Henry Ford, the great capitalist, thought it would be a great idea to use mass production techniques to build a car that even his employees could afford to buy. Back then, the assembly workers' wages weren't much to write home about, let alone buy a car with. Anyhow, the story goes that Ford designed and built the model T and mass produced it by the millions, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, fast forward to 2009, and a capitalist called Ratan Tata has done it again. This time, his objective is a little different. He wants to sell a car to some 50 million motorcycle riders in India. But Ratan Tata is a different breed of capitalist. His self proclaimed objective is to "go to bed every night knowing I have not harmed anyone". Refreshing? Considering most Harvard trained executives live to "maximize shareholder equity", or "optimize workflow", you bet his objective is quite refreshing. And if you look at the picture of this poor Indian chap with his whole family on a motorbike (no helmets or seatbelts, mind you), you see exactly why he feels that way. The miracle is, I think, he feels, while most others figure, calculate, strategize, optimize.......

Well, Mr. Tata put 500 of his best engineers and marketers to work on figuring out what will make a typical motorcycle owner to trade up to a car. The biggest barrier was price. A lot of motorcycle owners who shell out 50,000 to 75,000 Rupees (about $1000 to $1500) for a motorcycle, they found, would rather have something safer that would shield them and their families from the elements. But they could not afford the 200,000 rupees ($4000) for an entry level car. But they would seriously consider something that cost around 100,000 rupees (around $2000). So, the engineers went to work on designing a car that would be profitably sold for around that price. Mr. Tata made it clear that he wanted it to look visually appealing, while taking liberties on cost where it did not matter. Gone were all power accessories, fancy seats, and rear hatch. So were two engine cylinders. Even the tiny 12 inch tires are fastened with only three lug nuts instead of four or five. But it had to have four doors (anything less is not a car in India). Not only did it have to seat four in comfort, it should get around 50 mpg gas mileage. The result has been nothing short of impressive (see pic). On March 23, the Tata Nano was launched in India with much fanfare. Advanced bookings for the initial production lots were oversubscribed several times over, so Tata Motors, the manufacturer, had to resort to drawing lots to pick the first 100,000 lucky owners. Production is expected to ramp to around 250,000 next year, and a million a year thereafter, but given the instant success, this will be gone as well.

None of this has escaped the attention of the world press. Last year in the Detroit Auto Show, it was dubbed "the most popular car" and it was not even shown! This year, in Geneva, a new version was shown (see below), which will have a larger engine, all safety and power features expected in Europe, and still cost around 5000 Euros. Tata did not plan on marketing one in the US, but considering the economic situation we are in here, he has changed his mind. So, in spite of all the reengineering and redesign it is going to take to meet the US specifications, he is planning on bringing one here around 2012 or 2013. That will bring affordable transportation (again) to a lot of people who cannot afford it now. I bet a lot of them cannot wait till they get their hands on one.

My kids can't either.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Businessweek - Innovation and Math, Science Achievement Linked

Here is a recent article (March 16) on the ranking of different nations based on their record of innovation. Innovation as in creating new products, new wealth, and therefore greater standard of living for their citizens.

The top of the list is Singapore, followed by South Korea.

We have seen Singapore and South Korea top international math and science tests year after year. It has also resulted in a better quality of life for their people. 25% of the Singaporeans were millionaires last year. That percentage is expected to cross 40% in 2014. The "global slowdown" is not expected to change this appreciably. Why Singapore? One reason given below:

"Government commitment to education is one reason many large drugmakers have made Singapore a base for their manufacturing and research. In January, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced plans to invest $65 million to expand its Singapore operations. Schering-Plough (SGP) is opening a center to conduct research and clinical trials in the country, and Novartis has made Singapore the center for company researchers investigating treatments for malaria, tuberculosis, and dengue fever. "Science education is very good here," says Thierry Draganc, project manager for Novartis' malaria research team. "There's a nice constant flow of young graduates." "

Where is the US in all this? Well, we came in 8th. One of the biggest reasons given here:

James P. Andrew, the leader of BCG's global innovation practice and co-author of the report, says "the quality of the workforce" in the U.S. is the biggest problem that many respondents had. As part of the survey, BCG questioned some 800 high-level executives at U.S. companies, and many put concerns about human resources at the top of the list of concerns. "Are we developing the skills at the high school level?" asks Andrew, explaining the responses researchers often encountered. "Are we making it easy for the best and brightest to study and stay in the U.S.?"

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Outsource Creativity? Surely You Jest.

I admit. I have been hearing a lot about Slumdog millionaire, mostly from word-of-mouth. Everyone seems to be humming Jai Ho (not knowing what it means is OK), and like an unemployment check, everyone has seen it or knows someone who has. Don’t have $10 for a movie ticket? Take heart. It will be out on video on March 31, and you can rent it from your favorite video store or on-line rental firm.

But that is not what caught my attention. What caught my attention was the low key coverage from the media before and after the Oscars. It was as if someone behind the scenes was pulling the strings for the movie to its Oscar glory. Could it be.. I thought. Nah… it couldn’t be. But let me tell you what went through my mind.

Back in the late ‘90s, story goes that the large cosmetics and fashion apparel companies were worried that the West was saturated with their products, profits were thin, and wanted to create new markets in the developing countries. But these countries had thousands of years old tradition of using natural herbs like turmeric, saffron and sandalwood for their cosmetics, and floral aroma for perfume. Something had to be done to get them interested in laboratory born, patent protected $500 an ounce perfumes and $100 a stick lip gloss. Their solution was….to crown Indian contestants in the beauty pageants like Miss World. A string of new Miss World winners, like the now movie star Aishwarya Rai (Pink Panther 2, The Last Legion…) came out of the mill and started peddling beauty products, and Presto! – a new cosmetics and perfume market was born.

So, why do I think something like that may be happening here?

Simple. Follow-the-money.

Let us first look at the cost. Slumdog millionaire cost $15 million to make. It may sound like a lot of money, but if you compare to big name actors like Branjalina, the Cruisemeister , Reese Witherspoon, all command around $20 million per movie, or sometimes a percentage of the take, this is cheap. An average Hollywood “A” movie costs around $100 mil. A high budget blockbuster costs around $200 mil. The other Oscar contender starring Brad Pitt, “….Benjamin Button”, cost $150 mil to make.

That is only half the story. Now, putting my MBA hat on, I looked at the returns, because every movie producer is looking to make a profit at the end of the day. Slumdog is on its way to grossing $300 mil worldwide, “Benjamin” crossed that mark and may end up with $400 mil. Let us do some quick math – for every dollar spent, Slumdog will have grossed $20, and Benjamin would have grossed $2.66. Even the biggest blockbuster of the year, the Dark Knight, made about a Billion dollars, and cost $185 million to make. That is a little over $5 gross per dollar spent. But Slumdog with $20 for every dollar spent? Even after deducting distribution costs and other expenses, this is an insane rate of return by any standards. It is an eye popping difference that will make even a dead Hollywood executive turn in his grave. So, despite all the political rhetoric about supporting “Made in America” things, I expect more Hollywood movies to be made outside the US.

But what about American creativity? Don’t our schools jealously guard our kid’s ability to be creative? What about all the music lessons, orchestra and band concerts? Don’t we have the most creative people in the world?

Well, we have been told we do. And I see the emphasis placed on it by the schools I deal with. But the giant sucking action of insane profits will lead creativity to be outsourced as well. Consider the fact that Danny Boyle, who some consider an eccentric British director who gave us the “Full Monty” and “Trainspotting”, picked up a few slum kids and paid them pittance and got Oscar worthy performance out of them. AR Rahman, who was totally unknown to the world outside India, composed the Oscar winning score in two weeks, for a fraction of the time and money that Hans Zimmer took for “Gladiator”.

So, yes, creativity can be outsourced – and I am betting that if business has its way, it will continue to be.

And please, stop calling me Surely.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Public Broadcasting

I just finished watching Arne Duncan on the Charlie Rose show. (March 16 - Added the link to the podcast in case you want to watch)

I had to pinch myself several times during the show, just to make sure I was not dreaming. Here is the nation's highest education official, saying things that I wished every education official had said. Many of these things have been expressed right here in the blog. But there he was, on national TV, saying the right things, popular or not. If a fraction of what he said became reality, we would be in fat city. Here are some highlights of what he articulated:

1. School facilities to be kept open for 12 hours a day or longer.

2. High quality pre school for all

3. Teacher merit pay, and much tougher tenure requirements

4. Removal of ineffective teachers, based on student achievement

5. Higher pay for STEM teachers

6. Start/expand charter schools

7. National standards for core subjects

There is tons more stuff because it is a 1 hour interview with no commercial breaks, but it was a riveting interview. Charlie Rose, the interviewer, is no slouch. He asks very pointed questions, until the guest cries uncle. In other words, you know exactly where the guest stands on every issue. But first, something about Arne Duncan's past, as articulated in the interview, caught my attention. The first thing he has going for him is that he is not an education insider. He was not trained in the education circles to think like a teacher or an administrator. So, he does not have the baggage that comes with someone who is predisposed to defend the status quo. This was quite evident when he unequivocally said the system needs to shed poor teachers, based on student achievement. Second, he said he grew up in a neighborhood where getting to adulthood alive was considered a great accomplishment. His mother ran a tutoring program for disadvantaged kids, and those who stuck with education not only got to live, but some went on to achieve much greater things. Third, he and the president appear to be in lockstep with all the proposals. Lastly, there is an unprecedented amount of money being doled out, $112 billion to be exact, to help implement the ideas. This is the largest spending of our future tax dollars since the GI bill. This is the first instance of such synergy that I have seen, that makes me optimistic.

Do I see pitfalls? Sure. Through the grapevine, I heard the money will be fast-tracked to the state governors, with no rules or accountability clauses spelled out, yet. If the past is any indication, the moment the money hits the states, it gets caught up in local politics, and rarely meets its intended goal. But it is a start. I hope the local citizens will hold their elected representatives accountable for spending that money so it accomplishes its intent.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Are we at the throes of losing our brainpower bailout?

Here is a news story that came over the wires today (text of one of the stories below):

"America's loss is India and China's gain: US study

Washington, March 2 (IANS) Loss of tens of thousands of skilled immigrants to countries like India and China "is an economic catastrophe that will hurt US competitiveness for decades to come", says Vivek Wadhwa, lead author of a new study done at leading American universities.

Wadhwa and his team at Duke, Harvard and Berkeley universities uncovered several trends in their study on the plight of 1,203 skilled immigrants who came to the US from India and China to work or study and returned home:

* Most returnees originally came to the United States for career and educational opportunities. The majority of returnees cited career and quality of life as primary reasons to return to their home countries.

* The most common professional factor (86.8 percent of Chinese and 79.0 percent of Indians) motivating workers to return home was the growing demand for their skills in their home countries.

* Returnees also believed that their home countries provided better career opportunities than they could find in America.

* Most respondents (53.5 percent of Indian and 60.7 percent of Chinese) said opportunities to start their own businesses were better in their home countries.

* Most respondents (56.6 percent of Indians and 50.2 percent of Chinese) indicated that they would be likely to start a business in the next five years.

* Being close to family and friends was a significant consideration in the decision to return home, with many returnees considering their opportunities to care for ageing parents to be much better in their home countries (89.4 percent of Indians and 78.8 percent of Chinese).

* Most of the Indian and Chinese immigrant subjects who returned to their home countries were relatively young (in their low-30s) and were very well educated. Nearly 90 percent held master's and PhD degrees, primarily in management, technology or science.

* Immigrants historically have provided one of America's greatest competitive advantages. Between 1990 and 2007, the proportion of immigrants in the US labour force increased from 9.3 percent to 15.7 percent, and a large and growing proportion of immigrants bring high levels of education and skill to the US.

* Immigrants have contributed disproportionately in the most dynamic part of the US economy - the high-tech sector - co-founding firms such as Google, Intel, eBay and Yahoo.

* In addition, immigrant inventors contributed to more than a quarter of US global patent applications. Immigrant-founded US-based companies employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006."

The story pretty much sums it up. We have been getting a brainpower bailout for the last few decades, and now the trend is reversing. Voluntarily (because the living conditions are improving elsewhere), or involuntarily (because the government is clamping down on H-1 visas), the brain drain appears to be in full force, with no end in sight.

Let us take a minute and think about why this reverse brain drain is taking place at all. For decades now, the vast majority of graduate students in the graduate schools in Science and Engineering have been foreign born. The distribution by nationality pretty much imitates world demographics, with China and India leading the numbers. When the rest of the US educated students were aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, businessmen and investment bankers, these immigrants were getting their masters and PhDs in science and engineering, and starting up companies in Silicon Valley that fueled most of the high tech boom in the 1990s, and continue to do so to this date (albeit at a much slower pace).

What does this mean for our efforts to "rebuild" as Obama would like to? Plenty. But first, I think we need to connect the dots, and understand how a nation becomes prosperous enough to support the standard of living that we have all come to love. Here is my attempt at laying out the process:

1. Any economy that aspires to dominate the markets needs some way to continuously come up with better products and services (and no, financial derivates do not fit the description of an "innovative product or service").

2. Not only that, it needs to quickly find a way to mass produce it faster, better, and cheaper than anyone else.

3. Then go back to #1 and do it over and over again.

Sounds simple, but the US economy has stumbled at every step in every endeavor it has undertaken. We used to have a lock on step #1 and step #2 in early 20th century. Then later on we lost the lead in step #2 to Japan, Taiwan and Korea, and lately, to China. Now we are at the threshold of losing step #1 to Japan, Korea, Finland, Singapore, and most recently, India and China. If we do lose, then we are forever second best, a position that no American will relish. So, I think it is important to understand how we became economic leaders, and what we can do to remedy the situation.

Here is how I connect the dots. In order to come up with more innovative products which will be successful in the marketplace, one needs to have a large pool of Research and Development from which to draw, and create new patents for new products. Unfortunately, using Google to find answers for "innovation" does not fit this criterion. We need more science and engineering graduates willing to go into research and development, and the R&D funding from public and corporate sources to help finance them. But we need to create those science and engineering graduates first. Which means we need more high school graduates excited about science and engineering. Which means we need more middle school graduates excited about science and math, and are willing and able to take challenging math and science courses in high school. Which means we need more elementary school graduates who know their math facts cold, are well versed in algebraic fundamentals like manipulating fractions and long division, and are excited to get into math competitions in middle schools. It means we need more middle school teachers who are math and science graduates themselves, and are excited about the prospect of educating a whole new cadre of nation builders. It means we need more elementary school teachers who have enough real math and science education in college to be able to teach elementary school kids real math, rather than the watered down version being pushed in school districts all over the nation. We need all the materials, the support structures, and most of all, the leadership to make it all happen.

I continue to be disappointed with the standard of material that is considered "acceptable" in today's education system. In my recent trip to India, I saw that a typical 10th grade graduate there is more likely to have a better education than a typical 12th grader in the US. Then I hear that "but our kids catch up in college" from some parents and teachers. I beg to disagree. Once a student graduates 12th grade with today's version of "reform" math, the doors will be forever shut for them in science and engineering. They most probably lost the battle in elementary school if they were not taught the basics well, and never realized it.

Recovery from a hole that we have dug so deep has to start somewhere. One of my friends often says "when you are in such deep doo doo, you better stop digging". I think it is a great place to start.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What the heck are "Tuitions?"

No, they are not related to college fees or fees one pays to a private school to educate someone. If you are in India, the context in which the word "tuition" is used is probably much different. It usually refers to private tutoring. And it is big business in India, just like the juukuu in Japan. And Indian parents are just as obsessed with keeping their kids busy with their studies as their Japanese counterparts. The difference is that there are a lot more of them in India than in Japan. These nations are not alone - there are similar concepts in almost every developed or developing nation in Asia.

So, why is this phenomenon so prevalent in India (and Asia in general)? I think it has to do with the university admissions system. You see, in most Asian countries, universities were built at enormous cost with government help, but they can only educate a small percentage of the population. Although this is changing rapidly with new public and private universities coming on line, the best ones still have limited enrollment. And admission into the best schools almost guarantees that the student has a good career and a good life. So, parents try to get their kids into the best elementary and secondary schools, and supplement with "tuitions" on top of that. That brings me to Mr. Vagh Prakash Shenoy, the owner and principal of a small tutoring school in Karnataka, India.

Mr. Shenoy is a unique individual, to say the least. Thirty years ago, he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from a prestigious engineering college. If he had followed the traditional path, he probably would be holding a high position in a multinational company by now. But he had a different idea. He figured that if so many students are trying to get into so few slots in universities, then there must always be a demand for tutoring to help them succeed, especially in the "difficult" subjects such as Math, Physics and Chemistry. His idea was dead on. His school started small, grew quickly to 200 students in 1975. Then he decided to focus on only the "serious" students. Today his school has about 60 students, all 11th and 12th graders (they call them "junior college" students), and all of them getting tutored in Math, Physics and Chemistry. They pay the equivalent of about $200 per year, a tidy sum for a middle class family. They come in like clockwork, after their regular school hours. They spend two hours per day minimum in his school. Mr. Shenoy employs four part time lecturers from a nearby college - all highly qualified to teach their subjects (which means at least a masters' degree). Mr. Shenoy himself teaches only mathematics - "that is my passion" he said with a smile.

Just down the road is another school, called Expert Pre-University College. It is a new generation of college prep schools, which will probably be the shape of things to come. I did not get a chance to visit, but I could get enough information from a relative who is a student. Their method is even more radical than the tuitions offered by Mr. Shenoy. They offer a 2 year syllabus that contains not only the regular state mandated 11th and 12th grade curricula, but also includes coaching for one or more of the university entrance exams. The school is year round - the kids get only three holidays. As is the fashion these days, they only offer science tracks - don't bother with business, or liberal arts, thank you. Classes start at 7 am and end at 7 pm, with few "breaks" in between, complete with yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation. Sounds pretty tough, and one may wonder if there are any takers for such a demanding regimen. I learned that just the opposite is true. They have a waiting list, and they now have their own exams for entrance.

More info at:

When one goes back 60 years, when the British left India with just enough educated people to manage their bureaucracy, one often wonders what vision the leaders had at that time for their nation 60 years ahead. I don't know if they could have imagined the strides made by their future generations, but they had the right idea about how to get there. It was to set high expectations for their young ones, and help them achieve those expectations. The results don't have to be luck or chance, or "written" as in Slumdog Millionaire. For every slum kid, there are scores of middle class kids who are competing fiercely to meet their destiny, and in turn shaping the destiny of their nation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Educating Middle India

"So, what do you think of Mr. Obama?" said the middle aged frail lady with a visibly tan skin dressed in a green sari. "I watched his entire inaugural ceremony. He is a very impressive fellow. We have high hopes that he will bring peace to the world". She was Mrs. Damayanti, the Headmistress(Principal) of the Canara High School, Urwa Branch in Mangalore, India (yes, there is a place called Mangalore - or more recently, Mangaluru). "By the way" she continued with the curiosity of a little child "what is that tall building that looks like a needle in Washington? I asked a few people, and they could not tell me." When, I said it was called the Washington monument, she thanked me and said she will tell that to everyone in her 10th grade social studies class.

I mentioned I was there to learn more about how the Indian education system is working these days. Her school is more typical than most. It is neither a public nor a private school, but somewhere in between. It falls under the category of a "government aided" school, where part of the funding comes from the state government, and the rest comes from a private foundation. "The state funding has been going down, so we have had to raise our fees", she said. "We used to charge less than Rs.1000 (about $20) a year a couple of years ago, but now we have to charge Rs.4000 (about $80) a year tuition. With activity fees, it comes to about Rs.4200 (about $84)". This school is typical of where middle class India gets educated. Probably a good third of Indian students (about 70 million of them, larger than the entire US K-12 student population) gets educated in such schools.

Other points to note in such schools:

1. Curricula are controlled by a state or national "board", consisting of scientists and education leaders. There is no free for all when it comes to choosing materials for math, for example. Nor is there any argument over what content should be taught, and how it should be taught. Text books are purchased by students, not the school. Anyone is free to write a text book, as long as it has the minimum content set by the board. (I bought the K-5 and 9-12 math text books at a local bookstore. Total bill came to less than $12).

2. No social promotions. Semester final exams are routine, and if someone flunks two semesters, then they repeat the year. At the end of 10th grade, everyone takes an exit exam, which also doubles as a placement tool for college prep school, which are separate from K-10 schools. Our school had an 85% pass rate, better than the state average of just under 80%.

3. Teachers' job descriptions, just as curricula, are controlled by the state board of education. After 6th grade, it is mandatory that a teacher have a degree in the field they teach. In addition, they are required to have a 1 year teaching certificate. However, there appears to be an oversupply of graduates willing to teach, so it is common to see specialized math and science teachers at grade 3.

4. Most students are taught all their subjects in English in this school. This has been a growing trend, opposite of what was in vogue about 10 years ago. This school had about 60% of the students being taught all their subjects in English. The rest must take English as a second language, starting in grade 2. The 10th grade exit exam has three languages (two native languages and English), and the students must pass all three to exit 10th grade. All 10th grade graduates are expected to by trilingual.

5. More and more students opt for Science tracks once they pass 10th grade. In our case, well over 50% of the graduates went on to take two years of Physics, Chemistry, Math, and a science elective (Electronics, Computer Languages or Biology), plus two languages (English and a native language). These courses are not offered "cafeteria" style, but somewhat like a "combo meal" style. The main choices are science, business (commerce), and arts. Depending on the staff and the size of the school, they may offer two or three varieties of science combos, one or two commerce combos, and one arts combo. Science:Business:Arts enrollments are currently running at the ratio of 4:2:1.

Mrs. Damayanti was especially proud of her computer lab, where she says most kids are "smart enough to teach the teachers". They learn basic programming, in addition to the usual applications such as Microsoft office.

After the visit, I was impressed how much the school could accomplish with so little. The fact that it is a typical school (not a high end private school), makes it all the more significant.

In the next blog, I will write about "tuitions" - the Indian version of cram schools.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Documentary Review: 2 Million Minutes in India and China

I do not write documentary reviews very often, but I decided to make an exception for these two DVDs that were released in December. The two DVDs, as their titles mention, are in-depth reviews on the educational systems of India and China, the two countries that have been absent in the traditional international comparisons of educational achievement, such as TIMSS and PISA. However, these countries are becoming hard to ignore, since they have taken much larger global share of the manufacturing and intellectual capital in the last decade. The conventional wisdom in the US is that the labor costs are the sole drivers for this shift. The documentary sheds a totally different light on the issue. It suggests that the quality of graduates coming out of schools and colleges is fundamentally better suited for the 21st century knowledge economy. Putting two and two together, the shift in manufacturing and software may have initially happened because of cost (which continues to be an advantage for both nations), but the growth in those countries is happening because of the fundamental difference in the quality of human resources. Putting it bluntly, “those jobs ain’t comin’ back”. Another hard-to-ignore fact is that put together, these countries have roughly eight times the number of students in their K-12 system as the US. Historically speaking, this is unprecedented. The US high school graduate now has to compete in a tremendously larger pool of qualified job seekers or college applicants.

For those who are just getting introduced to 2 Million Minutes, it was a DVD released earlier in 2008. The producer of the DVD, Bob Compton, is a venture capitalist and an angel investor in several technology companies worldwide. His venture funding includes several companies in India and China. Bob mentions that when he visited these companies and met their employees, their “well roundedness” and the depth of general knowledge impressed him. He then proceeded to look into the K-12 education system, and was impressed even more. His passion for the topic of education led to the first documentary “2 Million Minutes”, which depicted the time a typical high school student spends in the four years (which add up to roughly 2 million minutes) in the US, China and India. Although a bit light on the statistical aspects, the videos highlight the important difference between the US and the emerging nations – amount of time spent in gaining knowledge and skills. The DVD puts the Chinese students first, Indian students next, and the US students last, in the rough proportions of 3:2:1. The first DVD was screened at several high power conferences, to education leaders and governors of several states, and even to Barak Obama. This was one powerful documentary in its own right.

In the new DVDs, probably produced in response to questions raised after the first one, Bob Compton delves deeper into the time spent on each subject, the high level curriculum in the last four years, and interviews with the principals of two schools, one in Shanghai, China, and another in Bangalore, India. Again, the focus here is on main differences between the US system and the systems in the other two. I particularly liked the interviews with the principals. The Chinese gentleman was particularly impressive, with his vast knowledge of the school system, curricula, and the command of English language. (I cannot imagine a typical principal in the US doing an interview for a Chinese documentary in Mandarin, unless he/she is of Chinese descent). The lady who was the principal of the Indian school was equally impressive because she had a master’s degree in Physics, and other than a slight accent, her command of the English language was comparable. This boiled down to their students as well. They felt comfortable enough with English to crack jokes, use slang, and debate their American counterparts. There is enough meat in the hour or longer in each video to whet the appetites of people wanting to get an introduction to high school education in both countries, and I recommend them highly.

But that is not what I want to spend my time on in this blog. Having been born and educated in India, and raised three kids in the US education system, I can highlight a few important differences between the two based on my personal experience. A few comments I will make on the Chinese system are based on research, not first hand experience. For example, China hardly has any private schools, and segregates their top performers early so that they can get advanced education, and go on to college. The US has about 12% of the students attending private schools, the rest attend public schools. A small but growing number of students are home schooled. India has roughly a third attending for-profit private schools, another third attending schools built with public-private partnerships, and the last third attending government run schools. I have categorized my comments in “myth busters” format. Please read on.

1. Myth - Kids educated in India and China are not “well rounded”. Reality – “Well roundedness” has different definition in different countries, and it is very subjective. In the US, someone who is active in athletics, and maintains a decent GPA may be considered “well rounded”. The emphasis tends to be decidedly tilted towards sports in the US, and towards academics in both India and China. It does not mean the kids grow up with no exposure to the arts or athletics. The kids from both countries in the videos play sports, musical instruments, and engage in social activities with their friends. I think this is fairly typical of India, from my personal observation.

2. Myth – Kids in 3rd world countries have poor English language skills – Reality - While this may be true for immigrants from some nations, India has had a long tradition of dealing with the British, and continues to mandate English as a second language in all schools. China has started doing that as well. The top one third of the students (more than twice the total number of students in the US) get top notch English education – including penmanship, spelling, grammar, essay writing, modern literature, and the classics. Recently, more and more schools have started offering English as the only language of instruction for all classes. Ironic, because they end up taking their native language as a second language! And because of large populations, both China and India, by some accounts, each have more English speakers than the US.

3. Myth – Countries like India and China do not educate their entire population – Reality: Both China and India have mandatory primary education, and will soon have mandatory secondary education. Coverage is poor in the rural areas of India, which is comparable to the high school dropout rate in the US. What gets lost in these claims is that both India and China have been able to produce enormous growth rates with what they have already accomplished in education. When they eventually get to 100% secondary schooling, it will only serve to increase the contrast between themselves and the US.

4. Myth – Students are stressed out in the Asian countries. Reality - Stress can come from various sources. In Asian countries, the sources of stress are few and are academically oriented. In the US, the stress sources include divorce, relocation, drugs, sports, peer pressure, jobs, and physical relationships, on top of academics. Those who ignore academics in school get a double whammy in college – high cost of education, and high failure rates. The suicide rate for college students in the US is much higher compared to Asian countries that maintain similar data.

5. Myth – Schools in India and China only teach to the tests. Reality - Testing, or more accurately assessment, is the only measurement tool that systems have for making sure students have retained the skills and knowledge they are expected to have. Without ascertaining a minimum competency at each grade, the students are not allowed to proceed (no social promotions). Over time, this system ensures more students graduate from the system well prepared for college or life. Actually, I contend the vilification of “teaching to the test” is more an indictment of poorly designed tests, than the concept of testing itself. Once a student goes on to college, or gets a typical private sector job, there are tests and assessments galore. Having a competency based promotion system just reinforces this reality much sooner in life.

6. Myth – Our top students can beat their top students. Reality – Maybe a decade or two ago, but no longer. The sheer numbers of students from China getting awards in ISEF (Intel Science and Engineering Fair), an international competition for high school students, is staggering. One study estimates the number of students in the gifted programs in China outnumbers the total number of students in the US. Even when American kids do well, a large proportion of our top students who compete in math, science, chess, spelling bees, geography bees, science fairs and so on, are children of first generation immigrants from China, India and other countries. Apparently, these students do well in spite of our public education system, and not because of it.

All in all, the whole 2 MM trilogy has a lot going for it in terms of raising the awareness of the emphasis placed on education in the two emerging giants. Kudos to Bob Compton for taking time out of his busy schedule to champion this cause.

Copies of the videos may be ordered from the 2 Million Minutes website,