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.