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.

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