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.