Education and Public Schools in America – What The US Can Learn From India

A Primary School in "open airIt is now widely acknowledged that America’s  public school education system  is broken and needs fixing. Numerous studies rank US school children well below other countries in  science and math tests:

“The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world’s richest countries. The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.”

Studies such as these have raised alarm bells among parents, educators, politicians and the media.  President Barack Obama has made it a priority and said  in a speech last year   :

” The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens — …….And yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us…. The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it’s unsustainable for our democracy, it’s unacceptable for our children — and we can’t afford to let it continue….”

It is indeed a paradox that primary education in the richest nation lags so  far behind the rest of the world on so many  metrics.  As an immigrant to the US ,  who attended primary schools in India, and as a parent with two children who graduated from public schools in America,  I have been intrigued by this apparent paradox as well.  While not an expert by any means, I have given this some  thought.

I believe I have benefited greatly from the education I received from  the schools I attended as a child in India, and I have some ideas on why and wanted to share my insights here.   We did not have spacious, well equipped classrooms, or  audio-visual equipment, projectors, or air-conditioning in spite of the hot weather. Many  classrooms were make-shift and some topped with a tin or aluminum roofs (“tin-sheds” as we called them).  We did not have a large playground, flood-lit basketball courts, a stadium or an auditorium.   We had no access to any of the facilities taken for granted in most schools today.  And in spite of all that, we got a real education and many of us went to great heights of achievement in all fields of life.  In fact, this actually makes my analysis easier :  You can see clearly what really matters since you have stripped away all of the  infrastructure elements considered essential for a school’s success.

So here for what it is worth, are my viewpoints for  what I think made a difference :

  • We were fortunate to have had great teachers and a wonderful principal.  They were passionate, involved and committed.   They knew each of us personally and cared about what we learnt.  I  remember our English teacher in sixth grade – Mr. Krishnan, who urged us to be creative and original and to  use  our imagination in writing .  Our Hindi language teachers, Mr. Kumar and Mr. Jamuna Rai, had a  passion for literature and poetry that was infectious and passed on to us.  Our principal, Mrs. Visharda Hoon, was an extraordinary woman who set the bar high for both our teachers and students in discipline and excellence.
  • We took part in a lot of extra-curricular activities and events – including “elocutions”, debates, recitations, essays at  both the  intra-school and inter-school levels.  This was invaluable in shaping our composition and thinking skills.
  • There was a lot of writing and very little objective – True/False, mutliple choice type – tests.  I have always felt that this was one key difference between the schooling systems in India and the USA – we wrote a lot more than students here are required to.  I believe the writing was very helpful in allowing us to learn to compose our thoughts and express ourselves.  I also think writing  exercises and develops abstract  thinking abilities better than multiple choice questions.
  • We had to learn three languages – English, Hindi and a third language  (Sanskrit in my case).   There is no doubt that this helped greatly and accelerated absorption of a wider range of viewpoints and perspectives – all essential to learning.
  • It was actually considered cool to be smart or to be a “geek”.    The words “geek” and “nerd” were foreign to us. Academic success and  braininess trumped social awkwardness. You could always become socially adept later,  school was the time to learn as much as you could.   In the US though,  popular culture, movies, TV shows and celebrities (many who  have dropped out of school),  consider it is not so cool and  people apologize or feel embarrassed to admit if they were ever geeks or nerds.  How can a society, where being too  smart or brainy in your teenage years is disparaged and considered a socially undesirable trait,  ever hope to motivate its youngsters to study hard, learn as much as possible and become smarter ?  Banish this pop-culture attitude in  America and you will increase the average SAT scores !
  • As a culture – both at school and outside school, learning is revered and teachers  are considered only next to God, and your parents in importance.  As our  “gurus”  they are  given our ultimate respect and gratitude .  This is   ingrained by our parents into our young minds from early on and creates  the humility to continue to learn and grow.   Incidentally, this reverence and respect for teachers is common among all Eastern cultures  – including China, Japan and Far East Asia.
  • And finally parents were an important part of this equation.   Although there were no PTA meetings or parent teacher conferences – as children we knew that nothing  was more important to our parents than  doing well at school, studying hard  and respecting our teachers. And that was somehow sufficient to motivate and spur us on.

Undoubtedly,  there are many  other factors which I have probably overlooked.  However,  these are the ones that I believe mattered the most in the end.    Money and resources are of course important to improve schools, and no one denies the importance of good teachers and parental involvement.  However,  just as  important may be a subtle but fundamental change in attitudes that needs to permeate  all levels of society and  subliminally signal the importance of learning, teachers and schools to our children.

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