Monday, December 10, 2012

My Trip to India - Part 1 - Overall Impressions

I spent last week in Delhi and Mumbai with the generous help of Ashish Dhawan and his staff at the Central Square Foundation, a foundation totally focused on helping India's education system become world-class.  I am going to write about the experience in a few parts over the next week or two, but my general theme would be "What can India teach us about educational systems and what perspective can it provide on what we are doing in the U.S.?"

The first thing you are struck by India is just the sheer number of people.  This is a country with 1.2 billion people, over half living outside the cities, and about half of the population in the cities living at a very low standard of living ($100/month or less).  There are 400 million kids under 18, of which currently only 7% go to college.  So the need for scalable solutions in education is pretty obvious right from the start.

The second thing that is obvious when you talk to people is that India is moving from a developing nation to a developed nation in an incredibly short period of time (a decade or two).  This is very apparent when you are in Delhi (the capital) and you hear about the incredible amount of legislation being enacted to try to bring a largely unregulated society towards equity and the rule of law.

The third thing that doesn't take long to realize is that Indians feel far differently about education than Americans.  Traditionally, Indian children take care of their parents when they grow older.  That means that the fate of the parent and the fate of the child are intertwined for their entire lifetimes.  Sensibly, parents who want to be well cared for know that if their kids get a great education, they are more likely to be able to provide for them in their old age.  So Indians are willing to spend significantly more on their children's education than Americans.  This is not just the top 10% of Indians sending their kids to elite private schools.  The folks I met in this class acted almost exactly like Americans, who also send their kids to elite private schools.  What was much more striking was how the lower 90% of Indians deal with education.

India has government schools just like America.  Like America, there are good ones and bad ones, but the overall average is not great.  They have significant teacher absences, motivation problems, etc.  No big surprise for those of us who have spent decades in government school systems.  What is surprising is the reaction of these highly motivated lower and middle income Indian families.  In walking the streets and talking to people, I found that almost everyone wants to send their children to private schools.  Middle class in India is not like middle class in the United States.  You often find people working as domestic workers, making $100-$300 per month, but they would be considered lower middle class. (average per capita GDP is $1500/yr or $125/mo) These families are willing to send their children to what is called "affordable private schools."  By affordable, they mean schools costing on average from $4-$20 per month.  What is even more striking is that people that don't even make the lower middle-class cut (I talked to several families making in the range of $40/month) are willing to spend the $4 per month for each of their children to send them to private school.  The net of this is that in the major urban areas, a majority (60% was the stat I heard) of the kids go to affordable private schools.  Having a population that has this kind of willingness to sacrifice for their kids to get a great educations is fundamentally different than our culture in the U.S. and bodes very well for a country that literally has to pull itself up by its boot-straps.

The next thing that struck me is that India lacks any accountability system for its schools and teachers.  Kids take one high-stakes test in 10th grade for admissions into what we would call junior college in 11-12th grades.  Other than that, no one has any idea who is doing good work and who is not, except by observation.  As you might imagine, that causes all kinds of dysfunction, because schools which try to innovate are criticized for their lack of conformity, without any way to prove that their results are better.  The affordable schools in particular suffer in this world of unaccountability, because of course they don't look like schools should.  They have awful facilities, poorly trained teachers and enormous class sizes.  So without any accountability system, it's a reasonable reaction to say they should all be shut down!

Finally, just as in the United States, lawmakers really like to make laws!  In India, a new law called the Right to Education act makes the first pass at trying to provide equal opportunity for all Indians in school.  Unfortunately, as we saw in the United States, governments love to regulate inputs and process, while outputs are scary because of the accountability aspects.  So with all good intentions, the government has started to mandate things like what kind of school facility a student should have, the credentials of teachers, class size, etc. with no mention of student learning.  We have seen this play before in the United States.  These kind of input/process regulations show no correlation with student success, but are very effective at driving up costs or driving schools out of business.  That is already showing signs in the affordable schools, making them less affordable.

The final experience I will talk about in this series is the use of technology.  As with U.S. schools, strategic use of technology in education is incredibly low.  To the credit of education technology entrepreneurs in India, they have convinced schools that they need smart boards and other incremental technology successfully.  However, the actual student-focused use of technology has been minimal to date.

Overall, my trip to India was mind-blowing both in terms of the size of the problem, but also in terms of the energy and urgency which Indians feel to create a great education system.  It was refreshing for someone who spends most of their time in the U.S. being attacked for feeling too much urgency!


  1. Thanks for sharing your reflections on the India trip. We've also been in touch with Ashish recently, thinking about the higher ed opportunity in India. Some initial thoughts here:

  2. John, it was great to meet you, and thanks for this quite insightful perspective on Indian education as seen from the outside! I do fear the aspirational spend on education is time sensitive. I.e. People are quite willing to trust, and to use proxies for quality (such as smart boards). However if we are unable to demonstrate that any of these inputs or education spend is ultimately producing outcomes, then it will take us even longer to convince our customers that education itself has meaning. All the more reason to focus on accountability.

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