It was very interesting to be in a country where over 50% of students attend non-government schools. Let me say that in my opinion this proliferation of school choice is probably the second best reason to have hope for India, right behind the fact that every Indian parent is willing to do whatever it takes for their children to get a great education (so they can care for them in their old age). Now let's talk about what it may take for the affordable schools (generally with tuitions of $4-$20/month) to become a major driver for improvement in the system. For a long time, charter school advocates have focused on getting large penetration rates. We have found in places like New Orleans (80%+) and Washington D.C. (50%) that systems can start to make profound improvements in student achievement with high penetration rates. It's important to unpack the conditions that must be necessary for this to happen though:
1 - There must be a strong accountability system which can differentiate and compare the quality of all schools in the system. This is true in the United States, but not true in India. Before NCLB, we had many charter schools started for non-academic means. Like India, they were generally regulated on inputs/process, but not on outcomes. What we found is that they didn't do any better than most schools on average, because many of them were not started to produce superior academic results. I would guess the exact same thing is happening in India. Because the schools of choice are not accountable for student results, and because they are run as small businesses, they are going to maximize profits at the expense of student results. So once India has an accountability system, will really be day one of creating a great school system. Just as in the U.S., they will probably find that 10% of schools are doing incredible work and need to be scaled up, some other set are doing no harm, and a bunch need to be closed.
2 - It must be politically and legally possible to close bad operators. We see this difference between Washington D.C. and New Orleans. D.C. for a lot of reasons has not had the will to close down bad operators, many of whom are incredibly well connected politically. New Orleans on the other hand has had a much clearer policy on academic results schools need to show. They won an i3 grant a couple of years ago to begin shutting down the bottom 10% of schools every year and re-opening them with high performing operators. Rocketship's charters were approved in New Orleans under this program. So in India, the question is how well the market will work on its own and how much the government will have to get involved. I would imagine that just as in the U.S., shutting down government schools will be very difficult. I wonder though if the affordable schools will actually face market closure by parents who don't like their results. We have found in the U.S. that parents choose schools for a lot of reasons - proximity, safety, special programs, etc. My suspicion is that outcomes will be a lot higher on that list for Indian parents, but we will see.
3 - Talent. The challenge with building a great school system always comes down to how many talented educators you have and how well you can leverage them. The U.S. charter system took decades to work until there became enough high-quality operators that could scale up. Once a few of those exist in a city, then a city can decide how many great schools it wants. We are probably still a decade away from having a large enough supply of quality charter operators who can scale at the rates necessary. (Politically, you have to make a big dent in the city's problem within 5 years in order to create the political will to finish over a decade or two) India probably does not have anywhere near the level of talented multi-school operators it needs, though this will not become clear until the accountability system is in place and we can see who gets the results. If the U.S. is informative, until we had NCLB, we had almost no "No Excuses" schools in the country. So I would say again that once the accountability law has been in place for a year or two, then the country will be able to start scaling up what works.
4 - Political Will. This one is really interesting in India because it's currently in a very different position than the U.S. Here, over 80% of kids go to government schools. There, it's closer to 40%. So the real question in India is whether reformers can keep the space deregulated long enough to get items 1-3 going. If they do, they will have an amazing advantage over the U.S. and will likely be able to leapfrog our results, because they won't be fighting to fix a broken system, just focused on creating a new one. Given the urgency that Indian families feel towards education, my sense is that there will be far more popular desire for choice to continue to proliferate, but parents must be organized in order for this voice to be heard. I saw no indication that anyone was organizing parents in India and hope that they can get their soon. A Stand for Children India would be a phenomenal thing to have standing right next to Teach for India!
In the last part of this series, I'll talk a little bit about technology in schools and homes in India.