Executive Perspective

A Close-Up Look at India’s Schools


Ah, to be a cow in India. You are fed, protected and revered. You can even plop yourself in the middle of a busy highway and traffic will divert itself around you without a horn being honked. That’s a much better life than the one faced by the vast majority of people living in India.

Daniel DomenechDan Domenech

In August, I had the pleasure of leading a delegation of educators to India as part of People to People International’s Citizen Ambassador Program. Established years ago by President Dwight Eisenhower, PTPI has entered into an agreement with AASA. Together we will be hosting delegations of educators to many of the world’s underdeveloped countries with the purpose of gaining a better understanding of their educational systems and establishing mutually beneficial relationships.

Our group flew to Delhi in the middle of the monsoon season, with high temperatures and humidity and daily torrential downpours. While most U.S. school systems were on summer vacations, Indian schools in August are in full swing. We visited two schools in Delhi and met with officials from the Ministry of Education.

The public schools in India are referred to as government schools. They are overcrowded and understaffed and generally lack many of the resources we take for granted in America. In The World Is Flat, author Thomas Friedman may have created the impression that India is a mecca of technology, but that is hardly the case. India’s schools lack the technology available in our schools and typically are limited to a computer lab with equipment we would consider obsolete.

Common Curriculum
Several years ago India passed a law guaranteeing all students an education through the 10th grade. However, it is apparent by driving through the streets of Delhi that many youngsters are not taking advantage of that law. The dropout rate stands at 50 percent, and the government estimates that in order to educate all eligible children, it will need an additional 1 million teachers and construction of many more schools.

India is the world’s second-most-populous country with 1.2 billion inhabitants. The student population outnumbers the total population of the United States. India’s upper classes send their children to private schools, which interestingly enough are referred to as “public” schools. Whereas the government schools are subsidized fully by the government, the private “public” schools are supported totally by parental tuition payments.

All schools, both government and private, follow the same nationally established curriculum, and national examinations are administered in the 10th and 12th grades. Recently the Ministry of Education eliminated the national tests that were required at lower grades in favor of teacher-developed formative assessments to gauge continuous progress, a model we would do well to emulate.

Contrasting Pictures
The Deepalaya School serves some 400 students in one of the slums of Delhi. It is a private school, but tuition is highly subsidized by the foundation that operates the school. We could think of Deepalaya as a charter school, except for the fact that, unlike the charter schools in America, Deepalaya is subject to the same requirements as the government schools and is not subsidized by public dollars.

With classes averaging 40 students, a dedicated staff nurtures fragile children, focusing on the needs of the total child. All children wear identical uniforms provided by the school, right down to the shoes. The retention rate through 10th grade is quite high, but the percentage of children continuing on through 12th grade and moving on to the university level drops down to 12 percent.

On the other side of town, right on embassy row and a stone’s throw away from the American embassy, is the Sanskriti School. The student-teacher ratio there is 12:1, and seating at Sanskriti cannot accommodate all of the families that apply to send their children there. Tuition payments fully fund the school, admittedly one of the best in Delhi. One hundred percent of Sanskriti’s graduates go on to a college education. Yet, as we walked the school grounds, admiring the gardens and manicured lawns, a look over the school’s perimeter wall revealed a community of shacks and hovels.

The Indian government has decreed that beginning next school year all private schools will have to reserve 20 percent of the seats in each incoming class for students below the poverty level. The lucky children on the other side of the Sanskriti wall won’t have far to walk to school. The government intends to subsidize the tuition for this select group of children.

Cursory Training
Notably, teacher salaries in India are established at the national level, and both government and private school teachers are paid at the same rate. Teacher quality is an issue since teaching at the K-8 levels only requires two years of college and some cursory teacher preparation. Teaching at the senior level, the equivalent of our high school, requires a bachelor’s degree.

Sanskriti requires all of its teachers to have a four-year degree, although the principal admitted she occasionally waives that rule for individuals who demonstrate a special affinity toward children.

India’s educational system, like the rest of the country, is a work in progress. To its credit, the country’s leaders acknowledge their future relies on an educated population.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org