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The perceived gap between U. S. and Asian schools

7 August 2013

I just read an interesting article from the News-Press of Ft. Myers, Fla., focusing on the higher performance of students in Asian countries on international standardized tests compared to U. S. students. The article doesn’t mention India, but I have a feeling that many of my colleagues will want to know how my three weeks in India compare and contrast with this tension about performance on international measures of education. I started brainstorming cultural differences, and I think the brainstorm turned into a rant. Anyway, here’s what I came up with.

  • Indian parents and students believe that education is the best path to class mobility and economic success. Some in the U. S. do believe that, but it seems many U. S. students and parents see high school mainly as a place to find oneself, socialize, and develop one’s identity (or perhaps more accurately, one’s brand).
  • Not everyone is India gets an education. The comparison of test scores across countries is not quite like comparing apples to mangos, but it is like comparing apples in one basket to just the shiniest apples of another. Among the adult population (age 25 and older), the average years of schooling in the U. S. is 13.3 years. In India, it’s 4.4 years (see the United Nations 2013 Human Development Report . That gap will decrease significantly in our lifetimes; the Right to Education Act of 2009 sets the theoretical foundation for universal education in India similar to the U. S., but it will take a lot of work to develop the qualified personnel and physical infrastructure to achieve. Many of those enrolled in Indian schools are first-generation students; their parents value education in the abstract, but because they never experienced school themselves, they have a difficult time providing the necessary support at home (a place and time for homework, a literacy-rich environment, an active role in school communication and advisement). Plus, because of poverty, parents may pull children out of school frequently for job, household tasks, or even to fetch water when available from a distant source.
  • A focus on exams and competition is not necessarily a good thing. While many Indians expressed pride that gaining entry into an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) was harder than gaining entry into Harvard or MIT, they also regretted the stress of the many students who work hard and don’t get into those schools. At the Kendriya Vidyalaya schools, the curriculum must be rigidly adhered to, and staff are evaluated entirely on standardized tests, which encourage low-cognitive-level skills like recalling, summarizing, and applying over the high-level skills more personally rewarding for both teacher and student: analyzing, evaluating, creating. This impersonal system was set up initially by the British colonizers and continues because of a well-that’s-the-way-I-was-taught attitude. It’s ironic that the United States is striving to move toward a system like this, while critics in India and across Asia bemoan their top graduates’ lack of interpersonal and creative skills.
  • The impulse to be educated comes from the challenge of survival in a world of scarcity. (I was quoted in our debriefing notes as saying that last phrase, so I figured I’d better publish it before someone else does!) The hyper-competitive nature of education is reinforced by the sense that people must battle over limited resources. I’m not saying there isn’t poverty in the U. S., but the depth and breadth does not come close to poverty in India, and we still draw immigrants to do menial work and earn enough money to help out family members back home. I also don’t want to romanticize the U. S. middle class, a significant portion of which seems to view universities as places to practice conspicuous consumption. Education is just seen as more important in Asia than in the U. S. There, it’s the main path to the growing middle and professional class. Here, it’s just one of many institutional behemoths that have to be worked around and manipulated to get what you want out of it.
  • In Asia, the teacher is respected culturally. There was no greater difference between my experiences in Indian and U. S. classrooms than in interactions with students. In India, in spite of the imposition of British rule, there is still a sub-current of the ashramguru tradition, where a young person can receive transcendent knowledge from a wise sage in a place somehow remote from everyday life. Former students in India will still kiss their hands and lay them on the feet of their old teachers as a sign of respect. In the U. S., teachers are certainly not treated like gurus. Our image is a combination of police officer and “the help”–particularly the police officer of a poverty-stricken neighborhood, who is mistrusted for ineffectively and arbitrarily imposing some external system of justice on the people, or the domestic servant of an established family, who is mistrusted for not having the ability or motivation for a better line of work (“the who can’t do teach”), for having the potential to steal from the family’s wealth, and for lazily and slowly following whatever direction they were given.

Okay, that was probably full rant mode there at the end, and the school year hasn’t even started yet. Sorry!

While we in the U. S. fret about our students’ relatively poor performance on international tests and devise ways to “reform” education so that teachers face more accountability or—depending on how you look at it—pressure imposed by the scarcity of a winner-take-all economic mindset, educators in India wanted to know how we strive to educate every child through the age of 18, how we get students to think critically and creatively, and how we make our courses relevant to real life in the world.

They also asked why they read so much about shootings at U. S. schools, but I tried to explain, but I don’t think I can. I just know no student is going to put his/her hands on my feet.


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