Subcontinental divide

Liam Julian

Thomas Friedman decided in 2005 to overturn two millennia of astronomical wisdom by releasing a book called The World Is Flat, the crux of which is that the United States faces growing economic competition from countries such as China and India. The tome's title is cliché, but its omnipresence defies disregard. 

Three years after the book besieged bestseller lists, the nation has yet to get over it. When we read this week that Tata, the Indian conglomerate, is now the frontrunner to buy Ford's Jaguar and Land Rover brands, and that it will soon start exporting electric cars to the U.S., we get a bit squirmy in our seats.

But most worrisome to Americans, it seems, is that our nation may be losing the human-capital battle, the struggle to produce, attract, and retain skilled and talented workers. A new documentary, Two Million Minutes, follows six high-school students--two each from the United States, India, and China--and finds that the Asian-educated kids study (especially math and science) a lot more than their American peers   

The film's most fervent promoters call this a "crisis." The description oversimplifies, but it nonetheless illumines a question that never quite abates, that always dwells just beneath the surface of other education conversations. If the U.S. does face competition from Indian and Chinese students, are American interests better served by lavishing resources on our lowest academic achievers or our highest? (See here.)

While Americans ask that question, one of our competitors, India, does not (or is only just beginning to). This difference between countries is a big deal, and yet it goes almost completely overlooked.

Last Thursday's New York Times ran an article about India's public schools, which are fully lousy. Descriptions of absent teachers, masses of unidentified pupils, and decrepit schoolhouses are no doubt startling to those who thought--who have been repeatedly told--that India is a model of educational excellence. Indeed, a Times reader who picked up the paper just two weeks earlier would have learned that Indian education is the envy of the world (a "craze"), and that East Asian parents simply cannot get enough of it.

The friction here is produced by the mounds of shoddy reporting and commenting that draw no distinction between India's private schools, which, according to Two Million Minutes, enroll nearly a third of its student population, and its public schools, which, because of their generally dismal quality, might as well enroll nobody.

As James Tooley has shown, most of the country's private schools do not serve the rich--far from it. But a recent Washington Post article points out that in India "a dual education system has emerged. India's economic boom has fueled the rise of elite private schools ... while the public school system has become a dismal refuge." (Perhaps this is why the aforementioned documentary juxtaposed students in an American public school with students in an elite Indian private school.)

India's educational divisions are stark. The World Bank finds that educational inequality there exceeds not just that of neighboring countries (Sri Lanka, for example) but also of most Latin American countries and several African nations (e.g., Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana). Such gaps are exacerbated by India's caste distinctions, which are officially outlawed but still prevalent, especially in rural areas. Educational divisions are also tied to wealth; on any given day in the poor state of Bihar, home to some 83 million people, 70 percent of public-school teachers simply don't show up for work. The national government has not developed a passable public-school system and has left most educational authority in states' hands; some states do an okay job, others don't, and thus hundreds of millions of Indians are illiterate and uneducated.

Higher education in India is not for the masses, either. A mere 7 percent of Indians between 18 and 23 are enrolled in college, compared to 41 percent of U.S. 18- to 24-year-olds. (And while India has several top-notch institutions, according to NASSCOM President Kiran Karnik, three-fifths of the country's colleges offer lamentable instruction. McKinsey & Company estimates that only a quarter of the country's engineers meet the standards of Western employers.)

The United States, by contrast, has one of the world's most equally educated citizenries, hard as that may be to believe (see here). For all its zealous capitalism, America nonetheless understands that its resources should not be proffered to privilege only. Thus, the U.S. strives for a balance between equity (No Child Left Behind) and competitiveness that other countries such as India have heretofore ignored. Democratic India cannot ignore it forever, though. As the nation grows wealthier, its poorer citizens will no longer countenance a system of elite private schools for the wealthy and dreadful government schools for the poor.

U.S. k-12 education undoubtedly can and should improve (and perhaps some stellar Indian private schools could serve as models). But their tune-up ought not be driven by maintaining international competitiveness, or keeping up with the number of Indian engineers--vague and ephemeral notions, both. It should be justified mostly by domestic and moral considerations, because the connection between a nation's k-12 system and international economics are so many and varied. And no country can be internationally competitive if it is submerged in national strife.

Consider, for example, that India's vaunted information-technology sector employs a mere one quarter of one percent of the nation's labor force. Who knew? The other 99.75 percent of India's workers most likely did; they are beginning to demand a piece of the economic action (better schools, better infrastructure, more job variety) that government will be unable to continue denying them. It's a good bet that even hyper-globalized India will soon need to turn its focus inward.

To compare the schools of the U.S. and India is folly--because both nations are so big and different, because their school systems are so diverse, it's akin to comparing, say, American and Indian trees. To base education policy (math and science now!, for example) on such coarse and anecdotal judgments seems even more foolish. When it comes to k-12 education, nations would do better to act locally before attempting to think globally.