Educating the poor in India: lessons for America

A fascinating story in the New York Times about schooling in India has a few things to teach American educators; mainly, that the poor really do want a good education. (I have had extended discussions with colleagues about the question of educating the poor (see here, here, and here) and Kathleen Porter Magee’s The “Poverty Matters” Trap is a must-read for anyone investigating the subject.)

As it turns out, public schools in India, like many in the U.S., are apparently lousy – “in many states,” write Vikas Bajaj and Jim Yardley about India, “government education is in severe disarray, with teachers often failing to show up.” But unlike the U.S., where charter schools and vouchers have begun to offer alternatives, In India the poor have turned to a network of private schools to educate their children. It is much as James Tooley described it in a 2005 story in Education Next (and his subsequent book, The Beautiful Tree), recounting amazing stories from around the world:

[T]he poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on earth have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.

Checker wrote about this phenomenon in India in 2008:

I confess: I was impressed--and slightly sheepish, too, considering I've lived and traveled in India and other "third world" countries over many years and worked in the education field forever. Yet, until now I had allowed my gaze to pass over signs of the presence of hundreds of these schools without really noticing them, much less seeking to understand how they work.

This thriving private school market probably has as much to do with the general lassitude of Indian education laws as it does with the human drive to better one's lot, but what is so tragically familiar in the Times’ story is that India's new Right to Education Act, which “enshrined,” says the Times, “for the first time, a constitutional right to schooling, promising that every child from 6 to 14 would be provided with it," has a dark side for those motivated poor private schoolers. As the Times notes,

Few disagree with the law’s broad, egalitarian goals or that government schools need a fundamental overhaul. But the law also enacted new regulations on teacher-student ratios, classroom size and parental involvement in school administration that are being applied to government and private schools. The result is a clash between an ideal and the reality on the ground, with a deadline: Any school that fails to comply by 2013 could be closed.

America, of course, went through its educational my-way-or-the-highway period in the early 1920s when states began passing laws requiring that all children go to public schools – a not-so-veiled attempt to shutter the Catholic education system. It took a Supreme court decision, in 1925, Pierce v. The Society of Sisters, to declare unconstitutional an Oregon law that required public school attendance.

But it's interesting to note that so-called progressive education practices and principles, like class size and parent involvement, could kill off the private schools in India -- and with it an avenue of choice, however decrepit that avenue is, to tens of thousands of dedicated parents.

Let’s hope India will learn something from the United States and create a system that not only educates the poor but does not deny them the chance to educate themselves. But let's also hope that the United States might learn something about the power of pent-up education demand among the poor -- and the risks of too much top-down education rules and regulations. One size doesn't fit all, especially when that size is determined by just a few.

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