The video “Decoding Education Quality in India” is a brief report on the status of education in India by NDTV with a focus on education quality. The segment was inspired by statistics showing that despite an increase in the number of schools servicing students, the actual performance level of these students has not notably improved. Furthermore, India’s higher education institutions are still have not broken ranks with top global universities. This segment seeks to identify some of the causes behind underwhelming school performance and where it focuses mainly on higher education, many of the issues identify resonates with lower education culture as well.
In this two part post, I will be examining two of the major problems mentioned in this video and what they look like in the United States context. This piece will focus on the struggle between quality and quantity in public education. The video on which this post is based has been posted below if you choose to view it before reading.
A Numbers Game
Principal Vijay Joshi summarized many of the observations regarding the quality of education in one overarching problem: India is struggling to provide enough schools for the number of people who demand it at both the primary and higher education levels. Because of this “supply and demand gap”, so much effort is being put on establishing enough schools that there is limited focus on effectively standardizing the quality of education these institutions provide. Principal Joshi also hints to the ghosts historical culture of India when he discusses the attitudes schools servicing students who are behind academically (many of them being first generation school attendees), explaining how these students complain that they are not ‘the right quality’ of student and are ‘unemployable’ to begin with.
A fascinating figure that can be related to the number of students and primary school quality is that studies have shown only 50% of students entering higher education institutions in India have the necessary skills to continue their learning at that level. The video points to curriculum that is “exam oriented rather than outcome focused” as being the cause of this skill deficiency. Whether or not having an exam-oriented curriculum is the primary cause of the lack of higher education readiness is debatable however, this type of curriculum is also something that can reasonably be viewed as a symptom of the struggle to provide education to large masses of people. When there is a quantitative focus leading to rapid expansion, the easiest way to establish broad quality expectations is through the use of general, standardized tests to hold institutions accountable for student learning. Where this format is not an entirely bad approach at this stage of development, it is clear that the type of tests being used promote more ‘wrote memory’ that ultimately limits the time students spend learning and apply critical thinking skills that are essential to continuing learners in higher education.
The tie between having a standardized test approach to curriculum and massive populations demanding education is further strengthened if we shift to the Chinese context. Though from a quality perspective China does not share many of the same concerns, they have a similar exam-oriented and wrote memory approach to learning. Due to the sheer population size, the average class size for a Chinese public school in a city proper can range between 40-60 students (depending on location, age group, etc.). With so many students to manage and teach, it is not a wonder why focusing on wrote memory and standard skillsets is such a focus. Again, there are many differences between the Chinese and Indian context that make the challenges and ultimate results different and it should be noted that Chinese educators are trying to move away from this model. However, China still provides a good comparison for this particular focus.
Numbers in the United States Context
Though it is not as directly discussed in the United States, the struggle to balance quality and quantity have always played a role in the development of public schools and the effects of this struggle continues to resonate deeply with school improvement efforts. It is most noticeable in urban areas where classes sizes are typically larger and many schools lack adequate resources to educate the students they have and/or are under-performing. Currently, there are two trends that I would argue are related to this balancing act: the closing of schools and an attention shift towards magnet and/or charter academies.
School closures are nothing new, especially in urban settings, but cities like Chicago have been closing them at a greater frequency than in the past. The main theory behind these closures is that by reducing the number of public institutions, districts and state governments will be better able to focus their limited resources and improve the quality of education for all students. Though this theory seems logical on paper, its practice is hotly debated and it is too soon the effects in a real world setting.
Part of what has fed the debate over school closures is where the ‘extra’ money goes. In many places, we are starting to see an increase in funding for public charter and some magnet schools. There has been a long standing debate over the merits of public charter schools and, to some degree, magnet schools compared to standard public schools. This debate feeds the school closure fire as many are concerned that more of the money freed by school closures will be applied to charter schools instead of supporting the standard public schools as implied.
Approaching charter and magnet schools from purely a numbers perspective, it is understandable why current trends seem to favor these formats. The first reason is specialization. All magnet schools and most charter schools have a specific mission or area(s) of focus. For example, a magnet school might specialize in math and science and a charter school may have a global objective and adopt the IB program. A more specific focus is attractive to government entities for two reasons: they give the government clear areas in which to focus funding and have a greater probability of drawing in outside funding from special interest groups. By housing specialized programs, magnet schools have the potential to tap different organization sharing their specialty as well as a number of subject-specific grants that can help build and/or maintain these programs. Charter schools are a little trickier as they have a lot of different organizational structures however, most are established by or are associated with a broader company or organization. Where many of these organizations do not represent large financial backing, they provide an outside source that can advocate for school funding and have greater control over how that money is allocated.
The concept behind magnet and charter schools is to better address the needs of large and diverse populations by providing different areas of focus of education. The hope is that with a more specific focus and involvement of non-government entities through partner organizations, these schools can improve the quality of education for large, often underprivileged, communities. However, there is a lot of inconsistency among schools following both of these models are able to achieve success better than others.