Iron Cages Across the World – Taking on Something Even Bigger Than First We Recognized

Good morning, CharterFolk

I get this first post of the year off to you a few days later than anticipated. Complications flying into SFO during last week’s bad weather delayed the departure of our return flight from Delhi. So I had to suffer through a few more once-in-a-lifetime experiences in India’s capital, like being there to see Amy and Tess get hennas at a local market …

…and visiting Humayun’s Tomb …

… which was constructed to honor one of the first Mughal emperors in the 1550’s.

I love y’all, CharterFolk.

But when given the choice between staying cooped up in a hotel to scribe a timely post, or using some surprise extra hours to see a building that was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, well, I hope you’ll understand why I opted for the latter.

I’ll get back on a regular posting schedule this week.

Meanwhile, the delayed flight home provided ample opportunity to catch up on charter news.

Some of it inspiring.

Some of it sobering.

Some of it enough to make your stomach turn.

And all of it pointing to comparisons with India that cast revealing light on the path before us in the United States.

It’s to that topic I now turn.

Iron Cages Across the World – Taking on Something Even Bigger Than First We Recognized

Right in the middle of our trip, one of the best articles I’ve seen about recent developments in India was published.

It’s an article that underscores the feeling Amy and I had again and again observing the difference between India today and the India we visited 25 years ago:

Something absolutely massive is happening.

Something that will end up having huge impact on our country, and indeed on all countries, in the years ahead.

It’s something happening at such an immense scale that it can be challenging to maintain bearings.

Not just that India has four times the number of people as the United States.

Or that its robust growth will give it 300 million more people than China by mid-century.

It’s the stunning scope of youth in particular.

Put it this way:

In the United States, Statista estimates that there are currently about 73M people under the age of 18.

In India, there are 444M.

Six times as many.

India has 100 million more children than the United States has people.

All my mental models for processing issues related to education seem inadequate in the face of such numbers.

It’s only when I begin looking at the experiences of individual families when things become recognizable again.

An hour after I sent my Year in Review post, the crew headed out to see Auroville, a spiritual center outside Pondicherry.

I asked our guide where his two kids go to school.

It unleashed a torrent.

It was so pronounced I had to turn to my family and friends to avow that I had not led the witness.

Public schools, he explained, were simply not an option for his family. His oldest was getting ready for exams that would determine his path in life and his only hope of doing well was attending a private school where, unlike public schools, teachers were at least trying to teach. At public schools, he asserted, teacher absentee rates were 30% or higher. Meanwhile, teachers earn three or four times the average salary in the area, a level of compensation far higher than his own, and yet he was having to pay tuition out of pocket despite the fact that he had received no earnings during Covid.

He then catalogued a host of other criticisms, including stories about teacher applicants paying bribes to get positions from which they could never be fired while sending their own kids to private schools. He concluded saying that he was a strong proponent of proposals that would require public school teachers to send their children to the same schools that they work in because, in his view, that was the only way teachers would ever get serious about improving.

He must have sensed I knew a little about this subject area. He asked me what I do. When I told him I work to improve public education in the United States by supporting something we call “charter schools,” the guide/tourist dynamic between us suddenly reversed. He began peppering me with all sorts of questions. It didn’t take him long to grasp that charter schools are founded with a guiding sense of purpose, something he pointed out had been the origin of the very place we were visiting, which led him to walk me to a particular exhibit.

Later in our visit when he began inquiring more, I told him that years back I had taken part in informational interviews exploring whether charter schools might be a viable reform concept for India.

He asked me when that would have been. I told him I thought about 2012 or 13. He said that timeframe made sense because ever since India’s current prime minister had come along in 2014, any pressure on public schools to improve had vanished. The way India’s political system works, he explained, teachers have enormous influence because of the financial contributions they make to politicians, and no astute leader like India’s current prime minister was going to get crosswise with teachers.

As you might imagine, I told him it was a dynamic we are familiar with in the United States as well.

It was a conversation not unlike several others I had during our time in India.

Our guide in Delhi told us his son had just graduated from private school and his younger daughter still attends one. He talked about having gone to public school himself as a child, but he had seen public schools deteriorate so badly that he felt he had no choice but to go private for his kids.

Our guide at the Taj Mahal reported that his kids had in fact gone to public schools – not public schools open to all kids, but a special form of public school that was set up originally only for the kids of employees working for the central government. They’re called “Kendiya Vidyalaya” schools. This article from a few weeks before the onset of the pandemic sums up nicely how they differ from other public schools.

Not only do they have selective admissions favoring government employees, but they’re often provided ten times as much funding per pupil than other public schools.

But not even that is enough to keep central employees loyal. Recent trends show government staff abandoning Kedriya Vidyalaya schools to send their kids to private schools instead.

Our guide didn’t know if he had to do it all over again whether he might enroll his kids in private schools too.

These conversations, of course, were not an even remotely representative sample of what is going on more broadly across India. No set of conversations over a three week period could do more than just begin to scratch the surface.

But it was at least enough to inform my further inquiry, which has, not surprisingly, revealed a mix of stories like we see in the United States today.

Some inspiring. Some sobering. Some enough to make your stomach turn.

But across them all, there is overwhelming evidence of a fundamental disconnect opening up within India’s education system that is not dissimilar from the one overtaking our own.

Yes, as I wrote about in my last post, immense strides have been made in Indian education in recent decades. Literacy rates have increased significantly since the 1980s.

Earlier this year a New York Times article trumpeted signs of improvement in Delhi.

But such positive assessments are hard to come by.

More broadly …

…the much more commonly reported story …

…is one of vast numbers of schools failing their students …

… many of whom are left with woefully inadequate skills.

Some cite corruption and graft as the culprit.

Others low expectations for teachers …

… which are broadly recognized to have been around for decades.

Various policy proposals have been surfaced over the years to require Indian teachers and other government employees to send their own kids to regular government schools …

… none of which have been approved, but which speak to the level of desperation many feel to inject greater accountability into India’s schools.

It’s created a societal circumstance leading to a massive growth in private education in recent generations.

By the time Covid hit, fully 50% of India’s students were being educated in private schools, and some observers were predicting that, by 2025, 75% of students would be attending private schools.

But then Covid hit, and unlike what we have seen in the United States, private school enrollment has collapsed during the pandemic.

The New York Times article cites the strengthening of public schools to be the cause. But all other reports I can find on the topic focus on the fact that, unlike public schools which received enough funding from the government during the pandemic to keep paying teachers (sometimes belatedly), private schools received virtually no assistance from the government and have seen tens of millions of parents simply not be able to pay tuition. And so, since the onset of Covid, tens of thousands of private schools have closed.

It’s a scope of disconnect between what parents want and the education that their country is providing that is simply hard to believe.

Literally tens of millions of parents in circumstances they find completely intolerable.

Brought on by conditions that are, to some degree, unique to India.

But in other ways are identical to the ones we find in the United States.

Indeed, it is the extremity of the conditions in India that allows us to more clearly see our own:

A desperate need for improved education for all students, but especially those who have been most underserved historically. And an education Establishment that has built up the power needed to hold back change.

Ours is not a dysfunction unique to our country.

Very few, if any, approaches to public schooling in the world originally envisioned the emergence of power dynamics that would enable the education Establishment to protect its own interests at the expense of those for whom public education was created in the first place.

And yet, country after country across the world find themselves converging on disconnect.

It’s in our approaches to overcoming the disconnect where our paths sometimes diverge.

In the United States we have CharterFolk and other reformers driving for change alongside parents.

Many other countries have brethren Folk engaged in similar efforts.

But in other places like India, parents have been essentially left on their own.

The global crisis in public education may be as severe a problem as any that we face as a species …

… with systems of inequitable allocation of educational opportunity found across the globe …

… protected by iron cages of bureaucracy and status quo protection.

And that was before Covid came along.

And while many countries have reform efforts underway, none, it seems to me are further along than the ones we CharterFolk are advancing in the United States.

It speaks to how essential it is that we succeed, not just for ourselves, but as an example more broadly that, in fact, public education across nations is ultimately reformable.

It’s what makes our task, which already seemed immense in importance to begin with, even more important than first we recognized.

And while it is true that many countries see a divergence in approach to overcoming public education’s equity and excellence problems, it is also true that there is a new force that is bringing all reform efforts together in a way unlike anything we have seen before.

How that convergence is happening is the topic I turn to next.

Hope to see you here.