Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Education: Part 1

"One of the few things a person is willing to pay for and not get.”
William Lowe Bryan

“Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a snake, In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
“Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

I can still remember those words and vividly picture Ms. Malti acting out this scene from Macbeth. She would be hunched, knock-kneed and deliver it with her best witch's voice and a chilling cackle. It was my first foray into Shakespeare and it moved me in a way no teacher or subject ever had before. I was in the 5th grade, all of ten years old, and decided that day that I wanted to and needed to write. That single moment changed the way I viewed school forever. The passion, delight and energy, with which she brought the words off those pages to life, inspired me in a way that I had always sought but never knew I was missing. 

This to me is the single most important purpose of an education – to lead to that single, solitary moment when a spark is ignited, a connection made, in a way that lights up a child’s brain activity to open their mind and engage their senses with sheer delight. 

It is not about text books, subjects, grades and exams. It is about finding that unique passion within each child, and shaping and nurturing it once discovered. 

Some must be inspired to dance, some to fix cars, some to write, some to bank and some to rogue but that is the journey we must all make through childhood, and the breakthrough that helps us become the adults we are passionate about becoming. 

So I ask where have the teachers like Ms. Malti gone?  Those who teach because it a passion they want to impart and share for Shakespeare’s words or Vernier’s Callipers.

I look at the education system today in America and India and wonder what happened. I hear of the horror stories from parents paying $30,000 a year in fees, for a 3 year old child’s pre-school in New York. Or read about thousands of Engineering graduates in India, whose prospective employers say they don’t even have the basic proficiency to string together one coherent thought. And once hired, have to be re-trained for months to address "inherent inadequacies" in their education (“India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire” – Wall Street Journal). 

In fact, many graduates are finding that they need to supplement their degrees with further education because the skills they possess are not adequate to get a job. Another report published by Pratham, a child-focused nonprofit, paints a dire picture on rural education. In their 2010 report they state “as things stand, more than half the children in Standard 5 [10-11yrs old] will be incapable of completing even elementary education except by blind promotion without regard to the actual learning levels.” 

Much is said about India having the greatest advantage in the global economy in the next 20 years because they will have the youngest population in the world; with half its 1.2 billion people below the age of 25 years. But to my mind this advantage over US, Europe and China will be totally negated if we are unable to provide them with an education.

Meanwhile, in America, once known for its great school system credited with providing the US with its greatest competitive advantage over the last two generations, things are also desperately and completely broken. I defer to a brilliant 2009 documentary called “Waiting for Superman” to sum up the current state of US education system; “In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty.” 

According to the 2010 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) report, the United States ranked 14th out of 34 developed nations for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. What is startling is that a mere twenty years ago it was on top. 

There are many neighborhoods in the country where children know more people who are in prison than graduated college. Multiple social and community experiments have produced more than disappointing results and even though the average amount spent per student has increased dramatically from $393 in 1960-61 to $9,683 in 2006-7 (source: U.S. Department of Education, 2010). We have learned that throwing money at the problem does not solve anything. 

In fact, it seems to have actually made the school system worse and accelerated its decline. This, while creating a bureaucracy so vast and so complex that it makes India’s stifling bureaucratic mess look like child’s play to navigate. 

The last but most important part of this broken puzzle is the teachers union who seem to have a stranglehold on the system with iron-clad teacher’s contracts that protect teachers blindly while doing nothing for school children. A school principal in America today is unable to fire a non-performing teacher who has tenure. All they can do is shuffle him around the system by passing him off to other schools (and accepting their non-performers in return) or until last year send them to the infamous rubber room that existed in New York. This was a room where teachers awaiting disciplinary action were sent to sit around idly, while receiving full pay, as their grievances went through the union-designed system which could take years; of course as long as the teacher gets paid, the union get its monthly dues.

Ultimately, I look to America and India not only to drive the future success of our increasingly inter-connected global economy but also to remain the two greatest beacons of democracy in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. Failure is not an option. 

However, imagine for a moment a world where people no longer have basic reading, writing or math skills. Or worse yet, one where the small percentage still privy to a stellar and frighteningly expensive private education all grow up aspiring to become investment bankers and hedge fund managers. 

One where kids no longer dream about being astronauts or veterinarians or firemen. Consider a world without literature, doctors, inventors, policemen, laughter and leadership. 

If we don't allow our children to dream, or stifle their thinking by depriving them of the spark a great teacher can provide, we will be clipping their wings before we ever let their imaginations take flight, and limit their reality forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment