Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Leadership means everything...

July 21

Apparently Indian mosquitoes love me as much as Coloradan mosquitoes because we sat out by the pool last night having dinner and even though I was wrapped in towels to keep the bugs off, I got about 20 bites on my feet. Good times. I am certainly glad that I am taking malaria meds now even if they do cause hallucinations. It occurred to me that maybe I am not actually seeing cows in the road, it is just my malaria meds but considering I have now captured them on film, I think it might be real!

Yesterday yet another piece of the educational puzzle was revealed. We went to a school that was started by a woman in 1963 under a tree and now has more than 8,000 students on a variety of campuses. We were welcomed to her office and she sat voluminously behind her desk in her sari and informed us that she is 81 years old and still the director of this school. She completed her PhD at age 70 and she was obviously a really amazing person! This school was coed and had relatively small class sizes. A group of high school kids put on a great play for us that was kind of like an after school special about what happens when you don’t study and don’t listen to your parents. Hilariously, at the end, after doing drugs and dissing his friends and parents, the main character only ended up as a MBA student. Jeez, what a loser! J 

We visited several science labs and they had about 15 kids in them! Asking the teacher, we found out that they actually didn’t know the supposed results before they completed the experiment as a lot of the labs have been, but they are asked to THINK! WOO HOO! The regular non-lab classes were still very heavy on lecture, but the principal stressed that they work at their school for real-world experience and take off regular instruction for a month while the whole school is involved in community projects and large festivals. She also believes in no standardized testing of the kids until grade 9. This is possible in India as the only required test (and it is only required if you are a school affiliated with the Central Board) is at the end of the 10th grade. But, this is not just a test for school accountability; this test determines what a student’s future path in life is going to be. If they score high enough, they can take the medical or engineering path, which is highly prized and sought after by many of India’s educated families.

These schools made me realize, again, the importance of good leadership in a school. The last two schools I have been in have had visionary principals who believe in real-life learning, and life experience, as well as the importance of academics. They have inspired their staffs, their students, and their communities with their beliefs and have seen great success for all of the stakeholders as a result of it. India is different from the US in that really anyone with an idea can start a school (although with the charter system or with enough money, I guess it could work in the US too) and if you are starting your own school, leadership is critical. These women have vision and charisma (and obviously are quite smart!) and despite having no great personal wealth, managed to convince others to invest in their dreams and have made a difference for thousands of children and families. It has been quite inspiring to be in these schools.

But then, I start thinking again. These schools are only educating those who can afford it. In order to have only 30 kids in a class in a country of 1.3 billion people, they have to have many, many schools. The public school system just does not have the resources to do this. Of course they are going to have to have fast-paced lectures when there are over 50 students crammed into a classroom and they only have 40-minute classes. What other methods would work under the circumstances? It is hard to say if these methods are “working” to begin with but at least all of those kids are getting an education at all. Here, it seems that anyone who can remotely afford it, would choose a private school education for his or her child.

The other thing I think about is that if I compare my top students to the students in classes in these private schools (where it is like an entire school of top students) I can see few differences. These kids are smart, highly motivated, have good parental support, and home environments conducive to academic success. Family expectations are such that they will succeed in school and there are consequences and support available when they don’t. I have to remind myself that in the US, EVERYONE has to go to school, regardless of their family background. The quality of education still likely differs depending on your family’s economic resources (i.e. moving into a neighborhood with “good schools” when you can) but in these private schools that I am visiting, they do not have the range of students that we have in American classrooms. The kids who do not have the resources are not sitting next to the kids who do, the extremes of disparity are not there.

So, my need to boil things down to form a picture in my mind is once again thwarted as I have another wrench thrown in. I am realizing that really, I cannot boil in down even though I want to, the situation is just too complicated and multi-faceted. 

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