IAP NEWS UPDATE December 30th 2011 – January 6th 2012 Publication: OECD educationtoday Title: Making education reform happen Author: Marilyn Achiron Website: http://oecdeducationtoday.blogspot.com/2012/01/making-education-reformhappen.html
This is the time of year when a lot of us resolve to commit ourselves to self-improvement plans of greater or lesser magnitude. Spend more time reading? On the list. Eat better? Ditto. Reform the education system? Whoa—nice idea; but isn’t that a bit too ambitious?
What is it about education reform that all-too-often turns resolve into sighs and resignation? If countries really want to keep that resolution, here’s a suggestion: invite teachers to get involved.
On the face of it, it seems elementary: The best—meaning the most sustainable and effective— reforms happen when those who are directly affected support them. You don’t have to take our word for it; just look at how some of the best-performing and rapidly improving school systems got that way. Take Finland, for example–one of the consistently best-performing OECD countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since the assessments were first conducted in 2000. While teachers there have long enjoyed high professional status (which should be one of the goals of reform in countries where teachers are poorly trained, poorly paid and not recognised as the professionals they are—or should be), their views on improving student performance are actively solicited and, to the extent possible, used to spur and support change.
Ontario, Canada, initiated a comprehensive reform of its education system in 2003 to improve graduation rates and standards in literacy and numeracy. Those who led the reform effort acknowledge that it couldn’t have been as successful as it has been without the involvement of teachers’ unions and superintendents’ and principals’ organisations. For example, a collective bargaining agreement with the main teachers’ unions there eased the way for a reduction in class size and more preparation time for teachers—changes that, in turn, led to the creation of some 7,000 new jobs.
When teachers, union leaders and education ministers meet again in New York this March for the second OECD co-sponsored International Summit of the Teaching Profession, they will no doubt take as a starting point their conclusion from last year’s Summit: that high-quality teaching forces are created through deliberate policy choices, and by engaging strong teachers as active agents in school reform, not just using them to implement plans designed by others. In other words, the resolve to reform education can only be turned into real reform if teachers are at the forefront of change.
So in these first few days of the new year, be ambitious in your resolutions—and wise in keeping them.
Publication: The Economist Title: The one-shot society Website: http://www.economist.com/node/21541713
The system that has helped South Korea prosper is beginning to break down
On November 10th South Korea went silent. Aircraft were grounded. Offices opened late. Commuters stayed off the roads. The police stood by to deal with emergencies among the students who were taking their university entrance exams that day.
Every year the country comes to a halt on the day of the exams, for it is the most important day in most South Koreans’ lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea’s best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate). Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society.
Making so much depend on an exam has several advantages for Korea. It is efficient: a single set of tests identifies intelligent and diligent teenagers, and launches them into society’s fast stream. It is meritocratic: poor but clever Koreans can rise to the top by studying very, very hard. The exam’s importance prompts children to pay attention in class and parents to hound them about their homework; and that, in turn, ensures that Korea’s educational results are the envy of the world. The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-sized countries.
Korea’s well-educated, hard-working population has powered its economic miracle. The country has risen from barefoot to broadband since 1960, and last year, despite the global slowdown, its economy grew by 6.2%. In the age of the knowledge economy, education is economic destiny. So the system has had far-reaching and beneficial consequences.
Yet it also has huge costs. For a start, high school is hell. Two months before the day of his exams Kim Min-sung, a typical student, was monosyllabic and shy. All the joy seemed to have been squeezed out of him, to make room for facts. His classes lasted from 7am until 4pm, after which he headed straight for the library until midnight. He studied seven days a week. “You get used to it,” he mumbled.
His parents have spent much of Min-sung’s life worrying about his education. His father, a teacher, taught him how to manage his time: to draw up a plan and stick to it, so as to complete as much revision as possible without collapsing exhausted on the desk. His mother kept him fuelled with “delicious food” and urged him to “study more, but not too much”.
Min-sung says he doesn’t particularly want to go to university, but he feels “social pressure” to do so. He dreams of getting a job as an agent for sports stars, which would not obviously require a university degree. But he reluctantly accepts that in Korea, “You can’t get [any] job without a degree.”
Min-sung’s happiest time was playing football with his friends during the lunch hour. Every child in his school dashes to the cafeteria when the bell goes and gulps down the noodles like a wolf in a hurry. The quicker they eat, the more precious minutes of freedom each day will contain.
A poll by CLSA, a stockbroker, found that 100% of Korean parents want their children to go to university. Such expectations can be stressful. In one survey a fifth of Korean middle and high
school students said they felt tempted to commit suicide. In 2009 a tragic 202 actually did so. The suicide rate among young Koreans is high: 15 per 100,000 15-24-year-olds, compared with ten Americans, seven Chinese and five Britons. Min-sung’s older sister, Kim Jieun, who took the exams a few years ago, recalls: “I thought of emigrating, I hated the education system so much.”
As more and more students cram into universities, the returns to higher education are falling. Because all Korean parents want their children to go to university, most do. An incredible 63% of Koreans aged 25-34 are college graduates—the highest rate in the OECD. Since 1995 there has been a staggering 30 percentage-point increase in the proportion of Koreans who enter university to pursue academic degrees, to 71% in 2009.
This sounds great, but it is unlikely that such a high proportion of young Koreans will actually benefit from chasing an academic degree, as opposed to a vocational qualification. A survey in August found that, four months after leaving university, 40% of graduates had not yet found jobs.
Unemployment represents a poor return on what for most families is a huge financial sacrifice. Not only is college itself expensive; so is getting in. Parents will do anything to help their children pass the college entrance exam. Many send them to private crammers, known as hagwon, after school. Families in Seoul spend a whopping 16% of their income on private tuition.
Korea’s rigid social model aggravates the nation’s extreme demographic problems. Korean women have stopped having anywhere near enough babies to provide the country with the workforce it will need in the future.
Since Korean women started entering the labour force in large numbers, the opportunity costs of having children have risen sharply. The workplace makes few allowances for women who want to take a career break. If a woman drops off the career track for a couple of years, Korean firms are far less likely than Western ones to welcome her back. And if a firm does take back a working mother, she will face a stark choice: drop off the fast track or work long and inflexible hours.
Flexitime and working from home are frowned on. This makes it staggeringly hard to combine work and child care, especially since Korean mothers are expected to bear most of the responsibility for pushing their children to excel academically.
The direct costs of raising children who can pass that all-important exam are also hefty. Sending one child to a $1,000-a-month hagwon is hard enough. Paying for three is murder. Parents engage in an educational arms race. Those with only one child can afford higher fees, so they bid up the price of the best hagwon. This gives other parents yet another incentive to have fewer children.
Since 1960 the fertility rate in Korea has fallen faster than nearly anywhere on earth, from six children per woman to 1.15 in 2009. That is a recipe for demographic collapse. If each Korean woman has only one baby, each generation will be half as large as the one that came before. Korea will age and shrink into global irrelevance.
Small wonder the government is worried. President Lee Myung-bak talks of the need to create a “fair society”. That means, among other things, changing attitudes to educational qualifications. He says he wants employers to start judging potential employees by criteria other than their alma mater. In September he promised that the government would start hiring more non-graduates. “Merit should count more than academic background,” he said.
The forces for change
The president is also urging Korean firms to recruit people with a wider range of experiences. Some have agreed to do so. In September, for example, Daewoo Shipbuilding said it would start hiring high-school graduates and set up an institution to train them. But the managers who run big Korean companies are mostly from the generation in which academic background was everything, so they may be reluctant to change.
The government is trying to reduce the leg-up that private tuition gives to the children of the welloff. Since 2008 local authorities have been allowed to limit hagwon hours and fees. Freelance snoops, known as hagparazzi, visit hagwon with hidden cameras to catch them charging too much or breaking a local curfew. The hagparazzi are rewarded with a share of any fines imposed on errant educational establishments. Yet still the hagwon proliferate. By the government’s count, there are nearly 100,000.
The other force for change is Korea’s young people. Many are questioning whether the old rules about how to live one’s life will make them happy. Kang Jeong-im, a musician, puts it bluntly: “I think it’s difficult to live the way you want to in South Korea.” High school was the worst, she recalls: “We were like memorising machines. Almost every day, I’d fall asleep at my desk. The teacher would shout at me or throw chalk.”
Ms Kang made her parents proud by getting into Yonsei, one of Korea’s leading universities. But once there, she rebelled. She hung out with radicals and read Marx and Foucault. She went on protest marches, waving a placard, inhaling tear gas and almost getting herself arrested. “I kinda enjoyed it,” she says, “I felt I was doing something really important.”
She learned to play the guitar. She wrote a thesis on female Korean rock musicians that involved a lot of “field studies”: ie, going to concerts and talking to cool people. She even interviewed the singer of 3rd Line Butterfly, a group she loved.
She formed a band with a male friend. They played some gigs in small venues, but eventually he took a full-time job at a news agency and no longer had time for rocking. So Ms Kang started a solo career, writing songs and performing them herself, using the stage name “Flowing”. She is working on an album, she says, and performing in clubs. Her parents are not exactly thrilled; they want her to find a respectable job and get married. Their friends and relatives ask: “What is your daughter doing?” and “Why do you let her live like this?”
Ms Kang cannot live on what she makes as a musician, so she takes temporary jobs. She is one of many. Among the young, the proportion of jobs that are part-time has exploded from 8% in 2000 to 23% in 2010; the proportion of workers under 25 on temporary contracts has leapt from zero to 28%. This is partly because cash-strapped companies are backing away from the old tradition of lifetime employment, but also because many young people do not want to be chained to the same desk for 30 years.
According to TNS, a market-research firm, Koreans are markedly more fed up with the companies they work for than people in other countries. Only half would recommend them as a good place to work, compared to three-quarters of TNS’s global sample. Only 48% think they receive suitable recognition, as individuals, for their work, compared with 68% of workers in supposedly collectivist China. Only Japanese workers are more disgruntled.
Despite these gripes, 79% of Korean workers expect still to be working for the same employer in a year’s time. TNS speculates that this attitude reflects the difficulty of switching employers rather than genuine loyalty; it talks of “captive” employees.
Such averages mask wide variation, of course. Some highflying Korean salarymen feel intensely loyal to their employers and are prepared to slave long hours to help them conquer new markets. But this inner circle is quite small: the chaebol employ only 10% of the workforce. And the rigid way that chaebol tend to seek talent—recruiting only from prestigious universities and promoting only from within—means that, as well as failing to get the best out of Korean women, they miss clever people who are not much good at exams and late developers whose talents blossom in their 20s or 30s. They also shunt older people into retirement when they still have much to offer. (The chaebol tend to promote by seniority, which sounds good for older employees but isn’t. There are only a few jobs at the top, so when you reach the age at which you might become a senior manager, you are either promoted or pensioned off.)
Subversive ideas from abroad
It is still rare for a Korean who is clever enough to reach the top by the conventional route to choose a different one; but it is becoming less so. One fertile source of subversion is the Koreans who have studied overseas. Some 13% of Korean tertiary students study abroad, according to the OECD, a higher proportion than in any other rich country. In recent years, many have come home, not least because the American government, in a fit of self-destructive foolishness, made it much harder after September 11th 2001 for foreign students to work in America after they graduate. A survey by Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University found that most foreign students at American universities feared they would not be able to obtain a work visa. And since the application process is long and humiliating, many do not even bother to try. America’s loss is Korea’s (and India’s, and China’s) gain.
Returnees are typically bright, and less beholden to tradition than their stay-at-home peers. For example, Richard Choi, whose father was a globe-trotting manager for a chaebol, attended a British school in Hong Kong and learned about America’s start-up culture while studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Having returned to Korea, he has devised a business model in which customers receive store credits from merchants for recommending their products to their friends. “Let’s say you think this pie is good,” says Mr Choi, pointing at a chocolate confection your correspondent has just bought. “And you tell your friends about it [via a smartphone app developed by Mr Choi’s company, Spoqa]. And they come to this café and spend money. Then you get store credits.”
If this model will work anywhere, it will work in Seoul, figures Mr Choi. The Korean capital is densely populated and splendidly connected: nearly everyone with spare cash has a smartphone. And if it does not, he can probably get a good job, he thinks. But he has to hurry. Even with his skills, he reckons that no chaebol would hire him once he is over 30.
A few locally educated Koreans are also challenging the system. Charles Pyo, a young internet entrepreneur, borrowed his mother’s credit card when he was 14 and started a business helping people set up websites. His parents did not approve; they thought he should be studying instead. But then they saw all the money coming in, and relented. He made $200,000 in three years.
He then won a place at Yonsei University. He took the exam like anyone else, but what really counted was his interview, in which he argued that he had exceptional talents. Korean universities have traditionally spurned interviews, but the government is now urging them to select many more of their students this way.
While at university, Mr Pyo teamed up with a former hacker, Kim Hyun-chul. (In his teens, Mr Kim set off cyber-terror alarm bells by infecting hundreds of thousands of computers with a virus that deleted files on his birthday. He was caught, but he was too young to send to prison.) Now a reformed character, he helped Mr Pyo start another company, Wizard Works, that supplies “widgets”—little packets of software that make corporate websites work better—and is about to start selling “cloud computing” apps for smartphones. Still only 25, Mr Pyo has now started yet another company, Rubicon Games, that designs online social games.
Mr Pyo says that what he does is much more fun than being a salaryman. But it is hard for him to recruit good staff. People assume that if you don’t work for a chaebol, it must be because you are not bright enough, he gripes. “They say: ‘Why should I work for you? You’re not Samsung.’”
Mr Choi has the same problem. “Older people look at my business card and say: ‘What’s this?’ Younger people admire the fact that I am doing something no one else is doing. But given the choice of working for me or Samsung, people are naturally inclined to go with a big company.”
Mr Pyo believes that Korea would be a happier place if more people had the courage to strike out on their own. But talented students “care too much about other people’s expectations,” he sighs.
“They don’t want to fall behind their friends. They fear that if they do something different they might be viewed as a failure.”
The Land of Miracles must loosen up
The Korean economic boom was built on hard work, benign demography (a bulge of working-age Koreans between 1970 and 1990) and plenty of opportunities to catch up with richer countries. But the world, and Korea, have changed.
Korea is rich, so it can no longer grow fast by copying others. It cannot remain dynamic with an ageing, shrinking workforce. It cannot become creative with a school system that stresses rote learning above thinking. And its people cannot realise their full potential in a society where they get only one shot at doing well in life, and it comes when they are still teenagers. To remain what one writer called “The Land of Miracles”, Korea will have to loosen up, and allow many routes to success.
Country-Specific Education Articles Publication: Citizen Economists Title: The first PISA results for India: The end of the beginning Author: Ajay Shah Website: http://www.citizeneconomists.com/blogs/2012/01/05/the-first-pisa-results-for-indiathe-end-of-the-beginning/
The PISA 2009+ results are the end of the beginning. For the last decade there has been a debate. Some argued the levels of learning inside Indian elementary schools (primary and upper primary) are a national scandal and a threat to the future of India’s society, polity, and economy. Others appeared to believe that the main, if not only, problem with Indian schools was that not enough children attend them and that with more money and more of the same, all would be well. The last five years saw a relentless accumulation of evidence about the crisis of learning. The establishment has tried to deny, deflect, and dismiss the evidence on learning. Eventually the Government of India agreed to participate in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) – but only for two states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh – and both sides agreed PISA was the litmus test. The PISA 2009+ results, which are both official and are beyond gain-saying are unspeakably bad. They confirm the worst of what anyone has been saying about the levels of learning in India elementary education.
• • •
In reading of the 74 regions participating in PISA 2009 or 2009+ these two states beat out only Kyrgyzstan. In mathematics of the 74 regions participating the two states finished again, second and third to last, again beating only Kyrgyzstan. In science the results were even worse, Himachal Pradesh came in dead last, behind Kyrgyzstan, while Tamil Nadu inched ahead to finish 72 nd of 74.
But just coming in last (if we can dismiss as a relevant comparator for India a tiny Central Asian state) does not convey the enormity of how bad these results were, as not only was India last, it was far, far, behind its aspirations, both at the bottom and at the top levels of performance. PISA expresses the levels of performance in two ways, an overall index number and the fraction of students achieving various “levels” of achievement. The PISA index numbers for each subject are scaled so that the typical OECD student is at 500 and the standard deviation across OECD students is 100. The testing of thousands of students allows the results to present not only the average but also the worst (5th percentile) and best (95th percentile) students do in each country/region. PISA also classifies student performance into “levels” that represent different degrees of mastery of the material. Table 1 compares India’s performance to three groups of countries. The economic superstars have successfully completed the transition from poor to rich economies in just two generations – Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea (China’s only results are just for the city of Shanghai, which are the highest scores of any region tested, but this is too a typical to really be comparable) and India aspires to their sustained success economically. The current super powers are represented by the USA and the OECD average reflects India’s aspirations as a superpower. The rising powers are represented by the BRIC countries of Russia and Brazil which reflect the rise of the emerging markets. Compared to the economic superstars India is almost unfathomably far behind. The TN/HP average 15 year old is over 200 points behind. If a typical grade gain is 40 points a year Indian eighth graders are at the level of Korea third graders in their mathematics mastery. In fact the average TN/HP child is 40 to 50 points behind the worst students in the economic superstars. Equally worrisome is that the best performers in TN/HP – the top 5 percent who India will need in science and technology to complete globally – were almost 100 points behind the average child in Singapore and 83 points behind the average Korean – and a staggering 250 points behind the best in the best. As the current superpowers are behind the East Asian economic superstars in learning performance the distance to India is not quite as far, but still the average TN/HP child is right at the level of the worst OECD or American students (only 1.5 or 7.5 points ahead). Indians often deride America’s schools but the average child placed in an American school would be among the weakest students. Indians might have believed, with President Obama, that American schools were under threat from India but the best TN/HP students are 24 points behind the average American 15 year old. Even among other “developing” nations that make up the BRICs India lags – from Russia by almost as much as the USA and only for Brazil, which like the rest of Latin America is infamous for lagging education performance does India even come close – and then not even that close. To put these results in perspective, in the USA there has been huge and continuous concern that has caused seismic shifts in the discourse about education driven, in part, by the fact that the USA is lagging the economic superstars like Korea. But the average US 15 year old is 59 points behind Koreans. TN/HP students are 41.5 points behind Brazil, and twice as far behind Russia (123.5 points) as the US is Korea, and almost four times further behind Singapore (217.5 vs 59) that the US is behind Korea. Yet so far this disastrous performance has yet to occasion a ripple in the education establishment. I have emphasised Mathematics because many believed math was an Indian strong suit. The results for reading and science are similarly bad. Table 2 shows science results in a different format, which shows the proportion of children in various categories of performance. There are three points:
1. “Below level 1″ doesn’t even have a description as it implies that so little proficiency is demonstrated it is impossible to distinguish from not knowing anything at all. In the USA, even with its socio-economic and racial inequalities and language inequalities and its failing inner city schools, only 4.2 percent are in this category. In HP 57.9 percent of 15 year olds in school cannot be distinguished from not having learned any science at all and in TN 43.6 percent all in this category – ten times as many as the USA. 2. PISA considers “level 2″ as the minimum level that provides the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. Since more than 80 percent of students in both HP and TN are level 1 or below this most students in these states have reached age 15 ill-equipped for the century they will face. 3. While a thin elite that competes for the few highly selective technical institutes are globally competitive, this is a tiny fraction of the population. The estimate of the fraction of TN or HP students at level 6 in science proficiency was zero. Their estimate of the fraction at level 5: also zero. Of course this does not mean there are not such students in these states, of course there are, just that from the samples available in the study the best estimate was so small as to be indistinguishable from zero.
Table 1: Comparing Indian (Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh) students mastery of mathematics to economic superstars, current superpowers, and rising superpowers
Country/Region 5th mean 95th
HP+TN average to comparator average
HP+TN average HP+TN best (95th) HP+TN best (95th) to comparator to comparator’s to comparator’s 5th percentile average 95th Points TN/HP is behind (-)/ahead(+)
Economic Superstars Singapore
Current Superpower OECD avg.
Rising Superpowers Russia
Indian States Tamil Nadu
Average of TN and HP
232 344.5 463
Source: PISA 2009 Plus Results, Table B.3.1 for first three columns and authorâ€™s calculations.
Table 2: Comparison of science proficiency in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh to Indiaâ€™s aspirations Country/Region
Below level 1
Source: PISA 2009 Plus Results. Description of levels Table 3.2, percentages Table B.3.4. 1) At Level 1, students have such a limited scientific knowledge that it can only be applied to a few, familiar situations. They can present scientific explanations that are obvious and follow explicitly from given evidence. 5) At Level 5, students can identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. Students at this level can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments based on their critical analysis. 6) At Level 6, students can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they demonstrate willingness to use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations. a) In Table B.3.4 these are reported as blank but the estimated percentages in below 1 to level 4 sum to exactly 100 percent. Obviously this not imply that there are exactly zero students in all of these two states meeting these levels but that with the sample sizes assess students of 1616 in HP and 3210 in TN there was insufficient information to create a non-zero estimate. These results on PISA 2009+, while tragic for what they imply for Indian youth and perhaps shocking to newcomers to this subject, come as no surprise to those who have been working on basic education in India: • •
Das and Zajonc (2008) used results from Orissa and Rajasthan to create indices on mathematics performance similar to those of TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) and found these states near the bottom of the global rankings. Educational Initiatives carried out an 18 state study using sophisticated testing instruments and found levels of performance on TIMSS comparable items that were stunningly lower. For instance on the open ended question “Write a fraction larger than 2/7″ less than 30 percent of Indian students in standard 8 could answer correctly compared to more than 70 percent internationally.
The APRest study led by Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman in rural AP asked the same questions of students in grades 2 to 5 and found very slow rates of learning progress.
The results year after year from the ASER [2010 2009] study supported by Pratham find that significant fractions of students in Standard 8 cannot master even Standard 2 curricular basics. In rural areas nationwide a third of children in grade 8 could not do a simple division problem and almost 20 percent could not read a level 2 text. The 2011 results, due out in a few weeks will show continued stagnation or even retrogress in learning.
Numerous studies by MIT’s JPAL, World Bank, NCAER/University of Maryland and other researchers found levels of performance that were shockingly low compared to curricular expectations.
These PISA 2009+ results are the end of the beginning. The debate is over. No one can still deny there is a deep crisis in the ability of the existing education system to produce child learning. India’s education system is undermining India’s legitimate aspirations to be at the global forefront as a prosperous economy, as a global great power, as an emulated polity, and as a fair and just society. As the beginning ends, the question now is: what is to be done?
Publication: Business Standard (India) Title: Educating parents Author: Jyoti Pande Lavakare Website: http://business-standard.com/india/news/educating-parents/460966/ So now it’s official. For those of us who have been ranting about the poor quality of India’s school education, the data is out there for everyone to see. This is the first time India took part in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the results are damning. India ranks 72 and 73 (as represented by Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh), out of the 74 countries that participated, way below Shanghai, South Korea and Hong Kong. What is shocking is not just its low ranking, but the fact that in a state like Himachal Pradesh, otherwise on the higher side for development indicators, only one out of 10 children can read at a level needed to be effective and productive in life. Just imagine the situation in other states. PISA is not about competitive evaluation. It assesses to what extent students close to the end of compulsory school education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society. Are students well equipped to analyse, reason and communicate effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning through life? This is what makes India’s low scores in reading, math and science particularly worrisome. PISA takes into account children from all socio-economic backgrounds. Counter intuitively, it has found no evidence to suggest that private schools help raise the level of performance of the school system as a whole. What it has found instead is that active parent involvement, especially in the early years, can make a significant difference to children’s learning abilities. And the good news coming from PISA data analyses is that it does not require a PhD or unlimited hours for parents to make a difference — many parent-child activities that are associated with better reading performance among students involve relatively little time and no specialised knowledge. What they do demand, though, is genuine interest and active engagement, something busy parents sometimes overlook despite best intentions — especially in countries where it is easier and cheaper to outsource raising children to maids, nannies and drivers. It’s easy to blame teachers and schools for everything that is wrong with the system. But educating parents is as important as teacher training. Most of my generation was raised in a state of “benign neglect.” Our parents took care of all our basic needs, weren’t very demonstrative in their love, nor fierce in their advocacy for us, barely remembered which grade we were in, trusted our teachers implicitly, and as long as our homework was done, just let us be. And as many of my generation say, we turned out fine. But today’s hyper-competitive world isn’t anything like what it was three decades ago — parents today don’t have the luxury of being as detached as our parents could afford to be. Oh, I’m not advocating the sort of cringe-worthy parental aggression I often see these days — the sort of role models that yell at teachers in front of their children because they see them as service providers rather than educators, even as financiers increasingly commoditise education. But parental apathy is equally common — it isn’t enough to sign kids up for hundreds of activities, outsourcing every aspect of their development without being actively engaged in their lives.
What is most helpful and effective is engaging with our children and collaborating constructively with their teachers in helping them achieve their potential. I learnt this from the highly intelligent and engaged parent community in Palo Alto. These were mothers — and fathers — who had given up CXO positions to stay home with their kids in their formative years — and used that formidable intelligence in providing their children with the best inputs they could. Those who continued to juggle work and home ensured they were actively engaged in their children’s lives. I saw such parents at every backto-school potluck, parent conference and class — including one on how not become a helicopter parent! They read to their children, played with them, taught them conflict resolution and other lifeskills. Sure they were busy — they were running billion dollar corporations — but they made time for their children. The even more impressive part was that there were as many dads out there as there were mums — that was accepted culture. Those kids would surely top all PISA charts.