India Education Reform Looks to Medical System, Choice for Ideas

Over the past several decades a miracle has happened in India — and no one seems to have noticed. Thanks to innovators and companies like GE, the way medical help is delivered to the poor in the country has been completely overhauled and now even those without money to pay can find a doctor nearby to provide them with care and drugs.

So, why hasn't the same force pushed a revolution in education – a sector in similar need of dramatic change?

Indian children's thirst for knowledge is obvious if you watch a classroom like one of the small private schools located in the middle of one of the largest slums in New Delhi. Even though getting to the school requires a bus, a car, a tuk tuk and finally a bicycle when the roads narrow too much, once the person is through the door he is greeted by rows of highly disciplined, neatly dressed, attentive students eager to begin their daily lessons.

he school, despite its name, is private, and it is a miracle of compression: floor upon floor of children, 25 to a class, crowded into a narrow concrete block. It is also a miracle of order: the children wear uniforms and stand up to greet visitors. One classroom is decorated with bright pictures and perky slogans such as: "We will get more than 80% in maths."

The teacher worked for Infosys, a giant IT firm, before finding her vocation. Other classrooms are drabber. Dr Bhandari, the school's owner and headmaster, is clearly a shrewd businessman. He runs a fancier school next door, decorated with images of Mickey Mouse. He has an impressive collection of certificates. He uses an interpreter to explain that one of his school's strengths is that it is "English medium".

What makes schools like this possible is India's version of a voucher program where the main source of funding is not the government but a local think-tank called the Centre for Civil Society that chooses 400 applicants each year to receive a voucher they can apply to a private school of their choice.

According to the CCS research, the vouchers are a success. Those who are able to take advantage of one perform better on almost all academic metrics against their public school educated peers.

India's education system does have another thing in common with the education system in the U.S. The role that teachers union play is frequently cited as stifling progress.

That poor parents will pay for something the state provides free speaks volumes. India's state schools pay their teachers far more than private ones, yet they are often worse. Surveys suggest that a quarter or more of government teachers are absent at any given time. Unions prevent the authorities from disciplining slackers or rewarding good teachers.

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