Fresh from her trip to India to study that country’s recent strides in mathematics and science education, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said last week that she was impressed that students there could make the connection between good grades in advanced calculus and a better standard of living.
“There is absolutely a hunger in their system and a high degree of value for education and, in particular, in the [science, technology, math, and engineering] fields,” Ms. Spellings told reporters in a conference call on April 17.
The secretary, along with a congressional delegation that included Sens. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former secretary of education, spent part of the week of April 10 in India. (“Spellings Joins Passage to India on Education,” April 19, 2006)
Secretary Spellings said the trip helped confirm for her that the Bush administration is on the right track in pushing its “American competitiveness initiative,” a package of programs to improve U.S. math and science education.
The proposals, including training more Advanced Placement teachers, are aimed at keeping U.S. workers competitive with those in India, China, and other developing nations, whose schools have come a long way in recent decades.
Still, Ms. Spellings noted that India and the United States face some of the same challenges, including sharp differences between needy areas, such as poor urban neighborhoods and rural regions, and advanced technological centers.
“India is truly a land of contrasts, between just extreme, abject poverty and a lack of infrastructure and so forth, into these unbelievable high-tech oases that really defy any kind of imagination,” she said.
The secretary also found that India, like the United States, is grappling with how best to rectify those differences, partly through policies similar to the U.S. concept of affirmative action. For instance, India has a program requiring that higher education institutions reserve 27 percent of their slots for members of lower socioeconomic classes, or castes, she said.
“There is a movement to raise that to 40 percent,” said Ms. Spellings, who didn’t indicate any approval or disapproval of the idea. “They lack capacity in their system to accommodate really ‘untouchables’ as well as the elite. So, there is a lot of angst and political trauma going on at the moment about this issue.”