Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and several key senators traveled to India last week to examine how that country, whose schools generally have fewer resources than those in the United States, has managed to produce top-notch engineers and technology professionals.
Secretary Spellings arrived in India early in the week and met with business and government leaders. She toured a Texas Instruments facility and the General Electric John F. Welch Technology Center, a research-and-development center, both in the city of Bangalore.
Ms. Spellings and the lawmakers, who arrived on April 12, also were scheduled to visit an Infosys Technologies Ltd. global-technology and consulting facility in Bangalore, home to numerous high-tech companies and widely considered to be India’s Silicon Valley. The group also met with representatives of Google India, an affiliate of the major American Web search engine, The Times of India reported.
The secretary told the newspaper she expects to see more American students go to India to study. She also praised the large number of skilled employees in the country, telling TheTimes of India, “That’s one of the pages we want to take from your book: ... the high-quality technical base, strength of the skills, ... your talent pool. We have work to do on that across our country as well.”
Some Indian students take intense, daily math and science courses, often beginning in 8th or 9th grade, to gain admission to one of the country’s engineering colleges. Still, there is limited access to education in some of India’s poor and rural areas. Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 6- to 14-year-olds are not in school. Many students drop out of school before they reach 5th grade. (“Indian Middle Class Makes Mission Out of Sending Children to College,” Nov. 30, 2005)
Ms. Spellings joined an official congressional fact-finding trip that included Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and two other members of the committee: Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.
The lawmakers and Ms. Spellings were also scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Minister of Science and Technology Shri Kapil Sibal in New Delhi.
The U.S. group also toured the Hole-In-the-Wall program, which places computer terminals in poor areas. Local children are given access to the machines, without instruction or other assistance, and are often able to teach themselves to use them, said Sanjay Puri, the chairman of the U.S. Indian Political Action Committee, a Washington-based advocacy group for Indian-Americans.
“It’s unbelievable, to see them figuring it out and getting really good at it,” said Mr. Puri, who consulted with Senate aides in arranging the trip.
The trip was largely spurred by The World Is Flat, a highly regarded 2005 book on globalization by the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, which has helped focus policymakers’ attention on the highly skilled Indian workers who are increasingly competing with Americans for jobs in many sectors.
Congress is considering proposals advanced by President Bush that would bolster mathematics and science education, including training more Advanced Placement teachers in those subjects, with the goal of preparing American students to succeed in the international job market. (“Bush Proposes Math and Science Initiatives,” Feb. 8, 2006)
The congressional trip to India was intended to help inform those efforts, which are included in the competitiveness initiative the administration is pushing.
“We need to learn all we can about the successes of our world neighbors and how we can benefit,” Sen. Enzi said in a statement before he left.
Secretary Spellings and the lawmakers were planning to travel to Sri Lanka on April 14.