American politicians and business leaders often point to India as a country where students do extraordinarily well in math and science. The perception is fueled, to a large extent, by the large numbers of software engineers and doctors who immigrate to the United States, and by the outsourcing of jobs to the large educated workforce in India.
But a closer look at India’s education landscape reveals that its image as a rising force in science and math fields is driven mostly by changes in the private school sector that educates a small number of students and by the mushrooming growth of higher education institutions that churn out physicians and engineers.
“The real secret to India’s success is the private school industry,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who has studied engineering colleges in India. As the middle class has expanded dramatically over the past few years, he said, more money has flowed into the private schools, allowing them to improve the quality.
With a population of 1.12 billion, India is home to a middle class that is larger than the entire U.S. population. Yet poverty is widespread, and only 61 percent of adults are considered literate.
A high-quality education is often a privilege reserved for those who can afford it. The primary and secondary education system is made up of three largely class-based tiers.
At the top are the “international” schools—elite, expensive schools that follow a Western curriculum and cater to the upper crust. Also attracting the affluent are the private “public” schools modeled along the lines of Britain’s boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow.
At the second tier are the private schools that educate most of the country’s middle-class students.
Curriculum: Government and most private schools follow a curriculum set either by the state or the central government’s education department. Since the 1960s, the central government has required math and science study for the first 10 years of schooling. Other required subjects include social science and three languages, including English. Physical education is also taught at most private and some government schools, which generally also offer several extracurricular activities, including the creative arts and sports.
Testing: Students are tested rigorously several times throughout the year in each of the mandatory subjects. At the end of the 10th grade, students must take a state board exam in all the mandatory subjects and pass each before they can move on to the last two years of secondary education. At the end of those two years, they take another board exam that they have to pass to move on to college.
Spending: Government spending on all education is around 3.8 percent of the nation’s $2.74 trillion gross domestic product. Forty years ago, an education commission recommended that the proportion be increased to at least 6 percent.
Access: A government initiative is trying to increase access to schooling for poorer students. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, launched earlier this decade, aims to enroll all children ages 6 to 14. It has so far succeeded in enrolling 185 million of the estimated 192 million elementary-school-age children, although it is not clear how many actually remain in school. Only 40 million of the estimated 90 million secondary-school-age youths, those 15 to 16, are actually enrolled in school. This year, the government rolled out a plan to get every secondary-school-age youth enrolled by 2015.
On the bottom-most tier sit the government-run schools, where dropout rates across all grades run as high as 60 percent.
The quality of government schools, where 80 percent of students are educated, remains “abysmally low,” said Dilip Thakore, the editor and publisher of the magazine Education World.
Mr. Wadhwa said one reason affluent and middle-class Indian students do well in math and science is the strong curriculum. Another is their interest in those subjects. “There has always been an emphasis among the people on getting into math- and science-related fields. The jobs most highly respected are engineering and medicine,” he said.
Victor Paul, the Boston-based Education Development Center’s country director for India, said Indian students’ motivation to do well in math and science comes from an “intrinsic drive” to put their country “on the top of the globe.”
It “is not in the spirit of competition with other countries,” said Mr. Paul, who is based in India, “but with an intrinsic drive to achieve excellence.”
Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Expanding Middle Class Drives Private Schooling