The DeHavilland Blog

Sunday, June 11, 2006

How badly do we want it?

I took my son to a birthday party on Saturday and got the chance to talk with the dad of another kid in Thomas’ Montessori class. He was from India – came to the US when he was 21 – and we quickly transitioned from pleasantries to an interesting discussion about the difference between education in the US and in India.

When he first enrolled his son and daughter at Montessori, he was surprised at the number of Indian families who were sending their kids to the school; I had been similarly surprised at the high numbers of non-US families involved, not just Indian families but also a good representation of Asian families as well.

He chalked it up to the extremely high value that Indians place on education. India, he said, is not like a mini-America – he continues to be surprised at what is considered to be “poverty” here (I believe that poverty is officially around $13K/year in income, but you’re not asked to pay any income taxes unless you’re at least $22K/year or so). In India, poverty is real poverty, and education is understood to be the only way out.

And it’s not just “an education” loosely defined. A high school degree is irrelevant: if you have just a secondary school degree, you’re going to be pulling a rickshaw for $5 a day. And even a non-technical college degree isn’t sufficient: even if you get into college (which is a highly competitive process), if you wind up with a degree that’s not of a technical nature (think mathematics, science, engineering, etc.), you’re still pulling that rickshaw.

There’s also no pretense at equity or universal schooling – while kids can attend school up to a certain grade, it’s really only a small percentage of the population that can make it all the way to the top of the education ladder. So a good education is not only a ticket out, there are also very few tickets – a great combination for creating a sense of value. And the competition is intense: he said that if he took his son (5 years old) back to India, he’d already be at least two, perhaps three years behind other students in terms of math skills!

Contrast that model with the US version: up until recently, there were many well-paying jobs to be had by people with little to show academically (think manufacturing in Detroit, call centers, etc). Our focus on equity further dilutes the value of an education. (And please don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone should have an opportunity for a great education – but if everyone gets a high school degree, and that can net you a good-paying job, where’s the sense of competition or the sense of value?).

Of course, the US is losing its footing – those good-paying, low-education jobs are going elsewhere, and they’re not coming back. And with the increasing numbers of highly educated workers in other countries, we can expect to see more and more types of jobs – further and further up the professional ladder – start to slip away. Today it’s call centers and processing facilities, tomorrow it’s accounting and legal work, starting with the lower-profile elements and working up from there.

Do the American people really understand what’s happening? And do we have the political and moral will to really deal with it?

How badly do we want it?

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