Posted on July 30, 2013

Education Matters- India vs. the US

Like many other teachers of Indian origin who prefer to remain in the field of education when they move to the US, I, too, opted to remain an educator after I immigrated to the US with two decades of teaching experience in India.  This experience, however, brought in demanding challenges, revelations, and surprises resulting in an immensely steep learning curve.  Full-time high school teaching unfolded so many other aspects of the education system which I could not perceive as a substitute teacher in high schools and as an adjunct professor in community colleges.  I found the American public system vastly different from the Indian education system in many different ways: the availability of resources to the students, methods of instruction, grading system, student behavior, student-teacher relationship, and the teacher evaluation system.

First, the teaching methods and the environment in US schools offer a sharp contrast to those in India.  The method of classroom instruction in India is mainly text-book based and lecture-based.  The teaching aids available to the teachers are blackboard and chalk, as the access to computers is limited to only one period in a day.  Students are expected to follow the lectures and complete tons of homework all by themselves, leading them to cram a tremendous amount of information by heart.  On the contrary, in the American public schools (counterparts of government schools in India) the students are taught with a variety of teaching aids, multi-media, visual and audio aids.  The classrooms are fully equipped with all the electronic gadgets e.g. CD player, computers, TV, VCR, overhead projector, and so on.  I heartily appreciate the availability of myriad resources that make learning fun for the students; however, I was pained to see that a majority of students fail to value the facilities served to them on a platter, e.g. computers, books, dictionaries, educational audio CD’s, projector system in each classroom for showing relevant videos, and PPT’s, etc.

Any discussion of educational resources in American public schools would be incomplete without mentioning counselors, the deans, school security, and the Special Education teachers.  In the public schools where I worked, each student is assigned a counselor who takes care of his/her academic and emotional needs.  These counselors help them with their selection of courses and also act as bridges between the students/ their teachers and parents.  On the other hand, the concept of counselors is still alien to Indian schools.  Likewise, the dean of students, school security staff, and the police (yes, one police car and a cop were always present at the campus) also help maintain discipline in the American public schools' campuses that discourage students from sneaking out of the campus.  In Indian schools, on the contrary, there was no such deterrent that could prevent students from cutting classes or sneaking out of schools.

Furthermore, the slow learners in American Public schools are provided a trained certified special- education teacher, whose job is to assist the subject teacher through inclusion methods.  In my last year at the high school, I was assigned to teach 11th grade inclusion classes and was surprised to come across some special education students with a reading level of a third-grader.  I was informed that this kind of situation was an obvious outcome of a federal law that outlaws failing special education students.  It was distressing to see that this law prevented a majority of them from taking ownership of their own learning because they knew that it was their lawful right to graduate high school.  It is worth mentioning here that kids with physical disabilities are provided special education and care in public schools here which is indeed commendable.  Unfortunately, in India, the concept of inclusion education is restricted mainly to kids with a physical disability only, and very few schools provide special assistance to kids with disabilities.  There are definitely slow learners in each class in India too, but they are provided special attention and guidance by the teachers instead of special privileges to pass.

The grading system in American public schools differs from that in Indian government schools.  Here the students with an F grade are conveniently promoted to the next grade, and all they need to do is to pass that course before graduating high school.  To cite an example, my Junior English (11th grade) class comprised of some 12th grade students who had not passed their freshman English (9th grade), Sophomore English (10th grade), Junior English (11th grade), and also (senior) 12th grade English class.  It pained me to see these ‘seniors’ fooling around instead of putting in extra hours to pass all of their four English courses.  When the teachers enforced that it was their last chance to pass, they would quip nonchalantly, “I can do summer course”.  Thus, the cycle of postponing ‘learning’ extends beyond four years of high school, summer course being their last chance to pass the required courses for graduation.  Undoubtedly, this system of providing numerous chances to the students makes them lazy and prevents them from taking ownership of their education.  On the contrary, India's education system requires students to pass all their subjects (courses) to get through their class, failing which they lose one school year.  I believe that one of the factors that keep Indian kids motivated to push harder is the fear of losing one academic year.

The most significant factor that distinguishes Indian public schools from their American counterparts is student behavior and student-teacher relationship.   Unlike India where students stand up and wish the teacher ‘good morning’ when she/he steps into the class, American kids are not trained to greet the teacher.  Instead, the teacher is expected to greet them at the door when they enter the class.  You should consider yourself fortunate if they respond to your greetings.

Greeting the teacher, however, becomes a non-issue when confronted with grossly disruptive and disrespectful student behavior.  I still recall some of my 10th and 11th grade students who would do everything they could to prevent me from teaching and to stop other students from learning.  In fact, most of the kids under 16 are required by law to be in the classroom and not by their own will.  Therefore, their sole motive (which they often admit upfront) is to disrupt the classroom teaching by resorting to various methods: laughing out loudly, disrupting those who are paying attention, using a cell phone, arguing with the teacher unnecessarily, and asking for permission for the restroom in the middle of an instruction.  Dealing with these kids not only takes away classroom instruction time but also after-school time (e-mailing to their counselors, calling their parents, writing referrals to the dean, etc.). It is distressing that a handful of these kids sometimes eat up most of the productive class time which the teachers owe to the well- behaved and motivated kids.

Lastly, the teacher evaluation system in the American Public schools is in no way comparable to that of Indian government schools.  In India, teachers who are hired once by a school district are hired forever.  They are the ‘permanent’ teachers, and no amount of inefficiency on their part can jeopardize their jobs.  On the contrary, in the US public schools, administrators and department chairs are required by the State to conduct teacher evaluations by observing their class once during the semester.  Even though the evaluation system is designed to help teachers to improve their teaching abilities, these evaluations are largely based on personal prejudices instead of state standards, often labeling the most ineffective teachers as competent and the most dedicated ones as incompetent.

Thus, my two-decade-long experience as an English teacher in India’s central schools and government schools and a decade’s experience in the American public schools and community colleges have endowed me with an insider’s perspective into the education system of both the countries.  It is my understanding that both the systems have their positive and negative points and a middle path between the two would work best for the interest of students and teachers.  In order to make the American public school students accountable for their learning, we need to raise the bar for them and set higher expectations from them.  Also, the American public school system fails to provide the teachers with the support they deserve, forcing one-third of public school teachers to quit their profession in the first three years of their careers.  Therefore, teacher salaries should be increased to retain teachers in this profession.  Also, teachers should be evaluated by their students and students’ test scores and not by the prejudiced administrators.  Similarly, more resources should be made available to the students in Indian public schools, and teacher evaluation systems should be introduced to enhance the teaching-learning experience.  Education is the building block of a nation’s future; therefore, every step should be taken to make it an intellectually stimulating and rewarding experience for both students and their educators.  Most importantly, our schools should provide a safe learning environment for everyone at the school campus.

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Note: This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Valley India Times.