Lessons for India in America’s Academic Achievement Gap

McKinsey has released a new report (hat tip to the Atlantic) presenting some eye-popping numbers on how much America’s Academic achievement gap costs the USA. According to them the loss in productivity / innovation is equivalent to 16% of America’s current GDP – or about the size of Italy’s economy. Thomas Friedman has already opined about how this means the end of America, though the Atlantic takes a more sanguine view.

But hidden amongst those massive numbers is something that is far more relevant to India – the variance in the achievement gap across income and racial groups.

Furthermore, the gap between students from rich and poor families is much more pronounced in the United States than in other OECD nations. In a world-class system like Finland’s, socioeconomic standing is far less predictive of student achievement. All things being equal, a low-income student in the United States is far less likely to do well in school than a low-income student in Finland. Given the enormous economic impact of educational achievement, this is one of the best indicators of equal opportunity in a society, and one on which the United States fares poorly.

This is lesson number one for an India that is still deciding on which model is best for its education system. Since India must provide equal opportunity to its many minorities, no matter which model it chooses its defining purpose must be to promote upward mobility through equal access to education. Or, in other words access, not just quality, is important.

Highlighting the problem is the fact that the differential in achievements is even wider for minority groups:

On average, black and Latino students are roughly two to three years of learning behind white students of the same age. This racial gap exists regardless of how it is measured, including both achievement (e.g., test score) and attainment (e.g., graduation rate) measures.

In India one would expect the same to be true of students from lower castes or from economically poor backgrounds. The vast majority of those students go to government schools, and thus this adds weight to the argument made by Azim Premji that India must improve its government schools:

This is what the government school classroom represents; it represents the dreams and aspirations of India in a way that no other school system can. If we wish to transform India, this is where we have to begin. I suppose it is clear why we do grave injustice when we think of government schools as “schools for the poor”.

The third insight is that higher expenditure on the education system does not automatically translate into better achievement. The US spends the most, per capita, of any OECD country, yet is ranked 25th. The McKinsey report concludes that “by one measure we get 60 percent less for our education dollars in terms of average test-score results than do other wealthy nations.”

Of course, I do not wish to say that India does not need to spend more. It does. Yet, more money is not the only solution, and for a resource constrained country other alternatives must be looked at. A lot can be achieved through non-monetary incentives involving social engineering and treating the teaching profession with an element of decency.

There is much that separates the US from India. But appearently one problem that we do share is the inability of school going children to access a relatively decent education, despite the presence of world-class institutions. This problem is not simply one of quality, but also of access to quality, and there is a dichotomy between the two because resources must be addressed to only one problem at a time. In finding a solution Indian policymakers would do well to learn from the reality in the USA. They must turn the debate on education away from a focus on improving quality per se, to one of improving the quality of education where it is most lacking.

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    2 thoughts on “Lessons for India in America’s Academic Achievement Gap”

    1. Yes India has to go a long way in achieving its literacy target levels. We spend so much on buying weapons of mass destruction and war planes, but we are not ready to spend some more money and work harder to make India as a knowledge hub in the world. Its high time we rise up and act!!

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