Somebody Else Finally Picks Up The Indian PISA Score Story
December 19, 2011, 10:33 PM
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Last week, the Australian Council for Education Research put out a glossy, voluminous report updating the 2009 PISA school achievement test conducted by the deep-pocketed OECD. ACER reported on ten more "economies," including two middling Indian states, which came in next to last out of 74 countries or regions.

Since I've been interested in China v. India for years, that struck me as pretty big news, but not the rest of the Internet, apparently. Finally today, according to Google News, somebody else mentioned it. Here's an editorial from an Indian publication called LiveMint that draws an appropriate lesson: India needs to get its act together.

There are few urban legends about India quite as destructive as the one that leads us to believe that the education system is doing a good job of educating our children. Coming on the heels of a comprehensive study, which exposed how poorly our kids were doing in some of the country’s best schools, is an international study that evaluates 15-year-olds’ skills in reading and mathematical and scientific literacy on a comparative basis—and India didn’t do any better here. 
... In India, only two states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, were part of the survey. Now, these are both states that are thought to offer the best educational infrastructure to schoolchildren in the country. But the results on a global scale are abysmal, with Himachal Pradesh recording the lowest reading score in PISA 2009 and 2009+, on a par with Kyrgyzstan. Tamil Nadu did slightly better with its overall score, which was nonetheless lower than any other country’s, besides Kyrgyzstan. One shudders to think of the results in states with worse general indicators than these two, such as Rajasthan or Bihar. 
... A lot of success stories we hear are despite the system, not because of it, and the sooner we recognize that, the better the chances that we’ll do something to fix the status quo. 
The current state of affairs will lead to a future where we will have let down millions of young Indians, who will be shut out of the job market because they were failed by the state. The demographic dividend we keep talking about— the one that’s going to give us an edge over China in the decades to come—is going to be more of a demographic disaster if we cannot equip our young people with the skills required in this new global economy. The government must make school education a priority if it is to arrest the decline of this most valuable of institutions.

My vague impression is that Indians tend to make more sophisticated marketers than Chinese do. One American consultant said that the typical Chinese factory owner's idea of marketing is: "Real cheap! You buy now!" But it's important for Indians not to fall for their own marketing. India needs less spin and more China-like grim determination if it's going to improve its fundamental institutions.

By the way, all the talk in the press about Indian benefiting from a "demographic dividend" of a rapidly growing population is respectable Davos Man craziness at its craziest.

More generally, India conforms to the Davos model of elite advancement while not talking about the masses because we don't want to hurt their feelings. In contrast, Dengist China conforms more to old-fashioned nationalism — the kind of thing that worked in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Germany, and, perhaps most of all, in pre-1846 England and in pre-1960s USA.