International Education Entrepreneurs Look to U.S.-Style Models

15 Oct

While much of the current policy discussion around international education focuses on how American students stack up against their peers in Europe and Asia and which international models offer lessons for American schools, one Indian educator is visiting the United States in search of models he can import to a slum of his hometown of Mumbai.

Gaurav Singh, a Mumbai teacher who plans to open a free school in a slum more populated than New York City next summer, is among a new group of international education entrepreneurs who suggest there may be value in U.S. schools exporting their own models to developing schools, too.

Mr. Singh is one of three education entrepreneurs spending six months to a year studying American schools as part of a residency program launched this year by the Washington-basedEdVillage, which aims to help international educators set up networks of free public schools to share best practices. During his own six-month stint in the United States, Mr. Singh has been visiting district, charter, and private schools for a few days to several weeks.

Mr. Singh said he has been getting numerous ideas from the 18 schools he’s visited so far, for everything from school finances to teacher training, pedagogy, and supplemental enrichment.

“Where do you go in India to see what’s possible for a kid who comes from a slum? Not at a comparative level of, ‘Let’s give them a few skills to work in a coffee shop,’ but on an absolute level, what’s possible?” he said. “There’s not much we can look at.”

The first visits to American classes full of desks and interactive white boards were a major culture shock, Mr. Singh recalled. As a member of the founding class of Teach for India, a nonprofit modeled after Teach for America, he had started teaching two years ago after five weeks of training with a 2nd grade group of 50 students ranging in age from 6 to 14. Classes took place sometimes in a classroom and sometimes in buildings or sidewalks.

“When you enter a classroom that’s very different from yours in terms of space, in terms of number of kids, … you just say, ‘This is not going to work in our country,’ ” he said. “You have to calm yourself and say, ‘This is useless; excellence is excellence,’ and then figure out how we can transfer these practices. We needed to hunt for the big nuggets; don’t look at the details. Now, I’m actually going back thinking, it’s not that different.”

Mr. Singh’s “3-2-1 School” will open with 120 students in kindergarten and 1st grade, adding a grade each year. And unlike most public schools in India, which operate for four hours a day, six days a week, Mr. Singh said his school will operate on something like an American schedule of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week. The school will start out with a student-teacher ratio of 30-to-1, in line with new national rules expected to go into effect in the next three years.

Students will enroll via a lottery, and Mr. Singh is planning for at least a two- to four-year age range in each grade, as well as considerable language diversity. The children, mostly from Mumbai’s slums, speak more than 16 languages. He said he has been choosing U.S. schools to visit based on specific practices—a character-development program in one, teacher professional development in another.

The educator said his goal is to have 100 percent of students scoring “proficient” on theAssessment of Scholastic Skills through Educational Testing, or ASSET, India’s standardized test, by the time the kindergarten cohort reaches 3rd grade.

There is no formula-based government aid for public schools in India; the government will decide whether to provide funding for the 3-2-1 School based on its academic achievement, said Mr. Singh, who has set the ambitious goal of having a network of 100 K-12 schools in 15 years.

Gaurav Singh sits in on a class last week at the Metropolitan Montessori School in Manhattan. Mr. Singh is one of three international education entrepreneurs spending six months to a year studying American schools as part of a residency program launched this year by the Washington-based EdVillage.
—Michael Rubenstein for Education Week

He has some reason for confidence: During the teaching fellowship with Teach for India, Mr. Singh’s students progressed 2.6 grade levels on average in a school year. “Once we started overlooking the resource constraints that we had, we started finding that learning was happening, and happening on grade level,” he said. “When we started seeing that the kids could learn whether they had a blackboard or not, whether they had a classroom or not, it started teaching us a lot of things about learning and about joy.”

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