Want to fix America’s education? Focus on parents

Almost everyday, we read about a new report or another, comparing America’s poor education performance, as compared to the rest of the world. And almost always the comparisons bring up the usual suspects: poor infrastructure, lower education funding and lack of involvement from the parents in their children’s success. While all these are valid and important points, one crucial issue often gets overlooked – the stability of the family and its impact on young adults and their learning. I learnt this harsh reality, on a recent trip to a public school in Rialto, CA. While this is a ‘wicked problem’ that brings together issues of race, poverty, unemployment and housing segregation; I believe that with concerted education, greater sensitivity on part of the parents, these problems can be addressed.

Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org
Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org

As this recent Op-Ed in NY Times titled Sex is Not Our Problem points out, “about half (51 percent) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended” and “the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.” While the topic of this Op-Ed is about sex education and its role in forming healthier adults, the key arguments are relevant to the discussion here too that social issues need to be addressed and blaming one gender (in this case shaming of girls) won’t solve anything. With this, the writer is alluding to distracting tactics that are often deployed rather than focusing on the real issues at hand. I believe the same is occurring in the case of families and their role in educating children. Added to this, conflicts in welfare reform, education funding get in the way of actually addressing the issues at hand.

While I am not making the conservative argument that we need more families, and lesser single parents; though there is some wisdom in that argument – I am definitely calling for greater involvement on part of the parents. As someone who has had all his primary and part of his higher education in India, I can point out one insight that may be missing in all our policy debates: How to make parents more involved. For one, Indian parents, much like their Chinese and Korean counterparts are extremely engaged in their children’s education. Some going too far, I would argue. In a conversation with Mrs. Lara, an Assistant Principal, I learnt that many of the parents in this school district are either not too engaged, or just not present. This is the unfortunate consequence of some of them being deported back to Mexico, where many of them are from. “When the recession hit, you could see hundreds of abandoned homes, and when the parents left, many of the kids were left with foster parents. And one can only imagine the amount of attention these poor souls received from them.” She pointed out.

It is well known that higher educational achievement means better job prospects and greater productivity, as this Op-Ed points out: “From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.” The real economic gains and productivity have slowed down remarkably and with the recent recession, this has exacerbated the problem. As Mr.Gordon goes on to point out further that “the gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.” Several factors have contributed to this including the retirement of Baby Boomers from the workforce, slowdown in innovation. The growing cost of education, reduced graduation rates from high school and those with bachelor’s degrees, all contribute to the problems that are outlined above.

Greater family involvement means lesser absenteeism, better grades and better changes of success, as this research paper points. While it may be stating commonly held beliefs that parents are crucial for the success of their children’s education – these factors are impeded in the U.S. by several factors, one of them being cultural and linguistic. Some parents may not feel comfortable or welcome in an environment where they cannot use their native language, which may not be English, in many cases. Cultural sensitivity on part of the school is key, in these cases, an insight that Mrs. Lara also shared.

While improving education standards and measurement techniques seems to be one of the ways to improve ‘quality of education’ as some organizations and policy institutes advocate; the real challenge may be more elementary and perhaps harder to fix, i.e., ensuring that the students have a stable and secure base from which to launch their careers as scholars. Families provide that in most cases and perhaps if we bring our attention back to where it matters, this insoluble problem won’t be so insoluble, after all.



Not everything that can be Counted Counts, and Not Everything that Counts can be Counted: Notes from ARNOVA, 2013


I left Hartford, CT on Saturday after three grueling days of intense thinking and engagement at the 42nd Annual Association for Research on Non-profit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), the Mecca for nonprofit theorists and practitioners. For over four decades the organization has been the meeting ground for anyone interested and engaged in this sphere. The three days of discussions, debates over coffee, lunch and dinners and intense panel discussions brought forth one key fact for me – data has finally trumped values as the epistemic framework for nonprofit management. And I am not convinced this is an entirely positive thing. Let me explain.

Photo Credit :  Sabith Khan
Photo Credit : Sabith Khan

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Of the various sessions I participated in, and also chaired- I ended up chairing two sessions, one  on Understanding and Measuring Capacity in the Nonprofit Sector and the other being The Relationship between Performance Management and Nonprofit Outcomes. One of the discussants in the first panel, Celopatra Grizzle, from Rugters University pointed out that donors don’t care about efficiency of the projects/ organizations that they donate to, but rather its legitimacy. This goes against the utility maximization theory that is used by Economists and those in the profession, who are interested in measuring the effectiveness of philanthropy. Chongmyoung Lee discussed his project of measuring outcomes in nonprofits and the perennial challenge of doing the same.

Lilly School of Philanthropy, an institution that is at the forefront of research in the field of Philanthropy was extremely well represented. Almost its entire research team was here and having worked with them this summer, I was personally excited to see that they turned out in great numbers. Dr.Amy Thayer presented her research on philanthropy and meaning making practices in education among K-12 students. One of the findings of this pilot study is that participation in philanthropic education programs enhances emotional maturity and also participation in these programs is linked to grants being available. This is not surprising, given similar results from a longer program, that has been ongoing at Center for Arab American Philanthropy, part of ACCESS, in Dearbon, MI; targeting a similar demographic among Arab American Youth, through the Teen Grant Making Initiative ( TGI).

Yuan Tian, a doctoral student at the Lilly School of Philanthropy presented her research on International Giving in the High Net Worth givers category. This has been compiled and is documented on an on-going basis through the Million Dollar List, a public list of gifts over a Million dollars made by individuals, in the U.S. She pointed out several interesting findings from the list, showcasing trends in giving and also some unique insights including that the highest donations to the international sector went to Healthcare, Education and Arts. These insights are helpful for both planners and those working in the international affairs sector.

Among the sessions dealing with values, religion and faith – I managed to attend two. One was a meeting of the Values in Philanthropy group, that sought to understand and research the “dark” and the “light” side of Philanthropy, including the activities that are not often brought up , i.e, funding of illegal or anti-social activities through the institution of philanthropy. It could be either the Church support of the Irish Republican Army or support by certain faith based groups in helping Al-Qaeda. The group has decided to further this approach and is seeking inputs on these issues, as they plan the agenda for the upcoming year. I was part of this lively discussion and contributed a few insights.

Finally, I managed to hear Shariq Siddiqui, the Executive Director of ARNOVA and Dr. Mounah Abdel Samad of San Diego State University, who spoke about Civil Society Legislative Advocacy in Morocco, based on his survey of legislators in the country and how much they trusted civil society organizations. Siddiqui spoke about his research on the American Muslim giving experience and this was captured through the example of Islamic Society of North America, the national representative body of American Muslims.

Overall, this was a vibrant atmosphere, and the conference itself addressed philanthropy, voluntary action from various perspectives – both quantitative and qualitative. There were researchers focusing on all sorts of issues – domestic, international, big and small. But one could not miss the heavy focus on quantitative methods and the frameworks leaning towards this mode of enquiry. Amidst the hundreds of presentations, a handful were purely qualitative studies and perhaps this is an indication that researchers are not asking the often harder questions of ‘why’ certain things are the way they are, and are focusing more ‘what’ and ‘how’, that are more easily answered through regression models and quantitative analysis.


In God’s Land: Triumph of faith over facts

Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s In God’s Land is a dystopian tale set in Tamilnadu, South India. While it brings together history, discourse of development and progress, there is an underlying tale that is not visible, even after watching the film in its entirety. This is one of the “land grab mafia” involving the local Vanamamalai Temple authorities, the Tamilnadu government and of course, the Non-resident Indian investors in the U.S. I watched this movie last week, at Virginia Tech, where Kumar came over to screen his film and talk to students and faculty who were interested in the ideas that he had to share, through this film. The film is based on the village near Tirunalveli district and is a tale that made me question the untold stories of ‘development’ that one reads or often, does not read about.

Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech

The dominant narrative in In God’s Land is about the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that is due to come up in the village, that’d occupy over 2500 acres of land. “I was passing by this area, when I saw this sign for the SEZ, and was intrigued. That is what started the project,” pointed out Kumar, about the serendipitous way in which he came across the project and hence his film. The villagers in the film are active participants and the story is narrated partly from their perspective, with Tamil as the language of the film. The film is very visual, and the sound of the local speaking in local Tamil dialect brought back memories of my own friends, who speak with a tone and speed that is all too befuddling, even for a Kannada speaker, such as me. The villagers also seem to be ones with agency and the will to defy the local authorities, mainly the temple chiefs who seemed to have appropriated the village property. A court case against the temple brought by the villagers decades ago is still pending, but it seems to have created animosity and also downright ‘oppression’ of villagers by the temple authorities. One of the village chief speaks of being physically harassed and beaten up for standing up against the temple’s illegitimate takeover. To complicate matters further, the temple authorities sell the land to the government, to develop the SEZ and this creates a situation, where their arable agricultural land is classified as “dry land,” up for “development.” And this is just one of the several absurdities in this situation that the film showcases.


The tensions between the villagers and temple are not only about the project, but involve the caste-dynamics, going back to centuries, involving economic issues of patronage and landless agricultural farmers. The villagers invent a new god, Sudalai Swami to cater to their spiritual needs, once they are barred from entering the big temple. They find creative ways to battle this imbalance of power. While the local priest couches his move to sell the village land in the notion of “doing good for the community and their welfare,” it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine how dispossessing hundreds of families and taking away their livelihood would constitute “welfare.” The landless farmers, who for decades have paid rent to farm on this land, are not technically without this piece of land, that sustains not only their lives, but also gives them a sense of purpose and agency- as the film demonstrates. There is a deep-rooted love of the land among these people, one that defies rationality. This seemed to be an attachment that is not only emotional, but partly mythical, given the strange way in which the land was originally handed over to them by the local ruler – the Nizam, more than a hundred years ago.

Finally, this film is also a call for examining the politics of development, as it stands today. As Arturo Escobar, the Colombian Post-development scholar and thinker would say, we need “undevelopment” rather than development, if we are to look out for the interests of these people. If I am sounding too Marxist for your taste, I suggest watching the film and also reading a bit of Escobar. A good reality check for those who are enamored of the development discourse, and see it as a totally necessary and not contingent fact of life. While not aiming to be an “activist” film, the film does raise some important questions that everyone involved should think through. While development does call for certain sacrifices on everyone’s part, the bigger question that one should ask, and I think Kumar is hinting at this is: Do we need this sort of development at all? And finally, who gains and who loses? Is all of it worth it, in the end?

The resilience of the landless farmers is startling, so is their humanity. Their collective will and character seems to shine through in the film, which, in an unexpected way makes them the heroes of the film. Between giving up hope, fighting the system and keeping their faith in a god they invented, the film shows them for what they are: Human, all too human.