[Stories from ground] Difference between a budget private school and a high-end private school

For long, I have thinking about the differences between budget private schools and high-end private schools. By high-end private schools, I don't mean the exceptions, run by enthusiastic individuals and their schools, known for innovation. The question that I have in mind is - is it a matter of teachers or is it a matter of culture? Obviously, there is heterogeneity in both categories. Any comparison is likely to conceal these differences. But it doesn't mean that no such comparison should be made. People are making such comparisons everyday for various purposes. The purpose of comparison should be to infer some most probable differences that are likely to hold for a significant section of schools.

The first level of analysis is from my personal experience. Personal experiences and anecdotes are useful to generate hypothesis, which are to be fine tuned later. These needn't be conclusive proofs. The purpose of this post is to just generate a possible hypothesis and draw some inferences regarding comparison between budget and high-end private schools.

My hypothesis is that "culture" is the major contributing factor to the difference between budget private school and high-end private school. Teachers are more or less the same, except that those in high-end private schools speak fluent English. This is based on my personal experience.

I studied till my 5th grade in a budget private school charging Rs.30/- per month. Teachers used to make us learn answers, reproduce them in exam. My class mates were from disadvantaged background. Some of them also used to accompany their parents for work, for some days in an year. My experience in the school is marked by my interactions with my friends. We were in our own world of fishing, playing cricket and other activities. We were never aware of the big world outside. No one ever told us about the opportunities in life, the steps that have to be taken to achieve those and so on. In short, it was a mixture of unawareness and a resulting environment of low hopes and expectations.

The transformation came in my 6th grade, when I changed school to a high-end private school. In retrospect, I would say that the teachers are exactly the same, except for an exceptional Math teacher, who is more of an exception rather than the norm. Learning process didn't change even a bit. It was the same process of learning answers to pre-given questions and writing them in exam without missing a word. It is a miracle that I survived the school, without permanently damaging my cognitive functions. The only difference was that teachers taught in Telugu in the English medium budget private school but teachers in high-end private school taught in English. There was also a big ground but of no use. We were allowed to play only 45 minutes per week! We could play after school most kids couldn't as they had to attend tuitions. 

The difference as I said was the 'culture' and 'environment' of the school. The crowd was different. There were no more talks of fishing, playing cricket etc. We got new exposure. I got to participate in inter-school competitions which I was completely unaware of. I came to know about IIT, the steps needed to get into that and so on. This orientation gave me exposure and set a short term purpose to life.

In retrospect, if I think of a counter factual situation of me continuing in budget private school, I think I wouldn't have been any better academically as compared to studying in high-end private school. There was one good Maths teacher in the high-end private school but it was just a stroke of luck. However, I would have lost on the career trajectory because of lack of exposure and unawareness. Many of my friends from primary school, who are equally competent are driving cars, autos and running small businesses. Girls are married off and I have no track of them. They all could have done much better. The only difference was the lack of exposure and a supportive environment.

People think that lack of awareness is no longer an issue in an internet world but it isn't true.  Internet can bridge gaps but not much. Existence of information in web isn't equal to dissemination. More importantly, information isn't mentorship.

To sum up, a significant difference between budget private school and high-end private school may be just because of the crowd, the culture of expectations, hopes, awareness and mentorship. The stories can be different, depending on schools but I can't think of a strong reason why this shouldn't be a key factor across contexts.

Prof. Anirudh Krishna of Duke University found a similar insight in his research on career trajectory of first generation IT employees. He found that 2-3 things were common to all those 1st generation IT employees from villages - a teacher who gave them crucial information about a career opportunity and scholarship at some point of time, an inspiration of success from their local community and some stroke of luck. People find these in different forms. The likelihood of getting these increases if one is in a high-end private school.

This is the story of differences between two types of private schools. Now, to the inferences part.

1. Whenever I see some one arguing that playground is important and they should be criteria for granting recognition to schools, my instinct says - Boss, we had a big playground but we could only play 45 minutes per week. We got nothing significant out of it. It is likely to happen with other schools too. Now, one can't go around ordering schools to stipulate certain time for play. It's impractical.

2. Except for teaching English which is a big deal, I don't think many private schools even in the so called high-end category are doing any thing significantly different.

3. Often people talk about the efforts they have made to reach a goal and thus attribute the reward completely to the effort. There can't be a bigger misconception than this. The surrounding environment plays a crucial role in setting such expectations. The effects of environment created by the kind of crowd that attends the school matters a lot. Raj Chetty finds a similar phenomenon in patent holders. He finds that children of patent holders are more likely to receive a patent in same field as their parents', suggesting clear evidence for role of expectations set by surrounding environment.

1 comment:

  1. Based on my own experience of running a budget private school (while having attended a high end private school) I agree with you on both points. The major benefits for a child attending a high end private school are a) the better English speaking skills of teachers and other students in the school; and b) enhanced expectations and "network effect" from interacting with children from high income backgrounds.

    I have heard that IIT is similar as the biggest value addition to students comes from interaction with other students (and not from the academic program itself).