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                                                                                                                                                April 9th, 2014

Mr. President, Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President Barack Obama,

Re: Quality of Education: Concerns, Ideas and Suggestions

                I read about your trip to Michigan last week. I am a University of Michigan engineering alumnus. More recently, I earned a Certificate of Mastery in Justice from Harvard University. Back in 2010 or so, I sent you a hardcover copy of my book titled "Satyam: Notes and Letters from My Father, My Hero, My Friend" for which I received a thank you note from you. I was very glad to get the thank you note, and I hope that you did actually receive the book in your hands, if not read it (it is after all a 1000-page 8.5"x11" tome!). While I greatly admire and wholeheartedly support you and your administration's various humane and highly commendable initiatives (such as raising minimum wage, Obamacare, creating new jobs, revamping job training programs, providing equal pay for women), I strongly disagree with your attitudes and policies with regard to education. There are six main areas that I feel ought to be given serious consideration.

Hours in the Classroom and Educational Achievement

                I disagree that we need 1) longer school days, 2) more school days in the school year, and 3) preschool for 4-year-olds. The core problem is one of *quality* of education, not quantity.  Other nations are doing well if not better than the US despite relatively fewer school days/hours. According to a BBC News article that questions the need for schooling to begin at age five, let alone preschool at age four: "One of the most intriguing statistics from international comparisons is the lack of relationship between hours in the classroom and educational achievement. Finland, a global superstar in education terms, is consistently among the top performers. But it is also at the very bottom of the league in terms of the hours spent in the classroom. Finnish pupils start formal education at seven and then enjoy 11-week summer holidays – and they end up with the highest educational standards in Europe." My own school day in Tanzania, East Africa, where I grew up, was less than five and a half hours including a recess break for most of my school years (except for the last two years of high school, when it increased to six hours), along with substantial Christmas and summer holidays. This in no way hindered me from going to engineering college in India, obtaining excellent TOEFL and GRE test scores, and pursuing graduate studies in engineering in one of the top universities in the world, namely The University of Michigan. Additionally, my child never went to daycare or preschool, and learnt to read, write and do basic math on his/her own before (s)he turned five, without any formal teaching on my part. We enrolled him/her for kindergarten in the best private school in our area. (S)he ranked at around the 97th percentile overall on the required Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) IQ admissions test, and the 99th percentile for the verbal section, if memory serves me correctly. Neither preschool nor "hours in the classroom" had any bearing whatsoever on his/her skills or test scores, since (s)he had spent zero time in a school setting up to that point.

                It is therefore my heartfelt belief that increasing the length and number of school days will not improve the quality of education nor of family life outside of school. Children also need ample time to rest, play, and bond with their families and friends outside of school for well-rounded cognitive, social and emotional development. Reducing this time will only be detrimental to their growth and well-being, which in turn will also affect their academic performance. School is not all that affects scholastic achievement. In one speech, you said that longer school hours will also make it easier for working parents – this made me wince. In the case of the typical dual-working family, perhaps what would be better is for one parent to NOT work (at least when the children have finished attending school and are ready to come home), and to stay home and be available to their children physically and emotionally, and to provide nutritious food, love, and the comfort and security of the safe haven of home after a regimented day at school. Perhaps companies need to make more accommodations such as flexible hours, increased benefits and working from home that support rather than stifle parenting responsibilities.

Standardized Curriculum/Testing and Actual Success

                With all the focus on standardized curriculum and testing, it is a sad and ironic fact that standardized test scores are not an accurate measure of a person's potential in the area that a given test is designed to measure. I find the very idea of testing such a small child as a kindergartener or first grader rather disturbing. Moreover, using timed tests do not account for the cases of relatively lower processing speeds in gifted children, who may take longer to solve a given problem (and solve far more complex problems compared to their peers), but who would be unable to finish their work because "time is up" – the resulting lower scores would be incorrectly interpreted as their lack of knowledge or competency in a given area, not the lack of time allowed to solve the problem. If such test scores will stubbornly continue to be used as a benchmark to model curriculum, please consider this telling example: Martin Luther King Jr. scored below average on his standardized verbal aptitude test, yet proceeded to become one of the finest orators in history. Perhaps standardized testing should be done away with entirely, and a student's actual projects and accomplishments be given more consideration.

                While the No Child Left Behind Program had the good intention of helping disadvantaged children struggling with school, it did at the very least ignore, and thus "leave behind" and render an injustice to, the children who were doing well, by not providing proper opportunities for their continuing success. It also did not account for children who could have succeeded well with a non-standardized approach. Education resulting from such programs then degenerates into a dispassionate "teaching to the test" for funding and job security, and the excitement and passion for learning (and teaching) disappear. There has been a lot of hubbub and divisive thinking surrounding your Common Core program which has the good intention of addressing the current problems with our education system. My concern with this initiative is applying such a sweeping standardized model to every child for every grade from K-12 in the entire nation. It seems like more of the same in essence, even if the type of test is different. It is a timed, standardized test all the same. Different children will learn differently, at different times, and at different rates, as they ought to. That is Nature's way. A brilliant writer may be dismal at math, and an exceptional mathematician may have very poor linguistic skills. A talented musician or scientist may do badly in both English and Math. And it doesn't matter. Apart from making sure that *minimum* levels of literacy and math are attained so as to be able to function in society in day to day life (and this, I submit, is the responsibility of parents rather than teachers), I feel that children should be free to learn and excel in whatever they do best, not forced to master a certain amount of material by a certain time, and then be tested on it during a fixed amount of allotted time. Making them conform to externally imposed, artificial standards will rob them of their individuality and ignore their unique strengths and skills. This standardized, cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach towards education will fail our children, our society and our nation, for present and future generations.

Responsibility and Accountability of Parents, Teachers and Society

                The quality of education is no doubt influenced by the culture we live in. In an increasingly materialistic society conditioned by a media that glorifies instant gratification, wanton consumerism, sex and violence, the moral fabric of society and individual souls is unravelling and disintegrating. This has tragic consequences for children, and issues at an individual, familial and societal level: broken homes, dysfunctional families, an outlook and lifestyle lacking in restraint, ethics and empathy, and increasingly destructive and self-destructive behaviour. Rampant pornography is now exploiting and targeting children in insidious ways in mainstream, everyday life. Desensitization to violence has gotten to the point where children are now both perpetrators and victims of mass murders in schools. The schools, consisting of adults and children that are products of such a society, end up mirroring these failings, and our children pay dearly for it. Using an industrialized, factory-oriented approach towards education devoid of ethical and emotional considerations will only churn out automatons lacking in the compassion, creativity and critical thinking that are so valuable for innovation and the progress not only of the economy, but of humanity. This concern has been articulated eloquently by Sir Ken Robinson, who was knighted for his services to education, in his various speeches (e.g. http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity).

                The book, "Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher" by William Powell and Ochan Kusuma-Powell is a wonderful guide for teachers (and parents), written by authors who are endorsed by the Office of Overseas Schools at the US State Department for their work in teacher professional development. The main premise of this book is that "teachers who develop their emotional awareness and interpersonal skills are better able to manage their classrooms and promote student success". Perhaps this book could be made available at every school in the nation as a handbook for teachers and other administrative staff. The authors also strongly advocate personalized learning and inclusive schools for all types of students, including ones with special needs, and their non-profit organization, "The Next Frontier: Inclusion" is dedicated to this mission.

Two Alternative Approaches to Education: Customized Learning and Homeschooling

                An alternative approach to conventional schooling that worked well for our family was homeschooling with a personalized curriculum. Not only did the quality of our family life improve tremendously, but our child has blossomed in remarkable ways since stopping going to school. (S)he had done really well academically and socially during the two years that (s)he was in school, but other than Recess and Art which (s)he enjoyed, (s)he was frankly bored the rest of the time. (S)he said the math was so boringly simple that (s)he couldn't bear to do it. We decided to homeschool our child from the second grade onwards, using a curriculum customized to suit his/her aptitude and interests. As mentioned earlier, (s)he is a few years ahead of his/her school going peers in math. During his/her first year of homeschooling, at the age of seven, (s)he wrote and illustrated a 50-page story titled "Mommy Pea and Baby Pea", a work of biographical fiction with themes of love, play, adventure and resolution. During the last Washtenaw County 4-H youth fair, (s)he received an "A" for his/her changing origami fireworks sculpture that (s)he taught himself/herself by watching a YouTube video, and also won "The Best Spicy Salsa" award for his/her salsa recipe that (s)he created and cooked by himself/herself. Last year, (s)he and another homeschooled child (this child had special needs) won a medal for third place for their grade and category in the largest elementary school science olympiad competition in the nation (Washtenaw Elementary Science Olympiad). This and several other examples of bright and happy children flourishing in a personalized environment have convinced me that children do not require (and should not be made to conform to) a standardized educational model to succeed, and that they will in fact thrive if their individual needs and rates of progress in various subjects are respected and nurtured.

                Homeschooling continues to grow in popularity throughout the nation, and there must be a reason. There are currently at least 2 million homeschooled children in the US, accounting for about 4% of all school-going children (according to 2010 numbers), and the number is growing each year. An article written in The Huffington Post in 2012 talks about how homeschooled students are "more independent", "graduate college at a higher rate than their peers", "outperform their peers", are "better socialized", and so on. These are qualities that would be good for every child to have. Perhaps schools can learn something from the examples of personalized learning and homeschooling.

                There are many homeschool groups, and we belong to a wonderful, non-denominational group that meets weekly. It is secular and inclusive, and diverse in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, and the parents' occupations and socioeconomic status. It is self-governed with a unique learning and social environment for children. I feel our group is a good working example of a personalized learning culture and a diverse, tolerant, nurturing community where children thrive academically and socially. If you can spare the time and are able to meet us on a Friday, ideally during the fall or winter semester when classes are in session, you can visit our homeschool group at the church space that we rent.

The International Baccalaureate Program

                Last month, one of the news headlines was that the Ann Arbor Public School system will start offering a K-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) program. According to the article: "The International Baccalaureate curriculum is used around the world and is highly regarded for its approach to education. The inquiry-learning based program promotes intercultural understanding and respect, and requires intense professional development for teachers as well as accreditation of schools before a building can earn the distinction of being an IB school." I took the high school IB diploma course at The International School of Tanganyika (IST) in Tanzania back in the '80s, when William Powell (mentioned earlier in this letter) was the secondary school headmaster at the time. IST was a pioneer then, and the Ann Arbor School District is a pioneer now, where the IB program is concerned. Perhaps there could be a nation-wide change in US schools in this direction as well.

Diet and IQ

                A non-academic factor that might be adversely influencing academic performance is diet. It is a well-established fact that babies who were breastfed during their first year have higher IQs later in childhood, compared to those who were formula-fed. The positive correlation between better nutrition and higher intelligence does not stop at infancy. A study conducted by the University of London found that children eating junk food actually develop lower IQs down the road. The typical American diet of the present day is appalling in terms of freshness, purity and nutritional value. A variety of physical and behavioural ailments in both children and adults result from the regular consumption of heavily processed, factory-farmed food products, many of which contain ingredients banned in other countries, but which are continued to be used in foods sold to unsuspecting US citizens . While the vendors profit, the consumers pay the price in more ways than one. Given the heavy consumption of unhealthy processed foods in the US starting in childhood, it may be no wonder that the US does poorly in the academic arena, and even the implementation of all the best educational practices will not be able to fix the problem of something as basic as a low IQ resulting (and persisting) from a bad diet.

                I do hope that you will give my letter some thought. I sincerely wish you all the best during the remainder of your presidential term. I think you are a good person whose heart is in the right place, and I am grateful that you are our president. Thank you for all your hard work, perseverance and dedication. I hope America continues to progress, and hope that increasing numbers of individuals in all strata and fields of life do their bit to make a difference in their own way, big or small, to make the country and the world a better place. I also thank Mrs. First Lady Michelle Obama for all her efforts in the areas of nutrition and healthcare. My best wishes to your daughters, Malia and Sasha, for their future.


                                                                                                                                                Surekha Dangoor

cc: Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education