Turkey’s Private Tutoring Sector Shutdown: Blessing or Chaos?

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On September 9th, 2012 Turkish Prime Minister R.T. Erdogan announced his proposal to shut down all after-school private tutoring institutions within a year, and possibly turn them into publicly funded private schools. There are over 4,000 institutions that offer private prep courses, known as the dershane sector, which serve over 1.2 million students every year. The dershanes employ over 100,000 people, over half of them being teachers, and bring in an estimated revenue of $2 billion annually. (Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, 2011).

This announcement, of course, generated a heated debate amongst the educators and broader public across Turkey. Interior Minister Nihat Ergun commented on the issue saying, “the dershane system has become unsustainable, and has almost replaced the regular school system” (Hurriyet, 2012). During the last year of high school especially, in order to prepare for the Access to Higher Education Exams (YGS-LYS), students will often only worry about their dershane studies, and neglect their regular school work. In fact, it is quite common for students to stop going to school a few months before the exam just to make more time to cram and memorize as much as they can. Students usually begin going to these private tutoring centers as early as middle school, to begin preparing for high school entrance exams for prestigious high schools. 

In response to this, the Ministry of Education had announced in 2004 that high school GPA’s would have a larger significance in the amount of points added to the final exam score. This was done in hopes to increase the significance of formal schooling in a setting where private tutoring takes priority. Unfortunately, this move didn’t do much in terms of lessening the pressures of the YGS exam, nor did it really affect student’s attendance levels during the second half of the school year.

So how exactly did Turkey’s educational policies come to be this way in regards to exam-driven learning and this push toward private tutoring facilities? There are many facets to this issue, but one way to look at it is by questioning the quality of the public education system in place.

“In the developing countries, deficiencies in the educational system such as inadequate number of universities, large class sizes and low public educational expenditures are often cited as the reasons for the high demand for private tutoring. As such private tutoring can be regarded as a market response to the mediocrity in the public school system” (Kim and Lee, 2001). Because the public school curriculum does not provide adequate tools to prepare students for the selection exam, students who wish to attend college are forced into private courses, assuming they can afford it. While nearly 2 million students take the YGS every year, less than 300,000 are awarded spots in schools. Of the students who take the exam, over 50,000 receive a zero. We can deduce the intensity of competition when taking these figures into consideration. When looking at PISA levels, it was found that in Turkey there is a “high level of correlation between the student’s socioeconomic background and her/his achievement in the test. This is the highest value among OECD countries after Hungary and Belgium.” (Blanchy & Sasmaz, 2009) If there is a persistent lack in the system in supporting students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, those students will continue to remain at the bottom of the spectrum, lacking the skills and competencies necessary to succeed. 

If the government chooses to close down the dershanes, won’t students who come from higher socio-economic backgrounds still find ways to obtain private lessons, turning these prep courses into some sort of underground ordeal? Perhaps they wouldn’t be to the full extent of 15-20 hours/week lessons that the dershane provides, but either way shouldn’t it be up to the family to decide whether or not to send their child to prep classes? While I agree that dershanes do create inequality in opportunities, it should be taken into consideration that perhaps they aren’t the cause of the problem, rather the result of the bigger underlying problem that is the quality of education in public schools. Students who live in less economically advanced regions and have limited access to educational resources will have even less of an opportunity to attend college if dershanes are shut down without an effective system in place to narrow the educational gap.

It is obvious that the issue is much deeper than the inequalities that may arise from the dershane system; rather, the issue is with the failure of the public education system across Turkey in and of itself. Without fixing the foundations upon which the public school system stands, the need for after school prep classes will not subside. Taking away the choice or freedom to educate your children, however you see fit, certainly isn’t the solution, not in the short term, at least. If public schools cover the topics necessary to pass the college entrance exams, over time students will rely less and less on after school private courses. Eliminating them altogether without a serious plan to reform public school curricula would only bring about chaos.

Is the Gaokao Doing its Best to Help Education in China?

As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural, northwest China, I taught English at a university that was known for having low-level students. In my first writing class, I had the students warm up by free writing for five minutes about a given topic. One of the topics was “their biggest regret.” All but one of the students in my 30-student class revealed that not studying harder for the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam, and getting into such a terrible university was the thing they regretted most.

Was this really their fault though? Like most other countries, China struggles with some form of inequality. Ask your traveling Chinese friends where they are from. It’s probably somewhere you’ve heard of, Beijing or Shanghai. Most of my students have never left their province. They would never dream of asking their parents for that much money. And also like most other countries, this inequality can be heavily reflected in the education system.

In China, education is compulsory until the 9th grade. Then students can decide to test into senior high school to prepare for college. Starting around age 12, children in China begin to spend most of their time at school. They study from the early morning hours to very late in the evening with small breaks for lunch and dinner. Most of them spend this part of their life studying for the infamous gaokao. This exam is administered once a year and takes place over 2-3 days. Students are tested in Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language. They also have to option of taking a science or an art section. If the student does not like his or her score, they have the option of repeating their senior year and then the exam. Before the gaokao students choose three universities, based on their anticipated results, to receive their scores. The last one or two are usually safety schools. The student will know which university they will attend once they receive their scores as each university has a cut-off score. In theory, it is the only thing a university looks at when considering a potential student and it will eliminate the inequality when they select students.

The results of this exam will dictate their future. Many of my students talked to me about their last year of senior high school, just before college. They spent the entire year studying only for the exam, in class and out, yet they still felt they did poorly. This article from the New York Times article tells the stories of a few individuals around their time of the exam, as does BBC’s video Gaokao Fever.

Close to 10 million students take the gaokao each year, and of those, around 75% are admitted into colleges. This is pretty high considering it is the only thing that will admit them to school. There is a huge drop-out after compulsory middle school. Some provinces estimate up to 40% of their students do not continue with their education after grade 9.

The gaokao not only determines the student’s school, but also their major, which depends on their scores in each section. Once a major has been given, it is very difficult to change and happened to only two or three of the 500+ English majors I taught. This may be changing though, and varied throughout the country. In a conversation with a college English teacher from another area of China, she said, “My school has given students more freedom to [change majors]. Nearly everyone can in the first college year, but only a small portion of students have done that. I don’t know if it is because it’s a common practice in universities now or just because we have a new school president who’s very liberal.” I think what’s most interesting about this is the students do not wish to change their major. This may indicate that the gaokao is doing what it is supposed to do, putting students in majors that fit them best, at least with this particular university.

It’s hard to say whether creative thinking or accumulation of facts is the better education philosophy when most of us have only grown up with one or the other, but even the policy makers in China are starting to change their idea as the economy grows and they face the challenge of keeping up with the rest of the world. Is that because the west has the money and power? Or do the Chinese really see a need for change?

You and Hu (2013) examine the recent policy changes that have been taking place. Where should the reforms start, in the national curriculum or within college admissions? The policy makers of China see the need to diversify their education system while the educators look to tradition for guidance. Like all other countries, China is struggling with the rapid developments of economy and preservation of its culture. A high school teacher recently revealed some of her struggles asking, “How teachers are supposed to integrate western teaching methods when they are busy preparing the students for the gaokao?”

If the universities do begin to diversify their selection process, guanxi, the very cultural relationship factor, may very well impede the harder working students. The gaokao is designed for equity. If the policy makers open the college application process up to resumes and interviews, it may be much easier for families with power and money to pull strings and get their children into top universities.

If a new “quality education” does make its way out of these policy reforms, what will the system look like? And how long will it take?

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Nevada: A Case Study in Crisis?

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Crisis.” It’s at once the most used, abused, tossed-off, throw-on, and bandied-about buzzword in our collective hysteria over the state of American education these days. It’s the short-but-sick pabulum for everyone from Christian Conservatives prophesying the day we’ll all be pledging allegiance to Charles Darwin to stuffy policy wonks fretting over our ostensibly dismal PISA scores (“Estonia scored better than us! Really! Estonia!”). And so but while I’m generally cautious about the use of this term, this catch-all diagnosis for the big, impossibly complex and interconnected dynamics of 21st century education, I’m leaning toward using it – as most Nevadans are inclined to do – when it comes to describing the quagmire that is the state’s educational situation, particularly Clark County’s (Las Vegas).

Amongst the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Nevada ranks only above D.C. in high school graduation rate – i.e. it’s basically dead last (for whatever reason, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Idaho haven’t reported recent data). Similarly, with a deficit-ridden state budget, Nevada ranks near the bottom in per-pupil K-12 expenditure, outspending only UT, ID, OK, AZ, MS, and TN. In 2011, citing his conviction to not raise taxes during a time of economic strife, Nevada Governor Sandoval vetoed Assembly Bill 568, a plan that would have effectively raised education spending by $660 million. In January of this year, just ahead of the currently in-progress legislative assembly[1] Gov. Sandoval’s 2013 budget plan for the recently commenced legislative session directs some of Nevada’s increased tax revenue to education, but, citing the costs of the Affordable Care Act, it more or less “maintain[s] the existing expenditure levels.” Nevada state democrats have argued that Sandoval’s budget continues to woefully underfund a struggling school system by some 300 odd million dollars. (You can check out the budget’s education spending in detail here.)

Budget holes aside, there are other indicators of the Nevada education mess. Last week, after only a year on the job, Nevada’s state superintendent of education, James Guthrie, unexpectedly resigned. Hand-picked by Gov. Brian Sandoval, Guthrie, most recently a senior fellow of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, was considered by many to be an odd and potentially controversial choice for the state’s highest education job. More of an academic (or “educational entrepreneur” as described in the video below) than an experienced educator, having taught/worked at prestigious education schools such as Vanderbilt and UC Berkeley, Guthrie was in step with Sandoval in downplaying the need for educational funding by championing charter schools and strict accountability regimes designed to expunge/penalize underperforming teachers.

Most significantly, Guthrie almost immediately drew the ire of Democratic legislatures and K-12 educators across the state by insisting that class size doesn’t have a significant impact on educational outcomes. To make matters worse, only shortly before Guthrie’s surprise resignation[2], Dwight Jones, the superintendent of Clark County public schools abruptly resigned as well, citing the need to take care of his ailing mother in Dallas.

At the moment the education system of Nevada, including Clark County, the country’s fifth largest district, is attempting to mend the wound of its dismal graduation rate, one of the country’s worst, while it faces a budget short fall of millions of dollars, leading to well below-average per pupil expenditure, teacher wage freezes, staff layoffs, and cuts to programs such as teacher healthcare and English as a Second Language courses. Worse yet, it’s attempting to do so in a leadership vacuum, with figures like Dwight Jones and James Guthrie coming in one day and going out the other. All this in a state that was one of the hardest hit by the economic downtown of recent years. Nevada ranks high in the number of households underwater and foreclosed upon. And, oh yeah, with an unemployment rate of 9.6%, Nevada, tied with California and Mississippi, ranks dead last among the 50 states in this crucial category.

Originally, I wanted to write a post about something much more specific – a proposed bill to shift the governance of Nevada community colleges from the Nevada System of Higher Education to the state Dept. of Education, effectively instituting a K-14, high school to community college feeder system. But before laying out the particularities of that, I couldn’t help but give a sketch of the Nevada state of education in general, some needed context, a report from the field. And that sketch turned it this – an assessment and argument for what many think is a true American education “crisis.”

Above are the facts – and actually only the faintest sketch. Undoubtedly, the reasons for Nevada’s educational struggles are complicated and interconnected with the peculiar social and economic realities of the state: a high number of poor people, many of them immigrants, and the monoculture economy of the gaming industry, which engenders its own set of particular incentives for the state’s young people and their families to eschew educational success (i.e. you can make a decent wage working in the gaming industry with very little education). But so the necessary follow-up question thus (and what will perhaps be the substance of some more content on this blog) is how and with what policy choices are the beleaguered residents of the sagebrush state attempting to respond to their educational “crisis” – with fist-on-table pounding insistence or, a la Professor Guthrie, with resignation?


[1] Nevada is one of only six states in which the legislative body meets only every two years (on the odd numbered years). Maybe that’s part of Nevada’s political/bureaucratic gridlock (although the state’s libertarian vein would argue the opposite). I don’t know, just saying …

[2] There is some speculation that heat from Democrats in the legislature prompted Sandoval to pressure Guthrie for his resignation.

Low Teacher Salaries Harm Public Education in Cambodia

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The Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left the Cambodian education system in ruins. Millions of people were killed, including the majority of educated people, scholars, professors, and teachers. Schools were destroyed, libraries leveled, and books burned. Notwithstanding the efforts by the Cambodian government and international development agencies to rebuild the educational systems since the 1980s, the tragedy of Khmer Rouge continues to haunt public education today.

Teachers have played a central role in the education re-building efforts, yet they remain grossly underpaid. According to official statistics, in 2010-2011 there were 88,133 public school teachers in Cambodia, receiving wages in the range of just $50.00 to $100 per month. With this wage they have to teach a minimum of 16-18 hours per week. According to a Cambodia Independent Teacher Association (CITA) study from 2010-2011, primary school teachers received $50 per month with required teaching of at least 16 hours per week, lower secondary school teachers received $75 per month, and upper secondary school teachers received $100 per month. The study also showed that the wages increased by 120% for the primary teachers, 60% for the lower secondary teachers, and 20% for upper secondary teachers so that they could afford a decent standard of living (for example, basic food cost is placed at least $19.80 per month).

With wages at their current levels, teachers struggle to survive. More than 90% of teachers work second jobs in order to support their families. After school hours, many female teaches often sell snacks and phone cards on school campus, while male teachers work as motorbike taxi drivers or other jobs  in order to supplement their incomes.

One of the main sources of additional income for many teachers is private tutoring.  One student said: “I can’t pass the test if I don’t take a private tutoring class.” In private tutoring, teachers provide answers to the tests in order to attract more students to pay them. Some students have to drop out of school because they are unable to afford tutoring and subsequently fail their exams (IRIN, 2008). From my own experience as a high school student in Cambodia, I had to take private tutoring classes in order to prepare for the mid-term, final, and national exams. Those sessions were not provided in the formal classroom, but through private tutoring.

To prepare for university exams, we needed “special private tutoring,” which was conducted by the teachers who were involved in issuing the exam questions. We often discussed how important it was to take tutoring with particular teachers who had been known to be involved in the college entrance examinations every year. However, I could not afford it. And so couldn’t many other Cambodian students.

Private tutoring is not the only additional income tool for underpaid teachers, however. Teachers involved in college entrance exam and high school exam also earn money by selling question and answer books before the exams. Usually, one day before the exam the books are available for purchase on the streets almost everywhere especially in main cities. Every year before the national exam day, groups of students buy the question and answer books in order to help them during the exam day and, worse still, the students even pay the teachers during the exam so that they can open the books for the answers. This culture is well known by all but it does not seem to change, despite the many negative repercussions for students and wider society as a whole. Who should be leading the change and how?

Because teachers receive low wages, corruption has become the norm and quality education in unaffordable to many students. This raises many questions. In order to provide a better quality of education, should the first priority of government be aimed towards supporting and motivating the teachers? How could communities support the teachers? And, what have UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, and other international agencies done for Cambodian teachers since they began to work in the country?

(De)Grading Schools: The PennCAN’s Scam

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Last month, public schools across Pennsylvania received a report card. Their grades made the news. In Lehigh Valley, most public schools failed the grade, with Allentown schools ranking 486 out of 490 (and receiving an F overall) and Bethlehem schools ranking 377 (and receiving a D). More affluent Parkland school district fared better, receiving A for its middle schools and B- for high schools.

The local media picked up these “news” very enthusiastically. Their message was loud and clear: our public schools are failing and need to be urgently reformed. Yet, most media spread the “news” without any critical analysis of either the idea of school “report cards” itself, the organization spearheading this initiative, the methodology used to grade schools, or the motives behind school grading. So here is some of the missing analysis.

Let’s first have a quick look at the organization issuing “report cards” to public schools and districts across Pennsylvania – a K-12 education advocacy nonprofit “The Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now” (or PennCAN). Formally launched in 2012, PennCAN is a part of a broader CAN network – The 50CAN – which currently operates in five states (Minnesota, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) and plans to reach half of the country by 2015. The 50CAN aims to “to restore the American dream one school at a time” through the implementation of the following three policy principles:

  • greater choices
  • greater accountability
  • greater flexibility.

In other words, the 50CAN’s solution to “reforming” public education is to promote school choice, link teacher evaluation to student academic outcomes, expand alternative mechanisms of serving in the teaching profession, and provide school principals with greater control over school staffing and budget. The 50CAN message is straightforward:

 “Close chronically failing schools” and turn them into charters.

The PennCAN’s most recent “achievements” include the support of the Educational Improvement Scholarship Credit and an attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law. The enactment of the Scholarship Credit brought a $50 million tax credit for businesses that give scholarships to low-income students (from failing schools) to attend private or out-of-district public schools. Simultaneously, the PennCAN has lobbied for “creating an independent charter school authorizer, increasing fiscal and academic accountability for charter schools, and studying problems with charter funding.” While the attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law has been unsuccessful so far, the PennCAN says it will continue to press lawmakers to reform the charter school law.

With this clear privatization logic driving the 50CAN’s reform campaign, it is not surprising that the organization has turned to school grading as its main advocacy tool. Using student achievement scores, the 50CAN assigns letter grades (A through F) to each public school and district in a state in four categories (including performance gains, overall student performance, student subgroup performance, and achievement gap). While the official rationale is to “provide families and communities with a clear benchmark for how their child’s school or district performs,” school report cards do much more. They (de)grade public schools, thus contributing to the rhetoric of crisis and generating reform pressure to turn public schools into private charters. This is a common strategy of “naming, shaming, and blaming” public schools (e.g., see also an Australian case) without addressing the broader systemic problems such as tax policies favoring the wealthy, residential segregation, immigration policies, lack of health insurance, and many others. As Larry Cuban notes,

“Directing attention to only fixing schools [is] a strategy that is both politically attractive and economically inexpensive compared to the uproar that would occur from attacking those who enjoy privileges from leaving those policies and structures untouched.”

Finally, the 50CAN’s engagement in the business of fixing private schools is driven by important financial motives. Given that education is now the second largest market in the U.S. – valued at US$1.3 trillion – it is not surprising to see the massive mobilization of education entrepreneurs, investors, and private donors around federal funds for education. The 50CAN’s supporters include the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and William Penn Foundation, among others.  For many of these supporters, education is simply a commodity and schools represent new investment opportunities.  At the end of the day, it is about advantageous “market deals,” “education transactions,” and “adding value to education portfolio companies.” It is not necessarily about preserving education as a public good.

Increasingly, investment schemes become successfully disguised as “idealized political activism” – an argument that David Sirota makes in a short video below. Perhaps, this is what the 50CAN’s political activism is all about. A scam. The 50CAN’s scam. Or, in the case of Pennsylvania, the PennCAN’s scam.

I am Accepted to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. What is Next?

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Imagine you are one of the “supposedly” smartest, most hardworking, and not less importantly luckiest people who were accepted to an elite university in either the United Kingdom or the United States of America. You received an acceptance letter to a masters program of your dream. What’s next? The next step is to find funding in case you were not awarded a rare scholarship or financial aid.

Recently, my friend from Ecuador was accepted to a masters program in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He posted this news on Facebook and “likes” started to exponentially increase and the words of congratulations quickly filled up his wall. In one of the comments he voiced a concern that the cost of the program coupled with college fees and living expenses is $72,000 and he is looking for funding opportunities.

According to the UN, the average GDP per capita in Ecuador is $4,205. Roughly calculated, it would take more than 17 years for an average Ecuadorian to earn enough money to afford Oxford education if that person will not eat and will live on the streets for 17 years. One might think that those prices are for citizens of the UK, well, according to UN data, GDP per capita in the UK is $35,422. For a superhuman in the UK who does not eat and have no other life goals other than saving for an elite education, it would take 2,5 years to save money to attend Oxbridge. For the sake of comparison, a citizen of Somalia would need 327 years to earn enough money to study at Oxford.

One might disagree with my usage of GDP per capita and roughly generalized conclusions. Well, I do not necessarily draw any conclusions. I simply want to raise several questions: Why do those masters-level degrees cost so much? Who can afford going to those universities? What does it say about values in our society? Does education provide opportunities for a better life for all or reproduces social inequalities and class division that exist today?

An article published in the Guardian shows a clear picture of the divide between the predominantly “white” upper and middle class applicants accepted to Oxbridge over the poor “black” (see the graph below).  In fact, Oxford’s student body consists of 89% upper and middle class while in Cambridge 87.6% represent top three socio-economic groups.

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In “Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites,” Mitchell L. Stevens raises important questions about the ways in which prestigious colleges in the United States increasingly accept students based on their ability to pay.

Attending elite universities somehow gives you a mark of quality. You join crème de la crème of the academia or society in general. It somehow validates your opinion and makes your voice heard. While growing up, I always thought of elite universities as the places where talented and smart students study. I did not know that in many cases your purchasing power defines whether you are talented or smart. It is not hard to see how elite universities “create” or “recreate” social structures that favor elitism, which is exactly the opposite to true purposes of education.