Promoting Consumerism and Unhealthy Eating: Commercial Advertising in Schools

These days corporations are marketing their products to children at all levels of schooling, even preschools. Food companies spend $1.8 billion each year marketing to young people and about 82% of schools have corporate ads. Everything from school buses to gymnasiums to textbooks is plastered with corporate ads. Fast food companies come to schools promoting literacy and fitness, but are really aiming to sell their products and build brand loyalty from an early age. Personally, I don’t buy into the idea that McDonald’s is really trying to promote fitness programs in schools and isn’t merely using that façade as a way to reach its desired audience where it can’t escape.

There are several different ways corporations can get into schools. Direct advertising such as ads placed on school walls or buses is a main way. Schools receive cash compensation for these kinds of ads, which most schools believe they are in need of. Another way schools think they can try to save money is with the sponsorship of materials for the classroom. A decrease in public funding for schools has left 35 states with 2012 funding below 2008, which means that school districts must make up the difference somewhere. These corporate contracts are attractive to them in this regard. Schools are receiving cash compensation for displaying the ads or getting free sponsored educational materials that contain company logos prominently displayed.

This is another primary way corporations get into classrooms. Most of these materials are not reviewed for their content. In one study, 80% of corporate-sponsored classroom teaching materials were found to be biased or incomplete while also promoting the sponsor’s own products. Some schools with limited resources have begun seeking out these offers from companies, but most find that their earnings from them are insignificant. For example, schools that sign contracts with soft drink companies are receiving as little as $3 per student in exchange for a monopoly on selling and advertising their beverages on campus.

It was also shocking to me to find out that in Seminole Country, Florida, report cards were sent home in McDonald’s branded envelopes and promised a free Happy Meal for good grades, behavior, or attendance. Blatant attempts like this to market products to students are doing a great job of promoting unhealthy eating habits. They encourage children to eat fast food or junk food and consume sugary soda drinks. Many schools have exclusive beverage contracts (EBCs) with corporate companies that give them exclusive access to all vending machines at the school. The amount of high schools which have these contracts has dropped between 2007 and 2012, but is still at a whopping 70%. Also, around 51% of high school students had company-sold food vending readily available to them and 30% had fast food available at least once a week.

For elementary schools, food coupons were the most frequent type of commercialism found in one study, and those, as well as EBCs, were more present in schools with a low or middle class student socioeconomic status which probably relates back to the fact that these schools are the most underfunded and need to find money elsewhere. Contests and incentive programs are also a big way that advertisers get into schools. Many times the incentive and the prize involve more consumption of the company’s product. Profit is their motivation, not caring about children’s education.

The problem with marketing in schools is that most people believe that this is the one space in a child’s life where they can escape the commercial and material deluge that overruns our society. It also brings up an ethical question about who owns and runs public schools. Giving corporate sponsors this much control over curriculum and resources basically allows companies to own the future of children’s education. Do we really want a world where kids grow up being even more consumption-oriented than they would be without getting extra marketing in school? Do we want them to develop brand loyalty to fast food corporations from a very young age that promotes unhealthy eating and fosters a culture of obesity?

It’s hypocritical of schools to teach nutrition when they allow fast food and junk food products to be sold on their grounds. Some schools are taking steps to ban marketing, but the legislation seems few and far between. At minimum there needs to be a call for enforceable standards for the nutritional content of all food and drinks marketed to children in school. Some people say that any kind of marketing targeted at children is always unethical because “children lack the cognitive capacity to understand how marketing works.” Others say that “schools should be all about teaching students to make their own choices, not coercing them to buy things they don’t need.” Still others say that “school property should be a place where messages to young people strengthen their bodies as well as their minds. Most foods and beverages marketed in any venue toward children and adolescents are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat, and are low in essential nutrients.”

Given all of these negative aspects of marketing to children in schools, a recent initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama has tried to focus on marketing healthy food to youths. While her intent is certainly in the right place, the execution is leaving many critics unsatisfied. Instead of getting media corporations to stop marketing junk food to young children (an arguably colossal task), she has decided to get some corporations to pledge to market healthy food instead. Public health advocates criticize this program however, because they believe marketing to children needs to stop altogether rather than these polarized campaigns that just lead to greater amounts of overall ads bombarding kids.

Despite the First Lady’s best attempts to reform the eating habits of young kids, the people with the power to do so seem to be having a hard time going against the big junk food businesses. Federal reform that was supposed to raise nutrition standards for how food is marketed to children fell apart in 2011 and has not been brought up again since. But, as critics say, focusing on changing the nature of these marketing campaigns takes away from the actual problem that is the fact that kids are being used as giant money-makers for large corporations. Corporate interests are being placed about children’s health and education and that needs to change.

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Occupy the Ministry of Education: Ukraine on the Path to European Education

Euromaidan has shown the prospect of a new life to all the Ukrainian people. We have witnessed the power of community action and a possibility of a real change. And Ukrainian students are not willing to let this chance slip! On February 21st, around 200 students occupied the Ministry of Education and Science in Kiev. It started with a peaceful protest with the demand of the resignation of the current Minister of Education Dmitro Tabachnik and his deputy Yevgen Sulima – the two government officials routinely criticized by the student protesters during the last few years.

Students’ patience wore out when Minister Tabachnik did not support them standing up for their rights on Maidan and instead commented that  “students have to attend classes in order to receive scholarships, and after 3 pm they are free to do whatever they please.”  When students entered the building of the Ministry in order to start the negotiations in regards to the new candidate for the post of the Minister of Education, the officials began leaving their work places and refused to discuss students’ demands. Irritated by such an attitude, student activists made the decision to stand up for their rights in a more radical way.

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It did not take the students long to tape the office doors, bring in enough food and water to sustain themselves inside the building, and even appoint security people around the Ministry of Education.

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Shortly after, Facebook and Youtube  featured a video in which a student reporter voiced the opinion of the protestors:

“In the past four years we have witnessed incredible increase of corruption, centralization of education, the destruction of autonomy of education institutions, academic environment of Ukrainian intellectual community and the possibility of integration into European environment of higher education and scientific research. We are systemically observing the deterioration of problems in the sphere of welfare of students and teachers. During the administration of this Ministry we have witnessed the decrease of student scholarships, an attempt to increase the GPA for student scholarships in order to not pay them. This is absolutely an anti-social and anti-student policy of the Ministry! Hence, Verkhovna Rada has to consider the resignation of Tabachnik! As of tomorrow, all students will stop giving bribes. Ukraine has to adopt a new and quality European education!”

The deputy Minister of Education Oleksiy Dniprov claimed that such destabilization of the work of the Ministry may cause a delay in paying out the scholarships and salaries of teachers. He also argued that “the demands of the activists, or the ‘students’ as they call themselves, are political, and unfortunately, are out of the competence of the Ministry.” However, the actions of the students had an almost immediate result: Verkhovna Rada has fired Tabachnik – twice. On February 23rd, 236 deputies supported the idea of removing Tabachnik from his post.  The next day, when the second voting process took place due to the suspicion of illegitimacy of the first one, the resignation was supported by 249 deputies.

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This is only the first step. Only one of the demands of the students has been satisfied and they are not willing to give up. Who is going to take Tabachnik’s post?  The students are demanding that the people who will become heads of the Ministry of Education in the new government have to be experts in their professional area, be respected in the academic world both in Ukraine and in Europe, and initiate a reform plan that will be agreed upon by all the interested parties in the Ukrainian system of education.  In addition, activists proposed three candidates for the position of the Education Minister: the president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Serhiy Kvita, the rector of Kyiv Politechnical Institute Mihailo Zgurtovskiy, and a deputy Liliya Grunevich.

The students are not content with the current development of the situation, since the Cabinet of Ministers proposed a new candidate on February 24th – a deputy of the fraction “Svoboda” (eng. “Freedom”) Irina Farion. The students refused to give up the building of the Ministry of Education to Farion because “she has absolutely no skills for or experience in education policy-making and during her work in the Committee on Science and Education she has not taken on any leadership role.”

Now the power to shape the direction in which the Ukrainian education is going to develop belongs to the student activists who will only open the doors of the Ministry to the person who deserves it and who will lead Ukrainian education towards the European standards. Thousands of students are impatient to know who it is going to be.

The Hot and Steamy Debate about Sex Education

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are only 22 US states, including the District of Columbia, that require sex education to be taught in public schools. Though sex education has been a controversial topic for years, it has recently been catching the eye of reporters in a slightly different context as before. It seems that events this year have prompted some student pushback on legislation against comprehensive sex education in the classroom, making this a type of youth movement within the field of education policy.

Just this week in Kansas, recent legislature bills were proposed that would require students to obtain parental signatures before receiving sex education in schools. Law enforcers sought an “opt-out policy,” where students and/or parents could decide not to partake in sexual education classes. The proposal currently reads: “No board of education of any unified school district shall provide instruction on health and human sexuality to a student, unless written consent has been received from a parent or legal guardian.”

Parents seemed to be outraged by the potential for their students to learn sexual information, while college students felt quite the opposite. On Monday, college students from all over Kansas came together to lobby against the bills, highlighting the importance of sex education in schools. Students argued that parental consent for this type of education would be difficult. How can a student approach their parents about this issue? Why should kids be put under this pressure to learn valuable information? There should be a safe place for students to talk about these sensitive topics other than their homes, where parents may censor what their children are exposed to. The argument continues over whether the school board should make decisions on sex education or whether it should be up to the legislature. It seems that this piece of a student’s education remains up in the air.

This issue is not just affecting Kansas. This week in Kentucky, about 50 high school students rallied at the capital to voice their concerns and demand more comprehensive sex education, claiming that it would “reduce dating violence and prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians.” It has been proven that effective sex education can delay the initiation of sex, reduce the frequency, reduce sexual partners, and increase contraceptive use. This is especially important for Kentucky, a state that has the eighth highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States and spends almost $150 million for teen pregnancy related costs. Kentucky’s youth are actively fighting against a traditionally conservative General Assembly, taking control over their own education as well as the education of many others.

A third state that has been in the news about a similar issue this week is Tennessee, where lawmakers have been ridiculing students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for hosting “Sex Week.” Sex Week features “a series of lectures about sexuality and sexual health, discussions about sexual violence, dance classes, a drag show, an art show and a poetry slam.” There are also discussions about abstinence and safe sex practices. In past years, state lawmakers have cut state funding to the university because of this week, and students had to rely on private fundraising to keep their vision alive. The week remains a hot topic: students and alumni believe that it is important in providing information, advocacy and resources to the students, and lawmakers believe that the school is wasting their money on provocative and unnecessary causes.

As a student who was lucky enough to grow up with comprehensive sex education, I can definitely see its value. Schools should serve students in more than just a traditional academic sense: students need to learn about situations that they will face as they enter into adulthood. Of course, this topic must be handled with delicacy and care, as it stirs up many sensitive political and religious views. The fact that the youth are speaking their minds around the country proves that we, the student generation, want to learn about this information, and think that others deserve to learn it too.

Sex education is an important part of a student’s overall learning process, and has a great potential to influence students’ future decision making. I am happy to see that youth are taking a stance against these state legislatures and lawmakers. Youth movements around the country are definitely making some noise about these issues, driving change and hopefully creating a generation of more tolerant young adults. My only hope is that those with the funds and power put their political differences aside and see that this type of education is necessary in schools.

Education Reforms in Hong Kong: Which way will they go?

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Hong Kong, where I grew up, is a fascinating place due to its British colonial history and its geographic location adjacent to Mainland China. I did not realize it until I left the region to observe it from a different perspective. Unavoidably, the education system has been greatly influenced by the changing governance from British to Chinese influence since 1997. In this mega city, nobody has been able to escape the sweeping tide of political transition, including the turmoil and challenges faced by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in implementing new policies. Hong Kong history perfectly exemplifies policy borrowing from England and then from China in its education system.

British government never failed to impose its systems on the (former) colonies. After a 100 years of British rule, which resulted in Hong Kong’s transformation from a small fishing village to a metropolitan city, it is not hard to find traces of British culture in every corner of this city, including double-deck buses, or exactly the same street names as those in England, and even the concept of an afternoon tea time. Politically, it has a legislative system similar to parliament, a Chief Secretary to run a wide ranging bureaucracy, and Minister working as an Executive Council under a Chief Execute. Besides political and cultural influences, the British introduced major reforms in the education system as the most effective way to instill British values in the next generation. Therefore, all students are required to learn English from the age of three in kindergarten.

Using English as a medium of instruction may have been a plus, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be linguistically competent in both the East and the West. It has also pleased Chinese parents so much. For previous generations, good quality education was not accessible until the British government executed nine-year compulsory education in 1978. We cannot forget that the parental influence on children in Chinese culture can affect the life of the next generation. Parents strongly believe that their children (especially with good English language skills) could lead them to flourishing lives, not only at schools but also along their career paths.

In addition, Hong Kong used to have the educational structures greatly modeled on those of the United Kingdom, including six years of primary school, seven years of secondary school, with three years of tertiary education for those who could succeed in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination.

Before the handover of sovereignty in 1997, China and Great Britain agreed that Hong Kong would follow “One Country, Two Systems,” i.e. that it would remain unchanged for 50 years and that during this period Hong Kong would gradually converge with the Mainland.  This policy was issued by Deng Xiaoping, the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for the reunification of China during the early 1980s. It simply meant Hong Kong could retain its distinct identity, political system, and strengths as an international business, financial, shipping, and aviation centre, while the rest of China would continue to align with the socialist system.[1]

However, this agreement did not prevent the Chinese government from wiping the colonial influence in Hong Kong.  Since Tung Chee-hwa, the first HKSAR Chief Executive, started his term, the education system has undergone constant reforms.

Since the post-colonial period, changing the medium of instruction in secondary schools has been one of the most controversial policies in Hong Kong’s education. Prior to the 1970s, English was still the only official language, which earned a supreme status in people’s mind.[2] English was the language of government, education, academia, and law. It was always considered an elite language. This mindset has been implanted for generations.

In April 1997, three months before the handover, HKSAR government published a document regarding compulsory Chinese medium instruction policy. It suggested that using mother tongue would help students understand education content more thoroughly. On the contrary, many students, parents, and the schools held opposite ideas and protested against it. In September 2007, the government stepped back to give more freedom to schools to be exempt from this policy.[3] As a result, only 25% of the secondary schools were approved to continue EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) education, whereas the rest of the secondary schools must use CMI (Chinese as a Medium of Instruction) in teaching most subjects except English.[4] This shift made Hong Kong citizens realize the political nature of the education reform.

Furthermore, the new language policy required teachers to enhance their language proficiency. Thus, there was an emergence of Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers in 2008 to mainly assess the Mandarin and English skills. In 2009, there was a new curriculum introduced at senior secondary level, Liberal Studies. This subject has been a great challenge to Hong Kong students who did not get much training in critical thinking in the old education system. In the same year, another dramatic reform was the application of the Chinese educational system, which followed the American model of “three-three-four” (middle school-high school-tertiary education). This has affected all levels of local students and educators. It has also meant getting rid of the British structure. Students would end up having one public examination, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE), instead of taking two that were mentioned earlier. The most controversial area was the introduction of civic education in 2012, which caused a series of radical protests initiated by political parties and youth.

Changing language policy in education was only the first wave of reforms that the HKSAR government has initiated to decrease the British influence over the years. The reactions of parents, students, and educators have been very strong, reflecting not only the deep-rooted mindset about the privileged status of English in this city, but also the achievement of British rule over the citizens during its colonial period. The entire reform movement generates more societal instability, which inevitably lowers the confidence of parents in the local schools.


[1] GovHK (2013). Government. Retrieved from http://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/facts.htm

[2] Poon, Anita (2004). Language Policy in Hong Kong: Its Impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong. Journal of Taiwan Normal University, 49. Retrieved from  http://www.ord.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnuj/j49/j491-13.pdf

[3]  Poon, Anita (2004). Language Policy in Hong Kong: Its Impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong. Journal of Taiwan Normal University, 49. Retrieved from  http://www.ord.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnuj/j49/j491-13.pdf

[4] Shiwen, Pan (2000). Hong Kong’s Bilingual Past and Present. Hong Kong Institute of Education. Retrieved from http://www.uri.edu/iaics/content/2000v10n1/08%20Pan%20Shiwen.pdf

“Bolonka for Sovok:” Panacea or Catastrophe?

“Russian Gambit,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “From Mirror-World,” “Irrelevant Offer,” “Creativity or Cretinism,” “Bologna Sauce,” “Bologna Mafia,” “Bologna creates puppets,” “ “Caste system,” and, finally, “Bolonka for Sovok” (“Bolonka” is a Russian slang for Bologna and “Sovok” is a slang term for the USSR)…  These titles crowded the Internet in 2003 when the Russian higher education system lost to the Anglo-Saxon one as a result of the imposed “panacea” from the “more civilized” systems—the well-known Bologna system.  The question is: was this widest and most comprehensive reform in European Higher Education history in fact a panacea or a catastrophe for the post-Soviet countries?

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The blindfolded teachers thrown into the pit of the unknown after decades of well-functioning Soviet education system and the students unaware of the meaning of dozens of new terms and notions were expected to rapidly get a grasp of the reform, but many failed to embrace it. School administrators who were used to preach collective values were now forced to adjust to individualized learning and the promotion of commercial values. They did not turn out to be the strongest supporters of the reform either.  Being a witness (and fortunately not a victim) of the Bologna reform myself, I would gladly hold a poster “Rich parents-for everyone” together with hundreds of students across Europe protesting against detrimental consequences of the Bologna system in 2005.

The European Integration to Higher Education (2005) reports three major reasons for post-Soviet countries joining the Bologna process: international academic mobility, emerging knowledge economy, and changing patterns of power and influence.

By all means, international academic mobility is critical. Post-Soviet nations cannot exist outside of the information age. The Soviet Union has been participating in international exchanges since the 1960s. In 1991, there were more than 102 thousand foreign students in Soviet universities, and the number of international students coming from former Soviet Union countries grew by 40% in the year 1993 alone. Currently, there number of post-Soviet students studying abroad is rapidly growing. The opportunity to receive a foreign diploma is primarily granted to them by various exchange programs, such as FLEX, Global UGRAD, Muskie, Fulbright, and others.

When the Bologna declaration was initially signed by 29 European ministers in 1999, one of the core declared objectives was to remove the obstacles to student mobility across Europe, and more broadly support the mobility of students, teachers, and researchers. Without offering “a full ride” like the above exchange programs, Bologna pushed national education systems of post-Soviet countries from equality to elitism. Now, the unique opportunity to have one’s degree recognized by European institutions is accompanied by the need for the students to cover the cost of education on their own.  I wonder how many post-Soviet students can afford European education considering that the average PPP per capita in post-Soviet states is US$10,450 as of the year 2012. Moreover, how many of them will actually travel to Europe to study and not choose their itinerary for touristic purposes? Sociologists are pessimistic in their assessment.

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The second reason for joining the Bologna process was the fact that knowledge has become the major factor of production giving the highest return for investment. According to the policy-makers, a different (neoliberal) approach promises to give a “common European answer to common European problems.” There is little doubt that the Bologna system can meet the challenges that Europe is facing. However, projected on the post-Soviet space, it can only result in the degradation of education rather than progress. The famous “Sputnik moment” of 1957 showed the strength of the Soviet education, which the whole world recognized.  Before the beginning of the 21st century, the Soviet values in education that brought the Union to the highest level of success remained stable: collective work, relatively distant relationships between a student and a teacher, thorough approach to the selection of material.

New reforms changed the core of the process of knowledge acquisition. They promoted deep individualization of student learning supported by the credit system and the ability of a student to calculate credit hours and shape his or her schedule on an individual basis. In this context, every student’s “knowledge database” started to look like a puzzle where the pieces having no logical connection were not chosen by a professional educator. Since the new aim of education became score accumulation, most students would happily follow the path of least resistance with class choice. The credit in the section “Ancient history” could easily be satisfied with a class “Coins of Khan Dynasty” and nothing outside of it. Exciting? Yes, but one might argue the practical significance of the choice. What students also witnessed was impersonalization of educational services that fit into the scheme “buy-sell” and were completely alien for post-Soviet mentality.

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Finally, post-Soviet countries are expected to react to the shift from “hard power” (territory, military, natural resources) to “soft power” (competitive economy and pro-active diplomacy.) Bologna presented a chance to capitalize on “the countries’ most precious national resource – human capital.  The existence of competitive economy is based on the principles of transparency, decentralization, and accountability. None of the above components currently exist in the majority of post-Soviet states. Education at all levels is plagued with bribery (only in Russia citizens pay up to US$520 million in bribes annually, according to International Higher Education journal). Centralized management and ineffective bureaucratic practices added to the massive corruption do not represent a favorable environment to the success of the offered shift.

I am not writing this blog to argue for preserving the Soviet education system intact. Nor am I denying the presence of positive aspects of the Bologna reform, such as the possibility granted to the “chosen ones” to receive quality European education. However, many problems persist.  Reforms are indeed due, but they have to be realistic, meaningful, timely, and well-planned. Post-Soviet space should not jeopardize national educational traditions in the interest of modernization. The last thing that post-Soviet students and educators need is a fairy tale of academic success that is not only outside of their reach, but also outside of their value system.

 

Vietnam’s stunning PISA results: What they don’t know and what they do know

Only more than two months ago when PISA 2012 scores were officially released, the world once again experienced “the PISA shock.” It is the first time Vietnam has ever participated in this international assessment implemented by the OECD. Worried. Anxious. No high expectations. Then… stunned! Vietnam was among top twenty! Its overall 17th-place ranking out of 65 countries outstripped many more developed economies. A kind of shock!

Many government officials and education experts, both regional and international, generously praised Vietnam for its unexpectedly high scores at the PISA 2012. In the region, some countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia even suggested emulating Vietnam to improve their PISA performance.

Meanwhile, responses from most local media and social networks seemed more discreet. Coupled with happiness and pride, many people responded to the high scores with great skepticism. They became puzzled over the performance that was beyond their expectations.

It was indeed happy to have such incredible scores at an international competition for the first time. Vietnamese people  should be much proud of their high performing 15 year olds, given that the students are educated in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of less than $USD 1,800!

And let’s imagine this scenario – on a beautiful day, teacher delegations from other lower performing countries paid a visit to Vietnam. They wanted to understand “the Vietnam myth.” They would interview a number of key education stakeholders about the reasons for such impressive PISA results. And their interviews would reveal the following answers.

Vietnamese 15 year olds: Oh, we don’t know why. What we did was simply trying our best!

Teachers of 15 year olds: No, it is unlikely our efforts. The recent comprehensive study by Madam Nguyen Thi Binh (former Vice President of Vietnam) shows that teacher quality is alarmingly worrisome. Admittedly, many of us need to seek ways to supplement our low salaries. Yes, we are moonlighting; we are doing other extra jobs. We aren’t committed and dedicated enough to teaching at school. We don’t know why our students got such high results!

Parents of 15 year olds: We were taken aback by the high scores. Our children are attending public schools, which have been long criticized for failing. Schools everywhere are notoriously plagued with many evils: “achievement disease,” extra classes, corruption, degraded moral, low teacher quality… As parents, we constantly set high expectations for our children while finding alternatives to equipping them with knowledge and skills we believe are necessary. We don’t know. Maybe, not sure, the high scores are the result of extra classes!

For many people, the high PISA scores, while adding to the glorious collections of gold medals and prizes of Vietnamese students in international mathematical or physics Olympiads, leave them with more unanswered questions. Why are there many (poor, disadvantaged) students who drop out? Why are students often complained for not being creative, critical, and lacking important soft skills? Why are there many young graduates who fail to get jobs? Why aren’t there many articles written by Vietnamese researchers in international peer-reviewed journals? Why does the economy rely much more on cheap labor than innovations? And why is Vietnam still so poor?

While not providing satisfactory answers to the international teacher delegations regarding the reasons for the high performance in PISA, Vietnam is certain about what it wants for the time ahead. If continuing to join this international competition club, Vietnamese teachers and parents do not want the nation’s education policy to be directed in ways that further promote ‘bad practices’ (exam-driven curriculum, private tutoring, standardized testing, corruption, and others). They will not want to train the children to become test-taking machines without the ability of communication and teamwork. They do not want to sacrifice “cultural and community values” (Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B., 2013, p.116)  and other human development concerns for the meaningless global ranking.

Undeniably, it is hard to avoid competing for rank in a “race,” especially when it is an international competition. It is for the national pride. It is much harder to avoid the backwash effect of the tests. But Vietnamese teachers and parents do hope that “the tail will not wag the dog” and that PISA will not pose negative impacts on the country’s curriculum and teaching. This only takes place when both people and educational leaders acknowledge that PISA is not a perfect indicator. It is not at all a comprehensive measure either. More importantly, when the policy makers are not complacent with the country laurels, it is capable of capitalizing on its strong PISA performance with practical reforms. So whether or not to take PISA again, it does not matter. The most pivotal thing for Vietnam is to concentrate on what really matters to the students.

Education World Forum: Constructive or Restrictive?

The forum’s global remit offers unparalleled opportunity for ministerial teams from all participating countries to address economic and educational challenges, share experiences and establish a cooperative, future-proof approach to education.”

Dominic Savage
 Director General, BESA

Just over three weeks ago, January 19-22, The Education World Forum 2014 took place in London, UK.  While this international forum has occurred annually under this name and format since 2011, its origins date back to 2002 when the British governmental organization Becta (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) founded the “Moving Young Minds” event [1].  Although retaining the same general structure, in 2009, the conference took on a new identity as the “Learning and Technology World Forum,” which also involved a shift in thematic focus to the role of technology in educational quality and success for the coming generations.  The forum took a turn in becoming what it is today, the “Education World Forum,” in 2010 when government funding to Becta was cut and the contract for the event was privatized becoming the responsibility of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) [2].

As attendance to this conference has grown over the years to the point that over eighty International Education Ministers gathered in London this year, it has come to be known was “the largest global gathering of education ministers and the internationally recognized ministerial forum for debating future practice in education[3].  Increasingly, goals for education on a global scale are shifting from simply achieving basic education for all children in the world, to achieving educational equity, focusing on quality and learning, fostering curiosity and innovation, and developing methods for life-long learning [4].  Having a forum in which education stakeholders all over the world can share successes and failures, address challenges, and debate the shape of the future of education is undoubtedly invaluable given the previously mentioned admirable goals for education that we face moving forward.

At the same time, however, it is important to look critically at the actors and stakeholders that are part of this forum and their own interests, as well as certain features of the conference itself which work to not only shape but potentially limit the scope of ideas presented and how they are discussed, and legitimize certain solutions and courses of action over others.

Looking at the position of the British Educational Suppliers Association itself is a very interesting place to start.  By definition, BESA is a trade association and works to support UK-based companies that supply equipment, materials, teaching aids, books, and technology hardware and software to members both in the United Kingdom and internationally.  They play the role of lobbyists to government on policy issues, and provide information and training to members on the basis of best practices that they, as experts, have identified [5][6].  The fact that the Education World Form is under the contract of a private entity involved in the national and international provision of educational goods and services, and is also the generator of research and knowledge about educational policies and best practices is not a trivial fact when considering what types of networking and policy prescriptions might be discussed.

Further, the “Platinum Partners” involved in sponsoring the forum are HP, Intel, Microsoft, Promethean, JP-Inspiring Knowledge, and Pearson. The first four of these partners are American multinational companies, and JP-Inspiring Knowledge is a partner company with both Intel and Microsoft.  Every single one of these partners expresses an interest in supporting the development of quality education and innovation to the ends of producing a skilled workforce in the global economy, very specifically through the application of education technology and the “return on investment” that these materials and expertise can bring.  Additionally, Pearson, a British multinational publishing and education company, self identifies as “the world’s largest learning business” and is the provider of textbooks, courses, and resources for both teachers and students all over the world [3].  The “Silver Partners” for the forum, presumably of less involvement than those previously mentioned, are almost exclusively associated with Oxford or Cambridge Universities, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica, which are all UK based sources of education knowledge and assessment material production [7].

While those behind the Education World Forum make the claim that the “event brings together minsters representing the majority of the world’s population,” we must critically realize and understand that the Ministers of Education are but one interest group within education policy networks with a certain degree of power in relation to other members of policy networks that are increasingly global in scale.

The forum has taken place every single year in London, which is not an issue by itself, however attendance to the event is by official invitation only [8].  This gives, year after year, the same essential group the power over who is able to engage in the debate over the future of education and the voices that are able to put solutions to challenges on the table.  The theme of this year’s conference was “Planning for 2014: Policy-making catalyst for a decade ahead: measurement, reach and enterprise,” and the inclusion of the terms “measurement” and “enterprise” express very specific values from the outset [9]. These values are further reflected no only in the expressed definition of education as “a crucial factor in national and global economic health; a country’s strongest resource for its future economic stability and success lies with its young people,” but also in the utilization of this forum space to discuss the OECD’s most recent PISA League Table and the World Bank’s future education plans [8].

The Education World Forum created and posted a video that is a collection of interviews with education minsters from around the world.  What struck me was that included in this video was a statement by the Minister of Education in Colombia that we must go beyond the academic achievement aspects of education and begin to take a look at education encompassing ideas of citizenship, peaceful democratic behavior, and social skills [4]. This is a stark contrast from the overtly economic emphasis put on the purpose of education in the rhetoric of the Education World Forum, from the legitimization of large scale standardized testing such as PISA, and from the goals of privatization espoused by the World Bank.

By taking a closer look at the actors and agents involved in the Education World Forum, I am by no means questioning the value of engaging in dialogue about educational policies, practices, challenges, and successes.  I do, however, strongly put into question the notion that the ideas, needs, and contextual factors of a majority of the world’s population are represented.  It seems to me that this event provides a forum to discuss the future of education and all that this entails within a very particular neoliberal framework that may not be conducive for the successful realization of a variety of educational goals.  I beg the question of whether there is another way.  Will we ever be able to engage in a dialogue about education that is more open, progressive, and less ideologically structured?

[1] http://www.fenews.co.uk/fe-news/becta-launches-global-forum-to-unite-policy-makers-across-the-world

[2] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081029165424/http://stage.localauthorities.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=gi&catcode=la_gi_o1&rid=15585&pagenum=1&NextStart=1&print=1

[3] http://www.ewf2014.org

[4] http://www.ewf2014.org/press/videos/education-world-forum-film-2014-a-global-education-conversation

[5] http://www.besa.org.uk/besa-member-benefits

[6] http://www.besa.org.uk/international-services-1

[7] http://www.ewf2014.org/partners/silver

[8] http://www.ewf2014.org/press/press-releases/education-world-forum-2014

[9] http://www.britishcouncil.org.eg/en/about/press/education-world-forum-ewf-and-bett-2014

Snow Days, not Snooze Days

I dread the day when I have to explain to my children what a snow day was. I picture myself saying, “Believe it or not, snow days happened pretty regularly. We would get a call in the morning that school was canceled and jump with excitement knowing that we had a free day to relax, drink hot chocolate, watch movies and play in the snow.” Though in coming to college I thought that snow days were a joy of the past, I was surprised to learn that almost every year at Lehigh, school had shut down for at least one day due to some kind of inclement weather. This year, this trend has culminated in four total shut downs due to snow so far. Ironically, as I sit in my room catching up on piles of work on the fourth snow day of the year, I can’t help but think about how these days affect education policy, and wonder how the use of technology and online teaching will change “snow days” forever.

The entire country has been greatly affected by inclement weather this winter, with many schools around the country losing upwards of 10 days due to snow. As this has never happened before, many states began to take action, holding virtual classroom sessions, uploading digital lesson plans, and requiring students to complete online assignments to stay on track. Some teachers have become even more creative, developing hash-tags and using video chats and Google hangouts to host virtual presentations. This year in Illinois, a state that was hit extremely hard this winter, teachers and students are holding virtual discussions, using technology to their advantage. Similar trends are occurring in Ohio, as policy has changed to say that districts can make up as many as three snow days per year through online lessons. In fact, about 150 Ohio schools have created what they call “Blizzard Bags,” which prepare academic sessions for inclement weather that students can complete through technology at home. Many districts are content with this decision because it prevents days from being removed from summer vacation at the end of the school year.

Part of the reason that schools are so intent on continuing learning and not missing a day is due to funding and standardized testing requirements. In many states, aid is based on actual attendance, and states can lose funding for every day that they fall short on these attendance standards. Dick Flanary, the deputy executive director for programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that “day-to-day school attendance won’t typically affect a school’s finances…but it can lead to cuts if test scores sink, if students or teachers miss a chance to shine or if schools can’t fulfill a grant obligation based on instructional time.” The argument seems simple: that if students are snowed out of school, their learning will be jeopardized.

At first glance, “e-learning” or “tele-school” seems like an ideal option. Students will have the ability to learn from anywhere, not just inside of a school building. But can there ever be a substitute for a teacher? Will these “e-days” just lead to further discussions of online learning as an alternative for traditional learning? And will the pressure to perform on testing to secure funding remain the most prominent argument for these anti-snow days?

Beyond these questions, I think that this discussion brings up many questions of equality and access that many school districts would have to confront to enact such policies in the future. If schools are mandating that students complete assignments online, that means that they must have technology available at home. While it is true that some districts provide technology to every student, this is certainly not the norm. Ironically, I believe it is those more impoverished and underprivileged areas where not every student has access to technology that could benefit from increased learning days the most. Even if students are granted technology from the district, it does not mean that they will have Internet access at home, and would probably have to find an Internet café or similar alternative during the snowstorm. One of the main reasons for canceling school is so that students and teachers will stay safe. This would be compromised if requiring students to trek out in the snow to find Internet so that they could complete assignments – it appears kind of counter-intuitive.

It seems that there is increased pressure to not miss a day of school, which inevitably brings up tough questions of funding, equity, and equal access to technologies. I sincerely hope that policy makers realize that learning does not always have to happen in a classroom. Sometimes the best learning happens on those days spent in your pajamas, baking cookies, watching movies and taking a break from school-stresses.

A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Schools and the Lived Reality of Decentralization

“Let’s get a true, fair funding system of all the schools of Pennsylvania, not for one district or another. It’s not fair right now, OK?” Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s words on January 22 came in response to a new state initiative designed to redistribute state funding for education on the basis of need.

Corbett’s move to support the initiative—thought by some to be an election-season pivot three years overdue—addresses a basic issue in the provision of government education: poor regions have fewer economic resources available to drive their educational systems. Financial inequities follow, and funding from higher levels of government is needed to address the chasm in provision.

Decentralization

The fortunes of urban school districts rise and fall on state funding. Yet, since the 1970s, a globalizing trend toward deemphasizing central government expenditures has created a philosophical tension with what University of Wisconsin-Madison scholar Michael Apple termed the “lived realities of real schools.” Structural adjustment—the economic model of decentralization and privatization (designed to lower taxes and free corporate finance for greater market investment)—results in decreased funding from central governments and greater dependence on local resources.

For most urban public schools, high poverty rates mean that local resources are highly limited, and when decentralization also chokes funding from above, uncomfortable contrasts emerge between urban districts and their suburban counterparts. Those contrasts are stark enough to drive even conservative market idealists like Tom Corbett back into the fold of centralized redistributive practice.

An example from Pennsylvania itself illustrates those contrasts.

Two cities: Philadelphia and North Penn school districts

Philadelphia City School District, Pennsylvania’s largest school district, lies just a few miles away from the suburban North Penn School District. Yet, the short commute from urban to suburban sets the two districts worlds apart.

According to data from the 2010 census, median household income in North Penn School District is twice that of Philadelphia City School District: $72,474 per household in North Penn vs. $36,251 in Philadelphia. With half the median income, Philadelphia’s schools need additional funding if their students are expected to meet the same learning standards.

Public data drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics shows how wealthy suburbs comfortably access regional wealth to leverage higher per-student expenditures in the absence of state spending. Philadelphia, a district whose low-income enrollment stands at 77%, derives 35% of its funding from local revenues (with the remaining shortfall made up by state and federal funding), while North Penn, a district with low-income enrollment of 16%, is able to garner 82% of its budget from local revenues and still invest 12% more per student than the city of Philadelphia. The suburb’s lower overall tax rate combined with a higher median income frees up substantial local funding for education.

Public investment

According to Pennsylvania state data, over the ten-year span of time from 2000 through 2010, Philadelphia was steadily outspent by North Penn by an average of 13% per year:

Philadelphia

North Penn

Difference

2009-10

$13,272

14,821

12%

2008-09

12,449

14,586

17%

2007-08

11,963

14,191

19%

2006-07

11,738

13,731

17%

2005-06

11,491

13,380

16%

2004-05

10,834

11,977

11%

2003-04

10,458

10,983

5%

2002-03

9,299

10,318

11%

2001-02

8,748

9,724

11%

2000-01

8,304

9,237

11%

For teachers dedicating their professional labors to these underfunded schools in Philadelphia’s high-risks neighborhoods, compensation is proportionally lower. Classroom teachers in 2012 earned an average of 10.5% less than their suburban counterparts:

Philadelphia

North Penn

Difference

Elementary teachers

$68,177

$75,840

11%

Secondary teachers

$68,015

$74,934

10%

Test data and The Public School Advantage

Test data between the two districts reflects the financial reality. According to data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, a gap of 25% which stood between proficiency scores between the two districts in 2010 has since broadened to nearly 30%.

2010

2012

Change

Math

Reading

Math

Reading

Math

Reading

North Penn

84.21

72.83

80.56

73.27

(3.65)

0.44

Philadelphia

58.02

49.39

50.60

43.79

(7.42)

(5.60)

North Penn Advantage

26.19

23.44

29.96

29.48

3.77

6.04

Data points such as these make it difficult for urban schools to argue their case. In 2010, with a 12% gap between urban and suburban spending, the gap in proficiency was 25%. Dollar for dollar, outputs in Philadelphia are significantly lower than they are in North Penn.

According to neo-liberal and libertarian “school choice” advocates, public schools are failing because of low-quality instruction, not funding, and the test scores are thought to reflect it. Since it is open knowledge that students in private schools outperform their public school counterparts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) standardized test, why not simply privatize the system? Libertarians, arguing in favor of privatization on the principle that competition drives economy and increases outputs, find support in these test scores.

The problem with this assumption is that the same NAEP data used to make the this case in reality counters it. Private school advocates and University of Illinois professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski stumbled upon an inconvenient truth while working with NAEP data. In their book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, the authors write that, much to their surprise, America’s public schools, after disaggregating the data for the populations they serve, consistently outperform private and charter schools.

While the authors have various theories for explaining what they term “the public school advantage” (and they generally attribute this to teacher quality and public accountability), their findings regarding public sector outperformance seem to refute the school choice movement’s standardized test argument. Although private schools provide healthy alternatives for parents who have concerns unaddressed by public schools, a system-wide public-for-private exchange does not suggest any more promising outcomes. In the end, there is no statistical evidence that privatizing urban education will improve student learning.

“It’s not fair right now, OK?”

Public schooling remains the engine of American education, and that engine will not run without adequate funding. For urban schools saddled with providing quality education in low-income districts, revenues from central government remain of vital importance. In this light, Corbett’s January 22 conclusion on limiting state funding for urban schools is well-founded: “It’s not fair.”

Preaching Preschool

During last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Of course, Obama’s emphasis on early education is not new but rather a reiteration of Obama’s previous push for more funding to provide pre-kindergarten education for every four-year-old in America.

Research stands behind the importance of pre-k education. Investments in early education are believed to raise long-term skill levels, increase graduation rates, create jobs, reduce the stress on low-income parents and reduce crime and poverty. I spoke with a current early childhood professional who concurs, stating that preschool provides a space where kids “learn how to learn.” Before the structured academics that children receive from their educational journeys, preschool teaches kids how to behave in school, get into a routine, and socialize with others. Learning how to be one child in a group full of fifteen, twenty or twenty five others is not an easy thing to learn, and must be introduced to children at an early age.

Over the past year, many states across the country expanded or created preschool programs, including Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, and Alabama. Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan believes that this policy move is important because preschool is “a human need and an economic need,” and proceeded to increase spending by $65 million last year. Additionally, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in New York City on the promise of universal prekindergarten education for all city residents. In a recent interview with Jon Stewart, de Blasio spoke of his five-year, $2.6 billion dollar plan to provide full day pre-k for every child in the city.

04PRESCHOOL2-articleLarge

Bill de Blasio was elected on a promise of universal prekindergarten. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Based on research and recent state legislation, it seems that the country is in general agreement that preschool for children is necessary for the further development and success of the nation. However, this is not such a beautiful picture in Washington D.C. In Congress, Republicans have opposed Obama’s $75 billion investment in preschool, stating that the policy is too top-down and should instead be the responsibility of local communities and state governments. I think that Republicans in general are resistant to new social programs that Obama proposes, using this as an example to generate opposition. Mandatory pre-k education seems to be a bipartisan cause, but remains divided in our nation’s capital. I find it ironic that Republican and Democratic centered governments alike are on board for preschool policy changes, but that this issue cannot come to fruition in Washington. The way I see it, members of Congress simply want to continue to disagree with social policies, regardless of the good that they imply.

Of course, an issue as such always comes back to a question of funding. The New York Times sites many ways that states are planning to cover preschool, ranging from sales tax increases to legalizing marijuana to casino revenue. However, it remains unclear how to pay for universal access to preschool education. Could it be that politicians are simply preaching preschool to attract voters? In particular, these policy changes would attract the working class and women, which are demographics that many politicians need to charm. Is this a policy move, or more of a political power move?

Growing up in what I consider to be a privileged community, preschool education is taken for granted. It is a given that parents will pay for their kids to go to preschool so that they can work, as it was unusual for my friends to have stay at home parents. Part of the reason that this issue is so highly debated in Washington is because high-income districts can afford preschool funding while lower-income districts would have a harder time enforcing this type of policy. Given the importance of preschool education, it is my hope that funding will move toward city/state/local authorities rather than fall on the responsibility of private incomes, with a focus in problem solving for those lower income areas. I think that the United States has been criticized enough for our faulty education system. This should be one step that policy makers need to put on their priority list – a seemingly simple step that can set up great future success for a nation.

While this is a hot issue right now in national news, it has major global implications. If the United States is a global leader, the policy decisions that we make will be under close surveillance by the rest of the world. Whether this preschool policy shift will bring more success to the U.S. is yet to be determined, but it does have the potential to change some negative perceptions of our education system. I do think that these changes will come from more state and local authorities, as those in Washington continuously seek power over policy. I will forever be a firm believer in preschool education, and hope to see it promoted and enforced by these more localized authorities in the next few years.