New Modes for Chinese “Gaokao”

On March 22nd-24th, 2014, China Development Forum was held in Beijing. In the forum, China Education Department proposed that there will be a new scheme for the Gaokao — the Chinese College Entrance Examination.The new scheme asks for “two kinds of talents, two modes.” Lu Xin, the vice minister of China Education Department, explained that “two kinds of talents” are technical talents and academic talents. The first mode of Gaokao includes skills test and academic test, which aim to select technical and skilled students; the second mode of Gaokao is as same as the traditional Gaokao, which aims to select academic talents. This new scheme has immediately attracted the attention of all educators, students, and parents, becoming the hottest debate in China. [1]

In China, the reform of Gaokao has been discussed for years, but there was no real implementation for it. Gaokao is the most important examination in China, which determines the trends of Chinese education to some degree. Any shift on Gaokao will cause certain changes in the Chinese education system. For example, last year Beijing Education Department proposed that the English scores would decrease from 150 to 100 in Gaokao, which quickly caused the reduction of attention to English language learning. For Chinese students and schools, the requirements of Gaokao seem like the guides during their study. Most of the times, schools and students will focus on the materials that will appear in the Gaokao examination, which creates many test-typed students.

Moreover, the traditional Gaokao and the broader Chinese educational system have also caused a social problem, which is the serious imbalance between “white collar” and “blue collar” job market. Some students who succeed in the Gaokao are treated as “good students” for granted. On the contrary, students who fail the Gaokao have to attend some technical schools to learn vocational skills. After graduation, those “good students” only want to seek some “white collar” jobs with high salary and good environment, and they never take those “blue collar” jobs into consideration. According to public perception, students who graduate from good universities are overqualified for the “blue collar” jobs and few graduates want to be technicians in China. This perception has existed for years and it is difficult to change. At the beginning, the “good students” could find good jobs with their high degree easily. However, the current situation is different. The high number of graduates has intensified the competition in the “white collar” job market, and the recruitment requirements have become much stricter than before. At the same time, those limited positions cannot satisfy the graduates’ demands for jobs. Compared with the intense competition in the “white collar” job market, the situation in “blue collar” job market has a heavy shortage of qualified technicians. Especially in some coastal cities in China, there is a large demand for technicians. Notwithstanding high salaries, it is still difficult for companies to hire qualified people because most graduates do not learn the practical skills and lack the ability to take the job.


A career fair in a Chinese university

In addition, many schools and families feel worried about the new scheme because they think it is difficult for students, especially those students who will attend Gaokao soon, to change their traditional learning patterns to adapt to this new mode. The China Education Department has responded that this new policy will be implemented after three years, which would give enough time for students to prepare for the new Gaokao. Many educators and sociologists hold positive attitudes about the new scheme, and they think this reform of Gaokao will change the imbalance between the “white collar” and “blue collar” job market[2]. This new scheme breaks the traditional mode of Gaokao, and opens a new view of educating students more comprehensively. At the same time, this new scheme will not only relieve students’ pressure for the examination, but also change the severe employment environment. Students will have more opportunities to pursue education in their desired schools and obtain jobs.

Currently, no one can guarantee whether this change will result in positive or negative outcomes. Currently, there are about 1,200 colleges in China, which have some distinctiveness in the teaching quality and teaching level, offering similar education programs. How will the colleges respond to the new changes? A professor of Peking University Chengwen Hong says, “The most likely change will be some local colleges. They will not aim to build research-oriented or academic-oriented colleges any longer; instead, they will engage in building characteristic colleges to attract more students. At the same time, for those colleges who insist on cultivating technical talents, this policy will encourage schools to enhance schools’ self-confidence”[2]. Professor Hong’s comments reflect that he holds positive attitudes for this upcoming reform, coinciding with the outcomes that we expect. After all, no matter what kind of outcomes will occur, we still look forward to the future.






Personal Reflection on CIES Conference in Toronto 2014



Organizing conferences in China or overseas about International Education was always a major part of my previous jobs. A few weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I changed my role from a conference organizer to a participant of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Conference in Toronto, Canada. When I entered the venue of more than 2,000 participants, I was quite overwhelmed. Knowing that they came from 130 countries, I realized that the whole world is just in front of me! I was really amazed by the scale and the manpower behind the conference to make everything possible. It must have included unimaginable and tremendous collective effort and time to place different pieces together. Going through the intensive programs every day was like shopping for your preferences among a wide range of choices in comparative and international education.

One of my favorite sessions was focused on Peace Education. The most impressive presenter was Dr. Jennifer Kim, Chairperson of “Build the Peace Committee” who is based in Chicago. She talked about how the Chicago School District, the third largest school district in the United States, has incorporated the United Nations Millennium Goals into the public institutions. Pictures of school activities illustrating the success of promoting peace in schools were shown. I was wondering all the time how we could promote peace through education. Undoubtedly, it has been quite a new field in international education. After their presentations, I did ask if there is any concrete curriculum yet for Peace Education. However, the speaker responded that this area still needs more research, exploration, and discovery.  Startlingly, peace seems quite universal as a goal that most of us would like to pursue but generally, there has not been much context in education to achieve it.

Another inspiring session was “Transnational perspectives on democracy, human rights, and democratic education in an era of globalization.” One of the presenters was Dr. Fazal Rizvi who is one of the authors of the required textbook, “Globalizing Education Policy,” which we use in the International Education Policy class at Lehigh University. This topic was about the innovative collaboration of  a Master’s Program in Comparative and International Education between Institute of Education at  University of London, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, and the Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne, to explore issues related to globalization and social policy. Though these three well-known universities in the world involve different kinds of education systems, this type of hybrid program might be the first-time ever in the field of higher education to gather various scholars, including planners and learners, together for in-depth discussions. In addition, the style of this presentation literally demonstrated how technology has advanced the level of education. Two of the presenters from Australia successfully delivered their parts and answered audience’s questions through Skype.

In addition, Toronto was one of the most suitable cities to host the CIES Conference as it is a truly multicultural place. You not only could find various kinds of restaurants serving authentic food from where you came from, you could also randomly walk on the streets and end up having wonderful conversations with pedestrians who were always very helpful and friendly. For example, we met at least three very interesting people in one day. Here are some experiences that I would like to share with you. These also illustrated how people have moved without borders in the era of globalization because of political, economic, or personal reasons.

First, when two of us looked for the direction from our hotel to the Sheraton Conference Center, we just stopped one of the people on the street to ask for directions. Luckily, he was able to walk us to the destination. Along the way, we asked each other where we all came from. Amusingly, his ethnicity was Chinese but he never went back to China. He was born in India as his parents were in the Sino-Indian War and placed in the concentration camp. Then, he flew to Germany before settling down in Canada.

Second, we went into the the Toronto City Hall which is the home of the municipal government of the city. We ran into an African American lady who was selling her herbal products. When I received her name card, I realized her last name was “Lee”, a very common surname of Southern Chinese. Then, I was curious enough to ask her about it. Surprisingly, her father was Chinese and her ancestors could be traced back to the Emperor Dynasty in China.

Third, we passed by the Metropolitan United Church, a large 200-year neo-Gothic church in downtown Toronto. We thought that we could not visit it, because it was the site of making a film production. Suddenly, a custody person of this church, who was a Hindu, saw us and just passionately asked us to go in. He toured us around and told us his story of how he first flew to Canada from Sri Lanka illegally back in the old days. Then, he worked his way up and got a much better life with a house and two sons now. From our conversation, I could feel how much he loves Canada, which provided him room for development in its real embracing environment.

Undeniably, this trip to Toronto for the CIES Conference has been an eye-opening experience for me! It was an incredible hub to offer us a unique chance to meet with various professional educators from all over the globe. At the end, you would never know how small the connections within the comparative and international education world could be until you actively talked with other participants. I was astonished by the broad areas that comparative and international education could cover, ranging from private tutoring, social justice education, language education, early childhood education, to privatization of higher education, study abroad programs, and education for all. I do look forward to attending the next conference in Washington, D.C. and continue to explore the field of comparative and international education.


Let’s Not and Say We Did


Since we’ve handed over the education agenda to testing companies, we’ve also been told that relying on standardized tests and looking at accountability measures would help to increase equity. In fact, this was one of the major calling cards of the No Child Left Behind act – that if we keep better tabs on student performance, we’ll be able to use this information to close the achievement gap. Most of the evidence out there today, however, shows that this gap has not been significantly reduced. So if we are putting all of our resources behind a program to reduce poverty and reduce the achievement gap, why isn’t it happening? Enter the axis powers of education: testing companies, policy makers, and textbook companies.

Could it be that it never was the intention to close the achievement gap?

Here’s how it works. Policy makers write curriculum, such as the Common Core Standards. On its face, the review and establishment of a national set of standards might not be so bad. While some critics ask if it is ethical for all students to learn the same thing, it isn’t clear whether these standards will actually standardize education. What they do intend, however, is for all students to be reaching for the same high bar. The content may be adapted or adopted by region or district, but the goal was to get all students to have a vertically aligned curriculum that would challenge suburban and urban kids alike. Holding high standards across the board is, in my opinion, an integral part of improving equitable education. So far, so good.

The problem though is that the policy makers who write the curriculum do not have the power to enforce their plan. It’s like a difference between the legislative and executive branches of the government. The curriculum developers can put out any kind of utopian-unicorn plan, but unless the test companies align their test with those standards, the curriculum remains a wish. Students must then learn what the test determines to be important and the curriculum becomes secondary.

Test companies are the new gatekeepers, and policy and tests remain in their own vacuums. And because the two entities continually evolve – tests are exchanged for newer ones, curricula is redesigned to meet new standards (as influenced by the knowledge economy and our fears of Ivan Drago). Thus, those two industries prattle on, independent of one another, while schools scramble with meager resources to consolidate the pieces and teach a unified program that’s worthwhile.

To throw in one more complication, most content taught in schools is done with the support of one or more textbooks. Textbook companies produce the books for states based loosely on the standards of the policy makers. Loosely because they are a company, and it is much more efficient to produce broad spectrum books that can be used in the majority of the states without having to change too much. These books cannot effectively keep up with test standards that change frequently. Nor are they truly aligned with the current standards/curricula of the policy makers, because textbooks are expensive and most schools don’t purchase a set for a particular group more often than once a decade. Thus, at best teachers are working with a textbook that’s several years old and covers about 70% of the current curriculum. The other 30% of the content that students must learn (according to the curriculum) the teachers generate from independent sources and expertise. But old books and new standards, neither of which align to the subject matter and rigor of a brand new test, is a recipe for disaster.

Aligning the Stars

Let’s take this down to the classroom level. At the end of the year, students must pass exam X. They follow a program in which they learn the skills and knowledge dictated by the state policy documents Y. To get them there, teachers use the textbook Z as the main resource. Because none of these products communicate with each other, it’s a veritable maze to simply organize. Only skilled, experienced educators (usually working together with other skilled, experienced educators) have the capacity to develop a plan that adequately addresses the content and skills necessary while simultaneously ensuring that students don’t fall behind. And still, we don’t support our teachers in this endeavor. No. Instead, we give them a three-tiered labyrinth to navigate and demand that they do it for less pay or no benefits.

The scary part is that we didn’t see this happening. Policy and decision making in general aren’t rational. They are reactionary and incrementalist. Bit by bit, the policies are tuned towards some new magic potion (accountability!) or away from some old fear (Ivan!). But bit by bit, we’ve ushered in changes that privatize schools, use our students as resources for the globalized economy, and increased our reliance on numerical data (that may or may not be accurate but certainly isn’t holistically reflective of a student’s ability or potential ability). We find ourselves in a place where none of our systems (textbooks, curriculum, tests) align with each other and we’re wondering how we got here. We are now the proverbial frogs in the pot. The temperature is boiling but we only got the message just now.

What’s the danger of handing over our educational agenda to corporations? Stay tuned for the next post in this series…

Economization of Education: Why We Like Tests

Remember back in the day when our relationship with the U.S.S.R. was so strained that it felt delicious just to cheer for Rocky Balboa beating the mess out of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV? Those Cold War days made it so euphoric to see the American underdog finally get the job done. Our current educational policy, believe it or not, could arguably be encapsulated in the dynamic relationship between the two titans in that film. The fear that the Russians could be number one in science and technology (or in boxing) is the same fear that drove our “star wars” programs in the 80s and 90s and it also the primitive ground for our frantic obsession with test scores. Phillips and Ochs (2003) call this anxiety “Sputnik Shock,” and use it to describe the fear that Americans felt when we suddenly realized that we weren’t as competitive as we thought and thus began in earnest to focus on education as the tool to fix it. And even though our current educational landscape is far different from what it was in the early 1960s, we still seem driven by the same fear that led to the production of books with titles like What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t. In essence, our current testing culture began with the “anxiety created by Soviet achievement” (Phillips, p. 458).
The American fear of being non-competitive has intensified with the rise in globalization, and reverberations are being felt throughout the educational system. We now know intimately more about our competitors and their potential and this knowledge leads to constant comparison. Who is performing better in math? Will we fall behind in engineering?! These expressions of self-doubt have had a mobilizing effect on our school system, but not in the way you might imagine. Rather than the government tightening up controls on schools and pushing for higher standards or better training for teachers, the opposite has happened. The government has relaxed policies around curriculum and school governance and made it easier for private sector management agencies and corporations to get involved. Essentially, the state has abdicated its educational throne.
Verger, Novelli, and Altinyelkin (2012) argue that governments who have lost their centrality begin to take direction from the market and economics, thus creating a private market of education and changing permanently their ability to respond to educational issues (p. 7). Now it may not be directed solely towards the former Soviet republics, but on a global scale, we are desperately seeking solutions to stay at the top. And in today’s globalized world it seems that our government is willing to bet on any plan that has enough money or prestige behind it. Verger et al. (2012) suggest that the motivation to be competitive economically has driven most countries in the world to try to become ‘knowledge economies.’ These countries “aim to raise their competitiveness and perceive education and knowledge as key assets for this purpose” (p. 14).
And that’s where testing comes in. How does a country know whether or not it will be effective in the economy? How does a country know how skilled its future citizens will be in developing the science and technology to keep it secure and competitive in a global economy? Well, the current crystal ball is student performance on internationally normed exams. And in the United States this translates to student performance on national exams that will provide the feedback that policy makers can use to make adjustments that will keep America sharp.
There are a lot of problems inherent in our current course of action if the above is indeed true. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve commented in a previous post, is that reliance on testing causes a shift in our curriculum. It prioritizes values and promotes content that was not intended to be the backbone of our educational system, and by so doing, it allows test making companies unprecedented access to set the agenda for our curriculum. This form of privatization is of grave concern, as the government has downsized its role in defining national educational priorities. Resources are no longer directed towards programs that will serve democratic ideals in providing quality education for all students, but increasingly test scores are used like the NFL combine to sort and group students into tracks where they remain.

And while this categorization doesn’t serve the individual citizenry, it does serve the interest of the market economy. For in a market economy, commodities are valued, and something has to determine which commodities have the most value. Alex Molnar (2006) argues that the market driven companies, “offer no guidance on matters of justice or fairness and cannot, therefore, represent the interests of all children. Turning children over to the market ensures that they will inevitably be treated as an expense to be reduced or as a resource to be harvested. In the process some children and their families will necessarily be considered more valuable than others. For the market to produce winners, it requires that there be losers” (p. 635).
Now, I don’t know about you, but as someone who has a stake in the quality of education that we provide in our schools, I have a hard time equating students to resources. And on the other hand, I believe that what Molnar writes is compelling – the more we allow corporations to run our schools, the less students are treated as valued clients. Instead, they become commodities that we produce to further our economic agenda. And that shift makes it much easier to test, track, and sort students without regard for the actual people in the system.
Some critics might ask, “What’s the problem with taking a few cues from the market to trim the fat in the school system? Introducing a little bit of privatization and competition should make everything a bit more competitive and ultimately get the public schools back on track, right?” Lots of researchers have documented that public versus private competition does indeed lead to greater efficiency. But efficiency does not equate with effectiveness when it comes to schools. The problem with introducing market strategy in schools is that schools have been operating on sub-adequate budgets for decades now. Redirecting additional funds (to consultants for testing companies, etc.) cuts funding and essentially leaves them high and dry. Schools operate on a skeleton crew without enough resources to be safe places for their students to spend the day.

The bigger problem is that increasing efficiency has very little to do with the end result of improving student performance. Our schools are incredibly diverse places, operating for a multitude of purposes. Market efficiency cannot reach the individual students and teachers in the way that they must be reached in order to reform the system. In fact, it is my contention that this system of privatization will never have the “intended” effect of increasing efficiency (or effectiveness) because (1) it never has worked (see Edison school systems) and (2) it is symptomatic of a greater problem in our political system, and that is a general apathy for education in general. It starts with our policy makers, and can be traced in pockets throughout the system. In the next two posts of this series, we’ll explore this concept in more depth, first through the new allocation of resources, and then through a critique of how current media devalues teachers.

Generation Study Abroad: The Quest to Become “Citizen Diplomats”

Fewer than 10% of American college students graduate with study-abroad experience and most of these experiences are in countries with which the US already has strong ties. Three times as many foreign students study in America than the other way around. Overall, the participation in study abroad has increased over the years, but on average the duration of the programs has decreased, with much of this growth being in programs eight weeks or less. While it isn’t terrible to go abroad for less than eight weeks (it’s definitely better than not going at all), one can argue that the more time spent abroad, the more students learn about the world.

These days studying abroad is an “economic and strategic imperative.” Global citizens who are capable of functioning in countries and markets outside of their own are “a necessary component of a competitive American economy.” One aim of higher education is to broaden perspectives and there is no better way to do this than to get students abroad. This also gives students a new perspective on how other countries view America, which can only help our foreign policy in the future.

This topic is especially timely since just this past weekend First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech at Peking University in Beijing in which she promoted study abroad programs to both American and Chinese students. She lauded study abroad as being a “vital part of [US] foreign policy” and encouraged American students to be “citizen diplomats.” The globalized world we live in today means that every country can have a “stake in each other’s success” and that studying abroad can lead to “stronger relationships—geographically, politically, and culturally. We are striving for a world that is ever more capable of transcending its differences.”

The First Lady makes a good point that “relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders—they’re about relationships between people, particularly young people.” Studying abroad isn’t just about making yourself look good on a resume, it’s also about “shaping the future of your countries and of the world we all share. Because, when it comes to the defining challenges of our time—whether it’s climate change or economic opportunity or the spread of nuclear weapons—these are shared challenges. And no one country can confront them alone.” Studying abroad gives students a unique perspective from outside of the US that they would not gain otherwise. Immersing oneself in another culture for more than a cursory tourist visit allows one to have a greater appreciation for and understanding of that culture. This can only help these future leaders in business and politics be more tolerant of and work more effectively with other nations. Employers across multiple fields are increasingly looking for cross-cultural competence in their new employees and studying abroad can help increase personal and professional opportunities.

But how do we ensure that more students have the opportunity to travel abroad and gain these experiences? There are some schools, like Goucher College, which require their students to study abroad. Should more schools follow this lead and is that even feasible? Historically, those who go abroad have been white, well-off women studying liberal arts. Studying abroad is expensive and fitting it in to the time you have to finish your degree is a concern of all students. Most universities give some financial aid to those who demonstrate significant need, but if you don’t qualify for that, I know from personal experience that trying to find scholarships from outside sources is not easy. Finding out how many students this leaves out of the study abroad experience would require much more research than there is space for here, but it’s probably safe to say it’s a significant number. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says, “There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent, [but] there are lots of free options” or ways of making money on the side. Personally, I agree more with a critic of Kristof who says that these options that he calls “free” are outside of the university setting and require people to pay “program fees and travel expenses and, of course, make a significant time commitment” that not all students can afford, especially if it’s separate from their schooling.

So how do we combat these issues? North Dakota State also has a new interesting way of helping more students go abroad. They have been redeeming the airline miles that employees build up to pay for plane tickets for study abroad students who have the financial need. This year they will give out about 20 free plane tickets, which will really help some students with the financial burden of studying abroad.

There is also a new initiative being led by the Institute of International Education called Generation Study Abroad. More than 150 US colleges have so far pledged to increase their study abroad participation rates. The extremely ambitious aim of this initiative is to double American study abroad enrollment by the end of the decade. IIE has already invested $2 million in the initiative and is still seeking more support. The goal is to get 500 universities to commit to this initiative and address issues of scholarship support, curricular integration, and diversity of students they send abroad.

It is my belief that improving upon these issues will make a positive difference in the number of American students who study abroad. Universities that claim to have a global reach and want to shape their students into international citizens should do everything in their power to make it so that more of their students have the ability to study abroad because cross-cultural education is essential in today’s world.

Changing the Rules of the Game in Ukrainian Education: Democratization, Autonomy, Transparency

Serhiy Kvit, the newly appointed Minister of Education in Ukraine, is committed to creating a new model of Ukrainian education. Having signed the Association agreement with the European Union (EU), Ukraine is writing its history on a blank slate. The state is on the edge of implementing a European education system, which is expected to transform the society. The no-longer-Soviet model will be born in the next 100 days of the operation of the new Ministry.

According to Kvit, the first step of the administration will be to regain trust of the people to the Ministry. In order to fight corruption, the financial audit will be completed and all Ministry’s transactions will automatically appear on the Internet to be accessible to the general public. The role of the state as a guarantor of the quality of education is going to change too. The state is willing to give up all “controlling and repressing” functions and will become the partner of universities. In such a way, the responsibility for education quality will be delegated to the universities by providing them with an autonomous status. All the Ukrainian students that initiated the campaign “Against Degradation of Education” in 2009-2011 and the activists that occupied the Ministry of Education four weeks ago must be enjoying a great sense of accomplishment because one of their main requests – university autonomy – is going to be granted.

The new Ministry officials plan to initiate many more reforms in education. In one of his recent interviews, Kvit argued that “we are living in the global world and there is nothing internal, no internal criteria for education quality, there is only the global market.” According to him, the only thing that matters is whether “we are competitive or not.” This trend is going to change the way the state sees the criteria for the success of universities. The new main criteria of quality will be “the results of scholarly research” as opposed to teaching only. Changing the structure of universities by providing them autonomy will be the first step that will “allow universities to be leaders in global ratings.”

The second step of new reforms is the facilitation of the procedures of recognition and legalization of foreign educational certificates. Today, Ukrainian students with Western education suffer from a humiliating process of recognition that discourages them from coming back home upon completion of programs. As Kvit stated, “if you have a Harvard degree and you come back with it to Ukraine, this is your problem.” Brain drain has been tremendously troubling for the Ukrainian nation.

Now the new Minister has given the students hope. No, he is not going to try and keep talented youth at home. On the contrary, he argued that Ukrainian students should travel more! In order to encourage them to do so, the government will make an emphasis on English language learning. The latter is critical since Ukraine is changing its role model. With the Soviet Union being long gone and “Russian standards of education being doubtful,” from now on Ukraine will compare itself to Western and US universities and strive to achieve Western standards. Kvit does not see student mobility as a threat. Nor does he see Europe or the West as such. He sees them as partners that can provide “a successful model of development” and can teach Ukraine valuable lessons.

The first lesson to be learned from the West is the encouragement of private investments in education by well-off private investors. Once again, Kvit is being realistic when he sees this goal as over-ambitious due to distrust of private contributions reigning in the political culture of the Ukrainian society. In any case, he is willing to take a risk with this long-term agenda.

Ukraine is at the stage of a major political conflict and until it is not solved, education will not be put on the national agenda. However, it is clear that once the political situation stabilizes, the reforms this time will be radical and will mirror multiple globalization trends. What is important now is that having tremendous power to revitalize Ukrainian education, the new administration is running the risk of neglecting the Ukrainian local context when borrowing features of Western education. It seems as if the quality of Western education goes unquestioned by the newly appointed officials. The rhetoric of university autonomy, private investments, English as the compulsory language of instruction, and global ratings sounds like a step forward in the eyes of the proponents of neoliberal reforms.

What about the ones that do not agree with the trends? Is their opinion going to be considered? Are their suggestions going to be dismissed as old-fashioned communist remnants of the past? At this point Kvit is claiming that education is not a business, but the reforms he is suggesting require serious investment that the state does not have. English as the second language is only one example. When asked how children from rural areas are going be taught English in the conditions where the only foreign language taught is Russian, Kvit gives a politically correct response that he is aware of the issue and the state will take care of it. Obviously, he is not expected to provide all the answers. However, the agenda he is setting seems to be dictated by the modern capitalist market economy which Ukraine has not adopted.

Moreover, the proposed plan is so alien to the Ukrainian national context that its implementation may seriously endanger the Ukrainian national education. Some may argue that there is no such thing as “traditional” Ukrainian education in the first place since the latter is equated to the Soviet system. This argument might be reasonable, but it is difficult to question the value of national education that has truly redefined the sense of Ukrainian identity since 1991. With the new market-oriented reforms on the agenda, these achievements would be lost. The citizens brought up by the new system will be global, competitive, and market-oriented. Is this going to be achieved at the cost of losing Ukrainian national identity?

School Cheating Scandals and Privatization

“Any time you’ve got cheating going on by adults, that’s egregious.” Michael A. Davis, general counsel to the Philadelphia school district. (New York Times)

Recently, Philadelphia school officials discovered a testing scandal in which and administrators at some schools were caught doctoring answer books and even re-writing the answers of their students. The school community was shocked. Parents were outraged. But, when it comes down to it, what’s the big deal?

In my opinion, the cheating that has become increasingly commonplace in our nation’s schools is no longer an abnormality but rather the new standard that reflects a distinct shift in values. This shift shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has read a headline about the recent financial crises that favored big corporations over individual citizens. Nor should it come as a surprise to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to how frenetic the pace of school reform has become in the last decade. From charter schools, to scripted curriculums, to standardized tests, it seems that when it comes to improving our schools, there is a new flavor of the week, every week. And yet we find ourselves still asking how we will improve our schools, and why isn’t [insert current reform buzzword here] working?

The above quote by Michael Davis typifies an attitude that most of us would express over such a scandal. Schools, after all, are meant to be the conduit through which we reproduce societal values. Our democratic (American!) society values fairness and hard work, and it rewards individuals accordingly for their effort (ostensibly). As such, our schools have been set up to mold young citizens into this pattern. But if we take a closer look at the policy changes that have been heralded through schools in the last decades, we actually see that schools as meritocratic organizations have long been a thing of the past. Why is that?

Accountability. Everyone likes to know if something is working. And how do we know that schools are working? We look at test scores. These scores, as measured by various tests (MATs, PSSAs, CATs, etc.) aren’t a new concept. Performance indicators, such as these have been used for years for a variety of purposes. I remember looking at my test scores in elementary school and learning where I fell on a national scale. But standardized tests don’t just give students a window into their individual competitiveness anymore. Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed, they have been used as the go-to tool used to make decisions on what is now a grand and frightening scale.

Test scores now determine which students pass and which students fail. They also determine what passing and failing means. Test makers, not teachers, are now in charge of determining what the most important parts of the curriculum are, how much each topic should be emphasized, and how well students should know it. “Really?” you ask. Really. What used to be used as a comparative tool is now the machine used to steer national and state school agenda. Regardless of what the curriculum states or what might be in the textbook, teachers must ensure that their students have mastered the items that “could” be measured on a standardized exam. If students don’t grasp it, everyone faces dire consequences. Students will be retained in the same grade level or sorted into an educational track that perpetuates their current performance level through decreased curriculum depth and increased test preparation and basic skills instruction. Teachers in many districts can ultimately be dismissed for being “ineffective,” and “ineffective” is a label that is increasingly based largely on this sole measurement. Remember when someone asked you who your favorite teacher was? Doesn’t matter anymore. Your favorite teacher is now the one who gets you to pass the test. In fact, it no longer truly matters if teachers help students appreciate knowledge or learn to develop self-efficacy, because students are sorted, labeled, tracked, placed, and packed up for their future life based on the score they get on the MAT’s in third grade.

Wait a second, you say, this seems a bit unfair. Why do we rely on one test score to determine a student’s worth? In the next series of blogs on this topic, we’ll actually explore some compelling analyses of why the nation has turned to scores. But to wrap up this particular piece on the Philadelphia cheating scandal, I ask you to draw the line yourself. If we increase the importance we place on singular standardized tests, and these tests now determine the trajectory of a student’s career, and at the same time we remove the authority from teachers/schools/communities to define what is important to learn, then what do we expect to happen? Whose values are we reproducing in our students?

The pressure has been raised to a fever pitch – students, teachers, and schools are in a sink-or-swim game of survival. Meanwhile, we are relying on an incredibly small population to tell our schools (and us) what to think and what matters. And while our democratic (American!) values used to include hard work and individual effort, it now values something else. Efficiency. And what could be more efficient than teachers and principals taking matters into their own hands to pre-determine the next class of winners?

Bilingual Blues

While most college seniors venture to an all-inclusive resort for their last spring break, I decided to take a more rugged approach and backpack through Europe (quite the opposite of all inclusive I might add). It turns out that many people fear the cold of Norway, Ireland, Belgium and Denmark in early March, making it the perfect opportunity to downplay my experience as a tourist. I have never been to Europe before, but I have been to Asia, Africa and South America…not the norm, I’m aware.

In each of the four countries that I visited, I traveled with ease on public transportation, ordered food by speaking in English at restaurants and asked numerous people for directions, simply expecting that they would understand and want to help…and everyone did.

My first trip to Europe made me realize the power of bilingualism, specifically the power of bilingual education. In the European Union there are 24 official languages, and the European Commission has declared a long-term objective to “increase individual multilingualism until every citizen has practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue.” It is clear from my recent visit that the majority of European citizens are bilingual, learning their second language in school starting at a very young age. And it is not enough to say that Europeans are just bilingual – speaking English in addition to a native language seems to be a given, with additional languages taught alongside English.

The story of the United States is very different from that of the EU. The United States federal government has a long history of eradicating bilingual programs in the hopes of “acculturating” or “saving” certain diverse populations. In the mid-19th century, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs established “a series of English-only boarding schools” in attempt to stamp out native Indian languages. In the beginning of the 20th century, anti-German hysteria caused systematic closings of German language schools. Up until the mid-20th century, Mexican-American students in Texas were segregated from white students in schools. And these trends are continuing. Latino students in Hempstead, Texas were recently told that they would be punished for speaking Spanish in class, and that Spanish would be permanently banned at school.

In 1998, Californians voted to pass a measure called Proposition 227 that placed restrictions on bilingual education. The state government was convinced that “California’s language diversity…was a problem to be eradicated, rather than a resource to be developed.” This is a huge issue in California especially where the Latino population is expected to surpass the white population as the single largest ethnic group in the state. This debate continues on in many states. In New Mexico, House Majority Leader Rick Miera sponsored the “State Seal for Bilingual and Bilterate Graduates” act which “certifies that the recipient is proficient for meaningful use in college, career or to meet local community language need in a world language other than English.” New Mexico continues to fight for the rights of multilingual citizens, and is seen as a leader in multilingual education.

Though New Mexico and various other states in the US are making progress towards more intentional bilingual education, the United States still has a long way to go. The majority of US citizens are not bilingual, and are lucky that English is spoken all over the world. To me, this is more than just a language debate – it is also an identity debate. According to NY Times reporter Peter Teffer, foreign languages can foster social inclusion, diversity and intercultural dialogue. The identity that languages form for children and young adults involves interactions in relationships and communities. Especially given our globalizing world, “languages are a crucial asset for mobility and jobs.”

I’m not sure which is worse: taking away the ability for students to speak their native language in schools or not providing all students with a bilingual education from the start. As this debate continues throughout the world, I can only hope that the United States begins to see value in bilingual education, and works to make changes to the education system in order to accommodate these powerful globalizing forces.

USAID –Politics of Aid and Education in Afghanistan

Aid agencies’ involvement in education have often been touted as commendable and a noble cause but when we take a closer look at the motives behind aid we can see its complex implications and its consequences. USAID’s involvement in Afghanistan was minimal in 1950’s, and it was mostly to help build infrastructure such as dams. The shift came in the 1980’s after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. After that billions of dollars were used by USAID and other agencies to continue the cold war efforts in various forms of aid such as schooling Afghan children.

Between 1979-1989, CIA and the US government funded USAID with millions of dollars to hire the University of Nebraska’s Center for Afghanistan Studies (CAS) to design a propaganda campaign to to instill the “spirit of jihad into the hearts and minds of Afghan children and teenagers alike.” This was done through the primary and middle school curricula and books printed in both Dari and Pashto and implemented in the refugee camps mostly in Pakistan and some in Iran. Over fifteen million textbooks along with madrasahs that taught extremist views, and some basic elements such as tents for shelter and food were provided by USAID and other aid agencies (Abbas, 2010).

With funding from USAID, and design by the CIA, centers were established with offices in Pakistan “to train and educate Afghan refugees, who had formed seven mujahedeen resistance groups…against the soviet occupation” (Williams, 2008). Some of the examples of the books distributed by USAID clearly show the US policy agenda: “If out of 10 atheists, 5 are killed by 1 Muslim, 5 would be left. 5 guns + 5 guns = 10 guns; 15 bullets – 10 bullets = 5 bullets, etc.” (Stephens and Ottoway, 2002). These books educated generations of Afghan refugee children to know nothing but war and violence.

This strategy to fight the cold war by the US government, translated by USAID as education, did not take into consideration the interest of the children who were receiving this aid. Stephen and Ottoway state “children were taught to count with illustrations showing tanks, missiles and land mines…at the time it also suited U.S. interests to stoke hatred of foreign invaders.” According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls (2006), Thomas Goutierre, who served as the head of Afghanistan Center at the University of Nebraska was not at all apologetic for promoting the US anti-Soviet propaganda through violent content in elementary school education to Afghan children. He stated “I was interested in being of any type of assistance that I could to help the Afghans get out of their mess and to be frank also anything that would help the United States in order to advance its interests” (Kolhatkar and Ingalls, 2006). This clearly shows that educating the Afghan children was not a priority, but rather serving the US agenda was the primary goal of USAID.

Politicizing aid has had grave consequences for the Afghan people. USAID and the University of Nebraska’s cynical and immoral militarization of education was a direct factor in indoctrinating a new generation of fanatical terrorists. They looked for help and we gave them hate instead, because it served our purposes—or more importantly, because someone profited.

The popularity of Chinese-learning

This winter holiday, when I was in the airport waiting area of Beijing International Airport, an interesting scene caught my attention: three American children were running and singing a popular Chinese children’s song together, followed by a Chinese woman and their mother. It is easy to guess that the Chinese woman was a baby-sitter and family’s Chinese language teacher at the same time. I have also seen many videos before—like the one shown here, which show American girls speaking Chinese, usually taught by their family’ Chinese language teacher. These are two good examples perhaps suggesting that learning of Chinese language becoming more and more popular outside of China. Usually, parents choose to start with their children who would learn the language easier and faster.

On January 31st, we celebrated the Chinese New Year—the most important festival of China. A Chinese homeschooling organization held an event to help children and parents celebrate the festival together. Children were asked to construct a simple lantern—which is similar with the Chinese traditional decoration with their parents’ help. This kind of Chinese cultural event could help children understand Chinese culture easily and also could leave children a strong impression for Chinese traditional festivals. [1]


As the learning of Chinese language becomes more popular in countries where it is not spoken, more information becomes available online about how to effectively teach Chinese to children. On blog with a title “Chinese dubbed movies will be a great tool for learning Chinese” was published on the BetterChinese blogs, arguing that when children are watching their favorite and familiar movies such as Finding Nemo or Toy Story, they don’t care which language the movie is in, even if these movies are played in Mandarin. Although not backed up by any scientific evidence, the blog suggests that this may be an effective way to help children learn Chinese, because it is easy for children to understand movies and they feel accomplished as a result.[2]

Telling Chinese stories is another tool to teach Chinese, which also helps children learn about Chinese traditional culture. For example, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a holiday to commemorate Chang’e, a fictional beautiful woman who left her husband and had to stay on the moon. The story reminds people to reunite and care more about their families. The Dragon Boat Festival is a Chinese traditional festival to commemorate Quyuan who was a great person with high reputation in the history. People throw zongzi into the river where Quyuan committed a suicide to feed fish in order to prevent fish eating Quyuan’s body, and this is the reason why people eat zongzi during Dragon Boat Festival. Those stories give meaning to Chinese festivals and raise people’s interest in learning about the Chinese culture.


The examples illustrate that the process of learning the Chinese language is also a process of for people to learn the Chinese culture. As English becomes the domaint international language and is used increasingly more widely in recent years, more and more Chinese begin to learn English and Chinese parents focus more on their children’s English scores instead of Chinese scores. However, few Chinese people realize that when Chinese parents try to improve their children’s English skills, people from other countries are beginning to learn Chinese.

With the effects of globalization, China plays a more important role than ever before in the world, and people begin to pay attention to China and the Chinese culture. In other words, the popularity of Chinese learning could be seen as a sign that the Chinese culture is becoming widely accepted. Years ago, the Chinese government has begun to support the spread of Chinese traditional culture, and now there are 440 Confucius Institutes established in 120 countries. In the United States, there are 100 Confucius Institutes in universities and 356 Confucius classrooms in schools, including elementary schools and high schools. Personally, I think these Confucius Institutes build bridges between Chinese and people from other countries, providing good opportunities for people to understand Chinese well and also promoting interpersonal relationship between different groups of people. As a Chinese, I feel proud that Chinese culture is recognized and valued by people from other countries.