Beware of American education “solutions”! Reflecting on the applicability of Diane Ravitch’s ideas in the Latin American context
When Diane Ravitch came to Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having read her book, The Death and life of the great American school system, the week prior to her arrival, I was sure that she would touch upon three hot topics: charter schools, the voucher system, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Her writing style was both understandable and captivating, and I was sure that her in-person speech would be no different. However, the level of passion and ferocity with which she delivered her speech nothing short of shocked me. Diane Ravitch blended humor and gusto with her scholarly work and decades of experience, and I would describe her as nothing short of revolutionary. Ravitch excited and enthused the crowd, providing not only statistics and research regarding the current state of American education, but also suggestions for positive change.
The point that struck me most in Ravitch’s entire “debate” (which was essentially a solo performance, as her opposition did not attend) was her claim that poverty is the cause of poor education. She informed the audience that the United States has one of the highest, if not the very highest, level of child poverty of any developed country. The US education system, in turn, is failing these impoverished children because options such as charter schools are luring away the most motivated students and most creative teachers away from public schools. Though impoverished families are technically given equal opportunity to send their children to specialized or nontraditional schools, they frequently must provide transportation to this, say, charter school which is likely to be further from their homes. Ravitch cites this segregation – the encouragement of creative, motivated students from financially stable families to attend schools other than their local public school – as the partner to poverty in destroying the public school system. While the intentions of charter schools are noble and aim to provide healthy competition, they essentially leave behind the less motivated and less fortunate students in this supposed era of No Child Left Behind.
Because I am extremely passionate about Latin America, I tried to put some of Ravitch’s debate points into a Latin American context. First, I extended her claim that poverty causes poor education in the afflicted individuals to a national context. A Figure below from a World Bank statement on Latin America’s situation relative to the rest of the globe expresses how countries’ GDP relates to the investment in higher education; these two variables are shown to have an obvious positive correlation. Every single Latin American country included in the Figure (Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina) was not only at the bottom half countries in regards to GDP, but also in regards to money spent on higher education. These seven countries constitute 90% of Latin America’s population as a whole and therefore these statistics are representative of the entire region (The World Banks, 2005, p. 341). Paraguay, Peru, and Colombia have the lowest GDP and lowest investment in higher education of all the countries studied. This expands Ravitch’s point that impoverished people and impoverished countries are at a disadvantage when it comes to education. Because these Latin American countries have limited financial capital to invest in higher education, a large portion of their populations will not have the opportunity of pursuing a degree in higher education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and undereducated youth.
As I mentioned, Ravitch closed her “debate” with suggestions for positive change in the American school system, from which Latin America would certainly also benefit. Two of these suggestions very directly address the recurring issue of poverty inherent in the school system. Interestingly, her very first suggestion to improve public education was to provide and improve upon prenatal care because poor women do not receive it, which leads to increased likelihood of disabilities among their children, giving them an additional disadvantage to their already impoverished background. Another suggestion she offered was broader and entailed reducing the toxic combination of segregation and poverty. She offers plenty of other suggestions such as reducing class size, promoting a well-rounded curriculum, increasing teacher standards, and decreasing standardized testing, but the most relevant suggestions for the Latin American context, according to the World Bank data, were those involving the provision of resources for impoverished families, as those would benefit a large portion of those countries’ populations. The applicability and pertinence of Diane Ravitch’s entire lecture, and her entire book for that matter, shows its relevance not only in an American context, but in a global context. As curriculum and education practices are being borrowed and lent from country to country, these problems will also prove to be transferrable, as well as the solutions Ravitch proposed. I think it would be opportune for educators in foreign countries, especially those trying to emulate the American or Western school system, to be aware of the points Ravitch makes in order to prepare for the effects of its implementation.
The World Bank. (2005). The Latin American Way: Trends, Issues, and Directions. In Higher education in Latin America: The international dimension (chapter 11).