Posts by Fauzia Nouristani

Art Education

10-Expressionism-Marc-Stables (1913)
Recently while having lunch with a friend, she showed me a painting that her daughter had done. I asked her if she were studying art and my friend laughed and said something like, “No she knows that won’t get her anywhere, she’s studying engineering.” This statement hit a nerve with me, someone who feels saved by art. But my friend is not the only one with this sentiment. The neoliberal philosophy of education being for the market has been transformed into policy leading to cuts in the art programs all over the country. And these cuts in funds, which result in diminishing value of the arts, have left many students who would want to pursue the arts feeling “less than” the ones who are studying science and math.
With cuts in the school budgets at the federal level, and with education reform emphasizing core subjects and meeting the pressures of high-stakes testing, schools often make the decision to cut the arts out of the curriculum. These cuts may not affect affluent families who are able to compensate with private lessons, but according to a report by National Center for Education Statistics (2012), “economically disadvantaged students, many of whom do not have access to arts education anywhere but in public schools, have suffered a 20 percent reduction in arts education offerings, from 100 percent of schools offering such programs in 1999-2000 to only 80 percent in 2009-2010.”
But the main question that remains is why is art not considered valuable by the education reformers who promote a neoliberal agenda, while art continues to be a necessity for humans.
As Herbert Marcuse (1977), a German-American philosopher, states:
The radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence.

This quality of the arts that cannot be quantified in tests and measured by standards is the same quality that allows humans to use it as an intangible expression of the innate self. More and more education is geared towards the needs of the market and people are seen as human capital to produce economic value. As a consequence, art educators and art schools scramble to make themselves relevant by arguing for “STEAM not STEM.” Placing the arts in that mix, they hope, will guarantee continual survival. But that comes with a price. Art must transform itself into the image of the mechanistic marketplace. It exists, as STEAM boosters argue, to foster “creativity” and lead to “innovation.” What’s lost in the process, of course, is anything that makes art worthwhile. STEAM turns art into design.
The idea of focusing art education specifically on design is nothing new, of course. Since the Bauhaus seeded American universities like Yale in the middle of the twentieth century, the concept of art as industrial design has permeated art education at all levels. While there is nothing inherently wrong with learning principals of good design, art teachers inadvertently lose track of what art really is. Art and design are not synonymous. Every good work of art exhibits good design, but not every good design can be called art. A pizza box and a Picasso painting are both designed. One of them expresses the human heart. The other one simply leads to heartburn.
As it stands now in American art education, students are often taught the principles of design but not given any particular skill in a medium—traditionally the sign of being a “good” artist. One of the pitfalls of the Bauhaus conception of art was its focus on mechanical reproduction and the alienation of those who made the products from those who designed them. Thus, students are encouraged to learn principles that can enrich their employers. They are not educated to use those same principles to enrich their inner lives. Many, many art students are thus channeled into design programs that function as adjuncts of the advertising industry. But art education in the public schools need not be tailored to the market, since the public system itself is not–despite neoliberals’ best efforts–a market institution. Art education, like the schools themselves as a whole, has a schizoid tendency to cater to the whims of capitalism while at the same time catering to the intellectual, emotional, and creative growth of individuals.
And so it’s up to art teachers themselves to recover and reclaim art for self-expression and meaning-making. Since all that administrators care about is skills, art teachers should see to it that those skills are used in the service of discovering truths about the self and one’s relationship to society and world as a whole. They need to join in the struggle not only against neoliberal education reform but also neoliberalism itself and see themselves and what they teach as the path to emancipation from it.

Emma, L. Budget Cuts to Art Programs in Schools
Marcuse, H.(1977) Aesthetic Dimension.

Click to access aesthetic-dimension-_-marcuse.pdf

Afghanistan’s Education Post Taliban

Post 9/11/2001, Afghanistan’s education system has been as convoluted as its politics. There have been many internal struggles as well as external players. As soon as Karzai’s government was placed in power it began to reform education in order to differentiate itself from the Taliban, hoping to appear progressive. In the political context where power is fragmented across the nation, the Afghan government inherited a completely defunct education system, which has been placed in a state of dependency with the United States and its allies who influence both policy-making and the new regime. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, the Taliban era has left the educational system the following legacies:

  • Less than one million students, 20,000 teachers with almost no female participation.
  • 34, 00 schools–majority with unusable buildings.
  • No standard national curriculum or textbooks.
  • Only four Teacher Training Colleges with 400 students.
  • Only 1500 boys enrolled in Technical and Vocational Schools, and
  • 220 unregulated Madrassas without any formal curriculum.

After 13 years, how substantial is the change? How meaningful is education and what is the quality of education? These questions are difficult to answer and, while Afghanistan continues to face many challenges such as basic safety and security, it also has (according to the UNDP) a literacy rate that is “one of the lowest in the world.” While primary completion rates have gradually improved, the statistics show that in 2012:

  • 8.6 millions of children and youth are attending schools (over 5.29 million boys, and over 3.35 million girls).
  • Hundreds of thousands attend universities, and similarly tens of thousands are accessing literacy classes and vocational training.
  • While gender gaps and disparity still persist, access to education for girls and women has significantly improved over the years.

Again, though the numbers show quite an improvement, there is still a long road ahead. Some of these challenges, such as Afghanistan’s gender divide, continue to persist: “While 66 percent of girls attend primary school, compared with 92 percent of boys, the share of girls attending secondary school drops to 26 percent. Across the country, the growth in enrollment rates has been uneven. For example, over the past decade, nearly 350,000 girls have completed high school. In Kandahar, the country’s fifth-most-populous province, there are only 4,027 female high school graduates” (Mashal 2014).

Other challenges include poverty, health, lack of teachers and teacher training facilities and most importantly lack of security. While “more than 30% of primary school-aged children are still out of school… even children who attend school still struggle to read and perform basic math” (Albright 2013). Despite all the odds, Afghans continue to struggle. Recently I had a chance to interview an Afghan Fulbright student, Hamid Akbary,  who is currently pursuing his graduate studies in Sociology. He seems quite optimistic and reminds me that the youth of Afghanistan are hopeful.

Hamid states that just during his years he has seen a significant growth in children’s access to school. Many universities and colleges that were closed during the Taliban era have reopened, allowing greater freedom of thought. He states that students have the freedom to “express their ideas and use creativity in their skills and expression of new ideas and intellectual discussions.” He continues that this freedom of thought is the key for young Afghans to “play a role in moving the country forward to a free society through media, student organizations, and other democratic ways.” Although he does acknowledge the aforementioned challenges, his optimism seems to be contagious!


Albright, A. In Afghanistan, Teachers and Children Go to School Despite Real Danger
Baiza, Y. (2013) Education in Afghanistan, Developments, Influences and Legacies Since 1901. Routledge, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Society, United Kingdom
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ministry of Education website
Mashal, M. (2014) An Afghan Town Gets its First Female High-School Graduates.
United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Afghanistan



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.

Politics, Gender and Education in Afghanistan

afgh.schoolLack of educational opportunity for Afghans, especially Afghan girls, has been a highly controversial topic that has been used as a tool to serve political agendas for both the Western powers and the Taliban. For the US and its allies, bringing education to children—and especially girls—became a propaganda tool to partly justify invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. For the Taliban, education has been seen more as a detested mechanism of Westernization and secularization of Afghan children. Taliban members in Afghanistan and Pakistan have fought it every step of the way, going so far as attempting to assassinate teenage activist Malala Yousafzai as she was returning home from school.

According to official (bipartisan) party line, one of the main reasons for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was the Taliban’s mistreatment of women’s rights. Anyone watching or reading the news could not avoid the harsh images of Afghan women in full burqa being shot in a soccer stadium full of men. Girls not being able to attend school and many other violations of human rights were used to justify the war. During the rule of the Taliban, “young girls were forbidden to enter educational institutions after the age of eight” and anyone breaking this rule risked severe punishment or even execution. One would have thought the Western occupation of the country would be an improvement. And yet thirteen years later there isn’t much real improvement for the girls and women of Afghanistan.

The new constitution under Karzai’s regime states that men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law.” Implementing this progressive policy has not been the government’s priority, however. On many occasions Afghan girls have had acid thrown on their faces while they were on their way to school. This isn’t an isolated incident of violence towards children. As was mentioned above, “girls can go to school, but school buildings are unsafe and there are severe shortages of teachers, facilities and equipment. The new constitution guarantees women equal rights. However, continuing religious and cultural conservatism and a dangerous security environment are real obstacles to women’s participation in the economy, politics and society.”

Many promises were made by the Bush administration regarding support of education. On a visit to Kabul, Mrs. Bush promised millions of dollars and a long term commitment to education for Afghan women but unfortunately this “was not for Afghan public education (or women and children) at all, but to establish a brand-new, private, for-profit American University of Afghanistan catering to the Afghan and international elite.” The former finance minister and president of Kabul University stated: “You cannot support private education and ignore public education.” The aid money is given to American private contractors who have no real stake in education for the average Afghan but rather making a profit.

The Western media sensationalizes a young girl shot fighting for her right to education and assumes moral high ground— then at the same time the US government uses drones to kill these children. The Taliban, on the other hand, connects girls’ education, learning and knowledge, to westernization—as siding with the invaders and occupiers—thus feeling justified to kill and maim.

As Matthew Snow so eloquently states regarding Malala:

When the world should have viewed her as a child, they made her a symbol. Rather than caution her on diplomacy, the world encouraged her brazen outcries. Rather than protect her, the world exalted her. And when she thought the world was with her, the world made her a martyr. Now, as she recovers from nearly fatal gunshot wound that ripped through the throat that pushed so many strong words and cracked the skull that housed the mind she treasured above all her possessions, the world explains away their moral culpability and their complicity in the machine that nearly killed Malala Yousefzai.

Common Core Standards

For the past few decades public education in the United States has been the subject of major political debates and ideological revisions. One of the most controversial, a product of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is called the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards (CSS) cover K-12 language arts & math. The proponents of the Common Core claim that mastery of these standards ensures that graduating high school students are ready to enter college and the workforce. But there are more things at stake with the common core standards than student success. Introduced in June 2010, the Obama Administration made the adoption of the Common Core Standards a requirement by August 2010 for states competing for a share of the dwindling federal funding for education. Why the rush to implement them?
The answer: it’s not about the students. It’s about the money to be made. David Coleman, one of the architects of the new standards, co-founded a non-profit called Student Achievement Partners to specifically promote the CCS. He’s also the head of the College Board and its cash cows, the SATS and AP program. The vastly profitable standardized testing industry receives multi-million dollar support from a variety of sources—chief among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A staunch supporter of measures and programs that attack teacher unions and promote charter schools, the Gates Foundation also advocates for an increased role for standardized testing.
The Gates Foundation (along with other private foundations) has funded David Coleman’s College Board to the tune of 31 million dollars. It also has granted over six million to promoting the Common Core Standards. Its partner in the venture, General Electric, has donated a generous 18 million. What these groups have in common is a privatizing agenda that seeks to funnel public money into corporate hands.
But while advocates of the Common Core standards claim they will ensure student success, they don’t seem to care much about students at all. In his presentation at the New York State Education Building in April 2011, David Coleman declared that teachers must tell students: “When you grow up in this world you realize people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” With an education system geared toward teaching to standard-driven tests, there’s no need for children to learn to think critically or creatively. Is this healthy for a democracy?
Notwithstanding substantial financial backing, the Common Core Standards have come under fire. Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU and former US Assistant Secretary of Education, states:

President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true. They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states…standards are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at USC says, “The mediocre performance of American students on international tests seems to show that our schools are doing poorly. But students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools rank among the best in the world on these tests, which means that teaching is not the problem. The problem is poverty.”
Journalist Valerie Strauss has also spoken against CCS. She writes in the Washington Post that when it comes to Common Core Standards, early childhood education experts and educators were not part of the process.

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Standards for public education are a fine idea. But when they serve as a Trojan horse to hide a profit-making agenda, we should beware of bureaucracies and private foundations bearing gifts. The common core standards demand a vast increase in testing—and testing isn’t free: school districts must now provide funds for new computers, new software, trainings, teacher hours, and grading services. Students who could be learning new things are instead only learning how to take a series of tests. The question is who will pay for this testing—and who benefits—our children or corporations?

Charter Schools—A Real Choice?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are managed privately. Growing in popularity across the United States, this public/private hybrid is often presented as one of the solutions to the broken public school system supported by both political parties. Today, over two million or 4.2 percent of students in the US attend charter schools. Yet, there is not much evidence to support such an unprecedented expansion of charters across the United States.

The idea of charter schools originated in the late 1980s and was first introduced by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. He felt there was a need for teachers “to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out.”  Later on in 1993, “Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

Even though there’s little evidence that charter schools are effective, they steadily drain funds that could be going toward improving public schools. In 2009, a study by StanfordUniversity’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that only 17% of charter schools delivered superior education to their public school counterparts.  (CREDO) also showed that performance at approximately half of the charters surveyed were not substantially different and, in fact, about 37% were worse than the traditional public schools.

Charter school problems don’t just revolve around student academic success.  Recently, the US Government Accountability Office claimed that charter schools “do not enroll students with disabilities at the same rate as traditional public schools” even though it is required by law. There is also a growing concern among civil rights groups that charter schools can be exclusive and more racially divided. In a Civil Rights Project report it is stated that “charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”

How to explain the continued support for an idea that clearly doesn’t work?

In California, philanthrocapitalists like The Waltons (of Walmart) are furiously at work dismantling the public system there and replacing it with privatized charters. In Chicago,Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been a proponent of charter schools. While closing down over 54 traditional public schools just recently, he aims to “add 60 charter schools in the next five years with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is trying to expand charters across the country.”  And most recently in New Jersey, Mark Zuckerberg has donated millions to Governor Christie’s educational reform aimed at expansion of charter schools. According to Huffington Post, “This puts Zuckerberg well in the mainstream of billionaire tech executives like Bill Gates, who pump millions of dollars into efforts to encourage charter schools and put pressure on teachers’ unions.”

Propaganda films like Waiting for Superman pander to both sides of the political fence, promoting charters primarily as a way to attack one of the last bastions of the American labor movement—our teacher unions.  This dismal film is part of a far larger effort, a new “economy of knowledge production” fueled by corporate interests hell-bent on siphoning public funds to private pockets. As critics argue, private think tanks are “eclipsing independent university researchers” and sound data is replaced with talking points.

Charter schools do not offer a real equitable choice. Because of their limited space, they segregate a key population that could have made a profound difference in improving the educational experience of all the children in the community. They also take away a meaningful portion of funds that could be used to improve the traditional public schools. Charter schools are not a real choice and should be urgently reconsidered as the alternative to solving public schools’ problems.

Children are More than Test Scores!

Last week I was at my son’s elementary school for a meeting with his teacher.  She began to talk about how important it was for him to be ready for the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests). I told her that not only did I find this type of assessment irrelevant to his education, but also inaccurate.  I even suggested I’d rather he didn’t participate in taking them. A look of confusion came across her face, like she hadn’t even thought about having a choice in this matter.

Standardized testing has been a crucial aspect of the No Child Left Behind act that has been introduced by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. Each state is required to create assessment tests and yearly progress reports in order to receive federal funding. This has been a top down policy that was decided in Washington with little to no involvement of students, teachers, and parents that have been affected by it.  Supposedly, such standardized tests were expected to not only provide accurate assessments of student achievement but also measure the effectiveness of teachers as well.  But a decade after the policy’s implementation, there has been no proof of its effectiveness.  Rather, standardized testing has reduced education to acquiring skills that merely prep for the test.

Comparing U.S. students to those from such high-achieving countries as Finland, Korea, UK, and Singapore, Linda Darling-Hammond argues that American students are “the most tested” in the world. She finds that not only are students in these countries minimally tested but they also rarely take multiple-choice exams.  She further claims that spending so much time on improving test taking skills takes away time from effective teaching and critical thinking skills that cannot be measured by such tests.

Yet, public protests against standardized testing are rare. Many teachers find themselves in a difficult position if they seriously contest the system that promotes “teaching to the test.” Should they refuse to participate in the standardized tests imposed by the state, they risk poor evaluations, charges of insubordination, possible suspension, and even loss of their jobs. To a certain extent, then, many teachers—perhaps even a majority—are forced to implement standardized tests and teaching practices that they not only despise but know are against common sense and the real educational needs of their students.

While many teachers may be discouraged from actively protesting the standardized testing movement, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle are just doing that…by not participating in the mandated standardized tests called MAPS (Measures of Academic Progress) and they are not the only ones. Over 130 professors and researchers from various universities, including Harvard, Tuft, and Brandeis, have spoken out publicly against standardized testing. From New York City to Texas and Florida, parents, teachers, and elementary and middle school students are beginning to express their frustration with slogans like “KIDS ARE NOT A TEST SCORE.” Garfield High’s defiance of this policy clearly shows the rest of us that we do have a voice in education policy as stakeholders especially in a nation that we call a democracy.