Posts by Kate Lapham

Cleaning Up Tunisian Education

Cross-posted from Open Society Voices

The way we address corruption in education matters. Strategies that focus on monitoring or punishing specific instances of corruption are too often politically motivated and fail to address the root causes of corruption. If our goal is to fix the transparency gaps, perverse incentives, and contradictory or confusing regulations that lead to corruption, then we must take a systematic approach to monitoring corruption.

This spring the government of Tunisia asked the OECD to conduct a preliminary integrity scan of their education system as part of a bigger effort in the context of the OECD CleanGovBiz ini­tiative. The resulting report, Integrity of Public Education in Tunisia [PDF], identifies areas in the education system that might benefit from a more in-depth assessment or immediate policy responses.

An OECD assessment team visited Tunisia in May 2013. Using the Integrity of Education Systems research framework, which was developed and piloted in Serbia in 2012 with support from the Open Society Education Support Program, we assessed four dimensions of integrity: access to education, quality of education, sound management of staff and resources, and capacity for corruption detection and prosecution.

Public schools in Tunisia are having trouble providing quality education despite large investments in education and teacher salaries, according to international assessments and data on grade repetition. This, in turn, nurtures distrust in schools’ ability to fulfill their mission and fuels a need for and widespread acceptance of private tutoring. Tunisia reports the world’s 9th highest rate of private tutoring with up to 70 percent of Tunisian students participating, according to data from the Program for International Student Assessment in 2006.

The same assessment found that up to 54 percent of students were offered tutoring by their own classroom teachers—a serious integrity threat. In many cases, important parts of the curriculum are available only to students who can pay for private lessons.

Lack of school and teacher accountability perpetuates ineffective learning. In turn, these problems become more widespread, making it even more difficult for authorities to understand the extent of the corruption.

Integrity challenges confront universities as well. Tertiary enrollment in Tunisia continues to boom, but the admissions process fails to recruit qualified students or to ensure their field of study coincides with their choice and interests. This turns the focus of higher education from learning to obtaining a degree to fulfill bureaucratic requirements for future employment. It encourages cheating among students, paying teaching staff for grades, and similar abuses of academic ethics. The absence of integrity standards and adequate accreditation and evaluation mechanisms further promotes tolerance for malpractice which, according to the OECD, is widespread in the higher educa­tion system.

“Education reforms and integrity interventions should be aimed at the restoration of trust in the public education system of Tunisia, a system with great potential which Tunisians were once rightly proud of,” Mihaylo Milovanovitch, leader of the OECD assessment team, writes in the report.  

Other countries are confronting the challenges discussed in this scan as well. Tunisia might be in a favorable position to set a good example in deal­ing with them. It is one of the very few countries that have opened themselves up to an external integrity analysis of the public sector and of education in particular. This is an important step in taking informed decisions regarding the course of action against corruption,” says Mihaylo Milovanovitch, part of the OECD research team.

Understanding, prevention, and participation are the best ways to combat corruption in education. Specific recommendations include reforming the university admissions process, introducing a code of professional conduct for teachers, and improving the school inspection system. Furthermore, rather than taking a technocratic approach to change, it is important to engage students, parents, teachers, and the general public to make sure that reform becomes part of the fabric of the education and daily life.

Boyhood and Poverty Are Not Medical Conditions

Cross-posted from Open Society Voices

In the United States, boys are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than girls, and children covered by Medicaid insurance, an indicator of poverty, are one-third more likely to be diagnosed. This is according to new research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on children aged 4 through 17 years old in the United States.

There is significant variation in diagnosis rates by state, which is unusual for other types of learning difficulty, and opinion is divided on how diagnosis rates differ according to race. Some researchers believe that children from minority groups in urban areas, particularly African American children, are disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD. Although rates of diagnosis have increased as a whole, another study in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics finds the rates of diagnosis increasing more rapidly for white children in high-income families, but concedes there has been a significant increase in the diagnoses among African American children as well.

The interaction of socio-economic status, race, and ADHD diagnosis are complex. Qualitative research indicates that some parents have sought ADHD diagnoses to provide their children with the edge of extra time and drug therapies that enhance concentration. There is also a thriving black market in ADHD drugs as study aids on college campuses. On the other hand, there is evidence that children from minority groups are more likely to be placed in special education or separate classrooms with a non-academic track. Thus, a diagnosis of ADHD can ease the path to higher education and subsequent opportunities for some, while possibly limiting it for others.

Regardless of race or class, the drugs used to treat ADHD are stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin. These drugs can help children who suffer from ADHD. However, the guidelines for diagnosis are loose and set to become looser in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be released in May. While ADHD is a real condition, there is substantial debate in the medical community about what constitutes a level of the disorder requiring medication. The drugs used to treat ADHD are powerful and relatively new. We do not know the consequences in later life for children and teens—whose brains are still developing—of using these drugs now. With such loose guidelines, unsettled professional debates about ADHD and appropriate therapies, and wide availability of drugs, there is ample room for parents and teachers to seek a diagnosis and prescription, when flexibility and additional support in the classroom might also work as solutions.

The collision of health and education policy leads to the results revealed in the CDC study outlined above. To understand how we have arrived at such a huge increase in ADHD diagnosis, we must look at both health and education policy. Of course, parents will have an understandable desire to provide the best opportunities for their children. At the same time, the accountability movement has pushed schools to increasingly focus on the reading and math needed for the standardized tests. A rigid focus on test readiness, and the subsequently narrow definition of success in education, puts children who have difficulty sitting still for long, test-driven lessons at a disadvantage.

Although easy to measure, this type of schooling comes at the high cost of failing to support the whole child with educational experiences that encourage cognitive, social, and personal development. This is particularly true in school districts without the budgetary resources to support both test preparation, and a wider, richer range of educational experiences. These are also the types of educational experiences that support the values of diversity, citizenship, and open society.

Provision by the state of early childhood programs, and individualized support for children who have difficulty in school, are expensive. Although both have been proven to provide good results, budgetary incentives in the current economic environment in school districts work against them. Economists like James Heckman have proven that funds invested in high-quality preschool programs yield significant savings in social services later on. However, the costs and savings of these programs are often realized at different levels of government, which can make the initial funding difficult to allocate.

Finally, ADHD drugs are widely available, and their cost is borne by insurance companies and parents, rather than the school system. They are marketed to both doctors and the general public, and there is a strong incentive for pharmaceutical companies to sell these drugs. Like any company in the private sector, they make profits for shareholders by producing a competitive product. This can encourage research leading to advances in science and therapies for children who need them. However, profit motive should not be confused with a public policy response in either health or education, just as purchasing power should not be confused with citizenship.

The collision of these health and education policy trends, with private sector interests also in the mix, risks leading to a fragmentation of services, perverse budgetary incentives, and poorer outcomes for society as whole. This is particularly the case for those most marginalized and least able to navigate this complexity.

Right now, we run the risk—through our health and education systems—of turning boyhood and poverty into medical conditions. This will carry real and damaging implications for education in the United States. The incentives of private companies, along with rigidly defined education goals driven by a free-market agenda, may be conspiring to do a grave disservice to our children through the over-diagnosis and over-medication of ADHD. When medication and test preparation are in danger of replacing rich, supportive educational experiences, we deny children their right to education and risk profoundly damaging our societies now, and in the future.