Posts by Marina Kudasova

To The Victims of Testing: When Tests Can End One’s Life

Dear Diane Ravitch,

I applaud your courage to admit openly and publicly the mistake that was made with No Child Left Behind. It is unfortunate that healthy reflexivity is almost entirely absent from policy making today. Perhaps, if all policy makers as well as scholars are more open to reflect and possibly admit their mistakes, we could live in a different world today. However, my post is not about self-reflexivity, it is about victims of testing. I wish to devote this post to orphans in Russia who have suffered from mistakes in testing and evaluation. I would like to share two short real life stories that captured my heart and mind.

Galina is now about 28 years old. Her family abandoned her the day she was born. Galina was born with some physical disability. At the young age, she has been tested, evaluated, and diagnosed as “mentally retarded.” Do you know what that means for a Russian orphan to be labeled “mentally retarded”? It means a child will get minimum if no education; until the age of 18th, he or she will be living in an orphanage with minimum contact with the outside world. When these children reach their 18th birthday, they will be transferred to a mental asylum where they will spend the rest of their lives literally behind the walls. They will not get married, have children, get driving license – they will have almost nothing. Galina ended up living in asylum. However, curiosity and inner strength encouraged her to seek for a way out. In fact, Galina was an intellectual and a talented human being. She wrote a petition for the hospital administration asking to live on her own. It took three years for the administration to consider her appeal. Finally, she was granted a permission to live on her own, which is a very rare and an extraordinary case to begin with. Typically, if you are labeled as mentally retarded once, there is no way out. People do not like to admit their mistakes. Now, Galina is studying in a college and she has aspirations for higher education. She is a talented artist and she loves to draw and paint. She loves travelling and exploring the world. Galina is a protagonist of a recent documentary ‘Ten Percent’ by Elena Pogrebijskaya.

Galina’s case is extraordinary and cheerful. However, it is depressing and frightening at the same time. Just imagine if Galina, while being an intellectual and a talented human being, was placed in asylum for being “mentally retarded,” then how many other talents did we suppress and lock in asylums? How many lives full of potential, discovery, curiosity, and exploration ended up in the mental hospitals?

Galina, for sure, is not the only one who has been wrongly diagnosed by the virtue of human ignorance or human laziness to double check the “finding” or flaws in seemingly “objective and scientific” testing and evaluation, or human cruelty – or altogether. A good friend of mine, who is also an orphan, was called into court by the orphanage administration who wanted to prove that he is mentally retarded. For orphanage administration, it is sometimes easier to deal with “mentally retarded” as they get more funding from the government and at the same time they have less accountability – there is no need to provide education or provide housing. All of “mentally retarded” orphans will be transferred directly to asylum. Some people helped my friend to prove in the court that he is not mentally retarded. As a result, he was not placed into asylum. However, he had to live almost 6 years on the streets, as he did not have any housing. Despite the hardship, he did not lose his humanity. He managed to get a job, he is currently working in social services and he helps elderly people. Half of his salary goes to the government for renting a room to live. He applied for higher education for three executive years and finally got accepted. Remember, people wanted to prove him mentally retarded.

What would have happened to Galina if she did not have enough courage to defend her rights? What would have happened if there was no one to help my friend in the court? Both of them would be locked in an asylum with no rights to education, travel, marriage, and work under the justification of psychological and IQ tests’ results.

These are just two cases that demonstrate how wrong our “scientific” tests can be. The same applies to school tests, however…. How many lives did we lose for students committing suicides because of failing test scores? How many students with low tests scores did we discourage to further pursue knowledge? How many people in this world did we make feel bad and insignificant about themselves because of low tests scores? How many people suffered because of the incorrect testing and evaluation? How many victims of testing are out there?

Devoted to all the victims of testing…..
______________________________________________________
Here is the list of documentaries about Russian orphans:

1) Bluff, or Happy New Year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pGbQ_6Ervw
2) Mama I’m Gonna Kill You: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyBfZMZ6Tlo

3) Ten percent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V48fL1ysHqU

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The New Culture of Education Privatization: Reflections on the American Graduation Ceremony

Graduation

Yes, privatization of education affects our chances of getting or not getting high-quality education. Yes, it contributes to social inequality and destroys the myth of education as equalizer of the society. Yes, the rules of the game are not fair: if you are from a wealthy family – you are in; if you are not, then, well, you are probably out…somewhere out there doing blue  collar jobs, struggling to pay for the utilities and struggling to make a living. What a game. However, privatization and commercialization of public education go far beyond the concerns  “about” or “of” the quality of education. They create a new culture, shape our values and affect our behavior.

In a couple of months I will be graduating from an American university, proudly holding my M.A. degree. Since I received my bachelor’s degree in Russia, I had no idea what to expect from the preparations leading up to the graduation event. First, I received a promotional brochure, advertising graduation packages (caps and gowns, diploma frames, certificates, etc.). The packages varied from $160 up to $500 and even higher with an option of purchasing a golden ring with a university logo and my name on it. “Hmm…what a robbery!”, I thought. I shared the prices with my sister who works for the university in Kyrgyzstan. She was surprised and explained that, in their case, the university buys caps and gowns and rents them for free to students during the graduation. “Lucky you,” I said, “commercialization has not yet overtaken Central Asian universities.”

A couple of days after the conversation with my sister, I attended the graduation fair itself. Calling it a very ‘unusual’ life experience is an understatement – it was a real show! I entered a room with about 50-60 students who were waiting in line. Some were openly mad, complaining about a huge line; others were happy, perhaps, thinking about upcoming graduation. Some students came with their parents; others were accompanied by friends. After five minutes of waiting, an enthusiastic lady came trying to convince us to “give back to university” by pressuring all of us to donate. I looked at people around me to see their reactions: many were embarrassed, some donated right away, only a few openly said that they are not going to “buy it.” I was thinking, well… some students have already paid thousands of dollars for their tuition and did not have a chance to earn money yet… Have  they not paid enough to the university, so far? Others have struggled to afford education by taking out many loans… Wouldn’t it make sense to repay their loans first? More importantly, shouldn’t donations be a matter of a personal will rather than a result of peer pressure and public shame?

The show did not stop there. As the line moved up, we were approached by more enthusiastic students who seemed to pop up every 10 minutes asking for a donation. And, as we were moving along, other people approached us advertising graduation packages – frames…then, rings…then more “donations”…then, personal announcements and envelopes…then, more “donations” again. From time to time, “donation” agents were actively rewarding those who donated and shaming those who did not. When one student openly protested the pressure to donate, the agents’ response was loud and clear: “If you are not going to donate now, you will be bombarded with tons of emails asking for donations later. It is a shame not to give back.”

The graduation fair was like a pure clash of socialism, communism, and capitalism – all in a university setting. Socialism, because we had to wait in a line (I stayed for an hour); communism, since we were expected to donate collectively; and capitalism…I guess, it is not hard to guess why capitalism.

At one moment, I asked myself whether I am at a UNIVERSITY or in a supermarket, where merchants are constantly trying to sell stuff and beggars are asking for money. Perhaps, if one is raised in the context of capitalism, such a graduation fair would seem normal and natural. And, indeed, it is becoming increasingly natural to view people as “walking dollars,” to ask students for donations before their graduation, and to constantly advertise to students in order to sell more “stuff.” I believe the impact of commercialization of education on the broader culture is strikingly disturbing, but has anything been done to assess its impact?

Commercialization of Public Education in Russia Hits School Curriculum and Family Budget

Federal Law N-83 FZ activated the process of commercialization of public education that brought so far only uncertainty and frustration for Russian society. Certainly, there are more questions surrounding the reform than answers. Yet, it is becoming clear that the reform will have a major impact on school curriculum and family budget.

The law guarantees to provide basic education for free. However, people express fears that fee-free curriculum will be cut down to a bare minimum. One concerned parent explained that experimentation with the new law in her child’s school has resulted in narrowing down of the fee-free educational program to the following subjects: two hours of math, two hours of Russian language, three hours of physical training, and three hours of religious studies weekly. The “free program” is so basic that students have no choice but to attend fee-based courses in order to gain the necessary knowledge.  Some reports suggest that teachers force their students to attend fee-based courses and give low grades to those students who do not obey.

However, not all families can afford to pay for the courses. A price list posted on one of the Internet discussion forums states that parents have to pay a monthly fee of 500 rubles (15$) for general subjects (e.g., chemistry, biology, literature) and 1000 rubles (30$) for foreign language lessons. Parents are in panic since they believe the reform will hit their family budgets dramatically. Given the fact that average monthly salary in Russia is about 500-800$ (and many earn considerably less), allocating extra 200$ for a “proper” education is a significant burden on families (these 200$ do not include additional expenses, such as school uniforms, textbook materials, school repairs, and so forth). Clearly, the low-income families will be the ones to suffer the most.

Surprisingly, the government has not yet attempted to clarify this chaos of opinions. Although the official website of the Ministry of Education has devoted a separate page to the new reform, it only includes the text of the law and some additional normative documents.  Only three news and press releases are devoted to the reform and they all date back to 2012 or earlier. It seems that government is not ready to take an affirmative stand on the issue and is only observing the evolving situation from a distance.

Meanwhile, some activists are beginning to unite their efforts in opposing the reform. For example, there is a public initiative of concerned individuals called “Civil Initiative for Free Education” that boycotts the new law and regularly organizes demonstrations. There are also those who collect signatures and write petitions to stop the reform, as well as many others who are creating their smaller Internet communities. Their main concern is that the new law will lead to raising “a generation of dummies” and “grey masses that can only read and write, but not think.” Therefore, the negative impact of the reform is predicted to go far beyond the curriculum and family finances. It is believed that in a longer term the law will have a severe affect on the overall education level in the country.

Government official against Federal Law N-83 FZ (in Russian language):

The Reform of the Century in Russian Secondary Education: Monetization of Public Education

scoolmoney1

On May 8, 2010 Dmitriy Medvedev signed Federal Law N-83 FZ, which aims to introduce a major reform in the secondary education system in Russia.

Unofficially this law is known as “a reform of monetization of public education.” The law includes provisions for granting autonomy to schools to raise their own funds. As the official version of the law states, schools have the right to introduce new subjects to school curriculum on the commercial basis and provide private tutoring for students wishing to improve their knowledge in a particular subject.  The law, according to the government officials, aims to improve the quality of education and encourage schools to become more competitive and innovative. The law has been in power since January 2012, and it is now in its implementation period.

While commercialization and privatization of public education are common in the so called “Western world,” these policies are becoming increasingly widespread globally (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010; Ball, 2012). Russia is no longer an exception. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, privatization has become one of the central features of post-Soviet transformation in Russia and the N-83 FZ Law has extended privatization reforms to the public education sector.

Given the fact that schools were entirely state-funded throughout the Soviet history, the new reform is quite unprecedented. In fact, it has evoked huge resonance in the Russian society. First, the majority of the public does not completely understand what the law implies. Some critics call the reform “the end of free education,” while others blame the law as a “means to justify the decrease in public spending on education.” Parents are also hesitant since they believe they will have to pay for the reform out of their own pockets. In response, government is trying to convince people that education will continue to be free. However, the key message here is that only the standard (basic) curriculum will be available for free. And the critics question whether or not this standard will be enough for students to pass the national examinations in order to be admitted to the university. Also, it is likely that only children from wealthy families would benefit from the commercial services in schools, which in turn would further contribute to growing social inequality.

By and large, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the reform.  The text of the law itself is overly complicated and difficult to comprehend, which further contributes to fears among the broader public. Thus, it seems unclear what this reform will bring for the Russian society. Are schools prepared for self-governance? Will the reform in the end raise the quality of education? Or will it lead to shutting down of rural schools, which without doubt will be struggling to raise funds? What will this push for privatization of public education finally bring?