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.

income figure

 

References

The World Bank. (2005). The Latin American Way: Trends, Issues, and Directions. In Higher education in Latin America: The international dimension (chapter 11).

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The Downward Spiral of the American Education System

I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Adolescent Education and Social Studies from St. John’s University in Queens, New York in May 2011 and was excited to find a full-time teaching position for the upcoming school year. After endless interviews, I received the phone call I had been waiting patiently to hear. I was offered a full-time teaching position for a public high school in Brooklyn, New York. I was full of excitement and enthusiasm as well as nervousness at the realization that I was about to be in charge of my own classroom and hundreds of adolescents. I was ready to take on the challenges that would ensue as I tried to make a difference in children’s lives and prepare them for their futures. I had always felt that some sacrifice on behalf of the teacher was necessary to ensure student success; however, I was completely unprepared for the realities of being a full-time teacher and the extent of sacrifices I would have to make for students, particularly in an inner-city school.

After the first few days of school, I was in complete shock and baffled by the education system in which I was teaching. I did not quite understand the circumstances in which I found myself. I had thirty-four students in each class composed of gifted students, on-level students, below-level students who were unclassified, students with disabilities of varying types and degrees, and English language learners who had multiple first languages and whose English abilities ranged from extreme beginner to advanced. I was trying to teach students who literally had no interest in learning and whose absenteeism was abysmal. Student behaviors portrayed a complete lack of respect for authority figures as well as peers, and undermined all efforts by the teacher to educate students who truly desired to learn. Parental involvement was almost nonexistent. I was supposed to prepare students for college and career readiness, but the majority of students had basic elementary level literacy skills. Additionally, hardly any students had been exposed to computers or any form of educational technology. Lastly, my administration and colleagues offered no support or guidance in how to teach this vastly diverse set of students. I came home everyday and cried due to the frustration and intense level of stress I was under.

I looked back upon my own education and acknowledged that I had been sheltered in some way from the realities of the world. Perhaps while growing up there were students who I attended school with that were not interested in learning; that had high rates of absenteeism; that did not complete their homework; that did not study for exams; that had behavioral issues and interrupted the learning experience for their peers; and that had no parental support at home, but I was never exposed to these types of students. I was on the advanced track in school. I took honors classes as well Advanced Placement and college-credit courses. I virtually spent my entire education with the same forty students who were similar to me, and perhaps, were all from the middle class, where resources were in abundance and parental support was the norm. We were chastised for our bad behaviors and bad marks in school and were taught to perform well in order to secure a successful future for ourselves. None of what I had known and experienced throughout my own education was apparent in the system in which I currently taught. I was bewildered and confounded.

Here I am, three years into teaching, and I contemplate leaving the profession. The American education system values conformity over individuality and self-expression. As Sir Ken Robinson stated in his talk Changing Education Paradigms, the American education system has become a factory system where we dole out students who are unable to think for themselves, but could state facts verbatim. Each student is expected to master the same reading, writing, and mathematical skills, but not to find passion in other subjects, which are now neglected in schools, such as the arts and trades. The curriculum encompasses a “one-size-fits-all” model, but each child is unique and should be taught to strengthen and foster their individual talents. Few of my students in Brooklyn fit this “one-size-fits-all” model that the American education system has created.

Diane Ravitch further supports the holistic education of children in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, where she stated, “We must make sure that our schools have a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with plenty of opportunity for children to engage in activities that make learning lively” (p. 13). The No Child Left Behind (2001) movement has taken the liveliness out of learning in favor of standardized testing that further alienates students who do not do well on these types of exams as well as teachers who are held fully accountable for students’ results. In my opinion, the Common Core Curriculum Standards do not accurately represent the student body of America today. The standardized tests and the new national curriculum merely reflect the goals and abilities of the elite, who have access to resources and parental support. These exams do not reflect the melting-pot culture of America, but merely the culture of our forefathers and colonial America. The American education system needs to reflect the changing times and experiences of current learners, like those who make up my inner-city public school in Brooklyn. How will America help all children excel in education, and not just the elite or native-born citizens? Reforms to education are needed, but not the type of reforms that critique and punish teachers who devote their lives to mentoring students and preparing them to become successful citizens. In its current state, the American education system is a downward spiral with no turnaround in sight, and it is our children who continually suffer the mistakes of bureaucrats who have never experienced the teaching side to education, yet tell educators how to teach.

Sources:

Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCbdS4hSa0s

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

The Uselessness of Standardized Education

During my junior year of high school, my class, the graduating class of 2010, sat down to take our last PSSA exam. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Exam, like most other state administered standardized exams, covers the subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, and now, science, and is administered with the intention of measuring students’ academic standards and how well schools aid and enable students to reach these proficiency standards. It is a painfully dry and boring exam. Junior year, we had three school days where this exam seemingly took over our lives. If you weren’t physically taking the exam, you were mentally distressed about the thought of going back to a desk and filling in a bubble sheet for three hours, or even better, writing a narrative essay about ‘your typical day at school’. For me personally, that subject has never been, and probably never will be one that evokes genuine excitement and interest.

Later that year I was having a conversation with a fellow classmate about our senior year schedules. As I ranted about trying to make sure I had sixth and eighth period free (to have the shortest school day possible), she mentioned how an acquaintance was being required to take an extra reading class in addition to her core requirements in the fall. It turns out a friend of hers made a bold move and filled out the reading portion of her answer sheet in the shape of an elaborate smiley face. While most of us found this defiant move entertaining, the reprimand of having to take an extra class was everyone’s worst nightmare.

An idea that I never had until recently was that maybe this classmate of mine was better off than any of us after pulling off such a stunt. While we lethargically plowed through the questions, succumbing to standardization and believing that our intelligence could be measured by the content in front of us, she wasted no time stressing about the idea that her intelligence would be defined by the pattern of bubbles filled in on a piece of paper. While we waited for our scores to be sent home so we could stigmatize or praise our intelligence according to arbitrary standards, she had the piece of mind and courage to believe that her intelligence could not be measured by a standardized test. In my opinion, she was right.

I have been inspired by Diane Ravitch’s stance on standardized testing. Standardized testing stifles creative and innovative thinking, which are two things that are valuable in our world’s twenty first century. Schools place too much of an emphasis on test scores, and preparing students for these tests, that the classroom no longer inspires creativity and critical thinking in a time when it is needed more than ever. In addition, standardized test scores are used as an indication of school success without taking into consideration any of the challenges that schools and students are facing. The needs of students taking these tests are not taken in to consideration, and because of this, entire schools are affected and in some situations, shut down. We cannot continue to allow standardized testing to be an indication of an individual’s or school’s knowledge and success.

Teaching for America versus Teaching for Life: How the teaching profession is being undermined

Diane Ratich had a heated debate with herself on Tuesday night, as she took a playful approach to presenting both sides of the education reform debate. As someone who is relatively new to the educational field and reform debate, this type of presentation of the subject conveyed how truly frustrating finding common ground for real reform is and will be. Current leaders in policy are basing their arguments on false premises, arguing that our low test scores contribute to us falling behind as a nation. However, dropout rates are lower than ever and graduation rates are higher than they have been throughout history. However, that does not mean our schools are in good condition as right now our public school system is being undermined by privatization and by devaluing teachers as a profession.

As a student, I did not realize how heavy the results of my test scores weighed in measuring the success of my teachers. However, I do know I became a pretty good test taker rather effortlessly. This is one of the main takeaways that struck me from Ravitch’s talk. She notes how teachers are evaluated based on students they never taught and are a highly inaccurate measure of an effective teacher. She stated that teachers only have about 1-14% of an influence on students test scores. These are facts that decision makers are ignoring. Instead, they use test scores to justify firing teachers when in fact we need to figure out a way to retain teachers. The way we have gone about valuing our teachers throughout history must change, and she suggested the only way to do so is to ensure professionals are occupying the field. This led to another interesting aspect of Ravitch’s lecture – Teach for America.

As a college senior just last year, I was completely clueless as to where I would be heading in the next year and Teach for America had been sending a consistent influx of e-mails to me until it finally seemed like a pretty viable option for a person who did not know what she wanted to do. It also seemed like a good opportunity to do some good while figuring it out. While the motivation for pursuing Teach for America are often sought after with good intentions hoping to help with the shortage of teachers, I did not realize how profoundly  this undermines the teaching profession and our public schools. My degree was in environmental studies with a global studies where as teachers spend an intense 4-5 years during their undergraduate education learning and becoming masters of the profession. What does this portray to those who want to teach for life and for their career? Additionally, there are plenty of recent graduates who have an extremely hard time finding teaching positions which is where I do not understand the disconnect. Should Teach for America only hire education majors or people that want to continue in this field?

Thankfully, I was not accepted into the program because even with the five-week intensive program, I was in no way prepared to teach in front of a class. Most Teach for America members talk about how they struggle through their experience. However, they come out with a valuable experience that demonstrates their persistence and commitment to the cause, which definitely looks good on a resume for the next job. But what about those students who had that teacher? How are they effected by a par time teacher playing such a large role in their education. Overall, this is just a Band-Aid for the system, and ignores the larger problem at hand – poverty and inequality.

Allowing unqualified, inexperienced young people who have no real inclination to continue in this field to be put in places where there is often more unfavorable conditions, like poverty and inequality, offers little help to the students and suggests that anyone can teach. This also contributes to the devaluation of teachers in society, when really they should be valued the most.

It seems people in power have used this in addition to other methods, like charter schools, instead of addressing more macro issues, like poverty and leadership in schools. Ravitch suggests making sure principles are qualified in order to hire qualified teachers that are assessed based on their performance in the classroom, not on student’s test scores. This puts more pressure on the decision makers and the leadership of schools for improving our public schools as opposed to putting all the blame on teachers. Overall, policy makers must start addressing root problems instead of making decisions based on false premises that do not improve the landscape for public school systems in the long run.

Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

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The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.

Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.

While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.

The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.

She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.

The effects of privatization of education on teacher professionalism: evidence from the UK

If universities continue to heed the call of corporatisation, the role of the academic will become extinct.’

Recently I read an interesting blog post on theguardian.com. By comparing oneself with a ‘precious bird’ who is struggling among the ‘bustling sale of cheap, plastic imitation bird-objects around it’, the anonymous author sadly predicts that this bird may face extinction, leaving only its exotic feathers as relics of rapidly fading ideals. The post argues how a ‘wholesale corporatisation’ of the British higher education sector creates inequalities and adversely affects teacher professionalism. In addition to the increases in tuition fees due to the marketisation of higher education, the author argues that unfair pay between senior representatives and junior academics, particularly university support staff, will inevitably lead to more inequality. In an environment where private sector ideals are thriving, the author also feels that students are drawn more to the issues of ‘customer satisfaction’ rather than their commitment to study and academic aspirations. The blog points to the fact that as academics are being asked to undertake more administrative tasks, they have less time to undertake scholarship. Most importantly, academics find the private sector-style environments unsupportive to sustain their professionalism, being treated simply as information providers or sellers of their expertise.

I believe that the author is not the only ‘bird’ who has such a gloomy feeling. In fact, 2013 was seen as the year of marketisation of UK higher education with the government’s complete removal of student number controls. Although the sector is still far from a fully functioning market, a great number of academics in the UK have been expressing their increasing concerns about the consequences of extending market competition in universities’ activities of teaching and research.

In a large-scale strike, which broke out across the UK last year and early this year (2014), many interviewed academics held that education should not be seen as a commodity and be left to the fluctuations of the market. It is true that when education is increasingly viewed in instrumental terms, serving the ultimate for-profit goal of the private sector, the universities are trying hard to squeeze all the costs including the salaries of academics and staff. Meanwhile, the academics are required to work more and more, leading to their overall low morale and satisfaction with their jobs.

Indeed, privatisation of education is a growing worldwide trend, which continues to spread in the context of globalization. The problems it creates remain unaddressed, even in the countries like the UK where marketisation was originally traced back in the 1980s. In the eye of many academics, private, for-profit education in the UK seem to become a big business, causing public universities to reduce the value of a higher education to the laws of supply and demand to compete in the marketplace. As a result, British academics feel a growing sense of frustration and demoralization in a career that they might choose because of their interest instead of the pay it offers.

The impact of privatization of education on teacher morale has also long been documented in different contexts. For example, teachers in New Zealand with the rising administrative functions reported high levels of stress, declining job satisfaction and the desire to leave the profession [1]. In Australia, teachers were found demoralized and deprofessionalized by crude performance indicators such as research output and teaching performance in neoliberal education reforms [2]. In the same vein, the expansion of market principles in education also has negative effects on Chinese professionals in terms of their workload, payment, wellbeing, social status and teaching and living conditions [3].

In addition, it is no surprise that in many for-profit higher institutions, the professionals are not required to engage in advanced research. This is simply because the institutions only hire the faculty on the part-time basis, which can help them drive down the cost and better deal with the changes in the market’s demand. Without doubt, academics in these private, for-profit universities also do not have many opportunities for professional development offered by universities. This is most evident in newly marketised higher education systems in many Asian countries like China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Where is my professionalism?

I believe that privatization of public services has certain advantage of injecting competition into a market-based playing field. But when it is seen as the primary approach to education reform without proper supervision and outcome evaluation, this playing field turns out to be not at all level and equal, causing great many problems, including adverse impact on teacher morale and professionalism. To me, teaching academics hold a very important and special position in maintaining the goals and values of education as a public good in their communities. When market position places more pressure on them to pursue and construct academic identities in line with corporate identities, education has more negative consequences than positive outcomes.

References

[1] Power, S. 1997. “Managing the State and the Market: ‘New’ education management in five

countries.” British Journal of Educational Studies 45 (4): 342-362.

[2] WELCH, A. (1996) Australian Education: reform or crisis? (Sydney, Allen & Unwin), cited in Chan, D., & Mok, K. H. (2001). Educational reforms and coping strategies under the tidal wave of marketisation: A comparative study of Hong Kong and the mainland. Comparative Education, 37(1), 21-41.

[3] Guo, S., Guo, Y., Beckett, G., Li, Q., & Guo, L. (2013). Changes in Chinese education under globalisation and market economy: emerging issues and debates.Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 43(2), 244-264

 

“Merit Pay” in Education

Recent blogs by Alyssa and Hang on teacher salaries made me think of the merit pay system, a term which appears frequently in the context of education reform. Originally, merit pay was defined as “an approach to compensation that rewards the higher performing employees with additional pay or incentive pay” in business. [1] Since the mid-1980s, merit pay has been used to connect teachers’ performance with salaries in the United States schools. [2] Currently, it has been in use in some other countries such as United Kingdom and China.

First, merit pay is performance-related pay which means a bonus for a good teachers’ performance. And teachers’ performance is measured by “students test scores”. [3] It is understandable that people may be motivated by higher salaries, and teachers are not an exception. In other words, merit pay system aims to motivate teachers to improve themselves and put more efforts into teaching. At the same time, merit pay system can create a competitive environment among teachers, whereby teachers compete with each other through students’ grades. With this system, the most ideal outcome would for students to have good grades and for teachers to teach efficiently.

However, while merit pay is increasingly used in schools in different countries, it also receives some criticism. Joe Bower, a teacher from Canada, explains why he thinks merit pay is a bad idea for education systems. One of his main arguments is that merit pay requires the education systems to pursue measurements such as standardized testing, and additionally encourages teachers who have chosen a career of public-service to focus on extra rewards such as pay. [4] Meanwhile, he thinks that merit pay will change teachers’ attitudes towards students, which means teachers will regard students as test scores increasers instead of real students. [4]

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Merit pay transforms education into business and it is difficult to imagine how teachers work in a business environment.Schools are not like companies which can make much profit to support the merit pay plan; on the contrary, the financial budget is a problem for the education system. In some Texas school districts, the merit pay system disappeared because of the financial budget. It is not difficult for teachers to increase students’ test scores because of the motivation of rewards, meaning that plenty of money is necessary to continue. At the same time, Angeles Davis, president of NEA-Dallas, thinks “Some teachers wind up being punished for reasons beyond their control because not all students are good test takers.” [6] The Texas example illustrates that completely putting merit pay system into education is still questionable and needs more consideration.

I agree with these criticisms to some degree. I am from China, I have seen a lot about how students fight for their continuous examinations. Chinese students receive too much pressure from the standardized tests, although it is true that the tests are necessary in current Chinese education system to select excellent students from a large population.

The research shows that merit pay was first introduced into Chinese educational system in 2009, which only has a five-year history. [5] For a Lehigh graduate level class Self and Groupswhich I took in 2013 fall semester, I was required to do a research project related to education change. I chose a Chinese middle school where my mother teaches as my focus, and did some research on changes in the last decade. During that research, I found out that merit pay is closely related to teachers’ salaries, which interested and surprised me much. The situation of merit pay system in China is quite different from other countries. In the middle school which I researched, the merit pay system was not based on teachers’ performance or students’ grades too much. The main determinant of merit pay is the longer the teacher has taught, the more pay he or she will receive.

In the Chinese case, the merit pay is not a “real” merit pay. Rather, it has been modified to fit the particular Chinese education environment. According to the exam-oriented education system, Chinese students and teachers are always facing intense examinations.in this contest, students care much about their grades and rankings, and teachers care much about the class rankings. For both students and teachers, there is so much pressure that additional (financial) stimulation is perhaps not needed.

I also think that merit pay has become an excuse in order to attract public attention to education, motivating more people to become teachers. Gradually, teacher is becoming a desired job in China. Nevertheless, I also think it will cause some conflicts among old teachers and new teachers in the future if no changes happen to the merit pay system. Currently, teachers receive merit pay according to their teaching experience, which means older teachers would receive more money than new teachers, although new teachers may have good teaching performances. It seems unfair to those new teachers who perform well in their teaching, which is a potential threat for the merit pay plan in China.

While introducing merit pay into education system may have some benefits. We have to admit that it creates many problems, such as the increasing pressure on teachers and students and the financial burden on the educational system. Whether the merit pay in China will continue or disappear (like in Texas) in the future remains unknown.

 

References

[1] Healthfield, M. S. Merit pay rewards performance. Revived from http://humanresources.about.com/od/salaryandbenefits/g/merit-pay.htm

[2] Morrison, N. (2013). Merit pay for teachers is only fair. Revived from http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2013/11/26/merit-pay-for-teachers-is-only-fair/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merit_pay

[4] http://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/merit-pay-bad-idea-won’t-die

[5] http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90776/90785/6746707.html

[6]http://www.dallasnews.com/news/local-news/20131013-texas-merit-pay-plan-for-teachers-quietly-disappears.ece

 

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.

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?