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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“Get the door. It’s Domino’s!”

In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture began to raise nutrition standards for foods served in schools, causing consumer advocates and nutritionists to believe that fast foods would disappear from school lunch lines. This did hold true for many commercialized products, as most fast foods did not meet these new “healthy” standards. However, some food giants like Dominos began to use these new rules to their advantage, changing their already existing products to fit in with the reformed school nutrition guidelines.

Sensing that this change would come, Dominos quickly looked toward its research and development team in developing a new type of pizza eating experience, designed specifically for school-aged children. In 2010, Dominos introduced the “Smart Slice,” which has 1/3 less fat, 1/3 less salt in the sauce, and 1/2 of the fat in the cheese. It also uses 51% whole-wheat grains as opposed to exclusive white grains that have more sugar. In 2010, the “Smart Slice” was being delivered to school cafeterias across three states. Now, this has expanded to over 3,000 lunchrooms in 38 states. I think it’s about time for some critical Domino’s-inspired analysis.

as.lsu.edu

as.lsu.edu

First, let’s look at the actual extent to which Domino’s has made a drastic nutritional change to their pizza. If we look at the nutrition information on the Domino’s website, it does not specify the calories for one slice of pizza. Instead, let’s look at the smallest pizza size, the 10”, which is designed for individual consumption. Domino’s reports that for a small, 10” thin crust pizza the serving size is 1/4. That is much smaller than one regular slice of pizza. I speak from collegiate experience when I say that most people consume the entire 10” pizza, which is 880 calories – a calculation that Domino’s does not give on their website. And that’s just the thin crust! If we switch this calculation for “hand tossed” crust, which is what Domino’s is known for, the serving size magically changes to 1/6 of a 10” pizza at 200 calories. This means that this individual pizza would cost you 1,200 calories of the average 2,000-calorie a day intake.

The calorie count for the “Smart Slice” is most likely slightly lower than these calculations, although I cannot be sure because the nutritional information about this specialty is no where on their main consumer website. There is simply a beautiful picture of the “Anatomy of a Domino’s Smart Slice,” but nothing about overall nutritional content.

And if that wasn’t enough of an “ew” moment for you, we haven’t even gotten to the discussion about the effects of this commercial material on children’s minds! Dominos delivers these pizzas directly to schools, and “its trucks, employees, insulated boxes and lunch-line placards help imprint the company’s red-and-blue logo on the brains of students.” Students are becoming “brand brainwashed” in schools, and nutrition and consumerist experts warn that this will drive more students to head to Domino’s after school hours. Not only is Domino’s able to develop a loyal following of young eaters, but the “Smart Slice” creates a false sense of reality that Domino’s pizza, or pizza in general for that matter, is healthy.

Here’s the kicker: the “Smart Slice” is not available at any local Domino’s locations and the company has no plans to sell this type of pizza in their actual stores. So their increased adverting in schools may claim to be aimed at this “revolutionary” pizza slice, but I (and I hope most consumers) can see right through this type of immoral advertising.

Domino’s is not alone in this endeavor, and this is not a new phenomenon. For years, commercial companies have been promoting school-related projects, textbooks, lunches, posters, and more in the hopes of advertising to young children. It seems genius for these companies: reach a large number of young people who are likely to buy a certain product, and target them where they spend the most time exercising their brains. If students are learning important material while sifting through corporate logos and slogans, the advertising strategy is likely to work.

A Domino’s spokesman was quoted by the New York Times, stating, “Some schools like the branding because brands drive sales…”. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with this type of marketing tactic’s affect on students? Shouldn’t schools realize that equating one of the unhealthiest food chains with health is not such a good idea? I think it is time for a cold, hard look at these corporate sponsorships and their impact on the youth of America.

A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Youth Unemployment and Labor Market Expectations

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While writing a thesis on the current labor market expectations in the 21st  century’s knowledge-based economy, I had the chance to thoroughly examine recent and prospective developments in the labor market. This blog story will focus on the employers’ labor market expectations and explain underlying reasons behind increasing overall unemployment rate.

Labor market expectations have been in a state of flux. In today’s global market, having a broad range of skills in addition to having solid educational credentials is of vital importance. Therefore, a more powerful and sustainable economy depends on equipping employees, particularly young generations, with these skills. When looking at the statistical data and research done by both national and international institutions worldwide, it seems that unemployment rate globally is somewhat on the increase, particularly in developing countries. While unemployment rates and labor market expectations take place at an accelerating pace, research shows that younger generations are badly affected insofar as they fall behind to meet these expectations. So, let’s take a look at some of these data and research and get a better understanding of the causes of increasing unemployment rate.

‘Youth Unemployment Visualization 2013’, which is prepared by ‘World Economic Forum’, provides detailed information about unemployment rate globally based on some descriptive statistics. According to this visualization, “Youth make up 40% of the world’s unemployed and a youth’s risk of being unemployed was three times higher than that of an adult in 2011”. While youth in developing countries are more likely to be unemployed, youth in developed countries have also been struggling to find jobs and have being forced into part-time jobs. The graph below, which is designed by ‘International Labor Organization’, also shows global youth unemployment rate.

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Figure. Global youth unemployment and unemployment rate, 1991–2012

So, what are the underlying causes behind this increasing unemployment rate? In his article entitled ‘Addressing the Youth Unemployment Crisis in the Middle East’, Jamie Mcauliffe mapped out the reasons behind increasing unemployment rate. Although the article particularly focuses on the Middle East, research results shed light on current global unemployment issue as well. According to Mcauliffe, one of the main reasons stem from “the dearth of work-relevant education and skills”. Many college graduates have a hard time upon their graduation since most of them cannot gain practical skills essential for getting a job in the market. This may result from the fact that college education mostly provides theoretical information rather than focusing on practical applications. Hence, gaining practical skills for college graduates may be difficult.

While the lack of practical skills has a detrimental effect on getting jobs, the lack of soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication also has a negative effect on getting employed. Thus, having both soft skills and practical skills is equally important in the labor market.

A growing consensus is emerging among policy makers who claim that “not only more but better education and training is needed in developing economies”. As International Labor Organization’s report “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012” highlights, it is necessary to address these challenges and take necessary steps in areas such as ‘Macroeconomic and Growth Policies; Active Labor Market Policies and Programmes; Labour Standards and Social Protection for Young People; Social Dialogue and Partnerships for Youth Employment; Supporting Strong Labour Market Information and Analysis Systems’. Active labor market policies such as strengthening close relations between employers and educational institutions, providing skills development programs for younger generations, and addressing skill mismatches can help alleviate unemployment rate to some extent. Besides, only generating jobs would not be enough for a better economy and coping with an increasing unemployment rate. There is also a need to ensure appropriate working conditions for employees and to create a continuous dialogue and partnerships between government and both employers and unions. By contextualizing global youth unemployment in light of these policies, we are more likely to come up with multiple viable solutions for ensuring better labor market prospects.

The Future of Public Education in Kazakhstan

WB

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan began to reform its education system in order to meet the needs of the market economy. Recently, new educational development strategy for the years of 2011-2020 was introduced to further reform the education system in order to meet the needs of the growing economy and European standards in education. Overall, the program relies heavily on the experience of  “developed” countries by diversifying education financing and promoting world standards measured by tests such as TIMMS, PISA, and PIRLS.

The main goal of the program is to develop human capital for sustainable growth of the economy by providing access to quality education. The program states that education should be considered as an investment in knowledge economy. According to the program, growing evidence shows that investments in education have impact on the economic growth of the country. Creating Public Private Partnerships  (PPPs) and new schemes of financing are listed as top goals in order to develop equal access to education for all. Let us take a closer look at the new schemes of financing of public education.

By 2015, per capita funding will be introduced in all educational establishments, which means that funding of schools will depend on the number of students that attend a respective school. What about village schools? Does it mean that some of them might be closed because there will be not enough students?

A proposed new educational savings plan system would supposedly enable families of different socioeconomic backgrounds to afford postsecondary education by letting them save money ahead of time. However, this system builds on the assumption that postsecondary education will be so expensive that you will have to start saving money up to 20 years ahead of time!  While the Minister of Education states that the number of scholarships in universities will increase, the creation of an educational savings plan system raises concerns over the price of higher and professional education in the country.

Attracting private investors in education is said to be of an utmost importance for the future of education and science. It is expected to increase funding of universities by 10 percent by 2014 through PPPs and to integrate education and science through commercialization of science. For the purposes of lifelong learning, employers will be responsible for co-financing education of the employees. The expected outcome of the program is that by 2025 financing of education in Kazakhstan will be similar to the models in the “developed” countries.

The biggest concern is that “Western” education is grossly generalized and overly idealized. There is no evidence that a simple injection of private funds into the public education system would improve the quality of education. Furthermore, privatization of public education is likely to intensify socioeconomic inequities. According to Businessinsider.com, USA is one of the world leaders in spending money on education and its schools are ranked as “average” by international assessment organizations. Moreover, education privatization trends in some “developed” countries also reveal that people with more money may have access to higher quality education. Furthermore, individual private funders – and not necessarily the broader education stakeholder community – have a bigger say in shaping the educational policy as we learnt from the involvement of Melinda and Gates Foundation and Zuckerberg initiatives in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, the strategic plan 2011-2020 did not involve careful critical analysis of “western” educational systems. The content of the program is shockingly similar to the neoliberal policies promoted by the World Bank: education, human capital, and knowledge economy. However, it is not possible to simply borrow educational practices from the US or any other “developed” country and implement them in Kazakhstan due to different political, socio-economic, and cultural contexts. In Education plc: understanding private sector participation in public sector education, Stephen Ball provides an extensive analysis of harmful effects of privatization trends in education that take place in the “developed” world. Moreover, Ball criticizes that the “means/end” logic of education for economic competitiveness is negatively transforming previously complex processes of teaching and learning into a “set of standardised and measurable products.” Education should support students to become responsible citizens, persons with high ethical standards and multifaceted personalities, rather than creating a generation of “test-takers” for the purposes of questionable economic growth.

Educational Rankings and Economic Success: How Clear is the Connection?

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Following the release of the PISA 2009 scores, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said:

The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality, instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership.

Similarly, in this short video advocating for the Common Core Standards, the Hunt Institute makes reference to the U.S.’s PISA rankings and says:

Out students need better knowledge and tools to prepare them to compete in the global economy.

This is not a new argument, nor is it one restricted to the U.S. context. Advocates and detractors of education reform continually make reference to international competition, often using PISA and TIMSS rankings to bolster their argument. They draw an explicit link between these rankings and economic performance.

So, let’s take this argument at face value and test it on it’s own merit.

Using IMF data, here are the ten largest economies as measured by GDP PPP:

  1. United States
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Japan
  5. Germany
  6. Russia
  7. Brazil
  8. United Kingdom
  9. France
  10. Italy

Based on the arguments commonly heard from politicians, interest groups, and in the popular press, we may expect to see a significant overlap between this list and the 2009 PISA rankings. Here are the top ten performing nations and cities from that exam:

  1. Shanghai, China
  2. South Korea
  3. Finland
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Singapore
  6. Canada
  7. New Zealand
  8. Japan
  9. Australia
  10. The Netherlands

One nation appears on both lists: Japan.

Of course, one could argue that education is a lagging variable. That those educated today will not have meaningful participation in the global economy until years later. To test this, let’s look at the 1995 TIMSS 8th grade Math rankings:

  1. Singapore
  2. South Korea
  3. Japan
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Flanders (Belgium used disaggregated data)
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Slovakia
  8. Switzerland
  9. The Netherlands
  10. Slovenia

Again, only Japan appears on this list and the list of largest economies as determined by GDP PPP. Here one could argue that GDP PPP is a simplistic measure that fails to take population into account. As our final exercise, let’s look at GDP PPP per capita:

  1. Luxembourg
  2. Norway
  3. Qatar
  4. Switzerland
  5. Macao SAR, China
  6. Kuwait
  7. Australia
  8. Denmark
  9. Sweden
  10. Canada

This is even more problematic, not one nation (or region in the case of Macao) that ranked in the top ten in 1995 appears on the per capita list.

It should go without saying there are a number of problems with the simplistic analysis used in public policy debates.

For starters, although we often say “Nation so-and-so is ranked Xth in the world,” the reality is that the majority of the nations in the world don’t participate in TIMSS or PISA. Luxembourg, Qatar, and China did not take part in the 1995 TIMSS. We can hardly expect nations that didn’t take the test to appear on our top-performers list. In fact, only 43 nations in the world participated in that exam in 1995. That number has increased over the past eighteen years; sixty-four nations, cities and regions took the most recent PISA exam in 2012. However, we are still working with an incomplete dataset.

In addition, we’re not even using simple linear regression analysis in this blog post. We’re just comparing top-ten lists and looking for commonalities. Scholars studying comparative education know this is an invalid way on measuring the effect of education on economic growth. The link between a nation’s education system and its economy is a complex relationship between two adaptive, emergent systems. A relationship that can’t be measured by comparing GDP and PISA scores. We know this.

However, outside of the universities, think tanks, and multilateral development banks it is a different story. Politicians are not making complex arguments that take many variables into account. They are saying better rankings equals better a economy. President Obama:

It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

The weaknesses in our argument above should serve to reveal the weakness in the president’s argument. Politicians define educational success with league tables and make ill-defined linkages to the nation’s economic rankings every day. Just by looking at the rankings it should be clear that this argument fails to hold up by its own logic.

UPDATE 03-09-13 0554AM – A reader asked why I said “nations” before the PISA rankings with Shanghai taking the top spot. I misspoke, that should have read “nations and cities” and has been fixed. This does point to another problem with the way the league tables are discussed in the popular discourse, as mixing up nation and city results is a common mistake. When the 2009 results were announced, many commentators reported that “China” had top the world rankings. Here’s Time Magazine:

China Beats Out Finland for Top Marks in Education