Changing the Rules of the Game in Ukrainian Education: Democratization, Autonomy, Transparency

Serhiy Kvit, the newly appointed Minister of Education in Ukraine, is committed to creating a new model of Ukrainian education. Having signed the Association agreement with the European Union (EU), Ukraine is writing its history on a blank slate. The state is on the edge of implementing a European education system, which is expected to transform the society. The no-longer-Soviet model will be born in the next 100 days of the operation of the new Ministry.

According to Kvit, the first step of the administration will be to regain trust of the people to the Ministry. In order to fight corruption, the financial audit will be completed and all Ministry’s transactions will automatically appear on the Internet to be accessible to the general public. The role of the state as a guarantor of the quality of education is going to change too. The state is willing to give up all “controlling and repressing” functions and will become the partner of universities. In such a way, the responsibility for education quality will be delegated to the universities by providing them with an autonomous status. All the Ukrainian students that initiated the campaign “Against Degradation of Education” in 2009-2011 and the activists that occupied the Ministry of Education four weeks ago must be enjoying a great sense of accomplishment because one of their main requests – university autonomy – is going to be granted.

The new Ministry officials plan to initiate many more reforms in education. In one of his recent interviews, Kvit argued that “we are living in the global world and there is nothing internal, no internal criteria for education quality, there is only the global market.” According to him, the only thing that matters is whether “we are competitive or not.” This trend is going to change the way the state sees the criteria for the success of universities. The new main criteria of quality will be “the results of scholarly research” as opposed to teaching only. Changing the structure of universities by providing them autonomy will be the first step that will “allow universities to be leaders in global ratings.”

The second step of new reforms is the facilitation of the procedures of recognition and legalization of foreign educational certificates. Today, Ukrainian students with Western education suffer from a humiliating process of recognition that discourages them from coming back home upon completion of programs. As Kvit stated, “if you have a Harvard degree and you come back with it to Ukraine, this is your problem.” Brain drain has been tremendously troubling for the Ukrainian nation.

Now the new Minister has given the students hope. No, he is not going to try and keep talented youth at home. On the contrary, he argued that Ukrainian students should travel more! In order to encourage them to do so, the government will make an emphasis on English language learning. The latter is critical since Ukraine is changing its role model. With the Soviet Union being long gone and “Russian standards of education being doubtful,” from now on Ukraine will compare itself to Western and US universities and strive to achieve Western standards. Kvit does not see student mobility as a threat. Nor does he see Europe or the West as such. He sees them as partners that can provide “a successful model of development” and can teach Ukraine valuable lessons.

The first lesson to be learned from the West is the encouragement of private investments in education by well-off private investors. Once again, Kvit is being realistic when he sees this goal as over-ambitious due to distrust of private contributions reigning in the political culture of the Ukrainian society. In any case, he is willing to take a risk with this long-term agenda.

Ukraine is at the stage of a major political conflict and until it is not solved, education will not be put on the national agenda. However, it is clear that once the political situation stabilizes, the reforms this time will be radical and will mirror multiple globalization trends. What is important now is that having tremendous power to revitalize Ukrainian education, the new administration is running the risk of neglecting the Ukrainian local context when borrowing features of Western education. It seems as if the quality of Western education goes unquestioned by the newly appointed officials. The rhetoric of university autonomy, private investments, English as the compulsory language of instruction, and global ratings sounds like a step forward in the eyes of the proponents of neoliberal reforms.

What about the ones that do not agree with the trends? Is their opinion going to be considered? Are their suggestions going to be dismissed as old-fashioned communist remnants of the past? At this point Kvit is claiming that education is not a business, but the reforms he is suggesting require serious investment that the state does not have. English as the second language is only one example. When asked how children from rural areas are going be taught English in the conditions where the only foreign language taught is Russian, Kvit gives a politically correct response that he is aware of the issue and the state will take care of it. Obviously, he is not expected to provide all the answers. However, the agenda he is setting seems to be dictated by the modern capitalist market economy which Ukraine has not adopted.

Moreover, the proposed plan is so alien to the Ukrainian national context that its implementation may seriously endanger the Ukrainian national education. Some may argue that there is no such thing as “traditional” Ukrainian education in the first place since the latter is equated to the Soviet system. This argument might be reasonable, but it is difficult to question the value of national education that has truly redefined the sense of Ukrainian identity since 1991. With the new market-oriented reforms on the agenda, these achievements would be lost. The citizens brought up by the new system will be global, competitive, and market-oriented. Is this going to be achieved at the cost of losing Ukrainian national identity?

Bilingual Blues

While most college seniors venture to an all-inclusive resort for their last spring break, I decided to take a more rugged approach and backpack through Europe (quite the opposite of all inclusive I might add). It turns out that many people fear the cold of Norway, Ireland, Belgium and Denmark in early March, making it the perfect opportunity to downplay my experience as a tourist. I have never been to Europe before, but I have been to Asia, Africa and South America…not the norm, I’m aware.

In each of the four countries that I visited, I traveled with ease on public transportation, ordered food by speaking in English at restaurants and asked numerous people for directions, simply expecting that they would understand and want to help…and everyone did.

My first trip to Europe made me realize the power of bilingualism, specifically the power of bilingual education. In the European Union there are 24 official languages, and the European Commission has declared a long-term objective to “increase individual multilingualism until every citizen has practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue.” It is clear from my recent visit that the majority of European citizens are bilingual, learning their second language in school starting at a very young age. And it is not enough to say that Europeans are just bilingual – speaking English in addition to a native language seems to be a given, with additional languages taught alongside English.

The story of the United States is very different from that of the EU. The United States federal government has a long history of eradicating bilingual programs in the hopes of “acculturating” or “saving” certain diverse populations. In the mid-19th century, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs established “a series of English-only boarding schools” in attempt to stamp out native Indian languages. In the beginning of the 20th century, anti-German hysteria caused systematic closings of German language schools. Up until the mid-20th century, Mexican-American students in Texas were segregated from white students in schools. And these trends are continuing. Latino students in Hempstead, Texas were recently told that they would be punished for speaking Spanish in class, and that Spanish would be permanently banned at school.

In 1998, Californians voted to pass a measure called Proposition 227 that placed restrictions on bilingual education. The state government was convinced that “California’s language diversity…was a problem to be eradicated, rather than a resource to be developed.” This is a huge issue in California especially where the Latino population is expected to surpass the white population as the single largest ethnic group in the state. This debate continues on in many states. In New Mexico, House Majority Leader Rick Miera sponsored the “State Seal for Bilingual and Bilterate Graduates” act which “certifies that the recipient is proficient for meaningful use in college, career or to meet local community language need in a world language other than English.” New Mexico continues to fight for the rights of multilingual citizens, and is seen as a leader in multilingual education.

Though New Mexico and various other states in the US are making progress towards more intentional bilingual education, the United States still has a long way to go. The majority of US citizens are not bilingual, and are lucky that English is spoken all over the world. To me, this is more than just a language debate – it is also an identity debate. According to NY Times reporter Peter Teffer, foreign languages can foster social inclusion, diversity and intercultural dialogue. The identity that languages form for children and young adults involves interactions in relationships and communities. Especially given our globalizing world, “languages are a crucial asset for mobility and jobs.”

I’m not sure which is worse: taking away the ability for students to speak their native language in schools or not providing all students with a bilingual education from the start. As this debate continues throughout the world, I can only hope that the United States begins to see value in bilingual education, and works to make changes to the education system in order to accommodate these powerful globalizing forces.

Occupy the Ministry of Education: Ukraine on the Path to European Education

Euromaidan has shown the prospect of a new life to all the Ukrainian people. We have witnessed the power of community action and a possibility of a real change. And Ukrainian students are not willing to let this chance slip! On February 21st, around 200 students occupied the Ministry of Education and Science in Kiev. It started with a peaceful protest with the demand of the resignation of the current Minister of Education Dmitro Tabachnik and his deputy Yevgen Sulima – the two government officials routinely criticized by the student protesters during the last few years.

Students’ patience wore out when Minister Tabachnik did not support them standing up for their rights on Maidan and instead commented that  “students have to attend classes in order to receive scholarships, and after 3 pm they are free to do whatever they please.”  When students entered the building of the Ministry in order to start the negotiations in regards to the new candidate for the post of the Minister of Education, the officials began leaving their work places and refused to discuss students’ demands. Irritated by such an attitude, student activists made the decision to stand up for their rights in a more radical way.

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It did not take the students long to tape the office doors, bring in enough food and water to sustain themselves inside the building, and even appoint security people around the Ministry of Education.

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Shortly after, Facebook and Youtube  featured a video in which a student reporter voiced the opinion of the protestors:

“In the past four years we have witnessed incredible increase of corruption, centralization of education, the destruction of autonomy of education institutions, academic environment of Ukrainian intellectual community and the possibility of integration into European environment of higher education and scientific research. We are systemically observing the deterioration of problems in the sphere of welfare of students and teachers. During the administration of this Ministry we have witnessed the decrease of student scholarships, an attempt to increase the GPA for student scholarships in order to not pay them. This is absolutely an anti-social and anti-student policy of the Ministry! Hence, Verkhovna Rada has to consider the resignation of Tabachnik! As of tomorrow, all students will stop giving bribes. Ukraine has to adopt a new and quality European education!”

The deputy Minister of Education Oleksiy Dniprov claimed that such destabilization of the work of the Ministry may cause a delay in paying out the scholarships and salaries of teachers. He also argued that “the demands of the activists, or the ‘students’ as they call themselves, are political, and unfortunately, are out of the competence of the Ministry.” However, the actions of the students had an almost immediate result: Verkhovna Rada has fired Tabachnik – twice. On February 23rd, 236 deputies supported the idea of removing Tabachnik from his post.  The next day, when the second voting process took place due to the suspicion of illegitimacy of the first one, the resignation was supported by 249 deputies.

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This is only the first step. Only one of the demands of the students has been satisfied and they are not willing to give up. Who is going to take Tabachnik’s post?  The students are demanding that the people who will become heads of the Ministry of Education in the new government have to be experts in their professional area, be respected in the academic world both in Ukraine and in Europe, and initiate a reform plan that will be agreed upon by all the interested parties in the Ukrainian system of education.  In addition, activists proposed three candidates for the position of the Education Minister: the president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Serhiy Kvita, the rector of Kyiv Politechnical Institute Mihailo Zgurtovskiy, and a deputy Liliya Grunevich.

The students are not content with the current development of the situation, since the Cabinet of Ministers proposed a new candidate on February 24th – a deputy of the fraction “Svoboda” (eng. “Freedom”) Irina Farion. The students refused to give up the building of the Ministry of Education to Farion because “she has absolutely no skills for or experience in education policy-making and during her work in the Committee on Science and Education she has not taken on any leadership role.”

Now the power to shape the direction in which the Ukrainian education is going to develop belongs to the student activists who will only open the doors of the Ministry to the person who deserves it and who will lead Ukrainian education towards the European standards. Thousands of students are impatient to know who it is going to be.

Vietnam’s stunning PISA results: What they don’t know and what they do know

Only more than two months ago when PISA 2012 scores were officially released, the world once again experienced “the PISA shock.” It is the first time Vietnam has ever participated in this international assessment implemented by the OECD. Worried. Anxious. No high expectations. Then… stunned! Vietnam was among top twenty! Its overall 17th-place ranking out of 65 countries outstripped many more developed economies. A kind of shock!

Many government officials and education experts, both regional and international, generously praised Vietnam for its unexpectedly high scores at the PISA 2012. In the region, some countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia even suggested emulating Vietnam to improve their PISA performance.

Meanwhile, responses from most local media and social networks seemed more discreet. Coupled with happiness and pride, many people responded to the high scores with great skepticism. They became puzzled over the performance that was beyond their expectations.

It was indeed happy to have such incredible scores at an international competition for the first time. Vietnamese people  should be much proud of their high performing 15 year olds, given that the students are educated in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of less than $USD 1,800!

And let’s imagine this scenario – on a beautiful day, teacher delegations from other lower performing countries paid a visit to Vietnam. They wanted to understand “the Vietnam myth.” They would interview a number of key education stakeholders about the reasons for such impressive PISA results. And their interviews would reveal the following answers.

Vietnamese 15 year olds: Oh, we don’t know why. What we did was simply trying our best!

Teachers of 15 year olds: No, it is unlikely our efforts. The recent comprehensive study by Madam Nguyen Thi Binh (former Vice President of Vietnam) shows that teacher quality is alarmingly worrisome. Admittedly, many of us need to seek ways to supplement our low salaries. Yes, we are moonlighting; we are doing other extra jobs. We aren’t committed and dedicated enough to teaching at school. We don’t know why our students got such high results!

Parents of 15 year olds: We were taken aback by the high scores. Our children are attending public schools, which have been long criticized for failing. Schools everywhere are notoriously plagued with many evils: “achievement disease,” extra classes, corruption, degraded moral, low teacher quality… As parents, we constantly set high expectations for our children while finding alternatives to equipping them with knowledge and skills we believe are necessary. We don’t know. Maybe, not sure, the high scores are the result of extra classes!

For many people, the high PISA scores, while adding to the glorious collections of gold medals and prizes of Vietnamese students in international mathematical or physics Olympiads, leave them with more unanswered questions. Why are there many (poor, disadvantaged) students who drop out? Why are students often complained for not being creative, critical, and lacking important soft skills? Why are there many young graduates who fail to get jobs? Why aren’t there many articles written by Vietnamese researchers in international peer-reviewed journals? Why does the economy rely much more on cheap labor than innovations? And why is Vietnam still so poor?

While not providing satisfactory answers to the international teacher delegations regarding the reasons for the high performance in PISA, Vietnam is certain about what it wants for the time ahead. If continuing to join this international competition club, Vietnamese teachers and parents do not want the nation’s education policy to be directed in ways that further promote ‘bad practices’ (exam-driven curriculum, private tutoring, standardized testing, corruption, and others). They will not want to train the children to become test-taking machines without the ability of communication and teamwork. They do not want to sacrifice “cultural and community values” (Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B., 2013, p.116)  and other human development concerns for the meaningless global ranking.

Undeniably, it is hard to avoid competing for rank in a “race,” especially when it is an international competition. It is for the national pride. It is much harder to avoid the backwash effect of the tests. But Vietnamese teachers and parents do hope that “the tail will not wag the dog” and that PISA will not pose negative impacts on the country’s curriculum and teaching. This only takes place when both people and educational leaders acknowledge that PISA is not a perfect indicator. It is not at all a comprehensive measure either. More importantly, when the policy makers are not complacent with the country laurels, it is capable of capitalizing on its strong PISA performance with practical reforms. So whether or not to take PISA again, it does not matter. The most pivotal thing for Vietnam is to concentrate on what really matters to the students.

A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Schools and the Lived Reality of Decentralization

“Let’s get a true, fair funding system of all the schools of Pennsylvania, not for one district or another. It’s not fair right now, OK?” Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s words on January 22 came in response to a new state initiative designed to redistribute state funding for education on the basis of need.

Corbett’s move to support the initiative—thought by some to be an election-season pivot three years overdue—addresses a basic issue in the provision of government education: poor regions have fewer economic resources available to drive their educational systems. Financial inequities follow, and funding from higher levels of government is needed to address the chasm in provision.

Decentralization

The fortunes of urban school districts rise and fall on state funding. Yet, since the 1970s, a globalizing trend toward deemphasizing central government expenditures has created a philosophical tension with what University of Wisconsin-Madison scholar Michael Apple termed the “lived realities of real schools.” Structural adjustment—the economic model of decentralization and privatization (designed to lower taxes and free corporate finance for greater market investment)—results in decreased funding from central governments and greater dependence on local resources.

For most urban public schools, high poverty rates mean that local resources are highly limited, and when decentralization also chokes funding from above, uncomfortable contrasts emerge between urban districts and their suburban counterparts. Those contrasts are stark enough to drive even conservative market idealists like Tom Corbett back into the fold of centralized redistributive practice.

An example from Pennsylvania itself illustrates those contrasts.

Two cities: Philadelphia and North Penn school districts

Philadelphia City School District, Pennsylvania’s largest school district, lies just a few miles away from the suburban North Penn School District. Yet, the short commute from urban to suburban sets the two districts worlds apart.

According to data from the 2010 census, median household income in North Penn School District is twice that of Philadelphia City School District: $72,474 per household in North Penn vs. $36,251 in Philadelphia. With half the median income, Philadelphia’s schools need additional funding if their students are expected to meet the same learning standards.

Public data drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics shows how wealthy suburbs comfortably access regional wealth to leverage higher per-student expenditures in the absence of state spending. Philadelphia, a district whose low-income enrollment stands at 77%, derives 35% of its funding from local revenues (with the remaining shortfall made up by state and federal funding), while North Penn, a district with low-income enrollment of 16%, is able to garner 82% of its budget from local revenues and still invest 12% more per student than the city of Philadelphia. The suburb’s lower overall tax rate combined with a higher median income frees up substantial local funding for education.

Public investment

According to Pennsylvania state data, over the ten-year span of time from 2000 through 2010, Philadelphia was steadily outspent by North Penn by an average of 13% per year:

Philadelphia

North Penn

Difference

2009-10

$13,272

14,821

12%

2008-09

12,449

14,586

17%

2007-08

11,963

14,191

19%

2006-07

11,738

13,731

17%

2005-06

11,491

13,380

16%

2004-05

10,834

11,977

11%

2003-04

10,458

10,983

5%

2002-03

9,299

10,318

11%

2001-02

8,748

9,724

11%

2000-01

8,304

9,237

11%

For teachers dedicating their professional labors to these underfunded schools in Philadelphia’s high-risks neighborhoods, compensation is proportionally lower. Classroom teachers in 2012 earned an average of 10.5% less than their suburban counterparts:

Philadelphia

North Penn

Difference

Elementary teachers

$68,177

$75,840

11%

Secondary teachers

$68,015

$74,934

10%

Test data and The Public School Advantage

Test data between the two districts reflects the financial reality. According to data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, a gap of 25% which stood between proficiency scores between the two districts in 2010 has since broadened to nearly 30%.

2010

2012

Change

Math

Reading

Math

Reading

Math

Reading

North Penn

84.21

72.83

80.56

73.27

(3.65)

0.44

Philadelphia

58.02

49.39

50.60

43.79

(7.42)

(5.60)

North Penn Advantage

26.19

23.44

29.96

29.48

3.77

6.04

Data points such as these make it difficult for urban schools to argue their case. In 2010, with a 12% gap between urban and suburban spending, the gap in proficiency was 25%. Dollar for dollar, outputs in Philadelphia are significantly lower than they are in North Penn.

According to neo-liberal and libertarian “school choice” advocates, public schools are failing because of low-quality instruction, not funding, and the test scores are thought to reflect it. Since it is open knowledge that students in private schools outperform their public school counterparts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) standardized test, why not simply privatize the system? Libertarians, arguing in favor of privatization on the principle that competition drives economy and increases outputs, find support in these test scores.

The problem with this assumption is that the same NAEP data used to make the this case in reality counters it. Private school advocates and University of Illinois professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski stumbled upon an inconvenient truth while working with NAEP data. In their book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, the authors write that, much to their surprise, America’s public schools, after disaggregating the data for the populations they serve, consistently outperform private and charter schools.

While the authors have various theories for explaining what they term “the public school advantage” (and they generally attribute this to teacher quality and public accountability), their findings regarding public sector outperformance seem to refute the school choice movement’s standardized test argument. Although private schools provide healthy alternatives for parents who have concerns unaddressed by public schools, a system-wide public-for-private exchange does not suggest any more promising outcomes. In the end, there is no statistical evidence that privatizing urban education will improve student learning.

“It’s not fair right now, OK?”

Public schooling remains the engine of American education, and that engine will not run without adequate funding. For urban schools saddled with providing quality education in low-income districts, revenues from central government remain of vital importance. In this light, Corbett’s January 22 conclusion on limiting state funding for urban schools is well-founded: “It’s not fair.”

My Thoughts on Improving Education in Cambodia

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The tragedy of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left the Cambodian education in ruins. There is a lot to be done to improve the education system in Cambodia. One day I had a discussion with my friend Gareth Mace who said, “Cambodia needs to establish a good school structure and from there she can expand the structure to all over the country.” I do agree with his idea and I think the government has to have a good plan and work closely with the NGOs to improve education in Cambodia.

One of the NGOs working to improve the education system in Cambodia is “
Caring for Cambodia” (CFC), which has worked to support public schools in the Siem Reap region. Although the “success” of their school model has not been measured yet, some changes are visible such as libraries with thousand books, beautiful classrooms, qualify teachers who receive professional training, and free lunches that are available for all students and teachers. As such, we could assume that CFC schools are better than other government schools that rely on very limited resources. In addition, the dropout rate at CFC schools is 1.70% compared to the national average of 8.70% and student retention rate is 93.82% compared with the national average of 61.20% (CFC newsletter, 2011-2012).

CFC is working continuously to improve the curriculum, teacher quality, as well as school management. For example, CFC provides support for the school structure and management by appointing a qualified Cambodian as a country director. 

CFC has also established a partnership with professional groups in Singapore to work on curriculum development. A teacher training director was appointed to ensure the improvement of the quality of the teachers. Teacher training includes a study tour to Singapore, teacher training by international teachers, in-house trainings, and  workshops. The teacher mentor program was established in order to provide ongoing support for teachers in the classroom and to sustain the capacity building of the teachers.

Furthermore, CFC is providing volunteer opportunities for individuals and institutions around the globe. The volunteering is included in the Education Committee and School Liaison Committee. The Education Committee was set up in Singapore and is responsible for holding the workshops and supporting the Cambodian teachers, as well as developing teaching materials for the Cambodian classrooms. The Education Committee members sometime travel to Siem Reap to provide training for CFC teachers.  I think that these strategies provide a great human resource for CFC to support their teachers without much cost.  The School Liaison Committee is responsible for building a network between CFC and school communities from around the world. The school committee is also responsible for promoting CFC, school tour and fundraising, supply drive, mobilize the resources for CFC, and communication. The School Liaison Committee provides a great support to CFC by addressing the needs of human resources and other resources.

My thoughts regarding the education development plan for Cambodian schools is that CFC could engage and network with other public school in other provinces. The CFC school model – for example the teacher training model, curriculum model, and school management model – should be considered for wider dissemination in other public schools. CFC could also facilitate more internship in other schools. Many of the NGOs that have been supporting Cambodian schools should be cooperated with CFC in order to support to the whole educational system in other public schools in Cambodia. There are many areas in which this collective approach would be beneficial, including networking, partnership, curriculum development, teacher training, school materials, library development, learning technology, data management systems and research programs. More importantly there should be a central board that would monitor each components of the education development, for example curriculum development board, teacher training board, or school management board. The central board should provide guideline to the NGOs and manage their work based on the needs of each individual school. These NGOs should be working together closely and collaboratively to establish a good educational structure such as CFC schools.

Low Teacher Salaries Harm Public Education in Cambodia

Corruption

The Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left the Cambodian education system in ruins. Millions of people were killed, including the majority of educated people, scholars, professors, and teachers. Schools were destroyed, libraries leveled, and books burned. Notwithstanding the efforts by the Cambodian government and international development agencies to rebuild the educational systems since the 1980s, the tragedy of Khmer Rouge continues to haunt public education today.

Teachers have played a central role in the education re-building efforts, yet they remain grossly underpaid. According to official statistics, in 2010-2011 there were 88,133 public school teachers in Cambodia, receiving wages in the range of just $50.00 to $100 per month. With this wage they have to teach a minimum of 16-18 hours per week. According to a Cambodia Independent Teacher Association (CITA) study from 2010-2011, primary school teachers received $50 per month with required teaching of at least 16 hours per week, lower secondary school teachers received $75 per month, and upper secondary school teachers received $100 per month. The study also showed that the wages increased by 120% for the primary teachers, 60% for the lower secondary teachers, and 20% for upper secondary teachers so that they could afford a decent standard of living (for example, basic food cost is placed at least $19.80 per month).

With wages at their current levels, teachers struggle to survive. More than 90% of teachers work second jobs in order to support their families. After school hours, many female teaches often sell snacks and phone cards on school campus, while male teachers work as motorbike taxi drivers or other jobs  in order to supplement their incomes.

One of the main sources of additional income for many teachers is private tutoring.  One student said: “I can’t pass the test if I don’t take a private tutoring class.” In private tutoring, teachers provide answers to the tests in order to attract more students to pay them. Some students have to drop out of school because they are unable to afford tutoring and subsequently fail their exams (IRIN, 2008). From my own experience as a high school student in Cambodia, I had to take private tutoring classes in order to prepare for the mid-term, final, and national exams. Those sessions were not provided in the formal classroom, but through private tutoring.

To prepare for university exams, we needed “special private tutoring,” which was conducted by the teachers who were involved in issuing the exam questions. We often discussed how important it was to take tutoring with particular teachers who had been known to be involved in the college entrance examinations every year. However, I could not afford it. And so couldn’t many other Cambodian students.

Private tutoring is not the only additional income tool for underpaid teachers, however. Teachers involved in college entrance exam and high school exam also earn money by selling question and answer books before the exams. Usually, one day before the exam the books are available for purchase on the streets almost everywhere especially in main cities. Every year before the national exam day, groups of students buy the question and answer books in order to help them during the exam day and, worse still, the students even pay the teachers during the exam so that they can open the books for the answers. This culture is well known by all but it does not seem to change, despite the many negative repercussions for students and wider society as a whole. Who should be leading the change and how?

Because teachers receive low wages, corruption has become the norm and quality education in unaffordable to many students. This raises many questions. In order to provide a better quality of education, should the first priority of government be aimed towards supporting and motivating the teachers? How could communities support the teachers? And, what have UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, and other international agencies done for Cambodian teachers since they began to work in the country?

I am sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, Startup: Education will improve your reputation but not necessarily the lives of children

These days we hear a lot about Zuckerberg’s $100 million foundation Startup: Education, which was established in cooperation with the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker in order to improve student educational success and “champion great teachers.” In fact, this ambitious project aims to reform public education in the United States if testing New Jersey’s waters proves successful.

At its core, the idea is simple. In order to reform public education one can use a simple formula, which will embrace one billionaire and the support of local authorities. Supposedly, by implementing an entrepreneurial approach to education, it is possible to make schools accountable, transform low performing students into high achievers, and improve teachers’ performance. Wait a second. Does it mean that public education cannot be improved from within? Without private investors? What do teachers think about this initiative? What does education research have to offer? Does it imply that if you can donate $100 million, you actually have a say in shaping public education policy? Why is it so?

There is not much transparency about the operation of Startup: Education. In an interview to NJ.com, the Teacher Union President Joe Del Grosso says that he is troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the Facebook donation: “We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money.” Del Grosso insists that “with that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use.” Yet, many teachers, parents, and broader members of the community continue to raise their concerns about the murky conditions under which Startup: Education operates.

Startup: Education is another privatization effort in public education, reflecting the logic of running schools like businesses.  In 2011, for example, a $500,000 grant from the Facebook money was used to attract high-quality principals to the district who were given the authority to staff their schools as they see fit.  According to NJ.com, teachers who did not make the cut were demoted to teacher’s aide jobs or other supporting roles. The funding also went to support the establishment of charter schools and the introduction of merit pay schemes. Not surprisingly, the foundation became quickly implicated in the closure of some public schools and many teacher layoffs on the pretext of ‘low performance delivered.’

However, public education is not a business and should not be managed like a company. While there is no clear answer to the question whether private donations lead to student higher academic achievements, it is crystal clear that in a democratic society, all players – think students, parents, teachers, and local communities – should be involved in the decision-making process regarding public education.

Feel free to like the idea of the Startup: Education, “surprisingly”, on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/startupeducation.

Education: Cost or Quality?

Like most searching for an answer, I started by looking at PISA results and commonalities between high performing nations.

My first search: National Curriculums.

It seemed to work well for Japan and New Zealand but not for the UK and Portugal. Time to look for another explanation.

PISA tries to avoid supporting rote memorization by measuring “How well can students nearing the end of compulsory schooling apply their knowledge to real-life situations?”  So, maybe countries with strong links to high stakes/standardized testing will reveal poor scores.

No dice. Finland and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are at opposing ends of the testing spectrum. Finland has very little standardizing testing and ROK works towards solely standardized testing. PISA shows both countries in the highest echelon on national education. Next.

Maybe countries with the highest spending on education skyrocket the PISA rankings? Nope…another dead end. The USA ranked the fourth highest in public expenditure on primary, secondary and tertiary education per student by the OECD.  Much higher than ALL front runners.

How could this be?

“Currently only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom. Fewer than half of Washington’s 101,700 public school employees are classroom teachers. Spokane Public Schools employs 3,087 people, one for every nine students, but only 41 percent of them are classroom teachers.”

–Washington Policy Center

So, maybe it’s cultural or political?

“Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.

“All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.”

“ All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.”

-Washington Post

Now we’re getting somewhere!

One of the most emphasized points in the Finnish system is the social status of teachers and its impact on education.

The OECD states Finnish teachers hold an extremely high social status and one of the most sought after professions.  Teachers are taken from the top 10% of gradates to earn a masters in education before being able to teach in public schools.

Conversely, consider the U.S. stigma of teaching: “Those you can’t do, teach.” “Easy job, short hours with major vacation time” isn’t the reality. Again in OECD comparisons:

-Finnish teachers are paid substantially lower than their American counterparts.

-U.S. teachers put in 1051 hours of direct teaching with Finland, a mere 550.

In Hidden Markets (2007), Patricia Burch shows the further decline of the status of American teachers showing a cultural shift towards online learning. Public state funds are already being used as an alternative to public schools. In some states it is even possible for virtual schools to hire non-certified and non-full time staff.

To me it needs to be a ‘one problem at a time’ approach. The initial focus needs to be on providing an education as opposed to the cost cutting measures limiting it. The Federal and State governments haven’t mastered the application before attempting to sell it off as a commodity and stripping it of the biggest strengths. Teachers.

U.S. teachers are paid a low salary comparative to other college graduates, are readily being replaced by computers and online classrooms, work longer than teachers in other countries, are forced to submit to standardized testing in a very non standardized environment and with society assuming ‘they have it easy.’

Maybe a consultant will suggest we ‘stop trying and fail for free?!?’

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