Community Colleges in Hong Kong: Are they helpful or harmful?

dilemma

When we mention the term “community college,” most of us will naturally relate it to the North American education system. Surprisingly, the Hong Kong government adopted the idea of community colleges in 2000. As Hong Kong’s education system is deeply based on the British model, introducing community colleges has not only been a dramatic change for educators and students, but also a huge mismatch of expectations among different stakeholders.

In North America, the system of community colleges is very well developed and has a long history. It first started in the early years of the twentieth century to cater to the need of the nation’s expanding industries. Community colleges are seen as important higher education institutions.[1] In addition, they have comprehensive articulation arrangements and credit transfer systems between community colleges and nearby four-year institutions. Therefore, students mostly are able to go on to obtain bachelor’s degrees.[2]

In Hong Kong, following the Annual Policy Address from the Chief Executive Tung Chee-Wah in 2000, the government encouraged establishing community colleges as a part of education reforms and life-long learning. It also aimed to have 60% of the senior secondary school leavers receive tertiary education in ten years.[3] In this context, the industry of community colleges has blossomed.

Eight public universities in Hong Kong, one after another, started setting up community colleges under their umbrellas.  Most of them have been self-financing. In other words, their income has depended heavily on the numbers of enrolled students. The speed of expansion has been incredible.

At the same time, the concept of community colleges has been a brand new idea to the general public in Hong Kong, partially because the education system has been greatly influenced by the UK model where community colleges are non-existent. Moreover, according to the traditional mindset, merely the top 18% of the post-secondary students are qualified to enter the formal tertiary institutions.[4] Those who cannot proceed to the mainstream universities would be considered to be academically inferior. Choosing the path of community colleges in Hong Kong would be one of the alternatives for students to try to find a way out.

The incorporation of the elements of the American education system into the British one triggered many problems. First, naming the Associate Degree Programs from community colleges as “sub-degree programs” would give a very wrong perception, implying the inferior status of the community college program to the bachelor’s degree programs. The notion would be radically different from the North American system, where community colleges have been considered to be a vital part of its higher education system.

Second, when community colleges were first established, all the parents, students, and educators lacked basic confidence in the Associate Degree Programs. They were unaware of where these diplomas would lead students to. Moreover, the idea of community colleges has not gained recognition from employers who received education in previous decades and had no concept of community colleges.  In other words, community colleges created much uncertainty in the society.

Third, as most of the community colleges are self-financed, they appear to use this opportunity to make education a business. Community colleges thus become one example of commercializing education. The more students community colleges enroll, the more profit they earn. In 2012, Lingnan Institute of Further Education and the Community College of Lingnan University admitted 5,300 new students, three times more than the previous year. Among other problems, there were reports of lacking chairs in classrooms.[5] This case caught the attention of the public, leading to the investigation by the Legislative Council. More importantly, however, it shook the foundation of trust in education quality in Hong Kong.

Fourth, an ongoing opening of new community colleges has led to over expansion. A total number of full-time accredited self-financing post-secondary programs jumped from 41 in the 2001/2002 academic year to 199 in the 2004/2005 academic year.[6]  It contributed to over supply of post-secondary degrees in Hong Kong, putting the quality of education into question.

Last but not least, the link between community colleges and universities have not been clearly established. Most of the students from community colleges who attempted to transfer into universities have failed to get admission to local tertiary institutions owing to fierce competition and highly selective admission conditions.[7] Even though some overseas universities have recognized the diplomas issued by community colleges in Hong Kong, a large percentage of local students could not afford paying the tuition fee and living expenses. Unfortunately, this group of students would end up facing a dilemma. They could neither have good jobs from employers nor gain access to bachelor’s degree programs.

Clearly, the community college system in Hong Kong needs a complete re-evaluation. Although the government would like to have almost everyone to receive post-secondary education, the solution of the community colleges has generated more difficulties.  The implementation of the community colleges in Hong Kong not only failed to capture the essence of the North American community college system, but also has revealed the shortsighted weakness of the HKSAR government.


[1] Yung, Man Sing (2005). Globalization and sustainability of the community college in the Asia-Pacific region: the case of Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 4,

[2] Brawer, F., Cohen, A. & Kisker, C. (2013). The American Community College, 6th ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

[3] Yung, Man Sing (2002). Community College: A new born baby of the Hong Kong education system for the new millennium. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 1, 22.

[4] Time Out Group Limited (2013, August 27). Hong Kong’s growing shortage of university places. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://www.timeout.com.hk/big-smog/features/60578/hong-kongs-growing-shortage-of-university-places.html

[5] Chong, Dennis (2012, October 17). Lingnan students warn burgeoning numbers threaten education quality. South China Morning Post. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1062640/lingnan-students-warn-burgeoning-numbers-threaten-education-quality

6 Yung, Man Sing (2005). Globalization and sustainability of the community college in the Asia-Pacific region: the case of Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 4. 

7 Yung, Man Sing (2002). Community College: A new born baby of the Hong Kong education system for the new millennium. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 1, 22.

Advertisements

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.

blog photo 1

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.

blog photo 2

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.

blog photo3

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.

Education Reforms in Hong Kong: Which way will they go?

1st blog cartoon

Hong Kong, where I grew up, is a fascinating place due to its British colonial history and its geographic location adjacent to Mainland China. I did not realize it until I left the region to observe it from a different perspective. Unavoidably, the education system has been greatly influenced by the changing governance from British to Chinese influence since 1997. In this mega city, nobody has been able to escape the sweeping tide of political transition, including the turmoil and challenges faced by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in implementing new policies. Hong Kong history perfectly exemplifies policy borrowing from England and then from China in its education system.

British government never failed to impose its systems on the (former) colonies. After a 100 years of British rule, which resulted in Hong Kong’s transformation from a small fishing village to a metropolitan city, it is not hard to find traces of British culture in every corner of this city, including double-deck buses, or exactly the same street names as those in England, and even the concept of an afternoon tea time. Politically, it has a legislative system similar to parliament, a Chief Secretary to run a wide ranging bureaucracy, and Minister working as an Executive Council under a Chief Execute. Besides political and cultural influences, the British introduced major reforms in the education system as the most effective way to instill British values in the next generation. Therefore, all students are required to learn English from the age of three in kindergarten.

Using English as a medium of instruction may have been a plus, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be linguistically competent in both the East and the West. It has also pleased Chinese parents so much. For previous generations, good quality education was not accessible until the British government executed nine-year compulsory education in 1978. We cannot forget that the parental influence on children in Chinese culture can affect the life of the next generation. Parents strongly believe that their children (especially with good English language skills) could lead them to flourishing lives, not only at schools but also along their career paths.

In addition, Hong Kong used to have the educational structures greatly modeled on those of the United Kingdom, including six years of primary school, seven years of secondary school, with three years of tertiary education for those who could succeed in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination.

Before the handover of sovereignty in 1997, China and Great Britain agreed that Hong Kong would follow “One Country, Two Systems,” i.e. that it would remain unchanged for 50 years and that during this period Hong Kong would gradually converge with the Mainland.  This policy was issued by Deng Xiaoping, the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for the reunification of China during the early 1980s. It simply meant Hong Kong could retain its distinct identity, political system, and strengths as an international business, financial, shipping, and aviation centre, while the rest of China would continue to align with the socialist system.[1]

However, this agreement did not prevent the Chinese government from wiping the colonial influence in Hong Kong.  Since Tung Chee-hwa, the first HKSAR Chief Executive, started his term, the education system has undergone constant reforms.

Since the post-colonial period, changing the medium of instruction in secondary schools has been one of the most controversial policies in Hong Kong’s education. Prior to the 1970s, English was still the only official language, which earned a supreme status in people’s mind.[2] English was the language of government, education, academia, and law. It was always considered an elite language. This mindset has been implanted for generations.

In April 1997, three months before the handover, HKSAR government published a document regarding compulsory Chinese medium instruction policy. It suggested that using mother tongue would help students understand education content more thoroughly. On the contrary, many students, parents, and the schools held opposite ideas and protested against it. In September 2007, the government stepped back to give more freedom to schools to be exempt from this policy.[3] As a result, only 25% of the secondary schools were approved to continue EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) education, whereas the rest of the secondary schools must use CMI (Chinese as a Medium of Instruction) in teaching most subjects except English.[4] This shift made Hong Kong citizens realize the political nature of the education reform.

Furthermore, the new language policy required teachers to enhance their language proficiency. Thus, there was an emergence of Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers in 2008 to mainly assess the Mandarin and English skills. In 2009, there was a new curriculum introduced at senior secondary level, Liberal Studies. This subject has been a great challenge to Hong Kong students who did not get much training in critical thinking in the old education system. In the same year, another dramatic reform was the application of the Chinese educational system, which followed the American model of “three-three-four” (middle school-high school-tertiary education). This has affected all levels of local students and educators. It has also meant getting rid of the British structure. Students would end up having one public examination, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE), instead of taking two that were mentioned earlier. The most controversial area was the introduction of civic education in 2012, which caused a series of radical protests initiated by political parties and youth.

Changing language policy in education was only the first wave of reforms that the HKSAR government has initiated to decrease the British influence over the years. The reactions of parents, students, and educators have been very strong, reflecting not only the deep-rooted mindset about the privileged status of English in this city, but also the achievement of British rule over the citizens during its colonial period. The entire reform movement generates more societal instability, which inevitably lowers the confidence of parents in the local schools.


[1] GovHK (2013). Government. Retrieved from http://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/facts.htm

[2] Poon, Anita (2004). Language Policy in Hong Kong: Its Impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong. Journal of Taiwan Normal University, 49. Retrieved from  http://www.ord.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnuj/j49/j491-13.pdf

[3]  Poon, Anita (2004). Language Policy in Hong Kong: Its Impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong. Journal of Taiwan Normal University, 49. Retrieved from  http://www.ord.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnuj/j49/j491-13.pdf

[4] Shiwen, Pan (2000). Hong Kong’s Bilingual Past and Present. Hong Kong Institute of Education. Retrieved from http://www.uri.edu/iaics/content/2000v10n1/08%20Pan%20Shiwen.pdf

“Bolonka for Sovok:” Panacea or Catastrophe?

“Russian Gambit,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “From Mirror-World,” “Irrelevant Offer,” “Creativity or Cretinism,” “Bologna Sauce,” “Bologna Mafia,” “Bologna creates puppets,” “ “Caste system,” and, finally, “Bolonka for Sovok” (“Bolonka” is a Russian slang for Bologna and “Sovok” is a slang term for the USSR)…  These titles crowded the Internet in 2003 when the Russian higher education system lost to the Anglo-Saxon one as a result of the imposed “panacea” from the “more civilized” systems—the well-known Bologna system.  The question is: was this widest and most comprehensive reform in European Higher Education history in fact a panacea or a catastrophe for the post-Soviet countries?

01

The blindfolded teachers thrown into the pit of the unknown after decades of well-functioning Soviet education system and the students unaware of the meaning of dozens of new terms and notions were expected to rapidly get a grasp of the reform, but many failed to embrace it. School administrators who were used to preach collective values were now forced to adjust to individualized learning and the promotion of commercial values. They did not turn out to be the strongest supporters of the reform either.  Being a witness (and fortunately not a victim) of the Bologna reform myself, I would gladly hold a poster “Rich parents-for everyone” together with hundreds of students across Europe protesting against detrimental consequences of the Bologna system in 2005.

The European Integration to Higher Education (2005) reports three major reasons for post-Soviet countries joining the Bologna process: international academic mobility, emerging knowledge economy, and changing patterns of power and influence.

By all means, international academic mobility is critical. Post-Soviet nations cannot exist outside of the information age. The Soviet Union has been participating in international exchanges since the 1960s. In 1991, there were more than 102 thousand foreign students in Soviet universities, and the number of international students coming from former Soviet Union countries grew by 40% in the year 1993 alone. Currently, there number of post-Soviet students studying abroad is rapidly growing. The opportunity to receive a foreign diploma is primarily granted to them by various exchange programs, such as FLEX, Global UGRAD, Muskie, Fulbright, and others.

When the Bologna declaration was initially signed by 29 European ministers in 1999, one of the core declared objectives was to remove the obstacles to student mobility across Europe, and more broadly support the mobility of students, teachers, and researchers. Without offering “a full ride” like the above exchange programs, Bologna pushed national education systems of post-Soviet countries from equality to elitism. Now, the unique opportunity to have one’s degree recognized by European institutions is accompanied by the need for the students to cover the cost of education on their own.  I wonder how many post-Soviet students can afford European education considering that the average PPP per capita in post-Soviet states is US$10,450 as of the year 2012. Moreover, how many of them will actually travel to Europe to study and not choose their itinerary for touristic purposes? Sociologists are pessimistic in their assessment.

35abfc33ff74b8c159fcd4e92323219c7cb56bb6

The second reason for joining the Bologna process was the fact that knowledge has become the major factor of production giving the highest return for investment. According to the policy-makers, a different (neoliberal) approach promises to give a “common European answer to common European problems.” There is little doubt that the Bologna system can meet the challenges that Europe is facing. However, projected on the post-Soviet space, it can only result in the degradation of education rather than progress. The famous “Sputnik moment” of 1957 showed the strength of the Soviet education, which the whole world recognized.  Before the beginning of the 21st century, the Soviet values in education that brought the Union to the highest level of success remained stable: collective work, relatively distant relationships between a student and a teacher, thorough approach to the selection of material.

New reforms changed the core of the process of knowledge acquisition. They promoted deep individualization of student learning supported by the credit system and the ability of a student to calculate credit hours and shape his or her schedule on an individual basis. In this context, every student’s “knowledge database” started to look like a puzzle where the pieces having no logical connection were not chosen by a professional educator. Since the new aim of education became score accumulation, most students would happily follow the path of least resistance with class choice. The credit in the section “Ancient history” could easily be satisfied with a class “Coins of Khan Dynasty” and nothing outside of it. Exciting? Yes, but one might argue the practical significance of the choice. What students also witnessed was impersonalization of educational services that fit into the scheme “buy-sell” and were completely alien for post-Soviet mentality.

images (1)

Finally, post-Soviet countries are expected to react to the shift from “hard power” (territory, military, natural resources) to “soft power” (competitive economy and pro-active diplomacy.) Bologna presented a chance to capitalize on “the countries’ most precious national resource – human capital.  The existence of competitive economy is based on the principles of transparency, decentralization, and accountability. None of the above components currently exist in the majority of post-Soviet states. Education at all levels is plagued with bribery (only in Russia citizens pay up to US$520 million in bribes annually, according to International Higher Education journal). Centralized management and ineffective bureaucratic practices added to the massive corruption do not represent a favorable environment to the success of the offered shift.

I am not writing this blog to argue for preserving the Soviet education system intact. Nor am I denying the presence of positive aspects of the Bologna reform, such as the possibility granted to the “chosen ones” to receive quality European education. However, many problems persist.  Reforms are indeed due, but they have to be realistic, meaningful, timely, and well-planned. Post-Soviet space should not jeopardize national educational traditions in the interest of modernization. The last thing that post-Soviet students and educators need is a fairy tale of academic success that is not only outside of their reach, but also outside of their value system.

 

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.

Politics, Gender and Education in Afghanistan

afgh.schoolLack of educational opportunity for Afghans, especially Afghan girls, has been a highly controversial topic that has been used as a tool to serve political agendas for both the Western powers and the Taliban. For the US and its allies, bringing education to children—and especially girls—became a propaganda tool to partly justify invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. For the Taliban, education has been seen more as a detested mechanism of Westernization and secularization of Afghan children. Taliban members in Afghanistan and Pakistan have fought it every step of the way, going so far as attempting to assassinate teenage activist Malala Yousafzai as she was returning home from school.

According to official (bipartisan) party line, one of the main reasons for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was the Taliban’s mistreatment of women’s rights. Anyone watching or reading the news could not avoid the harsh images of Afghan women in full burqa being shot in a soccer stadium full of men. Girls not being able to attend school and many other violations of human rights were used to justify the war. During the rule of the Taliban, “young girls were forbidden to enter educational institutions after the age of eight” and anyone breaking this rule risked severe punishment or even execution. One would have thought the Western occupation of the country would be an improvement. And yet thirteen years later there isn’t much real improvement for the girls and women of Afghanistan.

The new constitution under Karzai’s regime states that men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law.” Implementing this progressive policy has not been the government’s priority, however. On many occasions Afghan girls have had acid thrown on their faces while they were on their way to school. This isn’t an isolated incident of violence towards children. As was mentioned above, “girls can go to school, but school buildings are unsafe and there are severe shortages of teachers, facilities and equipment. The new constitution guarantees women equal rights. However, continuing religious and cultural conservatism and a dangerous security environment are real obstacles to women’s participation in the economy, politics and society.”

Many promises were made by the Bush administration regarding support of education. On a visit to Kabul, Mrs. Bush promised millions of dollars and a long term commitment to education for Afghan women but unfortunately this “was not for Afghan public education (or women and children) at all, but to establish a brand-new, private, for-profit American University of Afghanistan catering to the Afghan and international elite.” The former finance minister and president of Kabul University stated: “You cannot support private education and ignore public education.” The aid money is given to American private contractors who have no real stake in education for the average Afghan but rather making a profit.

The Western media sensationalizes a young girl shot fighting for her right to education and assumes moral high ground— then at the same time the US government uses drones to kill these children. The Taliban, on the other hand, connects girls’ education, learning and knowledge, to westernization—as siding with the invaders and occupiers—thus feeling justified to kill and maim.

As Matthew Snow so eloquently states regarding Malala:

When the world should have viewed her as a child, they made her a symbol. Rather than caution her on diplomacy, the world encouraged her brazen outcries. Rather than protect her, the world exalted her. And when she thought the world was with her, the world made her a martyr. Now, as she recovers from nearly fatal gunshot wound that ripped through the throat that pushed so many strong words and cracked the skull that housed the mind she treasured above all her possessions, the world explains away their moral culpability and their complicity in the machine that nearly killed Malala Yousefzai.

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Restructuring of Schools

Image

As I am about to graduate from a private American university, I wanted to reflect on my motivations for coming to the US to study, in the first place. Five years ago when I moved here from Lithuania, I was seeking quality higher education and personal growth through immersing myself into the American college experience. Five years ago, I was running away from what I perceived to be a chaotic and uncertain situation in Lithuania’s educational system.

In the post-soviet period (starting in 1991), the Lithuanian educational system – along with most other spheres of life in the country – began long and fundamental reforms to reorient the country away from the failing Soviet ideas of communism to the Western ideas of democracy and capitalism. The most obvious western influences were coming from Lithuania’s desire to join the European Union (EU), which required Lithuania to fulfill specific European standards in healthcare, human rights, and economy, among other requirements. Most of the reforms, including the ones in the educational system, were directly related to these requirements. In retrospect, as a student who emigrated from Lithuania, I cannot help but wonder whether my country is just jumping from one ideological system – the communist one – to a new one – the neoliberal system – while constantly being influenced by some greater world powers. In my blogs, I will take a closer look at some of the educational reforms in newly independent Lithuania ranging from school restructuring and school financing through student vouchers to anti-LGBT amendments to the “Law on the Protection of Minors.”

I will start by reflecting on the chaos of the educational reforms that were referred to as “restructuring”.

Because I was born only a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was basically part of the first generation of students to go through the educational system of newly independent Lithuania. I would always hear comparisons from my sister – who is twelve years older than me and went through the educational system of Soviet Lithuania – about how she used to receive grades on a 5-point scale instead of the newly established 10-point scale, or how everyone had to learn Russian as their one mandatory foreign language.

Image

Russian was not even available in the schools that I attended and English has been my foreign language since first grade. It is hard for me to make comparisons of specific curricular or organizational details based only on the stories of others who experienced the Soviet educational system, yet I can still recall the great fuss of school restructuring through personal experience. These “restructuring” reforms were happening right before Lithuania finally joined the EU in 2004. In the case of my sister’s school, the official restructuring from a Soviet educational system to a Lithuanian one occurred at the start of the 1998 school year, which was my sister’s last year of school: back in the Soviet system, this would have been her 11th year, but with the new educational structure she was among the cohort that had to complete a newly added 12th year. So from the Soviet educational system of 11 grades Lithuania transitioned to the system of 12 grades – more similar to western models.

Image

I later attended this same school that was being restructured once again: from being a middle school (serving grades 5 through 8) it suddenly turned into a “general” school (serving grades 1 through 10) and even switched facilities with a different school – all of this in 2002. This whole new type of “general” schools was supposed to serve the students who wished to complete only the 10 mandatory years of education in Lithuania. The duration and definition of “primary”, “middle”, and “high” schools were also shifted around, in addition to the establishment of such new categories of schools as “general” schools or “gymnasiums.” In the near future, these “general” schools will be restructured yet again into “pro-gymnasiums.” I know – confusing! All sorts of complicated and chaotic things were changing that I did not understand (or care for) at the time, but all the moving of classrooms, students, and teachers was quite unsettling and discomforting for a student that should only be focusing on doing well in school. All of this was part of great educational reforms to establish a western Lithuanian educational system that have not stopped ever since.

Currently, many teachers, teacher union activists, and school administrators are disheartened by the unending reforms. Shortly after the economic upswing of having joined the EU, the problems of the educational reforms have been brought back up by the lingering effects of the global economic crisis. Teachers are being fired as student numbers dwindle, schools are being closed or merged (especially in rural areas), and administrators are fighting for funding in the shape of student vouchers. The neoliberal educational policies of Lithuania’s ministry of Science and Education that are introducing competition through “increased financial independence,” decentralized management of school funds, and freedom of school choice are causing chaos in the education system.

Perhaps competition in the spirit of neoliberalism is not very helpful in such a vital field of human life as education. Perhaps it is disruptive and discomforting for students to constantly have to adapt to new educational policies: after all, any educator knows that students need safe and stable environments to grow, develop, and learn. Perhaps that is why some Lithuanians silently and melancholically remember the stability of the Soviet era where everything – not just education – was much more certain and unchangeable, albeit it was also imposed on them against their will… Now, at least, there is freedom to discuss and debate education policies and choices. Similarly, the joy of their students’ achievements and the responsibility for any problems, too, are all dependent on what direction Lithuania decides to develop. The question is whether the global neoliberal experiment in education is the right direction for Lithuania.

My Thoughts on Improving Education in Cambodia

Image

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.

The Current Debate on Universal Preschool in the U.S.

head start

It’s a common philosophy that, to fix the issues of the world, the world needs to invest in its youth, as they are the future. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he announced his plan to push for universal preschool across the US. He proposes $75 billion be spent on universal preschool in the next 10 years, through his 2014 budget that has yet to pass through congress. It calls for an almost 100% increase in cigarette tax to pay for the program.

This additional preschool funding would be in addition to the 50 year-old Head Start program. The Head Start program is a federally funded preschool program aimed at serving the children of low-income families. Its annual budget is around $8 billion; a majority spent directly on services and is primarily run through local nonprofit organizations. It was started in 1965 under the Johnson administration as part of the Great Society campaign, which was aimed at eliminating poverty and racial inequalities. Most of the children who are in Head Start range between the ages of three and five. Early Head Start is also offered for infants and toddlers.

The research done on the effectiveness of the Head Start program, and other high quality preschool programs, is very mixed. It’s often the private organizations that claim the effects of a quality preschool program wear off within a few years, while academics, on the other hand, believe there are many long-term effects that cannot be seen right away. James Heckmen, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, researches the disparities in achievement between children with low and high socioeconomic backgrounds. According to New York Times, his research “confirms that investment in the early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road. It improves not only their cognitive abilities but also crucial behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem. Yet, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the government spends three times the amount on higher education as it does on preschool. Recently, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart exposed some of the bias hidden behind the research “findings.”

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-march-6-2013/kindergarten-stop

JaneErvin

Jane Ervin is the current president and CEO of Community Services for Children, the nonprofit that runs the very successful Head Start program of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. In a recent conversation, she expressed her view of the public opinions on preschool and Obama’s plan. She believes that people are not interested in paying for children in poverty because it’s not their responsibility to help the teenage mothers or the illegal immigrants. What they do not understand is that these children will grow up and keep contributing to the culture of poverty rather than contributors to society. People are not brave enough to step up and fix the problems knowing the results will become visible in 15 or 20 years. Politicians won’t focus on it because there are so many other things that affect people’s lives. This has a negative impact on children and families who are out of sight, and therefore out of mind. It’s difficult to get people to care about children’s education when the economy is under attack. Jane believes everything will come down to the practicality of funding and ability to convince others of the importance of preschool education.

I think that Jane may be right. As we continue to compete with each other, we become only concerned with the things we have and the money we make. We are no longer concerned with those who fall behind and cannot pick themselves back up. And the gap is increasing. Jane reported that 26% of children are currently living in poverty in the Lehigh Valley. When she started at Community Services for Children six years ago, it was 20%. With the world’s population growing as rapidly as it is, we can no longer afford to not invest in our youth.

More to come in my next blog, on my talk with Jane Ervin!

Nevada: A Case Study in Crisis?

Image Image

Crisis.” It’s at once the most used, abused, tossed-off, throw-on, and bandied-about buzzword in our collective hysteria over the state of American education these days. It’s the short-but-sick pabulum for everyone from Christian Conservatives prophesying the day we’ll all be pledging allegiance to Charles Darwin to stuffy policy wonks fretting over our ostensibly dismal PISA scores (“Estonia scored better than us! Really! Estonia!”). And so but while I’m generally cautious about the use of this term, this catch-all diagnosis for the big, impossibly complex and interconnected dynamics of 21st century education, I’m leaning toward using it – as most Nevadans are inclined to do – when it comes to describing the quagmire that is the state’s educational situation, particularly Clark County’s (Las Vegas).

Amongst the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Nevada ranks only above D.C. in high school graduation rate – i.e. it’s basically dead last (for whatever reason, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Idaho haven’t reported recent data). Similarly, with a deficit-ridden state budget, Nevada ranks near the bottom in per-pupil K-12 expenditure, outspending only UT, ID, OK, AZ, MS, and TN. In 2011, citing his conviction to not raise taxes during a time of economic strife, Nevada Governor Sandoval vetoed Assembly Bill 568, a plan that would have effectively raised education spending by $660 million. In January of this year, just ahead of the currently in-progress legislative assembly[1] Gov. Sandoval’s 2013 budget plan for the recently commenced legislative session directs some of Nevada’s increased tax revenue to education, but, citing the costs of the Affordable Care Act, it more or less “maintain[s] the existing expenditure levels.” Nevada state democrats have argued that Sandoval’s budget continues to woefully underfund a struggling school system by some 300 odd million dollars. (You can check out the budget’s education spending in detail here.)

Budget holes aside, there are other indicators of the Nevada education mess. Last week, after only a year on the job, Nevada’s state superintendent of education, James Guthrie, unexpectedly resigned. Hand-picked by Gov. Brian Sandoval, Guthrie, most recently a senior fellow of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, was considered by many to be an odd and potentially controversial choice for the state’s highest education job. More of an academic (or “educational entrepreneur” as described in the video below) than an experienced educator, having taught/worked at prestigious education schools such as Vanderbilt and UC Berkeley, Guthrie was in step with Sandoval in downplaying the need for educational funding by championing charter schools and strict accountability regimes designed to expunge/penalize underperforming teachers.

Most significantly, Guthrie almost immediately drew the ire of Democratic legislatures and K-12 educators across the state by insisting that class size doesn’t have a significant impact on educational outcomes. To make matters worse, only shortly before Guthrie’s surprise resignation[2], Dwight Jones, the superintendent of Clark County public schools abruptly resigned as well, citing the need to take care of his ailing mother in Dallas.

At the moment the education system of Nevada, including Clark County, the country’s fifth largest district, is attempting to mend the wound of its dismal graduation rate, one of the country’s worst, while it faces a budget short fall of millions of dollars, leading to well below-average per pupil expenditure, teacher wage freezes, staff layoffs, and cuts to programs such as teacher healthcare and English as a Second Language courses. Worse yet, it’s attempting to do so in a leadership vacuum, with figures like Dwight Jones and James Guthrie coming in one day and going out the other. All this in a state that was one of the hardest hit by the economic downtown of recent years. Nevada ranks high in the number of households underwater and foreclosed upon. And, oh yeah, with an unemployment rate of 9.6%, Nevada, tied with California and Mississippi, ranks dead last among the 50 states in this crucial category.

Originally, I wanted to write a post about something much more specific – a proposed bill to shift the governance of Nevada community colleges from the Nevada System of Higher Education to the state Dept. of Education, effectively instituting a K-14, high school to community college feeder system. But before laying out the particularities of that, I couldn’t help but give a sketch of the Nevada state of education in general, some needed context, a report from the field. And that sketch turned it this – an assessment and argument for what many think is a true American education “crisis.”

Above are the facts – and actually only the faintest sketch. Undoubtedly, the reasons for Nevada’s educational struggles are complicated and interconnected with the peculiar social and economic realities of the state: a high number of poor people, many of them immigrants, and the monoculture economy of the gaming industry, which engenders its own set of particular incentives for the state’s young people and their families to eschew educational success (i.e. you can make a decent wage working in the gaming industry with very little education). But so the necessary follow-up question thus (and what will perhaps be the substance of some more content on this blog) is how and with what policy choices are the beleaguered residents of the sagebrush state attempting to respond to their educational “crisis” – with fist-on-table pounding insistence or, a la Professor Guthrie, with resignation?


[1] Nevada is one of only six states in which the legislative body meets only every two years (on the odd numbered years). Maybe that’s part of Nevada’s political/bureaucratic gridlock (although the state’s libertarian vein would argue the opposite). I don’t know, just saying …

[2] There is some speculation that heat from Democrats in the legislature prompted Sandoval to pressure Guthrie for his resignation.