Beware of American education “solutions”! Reflecting on the applicability of Diane Ravitch’s ideas in the Latin American context

When Diane Ravitch came to Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having read her book, The Death and life of the great American school system, the week prior to her arrival, I was sure that she would touch upon three hot topics: charter schools, the voucher system, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Her writing style was both understandable and captivating, and I was sure that her in-person speech would be no different. However, the level of passion and ferocity with which she delivered her speech nothing short of shocked me. Diane Ravitch blended humor and gusto with her scholarly work and decades of experience, and I would describe her as nothing short of revolutionary. Ravitch excited and enthused the crowd, providing not only statistics and research regarding the current state of American education, but also suggestions for positive change.

The point that struck me most in Ravitch’s entire “debate” (which was essentially a solo performance, as her opposition did not attend) was her claim that poverty is the cause of poor education. She informed the audience that the United States has one of the highest, if not the very highest, level of child poverty of any developed country. The US education system, in turn, is failing these impoverished children because options such as charter schools are luring away the most motivated students and most creative teachers away from public schools. Though impoverished families are technically given equal opportunity to send their children to specialized or nontraditional schools, they frequently must provide transportation to this, say, charter school which is likely to be further from their homes. Ravitch cites this segregation – the encouragement of creative, motivated students from financially stable families to attend schools other than their local public school – as the partner to poverty in destroying the public school system. While the intentions of charter schools are noble and aim to provide healthy competition, they essentially leave behind the less motivated and less fortunate students in this supposed era of No Child Left Behind.

Because I am extremely passionate about Latin America, I tried to put some of Ravitch’s debate points into a Latin American context. First, I extended her claim that poverty causes poor education in the afflicted individuals to a national context. A Figure below from a World Bank statement on Latin America’s situation relative to the rest of the globe expresses how countries’ GDP relates to the investment in higher education; these two variables are shown to have an obvious positive correlation. Every single Latin American country included in the Figure (Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina) was not only at the bottom half countries in regards to GDP, but also in regards to money spent on higher education. These seven countries constitute 90% of Latin America’s population as a whole and therefore these statistics are representative of the entire region (The World Banks, 2005, p. 341). Paraguay, Peru, and Colombia have the lowest GDP and lowest investment in higher education of all the countries studied. This expands Ravitch’s point that impoverished people and impoverished countries are at a disadvantage when it comes to education. Because these Latin American countries have limited financial capital to invest in higher education, a large portion of their populations will not have the opportunity of pursuing a degree in higher education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and undereducated youth.

As I mentioned, Ravitch closed her “debate” with suggestions for positive change in the American school system, from which Latin America would certainly also benefit. Two of these suggestions very directly address the recurring issue of poverty inherent in the school system. Interestingly, her very first suggestion to improve public education was to provide and improve upon prenatal care because poor women do not receive it, which leads to increased likelihood of disabilities among their children, giving them an additional disadvantage to their already impoverished background. Another suggestion she offered was broader and entailed reducing the toxic combination of segregation and poverty. She offers plenty of other suggestions such as reducing class size, promoting a well-rounded curriculum, increasing teacher standards, and decreasing standardized testing, but the most relevant suggestions for the Latin American context, according to the World Bank data, were those involving the provision of resources for impoverished families, as those would benefit a large portion of those countries’ populations. The applicability and pertinence of Diane Ravitch’s entire lecture, and her entire book for that matter, shows its relevance not only in an American context, but in a global context. As curriculum and education practices are being borrowed and lent from country to country, these problems will also prove to be transferrable, as well as the solutions Ravitch proposed. I think it would be opportune for educators in foreign countries, especially those trying to emulate the American or Western school system, to be aware of the points Ravitch makes in order to prepare for the effects of its implementation.

income figure

 

References

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

Advertisements

From Afghanistan to the United States in search for “Best Practices” that don’t exist

Attending the education activist Diane Ravitch’s talk was an eye-opening experience for me. Before coming to the United States, I thought that I would learn “best practices” and “policies” from the U.S. education system and try to implement them in Afghanistan to solve some of education problems Afghanistan faces. However, I was not well aware of the drastic problems within the school reform in the U.S.

Ravitch’s talk flagged many problems with the U.S current education. In her talk, she engaged the audience in a marvelous imaginary debate with a school reformer. The reformer argued that public schools are failing, because they are not doing well on standardized tests. The reformer also emphasized that, since the test scores are declining, drastic measures are needed to save the nation and make it more competitive in a global economy.  Reformer further stated that teacher should be held accountable for student failures on standardized tests. If students do not perform well, according to reformer, the solution is to fire teachers. Ravitch raised a question, why shouldn’t teachers have a job for life?  Because firing teachers will not solve problems facing the field of education.

Ravitch’s counter arguments were very convincing.  In her talk, as well as in her book ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’, Ravitch argues that standardized testing has led school districts to narrow down the curriculum. Therefore, some subjects (such as art or history) are not perceived as important as math and science that dominate standardized tests. As Ravitch’s stated in her speech, this leads to more problems. Since students are more exposed to math and science rather than liberal arts courses, the system makes students more clerk-minded. While student may not know who the president was during the Civil War, they would know well how to eliminate answers on a multiple-choice test. Education thus becomes equated with either passing or failing the standardized test.

However, if students are failing the standardized tests, it’s not because teachers are not performing well. If the system insists on evaluating the teachers based on students’ standardized testing, why not use the same standard to evaluate lawyers? State legislators? Members of Congress? Governors? Why would they blame teachers for the failure of students instead of looking for faults in the system or considering the effects of poverty and segregation on poor student performance?

The fixation on standardized testing changes how we understand the purpose of education. With such a strong emphasis on tests, we are moving further away from what Dewey defined as “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (p. 54). In order to know the real meaning of education, we should not prepare students to be as clerks but rather students with a higher aim in their lives.

Keeping this in mind, I am motivated to rethink deeply the education system reform in Afghanistan. Similar to the United States, teachers in Afghanistan are often blamed for poor students’ performance in schools. Whereas the policy makers and administrators tend to forget about other dimensions of teachers’ and students’ daily lives. Teachers are being paid very poorly and they are expected to work hard. This could be the main reason for why people are beginning to avoid teaching as a profession. Since there are so many other factors influencing students’ test scores, it is not realistic to just blame teachers for their students’ low performance.

Conservative reformers – both in the United States and Afghanistan – have looked for similar solutions to low students’ test scores. In the United States, the emphasis has been on charter schools and the broader movement to privatize public education. However, as Ravitch argues, for the past 25 years students in charter schools did not get higher scores than public schools. So why not focus on fixing public schools instead of pouring more money to charter schools and private hands? As Michael Apple (2005) mentioned, “market driven politics can lead to a remarkably rapid erosion of democratically determined collective values and institutions” (p. 13). This only leads to commercialization of education and nothing else, which is really applicable in Afghanistan.

Privatization of schools is becoming a serious issue. Nowadays, private schools are like business industries that pop up everywhere and attract students for various reasons. In most cases, the quality of education is the same as in public schools and they are teaching the same curriculum as public schools in Afghanistan. So why not support public schools when there is no difference in quality as well as curriculum? How would private schooling make education better if it has never done better before?  In Afghan culture, we have a proverb which says, “to retest the one tested is a fault in itself”. Ravitch also touched on this in her speech by saying that, the US is the most over tested nation in the world. Why are we so fixated on the tests that have never worked before and can’t change anything in the future?

References:

Apple, M. W. (2005). Education, markets, and an audit culture. Critical Quarterly,47(1‐2), 11-29.

Flinders, D. J., & Thornton, S. J. (Eds.). (2004).The curriculum studies reader. Psychology Press.

Ravitch, D. (2011).The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. Basic Books

Study Abroad…But Get Off the Veranda

When a student studies abroad, there is an assumption that interaction with their new community and cultural immersion will just…happen. While every student who studies abroad does experience some type of immersion, true cultural immersion requires that students ‘get off the veranda.’ For a great definition of what true cultural immersion can be, see this article by Karen Rodriguez from TransitionsAbroad.com.

This phrase, ‘getting off the veranda’, comes from an article written by Anthony C. Ogden comparing today’s study abroad student with colonials from history. Ogden points out that many colonials maintained their distance from their colonized communities “interacting only as needed and often in an objective and disassociated manner” (The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student). Many travelers, whether vacationers, business travelers or study abroad students, don’t leave the Sheraton or Four Seasons enough or at all, says David Livermore in his article The Right Sort of Travel Can Boost your Career. Even worse, some travelers can’t turn off Facebook or stop texting Mom and boyfriend/girlfriend long enough to truly immerse themselves and build intercultural skills. I am hesitant to compare study abroad with colonialism, but there are certainly similar attitudes and experiences that students can have if they aren’t careful to step off the veranda. (And if program administrators aren’t careful to design programming that allows for true immersion.)

Ogden explains that while he is supportive of the growth of programs and students abroad, students can not be allowed to “observe their host community from a safe and unchallenging distance”. This safe and unchallenging distance is called the veranda. One reason that students are prone to staying on the veranda is that study abroad programs have become increasingly personalized to the student’s wants and needs (just like higher education in general, perhaps). Students have become the customer, study abroad is the product they’re buying, and study abroad educators and program administrators and advisors are expected to provide them with excellent customer service. Students are used to picking and choosing exactly what they want to participate in and study abroad is no different. Students pick which courses they take, if they want an internship or not (how many days a week they want to work), will they perform research or not, will they travel or not, do they want classwork in the the local language or not….And lost in all of those choices is the real reason for why they are abroad: not to control or customize an experience based on what they like, but to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own (different from their normal wants and likes). Students are used to choosing which parts of education they want to participate in, and whether or not they engage in experiences that promote true cultural immersion (or not) becomes yet another choice over their 4-year college experience. This customization and control allows for the experience to stay student-centered, rather than location-centered.

Study abroad experiences can then turn into a glorified vacation if the experience lacks true cultural immersion. I have seen this with friends’ study abroad experiences and I have also witnessed this when speaking with study abroad returners about their experiences. Some students can even identify certain study abroad programs and locations that can act as ‘vacation centers’ and pass that information onto prospective students looking for programs. Program locations then become attractive to students looking for an experience that is heavy on fun and travel, and light on true cultural immersion. There is even a satire going around social media right now that captures these students and experiences in a Tumblr called Gurl Goes to Africa. This site essentially trolls the Internet for and accepts submissions of photos, videos, and blogs from white study abroad students’ experiences in Africa. And while the students who have taken the photos or written the blogs believe their photos really capture a deep immersive experience, Gurl Goes to Africa points out that their day trip to a that idyllic village in Africa only provided the student with a photo and nothing else. Another excellent explanation of this can be found in The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).

This is dangerous for the obvious reason that the study abroad student leaves their experience with the same level of understanding of their host location and culture as they did when arrived. But Sasha Gronsdahl explains other harmful effects of these experiences in her blog “White Girl Goes to Africa: Am I anything more than a cliche?” She points out that some abroad experiences, especially in developing countries, are not about anything other than ourselves. We gain the resume-building experiences and never reflect on why mostly Westerners are in the financial and ‘knowledge’ position to travel to developing communities. Most importantly, Sasha writes:

“The second argument is that volunteers don’t build formative relationships with people in their host countries, and thus the “Other” remains just that: a group of people who are different, unknowable, and strange, open to our interventions because they are not really fully developed like us. That’s why we can pick up cute African babies for pictures in ways we would never do with children at home. We expect the people we visit to speak English to us and we fail to learn their language; we spend our time with other expats and remain separate from the local community at large. In the workplace, we exercise our privilege without recognizing it: we perhaps make demands on our host organization’s time and resources while our local colleagues have no equivalent access. Our voices are always the ones heard at meetings.”

Now, I am a study abroad and travel advocate. I believe a day trip across town and a year-long study abroad experience can hold similar values. However, study abroad programs must push students off of that veranda so that students can get to know their locations and host communities deeper than a tourist would. Students must be open to experiences that will get them into their host communities and program leaders must design activities and lessons that allow students to think critically not only about their host communities, but also think critically about their home cultures and why they studied abroad.

“Opportunities to Reinvent and Redesign”: The Druk White Lotus School

“Design at its best is not only sustainable, it is holistic.  It considers future needs as well and supports ancient traditions.”

            –The Druk White Lotus School

After watching another documentary for the final meeting of my graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I wanted to write a follow-up piece in response to an original blog post of mine: “‘Schooling the World’: The Myth of Progress?” This original posting grappled with many difficult questions and some subsequent feelings of turmoil and sadness regarding the way in which the ever greater spread of a formal, mass, and an essentially western style education system is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures all over the world.  The second documentary assigned to my class was a short piece on The Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India.  As a graduate student in the field of education, and more specifically Comparative and International Education, it was incredible to watch this piece and see an example of how tradition and modernity can co-exist in harmony, and an education system can contribute to supporting an indigenous community to thrive.

As stated in the documentary, the vision of The Druk White Lotus School is that it will serve as a model of “appropriate modernization.”  What this means more concretely is that the founders of this school and those who have designed and developed it believe it is critical to educate youth in Ladakh about the modern, but also about the merits of their own culture. Underlying the establishment of this school is the belief that one must know their foundation, their past and traditions, to responsibly move forward into a more modern future. [1]

Wonderfully stated by one of the environmental engineers on the project, Francesca Galeazzi, “the school is a product of merging the traditions and the culture of the society with the needs of modern education,” and this is done in a number of ways. [1] Tashi Tsering, the principal of the school and also a teacher, on one hand acknowledges that there is “no option other than providing a modern education” for these children.  They prepare the youth in this school for a challenging future locally or abroad by providing a curriculum based in the English language from kindergarten.  On the other hand, however, there is also a passionate commitment to the premise that these children do not forget where they came from and what their roots are.  They also learn their own language and once every week an instructor visits the school to teach the students moral education and to give them Buddhist mantras to recite. [1]

Buddhist traditions are widespread and strong throughout this culture and this is further reflected in the design of the school buildings and their layout.  It is noted both on the school website and in the film that the vision for the school was inspired by a spiritual leader in the community, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa. [1][2] For example, the school assembly courtyard is designed after a dharma wheel in its cylindrical shape with eight pavilions organized out and around a central space and this represents Buddhist teachings.  The way in which these spiritual elements are incorporated into the design of the buildings is remarkable. [1] As noted by Jonathan Rose, one of the architects of the project, the school is a “project planned around a scarcity of resources and the desire to do as little harm to the earth as possible.  Both are Buddhist principles but also, not coincidentally, basic tenants of sustainable design.” [1]

It is this loss of a sustainable relationship with the Earth due to Western education that was emphasized in the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.  In contrast, to see the sustainable practices used to develop modern education in this rural area was encouraging.  All of the building for this school is done by hand with little tools and little power.  Importing materials from outside Ladakh puts a tremendous strain on the surrounding Himalayan Mountains, so a commitment was made to using materials locally available.  This would ultimately mean that what was built would be appropriate for the community, would support the local economy, and would utilize the knowledge and labor of local people who knew how to work with the materials being used with techniques developed in India for centuries.  The buildings themselves are designed to capitalize on the use of daylight and ventilation so that they don’t rely on electricity at all for lighting or heating, and in the context of a high altitude desert scare of water, water conservation was essential as was the incorporation of ventilated improved pit latrines. [1]

It was interesting to watch and listen about how, about 25 years ago, the addition of an airfield to the area opened this environment and culture up to tourism.  This was a huge draw for people in the rural communities to come and work serving the tourists and in turn making money, but this also put a tremendous amount of pressure on a traditionally subsistence economy.  The even bigger question from an educational standpoint was about the pressure this put on the youth in the area about how they should learn and develop. [1]

Arup Corporation, the company involved in designing the school buildings, is a large consultancy that is involved in projects all over the world.  While this does mean that there is some foreign influence on this community and their vision for education, both parties talked about the process as one of mutual collaboration, exchange, and learning.  On one hand, Arup was committed to linking very closely with the local community to obtain an intimate understanding of their needs and expectations, rather than just coming in and imposing some fancy Western design.  On the other hand, those from the local community in no way wanted to shut out modern education or ways of life, but rather, wanted to embrace the best of the old as well as the new. [1]

Hopefully, the total of ten awards that have been given to this school thus far is an indication of recognition that this is the type of model that we need to be paying more attention to and replicating. [2] Not just in “developing” communities that are grappling with questions of how to modernize responsibly, but also in “modern” communities all over the world that undoubtedly need to exist more harmoniously with our environment.

 

References

[1]http://vimeo.com/37135957

[2]http://www.dwls.org/awards.html

Afghanistan’s Education Post Taliban

Post 9/11/2001, Afghanistan’s education system has been as convoluted as its politics. There have been many internal struggles as well as external players. As soon as Karzai’s government was placed in power it began to reform education in order to differentiate itself from the Taliban, hoping to appear progressive. In the political context where power is fragmented across the nation, the Afghan government inherited a completely defunct education system, which has been placed in a state of dependency with the United States and its allies who influence both policy-making and the new regime. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, the Taliban era has left the educational system the following legacies:

  • Less than one million students, 20,000 teachers with almost no female participation.
  • 34, 00 schools–majority with unusable buildings.
  • No standard national curriculum or textbooks.
  • Only four Teacher Training Colleges with 400 students.
  • Only 1500 boys enrolled in Technical and Vocational Schools, and
  • 220 unregulated Madrassas without any formal curriculum.

After 13 years, how substantial is the change? How meaningful is education and what is the quality of education? These questions are difficult to answer and, while Afghanistan continues to face many challenges such as basic safety and security, it also has (according to the UNDP) a literacy rate that is “one of the lowest in the world.” While primary completion rates have gradually improved, the statistics show that in 2012:

  • 8.6 millions of children and youth are attending schools (over 5.29 million boys, and over 3.35 million girls).
  • Hundreds of thousands attend universities, and similarly tens of thousands are accessing literacy classes and vocational training.
  • While gender gaps and disparity still persist, access to education for girls and women has significantly improved over the years.

Again, though the numbers show quite an improvement, there is still a long road ahead. Some of these challenges, such as Afghanistan’s gender divide, continue to persist: “While 66 percent of girls attend primary school, compared with 92 percent of boys, the share of girls attending secondary school drops to 26 percent. Across the country, the growth in enrollment rates has been uneven. For example, over the past decade, nearly 350,000 girls have completed high school. In Kandahar, the country’s fifth-most-populous province, there are only 4,027 female high school graduates” (Mashal 2014).

Other challenges include poverty, health, lack of teachers and teacher training facilities and most importantly lack of security. While “more than 30% of primary school-aged children are still out of school… even children who attend school still struggle to read and perform basic math” (Albright 2013). Despite all the odds, Afghans continue to struggle. Recently I had a chance to interview an Afghan Fulbright student, Hamid Akbary,  who is currently pursuing his graduate studies in Sociology. He seems quite optimistic and reminds me that the youth of Afghanistan are hopeful.

Hamid states that just during his years he has seen a significant growth in children’s access to school. Many universities and colleges that were closed during the Taliban era have reopened, allowing greater freedom of thought. He states that students have the freedom to “express their ideas and use creativity in their skills and expression of new ideas and intellectual discussions.” He continues that this freedom of thought is the key for young Afghans to “play a role in moving the country forward to a free society through media, student organizations, and other democratic ways.” Although he does acknowledge the aforementioned challenges, his optimism seems to be contagious!

Image

References:
Albright, A. In Afghanistan, Teachers and Children Go to School Despite Real Danger
Baiza, Y. (2013) Education in Afghanistan, Developments, Influences and Legacies Since 1901. Routledge, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Society, United Kingdom
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ministry of Education website http://moe.gov.af/en/page/2021
Mashal, M. (2014) An Afghan Town Gets its First Female High-School Graduates. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/8/even-at-graduationtimeafghangirlsovershadowedbyboys.html
United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Afghanistan http://www.us.undp.org/content/afghanistan/en/home/mdgoverview/overview/mdg2/