Education World Forum: Constructive or Restrictive?

The forum’s global remit offers unparalleled opportunity for ministerial teams from all participating countries to address economic and educational challenges, share experiences and establish a cooperative, future-proof approach to education.”

Dominic Savage
 Director General, BESA

Just over three weeks ago, January 19-22, The Education World Forum 2014 took place in London, UK.  While this international forum has occurred annually under this name and format since 2011, its origins date back to 2002 when the British governmental organization Becta (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) founded the “Moving Young Minds” event [1].  Although retaining the same general structure, in 2009, the conference took on a new identity as the “Learning and Technology World Forum,” which also involved a shift in thematic focus to the role of technology in educational quality and success for the coming generations.  The forum took a turn in becoming what it is today, the “Education World Forum,” in 2010 when government funding to Becta was cut and the contract for the event was privatized becoming the responsibility of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) [2].

As attendance to this conference has grown over the years to the point that over eighty International Education Ministers gathered in London this year, it has come to be known was “the largest global gathering of education ministers and the internationally recognized ministerial forum for debating future practice in education[3].  Increasingly, goals for education on a global scale are shifting from simply achieving basic education for all children in the world, to achieving educational equity, focusing on quality and learning, fostering curiosity and innovation, and developing methods for life-long learning [4].  Having a forum in which education stakeholders all over the world can share successes and failures, address challenges, and debate the shape of the future of education is undoubtedly invaluable given the previously mentioned admirable goals for education that we face moving forward.

At the same time, however, it is important to look critically at the actors and stakeholders that are part of this forum and their own interests, as well as certain features of the conference itself which work to not only shape but potentially limit the scope of ideas presented and how they are discussed, and legitimize certain solutions and courses of action over others.

Looking at the position of the British Educational Suppliers Association itself is a very interesting place to start.  By definition, BESA is a trade association and works to support UK-based companies that supply equipment, materials, teaching aids, books, and technology hardware and software to members both in the United Kingdom and internationally.  They play the role of lobbyists to government on policy issues, and provide information and training to members on the basis of best practices that they, as experts, have identified [5][6].  The fact that the Education World Form is under the contract of a private entity involved in the national and international provision of educational goods and services, and is also the generator of research and knowledge about educational policies and best practices is not a trivial fact when considering what types of networking and policy prescriptions might be discussed.

Further, the “Platinum Partners” involved in sponsoring the forum are HP, Intel, Microsoft, Promethean, JP-Inspiring Knowledge, and Pearson. The first four of these partners are American multinational companies, and JP-Inspiring Knowledge is a partner company with both Intel and Microsoft.  Every single one of these partners expresses an interest in supporting the development of quality education and innovation to the ends of producing a skilled workforce in the global economy, very specifically through the application of education technology and the “return on investment” that these materials and expertise can bring.  Additionally, Pearson, a British multinational publishing and education company, self identifies as “the world’s largest learning business” and is the provider of textbooks, courses, and resources for both teachers and students all over the world [3].  The “Silver Partners” for the forum, presumably of less involvement than those previously mentioned, are almost exclusively associated with Oxford or Cambridge Universities, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica, which are all UK based sources of education knowledge and assessment material production [7].

While those behind the Education World Forum make the claim that the “event brings together minsters representing the majority of the world’s population,” we must critically realize and understand that the Ministers of Education are but one interest group within education policy networks with a certain degree of power in relation to other members of policy networks that are increasingly global in scale.

The forum has taken place every single year in London, which is not an issue by itself, however attendance to the event is by official invitation only [8].  This gives, year after year, the same essential group the power over who is able to engage in the debate over the future of education and the voices that are able to put solutions to challenges on the table.  The theme of this year’s conference was “Planning for 2014: Policy-making catalyst for a decade ahead: measurement, reach and enterprise,” and the inclusion of the terms “measurement” and “enterprise” express very specific values from the outset [9]. These values are further reflected no only in the expressed definition of education as “a crucial factor in national and global economic health; a country’s strongest resource for its future economic stability and success lies with its young people,” but also in the utilization of this forum space to discuss the OECD’s most recent PISA League Table and the World Bank’s future education plans [8].

The Education World Forum created and posted a video that is a collection of interviews with education minsters from around the world.  What struck me was that included in this video was a statement by the Minister of Education in Colombia that we must go beyond the academic achievement aspects of education and begin to take a look at education encompassing ideas of citizenship, peaceful democratic behavior, and social skills [4]. This is a stark contrast from the overtly economic emphasis put on the purpose of education in the rhetoric of the Education World Forum, from the legitimization of large scale standardized testing such as PISA, and from the goals of privatization espoused by the World Bank.

By taking a closer look at the actors and agents involved in the Education World Forum, I am by no means questioning the value of engaging in dialogue about educational policies, practices, challenges, and successes.  I do, however, strongly put into question the notion that the ideas, needs, and contextual factors of a majority of the world’s population are represented.  It seems to me that this event provides a forum to discuss the future of education and all that this entails within a very particular neoliberal framework that may not be conducive for the successful realization of a variety of educational goals.  I beg the question of whether there is another way.  Will we ever be able to engage in a dialogue about education that is more open, progressive, and less ideologically structured?










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.


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:


North Penn










































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:


North Penn


Elementary teachers




Secondary teachers




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%.










North Penn














North Penn Advantage







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.”

Is Equity at Stake in Private Schooling? (Part 1 of 2)

For those watching the educational development media, the rising clamor around “school choice for the poor” has been difficult to miss. The argument goes like this: “There are many low-cost private schools in the world that do better than public schools, and the poorest of the poor are using these schools—so let’s support them.”

In a November article in the Spectator, British educator and Cato Institute scholar James Tooley once again raised the case for private education, arguing that educational rights activist Malala Yousafzai is in fact arguing for private education, not public education. His contention, which was unsupported by any interview with Malala herself, was subject to considerable criticism. That Tooley’s pro-private school piece made its way, openly unsubstantiated, into a major media source like the Spectator, evidences the editorial board’s sense of public interest in the private school advocacy movement.

Tooley is at the spearhead of a major attack on public schools worldwide, an attack driven by disappointing public sector performance, high teacher absenteeism, and frequent reports of corruption and scandal. These proponents of private schools, often backed by libertarian NGOs such as the Cato Institute, argue for a wide array of measures to promote private school alternatives, with options ranging from simply tolerating the existence of private schools to fully disbanding public education and replacing it with private education.

In this post and the following, we will look at private schooling from the vantage-point of equity.

Equity: outputs, not inputs

A central refrain amongst the many justifications for private schooling centers on equity: Private schools give kids a better shot than what they would have otherwise, so taking away public schools decreases equity.

In education, “equity” refers not to making all schools look the same (which would be “equality”) but to helping all children have the same opportunity to succeed. Certainly, beautiful, well-resourced schools and strong teachers increase the odds of success, but, as comparisons of international test results between expensive U.S. schools and their Asian counterparts have shown us, bigger inputs don’t always produce bigger results. In educational development, equity—not equality—is the goal.

But do private schools increase equity? Many have argued long and hard from exactly the opposite perspective.

Private schools as stratifying agents

The arguments against private schooling vary, but most intersect in one way or another with the central premise that private schools lead to increased stratification in society. While no two public schools are the same, inasmuch as they reflect the society in which they are geographically located—thus the de facto “re-segregation” found in many inner-city schools—private schools further stratify the student population. In 2010, Alegre and Ferrer, two researchers at Universitat Auton ma de Barcelona, used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test to argue that the more market-driven a nation’s educational system is, the more stratified it becomes. Rather than acting as a melting pot, drawing together students from diverse social classes and racial or religious backgrounds, private schooling has the opposite effect, self-sorting students by the same variables that mark the boundaries of diversity. Those arguing against the proliferation of private schools argue that economic classes cluster together by schools, with students’ families following their friends, leaving private schools to those unable to afford private education.

Evidence like that produced by Alegre and Ferrer points to the reality that, within a nation’s boundaries, private schools allow inequity to persist and, as private schooling grows, the gaps between the educational opportunities for the wealthiest and poorest grows ever wider.

Looking at equity through a national lens reveals difficult realities for private schooling. The international lens, however, paints a different picture.

Private schools and international equity

Ironically, while private schools can increase stratification nationally, they can also function to decrease stratification internationally. Elite private schools in economically-disadvantaged nations often offer world-class education, with students performing on-par with their counterparts in wealthier nations. While not all children can earn a world-class education in developing countries, at least some of the nation’s young are able to earn the caliber of education needed to prepare globally-competitive professionals.

Test data from Latin America and elsewhere illustrate this point. Most private Latin American international schools following the American educational model test their students against U.S. schools using NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP). In spring of 2012, students in grades 8-10 in these private schools—in a region generally lagging the United States in international comparisons—scored at or above the average scores achieved by U.S. schools. This outperformance is consistent with historical trends.

Elite Latin American private schools

United States norm group

Latin American Private school outperformance









































Ideally, the public sector in Latin America would provide internationally-equitable educational quality as well. However, until this happens, private schools provide a mechanism for providing on-par or above-par educational access for students in these countries.

And the academic equity advantage is not only found in elite schools. Using India and other economically-disadvantaged nations as test cases, Tooley, in his book The Beautiful Treeproduces extensive data from standardized tests to show that even poorly-resourced “low-fee private schools”—schools which cater to families who live in impoverished slums—private schools consistently outperform public schools, bringing children closer to the performance of peers in privileged nations.

Until significant changes transpire in government schools in Latin America, India, and elsewhere, private schools provide something that government schools do not: access to higher-quality education in economically-disadvantaged nations not provided in government schools.

Equity for all students?

Due to the higher test performance found in private schools which cater to the poor, Tooley asserts that the low-fee private school option, in fact, brings greater educational opportunity, even to “the poorest of the poor”. We’ll examine this claim in our next post.

Low-Fee Private Schools: An Equity Conundrum (part 2 of 2)

Reading the headlines from India’s educational news, one could understand if educational planners hardly know whether to rejoice or weep.

On one hand, progress is evident. According to World Bank data, primary enrollment has risen to 90% and secondary enrollment to 63%—an overall enrollment growth of 50% since the early 1990s. The 2012 ASER report concluded that school facilities have seen marked improvement over the last three years since the inoduction of India’s Right to Education Act (RTE).

Yet, the situation remains bleak. MIT researchers in 2010 found that teacher absenteeism in India has consistently hovered at 25% for 15 years with no signs of improvement, and classroom productivity fares no better, with 50% of teachers found sleeping, reading the newspaper, or otherwise not teaching. The 2012 ASER report found that reading and mathematics scores have steadily declined over the last three years, and, despite improvements in facilities, 43.5% of rural schools still have no working toilets.

Parents, what would you do if these schools were your “free” option?

Indian parents have long turned to private schools to escape the steady disappointment of India’s public school sector. British educator and India education scholar Geeta Kingdon found in 2007 that growth in the private school sector in India accounted for 96% of all primary enrollment growth between 1993-2002; the 2012 ASER report noted that such schools today account for nearly 40% of India’s enrollment—and the enrollment numbers continue to rise at a rate of 10% annually.

The private sector is a crucial partner in India’s provision of education. Since the introduction of RTE in 2010, this partnership has in many ways been further strengthened. RTE requires that 25% of all seats in private schools be vouchered-out to less-privileged students at no cost to the parents. Low-income parents have queued up at these private schools across the country, hoping to land their child in one of these all-expenses-paid seats.

For the lucky parents who lottery their way into elite private schools, these public-private partnerships offer a new hope at economic advancement. For those who don’t manage to snap up one of these free seats, there are still other options, thanks to low-fee private schools.

LFP schools: Increased academic opportunity for some…

Low-fee private (LFP) schools, avidly promoted by school choice advocates such as James Tooley, offer opportunities for parents at an extraordinarily low cost. Throughout his considerable body of research, Tool continually finds that these fees aren’t just low—they’re super low, designed to be affordable even to families who live in the nation’s burgeoning slums.

The schools, many of which are not registered with the Indian government—despite RTE requirements to do so—offer on-time teachers and on-task classrooms. Their test outputs, as multiple studies have shown, are modestly-to-substantially higher than those of nearby public schools, despite the fact that such schools are often staffed by untrained and minimally-paid teachers.

LFP schools advertise better academic equity, and Indian parents are moving to them in droves, fleeing the unsolved problems in government schools.

…but not for all

A central problem with LFP schools is that, despite their low cost, they remain out of reach for the poorest of the poor. Canadian researcher Prachi Srivastava, who coined the term “low-fee private school”, summarized the research on LFP school affordability in her 2013 book, Low-fee Private Schooling: aggravating equity or mitigating disadvantage? Srivastava concludes that claims of the affordability of LFP schools for the poorest of the poor have been exaggerated.

Some of the most emotionally compelling research on LFP school affordability is offered the 2010 work by Joanna Härmä. Researching the affordability of rural LFP schools in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, Härmä concluded that the school fees, while low, were simply out of reach for the poorest two quintiles of Indian society and that parents chose public schools because they simply couldn’t afford even the lowest-priced LFP schools. She concluded, “No poor families reported LFP schooling as being affordable without ‘cutting their bellies.’”

The continuing research of Srivastava and her colleagues in a growing number of urban slums and poor rural regions around the world has challenged Tooley’s claims to affordability. LFP private schools, while affordable for many of the world’s poor, simply aren’t affordable enough.

An equity conundrum

LFP schools offer a fascinating look into the basic conundrum surrounding lower-cost private schools around the world. It is true that private schools offer parents options for escaping failed government schools: from the moderate out-performance seen in LFP schools to the wild out-performance seen in elite private schools (as discussed in the previous post), private schooling offers children a chance to achieve at higher levels than those found in their local government schools, increasing academic equity in low-income nations by bringing these children closer to their counterparts in high-income nations.

Yet, this opportunity isn’t accessible to all. LFP schools, which cater to the bottom end of the economic spectrum, are unable to fit the budgets of the poorest of the poor. In nations like India, where education is a chief agent for upward mobility, and income disparities between the poor and wealthy continue to rise, the affordability of private schools plays a role in persistent inequities.

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Restructuring of Schools


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.


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.


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.

The Future of Public Education in Kazakhstan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Core Standards

For the past few decades public education in the United States has been the subject of major political debates and ideological revisions. One of the most controversial, a product of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is called the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards (CSS) cover K-12 language arts & math. The proponents of the Common Core claim that mastery of these standards ensures that graduating high school students are ready to enter college and the workforce. But there are more things at stake with the common core standards than student success. Introduced in June 2010, the Obama Administration made the adoption of the Common Core Standards a requirement by August 2010 for states competing for a share of the dwindling federal funding for education. Why the rush to implement them?
The answer: it’s not about the students. It’s about the money to be made. David Coleman, one of the architects of the new standards, co-founded a non-profit called Student Achievement Partners to specifically promote the CCS. He’s also the head of the College Board and its cash cows, the SATS and AP program. The vastly profitable standardized testing industry receives multi-million dollar support from a variety of sources—chief among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A staunch supporter of measures and programs that attack teacher unions and promote charter schools, the Gates Foundation also advocates for an increased role for standardized testing.
The Gates Foundation (along with other private foundations) has funded David Coleman’s College Board to the tune of 31 million dollars. It also has granted over six million to promoting the Common Core Standards. Its partner in the venture, General Electric, has donated a generous 18 million. What these groups have in common is a privatizing agenda that seeks to funnel public money into corporate hands.
But while advocates of the Common Core standards claim they will ensure student success, they don’t seem to care much about students at all. In his presentation at the New York State Education Building in April 2011, David Coleman declared that teachers must tell students: “When you grow up in this world you realize people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” With an education system geared toward teaching to standard-driven tests, there’s no need for children to learn to think critically or creatively. Is this healthy for a democracy?
Notwithstanding substantial financial backing, the Common Core Standards have come under fire. Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU and former US Assistant Secretary of Education, states:

President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true. They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states…standards are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at USC says, “The mediocre performance of American students on international tests seems to show that our schools are doing poorly. But students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools rank among the best in the world on these tests, which means that teaching is not the problem. The problem is poverty.”
Journalist Valerie Strauss has also spoken against CCS. She writes in the Washington Post that when it comes to Common Core Standards, early childhood education experts and educators were not part of the process.

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Standards for public education are a fine idea. But when they serve as a Trojan horse to hide a profit-making agenda, we should beware of bureaucracies and private foundations bearing gifts. The common core standards demand a vast increase in testing—and testing isn’t free: school districts must now provide funds for new computers, new software, trainings, teacher hours, and grading services. Students who could be learning new things are instead only learning how to take a series of tests. The question is who will pay for this testing—and who benefits—our children or corporations?

Massive Open Online Revenue Generating Entities

the moocMassive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are being widely championed as the future of higher education. These courses are provided over the web by private firms or non-profit organizations. The massive in the name refers to the course size, which can be in the tens of thousands. The open refers to the fact that anyone can sign up for a course. Currently there are three major providers, Coursera, EdX, and Udacity, and all are affiliated with prestigious national universities. Both Coursera and Udacity grew out of Stanford University, and EdX is a joint venture founded by Harvard and MIT. These platforms promise to offer “world class” courses taught by “superstar professors.”

As their popularity has grown, many people have started asking how MOOCs will make money in the long run. Coursera has one answer: charge for their end-of-course certifications. The new program is described by Inside Higher Ed here:

[Coursera] introduced a “Signature Track” to try to put more weight behind the end-of-course awards issued by universities that offer courses through its platform. Users who pay for this have to submit a photo ID of themselves to the company and are also tracked based on their “unique typing pattern” to ensure that people who take tests or turn in assignments are who they say they are. Prices are set around $50 so far.

The system appears to be working, this week Coursera announced that it is now generating revenue by charging for the credentials and through textbook sales.

Some say the firms are not motivated by profits. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article, Kevin Carey argues that asking how MOOCs plan to make money is missing the point. He believes that MOOC courses are not meant to be profit centers for their universities, they are meant to be prestige generators:

Elite colleges are ultimately in the business of maximizing status, not revenue. Spending a lot of money on things that return a lot of status isn’t just feasible for these institutions—it’s their basic operating principle. It’s not hard to make money when you’re already wealthy—witness the performance of the Harvard Management Com
pany over the past 20 years. The difficult maneuver is converting money into status of the rarefied sort that elite institutions crave.

MOOCs offer that opportunity. Elite colleges are willing to run them at a loss forever, because of the good will—and thus status—they create. Free online courses whose quality matches their institutional reputation (a tall order, to be sure, but MOOC providers have strong incentives to get there) could ultimately become as important to institutional status as the traditional markers of exclusivity and scholarly prestige.

While an interesting idea, it seems as if Carey is the one missing the point. Stanford may not need a business plan, but Coursera does. Brown and Duke may be willing to run MOOC classes at a loss, but Coursera has taken on at least $16M in venture capital funds. Regardless of how the elite institutions feel about it, Coursera and Udacity have bills to pay. Charging for textbooks and credentials may be one way they choose to pay those bills. However, considering that Coursera only brought in $200,000 from 3.2 million users, one must wonder how the model will continue to evolve over time.

Low Teacher Salaries Harm Public Education in Cambodia


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?

(De)Grading Schools: The PennCAN’s Scam

school grading

Last month, public schools across Pennsylvania received a report card. Their grades made the news. In Lehigh Valley, most public schools failed the grade, with Allentown schools ranking 486 out of 490 (and receiving an F overall) and Bethlehem schools ranking 377 (and receiving a D). More affluent Parkland school district fared better, receiving A for its middle schools and B- for high schools.

The local media picked up these “news” very enthusiastically. Their message was loud and clear: our public schools are failing and need to be urgently reformed. Yet, most media spread the “news” without any critical analysis of either the idea of school “report cards” itself, the organization spearheading this initiative, the methodology used to grade schools, or the motives behind school grading. So here is some of the missing analysis.

Let’s first have a quick look at the organization issuing “report cards” to public schools and districts across Pennsylvania – a K-12 education advocacy nonprofit “The Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now” (or PennCAN). Formally launched in 2012, PennCAN is a part of a broader CAN network – The 50CAN – which currently operates in five states (Minnesota, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) and plans to reach half of the country by 2015. The 50CAN aims to “to restore the American dream one school at a time” through the implementation of the following three policy principles:

  • greater choices
  • greater accountability
  • greater flexibility.

In other words, the 50CAN’s solution to “reforming” public education is to promote school choice, link teacher evaluation to student academic outcomes, expand alternative mechanisms of serving in the teaching profession, and provide school principals with greater control over school staffing and budget. The 50CAN message is straightforward:

 “Close chronically failing schools” and turn them into charters.

The PennCAN’s most recent “achievements” include the support of the Educational Improvement Scholarship Credit and an attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law. The enactment of the Scholarship Credit brought a $50 million tax credit for businesses that give scholarships to low-income students (from failing schools) to attend private or out-of-district public schools. Simultaneously, the PennCAN has lobbied for “creating an independent charter school authorizer, increasing fiscal and academic accountability for charter schools, and studying problems with charter funding.” While the attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law has been unsuccessful so far, the PennCAN says it will continue to press lawmakers to reform the charter school law.

With this clear privatization logic driving the 50CAN’s reform campaign, it is not surprising that the organization has turned to school grading as its main advocacy tool. Using student achievement scores, the 50CAN assigns letter grades (A through F) to each public school and district in a state in four categories (including performance gains, overall student performance, student subgroup performance, and achievement gap). While the official rationale is to “provide families and communities with a clear benchmark for how their child’s school or district performs,” school report cards do much more. They (de)grade public schools, thus contributing to the rhetoric of crisis and generating reform pressure to turn public schools into private charters. This is a common strategy of “naming, shaming, and blaming” public schools (e.g., see also an Australian case) without addressing the broader systemic problems such as tax policies favoring the wealthy, residential segregation, immigration policies, lack of health insurance, and many others. As Larry Cuban notes,

“Directing attention to only fixing schools [is] a strategy that is both politically attractive and economically inexpensive compared to the uproar that would occur from attacking those who enjoy privileges from leaving those policies and structures untouched.”

Finally, the 50CAN’s engagement in the business of fixing private schools is driven by important financial motives. Given that education is now the second largest market in the U.S. – valued at US$1.3 trillion – it is not surprising to see the massive mobilization of education entrepreneurs, investors, and private donors around federal funds for education. The 50CAN’s supporters include the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and William Penn Foundation, among others.  For many of these supporters, education is simply a commodity and schools represent new investment opportunities.  At the end of the day, it is about advantageous “market deals,” “education transactions,” and “adding value to education portfolio companies.” It is not necessarily about preserving education as a public good.

Increasingly, investment schemes become successfully disguised as “idealized political activism” – an argument that David Sirota makes in a short video below. Perhaps, this is what the 50CAN’s political activism is all about. A scam. The 50CAN’s scam. Or, in the case of Pennsylvania, the PennCAN’s scam.