Testing within the Special Needs Community

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every student with special needs is entitled to “free and appropriate education.” This means that every student, regardless of disability, is entitled to receive quality public education in the United States. In practice, however, not every student with special needs is provided with adequate public education. Many times, parents must advocate on behalf of their child’s educational needs, without the support of legislature or policy provision.

The very phrase “special education” evokes conflicting feelings, perspectives, and experiences, making policy discussions on this issue especially sensitive. It is a very hard concept to define, but in an idealistic sense, special ed means that “the individual needs of a student who has a disability are met by the mandate of a legal document known as an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP.” There is a large achievement gap between special-education students and general-education students, and this gap seems to have been growing over the past few years.

As someone who has grown up with a younger sibling with autism, I am somewhat familiar with the struggles that my parents had to go through in providing my brother with an adequate education. He cannot be mainstreamed, even though that discussion was brought up numerous times by local administrators and legislators. Through numerous battles with our state and township, an agreement was reached to provide my brother with public education at a school for special needs children in another town. This also means that he is provided with free transportation to and from the school, and has access to after school activities and resources.

While all of that seems fine and dandy, my parents face constant challenges within the special needs’ education system. To me, it seems that the most highly contested issue is that of standardized testing within the special needs community. As the No Child Left Behind Act made its rounds through the US education system, it also infested special needs public education. Instead of my brother learning basic reading and math skills, he was being given homework on advanced reading comprehension and other test-related concepts. If he and his classmates did not pass these tests, the school would lose funding. My brother was frustrated because he didn’t understand the material, the school was frustrated in not being able to teach practical information, and my family was frustrated in this wasted instruction.

blogs.longwood.edu

blogs.longwood.edu

Not everyone agrees with this “anti-testing” mantra. A teacher who was interviewed by the Huffington Post argues that special needs students should be analyzed with standardized tests because the tests provide data on how students are performing in accordance with “Common Core Standards.” This teacher further claims that special needs schools need this type of statistical information to help future student achievement, and the only way to gather that information is through standardized tests.

Perhaps they would feel differently if they sat down at the dining room table with my brother and tried to help him with his homework.

These assessments for special needs testing have inherent flaws. These tests attempt to generalize statistics for a group of students who are all unique – who all have different socialization and educational needs. By definition, students with special needs need individualized education plans, meaning that their individuality is fundamental to their being, and therefore, fundamental to their success in school. How can we group these individuals together as a cohort to study for future educational change?

Recent lingo on this issue has included “voucher systems,” which would take funds away from public schools and move them to private schools. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Republicans proposed a measure for this type of system, claiming that it would allow children with disabilities to have greater “options” and “flexibility” within the education system. I have a fundamental problem with this system: I believe that a voucher system would put special needs education at risk. IDEA rights may not apply or be enforced as much in private schools, meaning that special needs children in public schools may be at risk.

It is clear that the issue of special education will always be a topic of debate throughout the United States as well as the rest of the world. We must work to preserve every disabled child’s right to quality education. My brother, and the rest of the special needs community, deserves to have quality education as a fundamental right…just like the rest of us.

 

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Let’s Not and Say We Did

 

Since we’ve handed over the education agenda to testing companies, we’ve also been told that relying on standardized tests and looking at accountability measures would help to increase equity. In fact, this was one of the major calling cards of the No Child Left Behind act – that if we keep better tabs on student performance, we’ll be able to use this information to close the achievement gap. Most of the evidence out there today, however, shows that this gap has not been significantly reduced. So if we are putting all of our resources behind a program to reduce poverty and reduce the achievement gap, why isn’t it happening? Enter the axis powers of education: testing companies, policy makers, and textbook companies.

Could it be that it never was the intention to close the achievement gap?

Here’s how it works. Policy makers write curriculum, such as the Common Core Standards. On its face, the review and establishment of a national set of standards might not be so bad. While some critics ask if it is ethical for all students to learn the same thing, it isn’t clear whether these standards will actually standardize education. What they do intend, however, is for all students to be reaching for the same high bar. The content may be adapted or adopted by region or district, but the goal was to get all students to have a vertically aligned curriculum that would challenge suburban and urban kids alike. Holding high standards across the board is, in my opinion, an integral part of improving equitable education. So far, so good.

The problem though is that the policy makers who write the curriculum do not have the power to enforce their plan. It’s like a difference between the legislative and executive branches of the government. The curriculum developers can put out any kind of utopian-unicorn plan, but unless the test companies align their test with those standards, the curriculum remains a wish. Students must then learn what the test determines to be important and the curriculum becomes secondary.

Test companies are the new gatekeepers, and policy and tests remain in their own vacuums. And because the two entities continually evolve – tests are exchanged for newer ones, curricula is redesigned to meet new standards (as influenced by the knowledge economy and our fears of Ivan Drago). Thus, those two industries prattle on, independent of one another, while schools scramble with meager resources to consolidate the pieces and teach a unified program that’s worthwhile.

To throw in one more complication, most content taught in schools is done with the support of one or more textbooks. Textbook companies produce the books for states based loosely on the standards of the policy makers. Loosely because they are a company, and it is much more efficient to produce broad spectrum books that can be used in the majority of the states without having to change too much. These books cannot effectively keep up with test standards that change frequently. Nor are they truly aligned with the current standards/curricula of the policy makers, because textbooks are expensive and most schools don’t purchase a set for a particular group more often than once a decade. Thus, at best teachers are working with a textbook that’s several years old and covers about 70% of the current curriculum. The other 30% of the content that students must learn (according to the curriculum) the teachers generate from independent sources and expertise. But old books and new standards, neither of which align to the subject matter and rigor of a brand new test, is a recipe for disaster.

Aligning the Stars

Let’s take this down to the classroom level. At the end of the year, students must pass exam X. They follow a program in which they learn the skills and knowledge dictated by the state policy documents Y. To get them there, teachers use the textbook Z as the main resource. Because none of these products communicate with each other, it’s a veritable maze to simply organize. Only skilled, experienced educators (usually working together with other skilled, experienced educators) have the capacity to develop a plan that adequately addresses the content and skills necessary while simultaneously ensuring that students don’t fall behind. And still, we don’t support our teachers in this endeavor. No. Instead, we give them a three-tiered labyrinth to navigate and demand that they do it for less pay or no benefits.

The scary part is that we didn’t see this happening. Policy and decision making in general aren’t rational. They are reactionary and incrementalist. Bit by bit, the policies are tuned towards some new magic potion (accountability!) or away from some old fear (Ivan!). But bit by bit, we’ve ushered in changes that privatize schools, use our students as resources for the globalized economy, and increased our reliance on numerical data (that may or may not be accurate but certainly isn’t holistically reflective of a student’s ability or potential ability). We find ourselves in a place where none of our systems (textbooks, curriculum, tests) align with each other and we’re wondering how we got here. We are now the proverbial frogs in the pot. The temperature is boiling but we only got the message just now.

What’s the danger of handing over our educational agenda to corporations? Stay tuned for the next post in this series…

Economization of Education: Why We Like Tests

Remember back in the day when our relationship with the U.S.S.R. was so strained that it felt delicious just to cheer for Rocky Balboa beating the mess out of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV? Those Cold War days made it so euphoric to see the American underdog finally get the job done. Our current educational policy, believe it or not, could arguably be encapsulated in the dynamic relationship between the two titans in that film. The fear that the Russians could be number one in science and technology (or in boxing) is the same fear that drove our “star wars” programs in the 80s and 90s and it also the primitive ground for our frantic obsession with test scores. Phillips and Ochs (2003) call this anxiety “Sputnik Shock,” and use it to describe the fear that Americans felt when we suddenly realized that we weren’t as competitive as we thought and thus began in earnest to focus on education as the tool to fix it. And even though our current educational landscape is far different from what it was in the early 1960s, we still seem driven by the same fear that led to the production of books with titles like What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t. In essence, our current testing culture began with the “anxiety created by Soviet achievement” (Phillips, p. 458).
The American fear of being non-competitive has intensified with the rise in globalization, and reverberations are being felt throughout the educational system. We now know intimately more about our competitors and their potential and this knowledge leads to constant comparison. Who is performing better in math? Will we fall behind in engineering?! These expressions of self-doubt have had a mobilizing effect on our school system, but not in the way you might imagine. Rather than the government tightening up controls on schools and pushing for higher standards or better training for teachers, the opposite has happened. The government has relaxed policies around curriculum and school governance and made it easier for private sector management agencies and corporations to get involved. Essentially, the state has abdicated its educational throne.
Verger, Novelli, and Altinyelkin (2012) argue that governments who have lost their centrality begin to take direction from the market and economics, thus creating a private market of education and changing permanently their ability to respond to educational issues (p. 7). Now it may not be directed solely towards the former Soviet republics, but on a global scale, we are desperately seeking solutions to stay at the top. And in today’s globalized world it seems that our government is willing to bet on any plan that has enough money or prestige behind it. Verger et al. (2012) suggest that the motivation to be competitive economically has driven most countries in the world to try to become ‘knowledge economies.’ These countries “aim to raise their competitiveness and perceive education and knowledge as key assets for this purpose” (p. 14).
And that’s where testing comes in. How does a country know whether or not it will be effective in the economy? How does a country know how skilled its future citizens will be in developing the science and technology to keep it secure and competitive in a global economy? Well, the current crystal ball is student performance on internationally normed exams. And in the United States this translates to student performance on national exams that will provide the feedback that policy makers can use to make adjustments that will keep America sharp.
There are a lot of problems inherent in our current course of action if the above is indeed true. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve commented in a previous post, is that reliance on testing causes a shift in our curriculum. It prioritizes values and promotes content that was not intended to be the backbone of our educational system, and by so doing, it allows test making companies unprecedented access to set the agenda for our curriculum. This form of privatization is of grave concern, as the government has downsized its role in defining national educational priorities. Resources are no longer directed towards programs that will serve democratic ideals in providing quality education for all students, but increasingly test scores are used like the NFL combine to sort and group students into tracks where they remain.

And while this categorization doesn’t serve the individual citizenry, it does serve the interest of the market economy. For in a market economy, commodities are valued, and something has to determine which commodities have the most value. Alex Molnar (2006) argues that the market driven companies, “offer no guidance on matters of justice or fairness and cannot, therefore, represent the interests of all children. Turning children over to the market ensures that they will inevitably be treated as an expense to be reduced or as a resource to be harvested. In the process some children and their families will necessarily be considered more valuable than others. For the market to produce winners, it requires that there be losers” (p. 635).
Now, I don’t know about you, but as someone who has a stake in the quality of education that we provide in our schools, I have a hard time equating students to resources. And on the other hand, I believe that what Molnar writes is compelling – the more we allow corporations to run our schools, the less students are treated as valued clients. Instead, they become commodities that we produce to further our economic agenda. And that shift makes it much easier to test, track, and sort students without regard for the actual people in the system.
Some critics might ask, “What’s the problem with taking a few cues from the market to trim the fat in the school system? Introducing a little bit of privatization and competition should make everything a bit more competitive and ultimately get the public schools back on track, right?” Lots of researchers have documented that public versus private competition does indeed lead to greater efficiency. But efficiency does not equate with effectiveness when it comes to schools. The problem with introducing market strategy in schools is that schools have been operating on sub-adequate budgets for decades now. Redirecting additional funds (to consultants for testing companies, etc.) cuts funding and essentially leaves them high and dry. Schools operate on a skeleton crew without enough resources to be safe places for their students to spend the day.

The bigger problem is that increasing efficiency has very little to do with the end result of improving student performance. Our schools are incredibly diverse places, operating for a multitude of purposes. Market efficiency cannot reach the individual students and teachers in the way that they must be reached in order to reform the system. In fact, it is my contention that this system of privatization will never have the “intended” effect of increasing efficiency (or effectiveness) because (1) it never has worked (see Edison school systems) and (2) it is symptomatic of a greater problem in our political system, and that is a general apathy for education in general. It starts with our policy makers, and can be traced in pockets throughout the system. In the next two posts of this series, we’ll explore this concept in more depth, first through the new allocation of resources, and then through a critique of how current media devalues teachers.

School Cheating Scandals and Privatization

“Any time you’ve got cheating going on by adults, that’s egregious.” Michael A. Davis, general counsel to the Philadelphia school district. (New York Times)

Recently, Philadelphia school officials discovered a testing scandal in which and administrators at some schools were caught doctoring answer books and even re-writing the answers of their students. The school community was shocked. Parents were outraged. But, when it comes down to it, what’s the big deal?

In my opinion, the cheating that has become increasingly commonplace in our nation’s schools is no longer an abnormality but rather the new standard that reflects a distinct shift in values. This shift shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has read a headline about the recent financial crises that favored big corporations over individual citizens. Nor should it come as a surprise to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to how frenetic the pace of school reform has become in the last decade. From charter schools, to scripted curriculums, to standardized tests, it seems that when it comes to improving our schools, there is a new flavor of the week, every week. And yet we find ourselves still asking how we will improve our schools, and why isn’t [insert current reform buzzword here] working?

The above quote by Michael Davis typifies an attitude that most of us would express over such a scandal. Schools, after all, are meant to be the conduit through which we reproduce societal values. Our democratic (American!) society values fairness and hard work, and it rewards individuals accordingly for their effort (ostensibly). As such, our schools have been set up to mold young citizens into this pattern. But if we take a closer look at the policy changes that have been heralded through schools in the last decades, we actually see that schools as meritocratic organizations have long been a thing of the past. Why is that?

Accountability. Everyone likes to know if something is working. And how do we know that schools are working? We look at test scores. These scores, as measured by various tests (MATs, PSSAs, CATs, etc.) aren’t a new concept. Performance indicators, such as these have been used for years for a variety of purposes. I remember looking at my test scores in elementary school and learning where I fell on a national scale. But standardized tests don’t just give students a window into their individual competitiveness anymore. Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed, they have been used as the go-to tool used to make decisions on what is now a grand and frightening scale.

Test scores now determine which students pass and which students fail. They also determine what passing and failing means. Test makers, not teachers, are now in charge of determining what the most important parts of the curriculum are, how much each topic should be emphasized, and how well students should know it. “Really?” you ask. Really. What used to be used as a comparative tool is now the machine used to steer national and state school agenda. Regardless of what the curriculum states or what might be in the textbook, teachers must ensure that their students have mastered the items that “could” be measured on a standardized exam. If students don’t grasp it, everyone faces dire consequences. Students will be retained in the same grade level or sorted into an educational track that perpetuates their current performance level through decreased curriculum depth and increased test preparation and basic skills instruction. Teachers in many districts can ultimately be dismissed for being “ineffective,” and “ineffective” is a label that is increasingly based largely on this sole measurement. Remember when someone asked you who your favorite teacher was? Doesn’t matter anymore. Your favorite teacher is now the one who gets you to pass the test. In fact, it no longer truly matters if teachers help students appreciate knowledge or learn to develop self-efficacy, because students are sorted, labeled, tracked, placed, and packed up for their future life based on the score they get on the MAT’s in third grade.

Wait a second, you say, this seems a bit unfair. Why do we rely on one test score to determine a student’s worth? In the next series of blogs on this topic, we’ll actually explore some compelling analyses of why the nation has turned to scores. But to wrap up this particular piece on the Philadelphia cheating scandal, I ask you to draw the line yourself. If we increase the importance we place on singular standardized tests, and these tests now determine the trajectory of a student’s career, and at the same time we remove the authority from teachers/schools/communities to define what is important to learn, then what do we expect to happen? Whose values are we reproducing in our students?

The pressure has been raised to a fever pitch – students, teachers, and schools are in a sink-or-swim game of survival. Meanwhile, we are relying on an incredibly small population to tell our schools (and us) what to think and what matters. And while our democratic (American!) values used to include hard work and individual effort, it now values something else. Efficiency. And what could be more efficient than teachers and principals taking matters into their own hands to pre-determine the next class of winners?

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Student Vouchers

Continuing the topic on Lithuania’s educational reforms from my last post, I will take a more detailed look at the student voucher policy for financing education in Lithuania. But first, some background on how the concept originated, what student vouchers are, and what are the pros and cons of the student voucher policy.

History

The origins of the student voucher idea can be traced back to 1792, when Thomas Paine, a British economist, proposed a “voucher scheme” – a special allowance of 4 pounds per year for each child up to the age of 14 – in order to finance education. The first education financing policy that most closely resembled student vouchers was implemented in the state of Vermont, in 1869. This policy allocated funding for rural families who wanted to send their kids to schools in other regions, essentially giving them school choice; a similar policy was adopted in Maine soon after, in 1873. Finally, the first one to define and describe the modern concept of student vouchers in detail was the American economist Milton Friedman, in his article on “The Role of Government in Education” in 1955. Even though the US is the biggest proponent of free market principles, and even though it has the two oldest student voucher policies in VT and MA, the policy is not widely implemented throughout the country today, with only 12 states employing a partial student voucher policy.

Concept

Despite the different definitions and implementations of student vouchers, the basic common premises behind the concept are the following:

  1. School choice – allowing parents, as the “true customers of the service of education”, to choose freely to which school to send their children.
  2. Competition between schools – introducing more effective implementation of funds, improving the quality of education, and creating a wider variety of educational options.
  3. Higher degree of parental involvement – increasing the personal interest of parents in the educational process and making them more responsible for their children.
  4. Better access to education for underprivileged and special-needs families.

The first two premises are highly influenced by free market principles, extending competition and efficiency to the realm of education. However, there are many criticisms of using economically based market principles in education, leading to controversy and debate.

Pros and Cons

The debate on student vouchers as an educational financing policy can be summarized in the list of pros and cons below.

Pros Cons
More effective allocation of funds in schools due to competition In the long term, only the popular schools benefit, while the least popular ones incur higher costs
Increased transparency of educational financing, due to the elimination of individualized subsidies and the need for lobbying Due to the need to attract as many students to a school, administrators and teachers are more willing to “give more slack” to underperforming students or even create fictitious students to maintain funding
Increased quality of education due to competition The intended increase of quality of education due to competition might backfire, especially when the options of schools to choose from are limited
Emergence of private schools and the ability of public schools to learn better practices from the private sector Underprivileged or special needs students might still not be able to choose better private schools due to their entrance requirements
Increased variety of schools in terms of informal education options Higher curricular freedom of private schools might undermine the national educational goals and strategies
School choice Increased social inequality
Increased response of school administrators to the needs and wishes of students and parents Any fluctuations in student numbers and, hence, funding, creates a feeling of instability and employment uncertainty for teachers
Higher parental involvement in the educational process of their children

Lithuania

The student voucher educational reform was introduced in Lithuania starting 2001, with a voucher of 1521 LTL (~570 USD) per student. This amount has more than doubled to 3800 LTL (~1430 USD) for the 2012-2013 school year; however, this does not reflect the dramatic decrease in the numbers of students in schools in the emigration-age of post-global-financial crisis and free migration within the EU.

The effects of the student voucher policy in Lithuania are seen to be more negative, or insignificant, than positive. The main critics of the policy are teachers and teachers unions, who experience chaotic and unstable working conditions with the decline in student numbers, especially in rural areas. In small towns and villages, there are not enough schools that could benefit from competition, causing the disappearance of small schools and firing of teachers.

Moreover, the actual distribution of student voucher funds is questioned, as school administrators use the funds not for professional teacher training, but for general expenses, such as remodeling facilities or paying utilities. The current main allocation of student voucher funds – 95% for teacher salaries – is also questioned, with some political attitudes to completely abolish the student voucher policy.

All in all, it is very important to consider the specific context of a country when trying to implement such policies as student vouchers. It is reassuring that the policymakers of Lithuania are aware of all the pros and cons of student vouchers and that a critical debate on the issue is present.

What is the function of standardized testing for Public Education in United States?

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“Testing, testing, testing, the children are crammed with testing,” said Mr. Milton Gaither, PhD (2013). I often heard that standardized testing is a mandate for students in most grades in public schools in America and I am wondering what is the role of standardized testing for children? What are the objectives of public education in the United States?
We all know that one of the objectives of education is to prepare students for academic success and good citizenship. It is well known that America is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Yet there is still a high rate of poverty, unemployment, inequality, violence, and crime here. Although we must not take it for granted that education will solve everything, it’s obviously a tool for social change.
According to the Associate Press of Commercial Broadcast Television Network in Washington, DC (CBSDC/AP), 16% of Americans live in poverty and it increased from 49 million to 49.7 million in 2011.  Of those living in poverty, 20% are children. Based on the International Labor Organization (ILO) data, as of February 2013 there are about 16% of youth who are unemployed;this percentage is high compared to other OECD countries, according to Guardian.
Another shocking statistic is regarding crime in public schools in America. For example, during the school year 2009-10, 85% of public schools recorded one or more criminal incidents. There were about 33 students associated with violent deaths and an estimated 1.9 million crimes took place in schools. Meanwhile, gang activities and bullying are increasing in public schools, according to the National Center for Education statistics (2011).This context prompts a number of questions. Should the school curriculum be more meaningful and reflect current issues in America? What are the solutions for the state in reducing unemployment, crime, and promoting poverty reduction? Shouldn’t education be playing a better role? Is basic literacy and numeracy enough to make someone educated?
Education also aims to develop students’ behavior and put them on a path to success, in addition to hopefully settling social issues.  However, there is a disconnect between the school curriculum and the context of America. For example, standardized  testing in public schools is a mandate for the students in all grades. Basically, the students are trying to work hard just for the testing.
I would suggest that standard assessment test should be more meaningful than current standardized test.If we say that education aims to prepare students for success, then I would say that project-based assessment test is very useful for the students. According to the Globalschoolnet.org, project-based assessment is an effective tool to measure the performance and the growth of the students through their project-based learning. The assessment strategies include the multiple instruments such as performance, observations, evaluation, personal communications, quiz, and others. The function of the project-based assessment contributes to the future works of the students, for example, the project design, implementation, and evaluation.  I think the project-based learning is a better way of learning how to work and to achieve something with a clear mission in any field of work. The students could see their achievements at the end of the project.
In his blog, Andrew Miller recommends the formative assessment for the project-based learning, which includes exit slip, worksheet, and draft or quiz due often. The formative assessment is conducted as an ongoing process and keeps track of the project-based learning to make sure it is transparent for the students and the parents. It also measures the work toward the standard of each student’s performance.
In all, the standardized testing for almost all grades is a waste of time. We do not need to have standardized testing for most grades in public schools in order to improve basic literacy and numeracy for the students. The school curriculum should reflect the current context of America, yet the standardized testing tends to take a huge part in the curriculum. Because standardized tests are mandated, students have to spend the majority of their time  preparing for the test rather than learning many important things in the current context of America. On the other hand, the assessment test should be more useful for the students. The Project Based Assessment Test seems to be more meaningful than standardized test in terms of preparing students for their success and future lives.

Common Core Standards

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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?

Turkey’s Private Tutoring Sector Shutdown: Blessing or Chaos?

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On September 9th, 2012 Turkish Prime Minister R.T. Erdogan announced his proposal to shut down all after-school private tutoring institutions within a year, and possibly turn them into publicly funded private schools. There are over 4,000 institutions that offer private prep courses, known as the dershane sector, which serve over 1.2 million students every year. The dershanes employ over 100,000 people, over half of them being teachers, and bring in an estimated revenue of $2 billion annually. (Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, 2011).

This announcement, of course, generated a heated debate amongst the educators and broader public across Turkey. Interior Minister Nihat Ergun commented on the issue saying, “the dershane system has become unsustainable, and has almost replaced the regular school system” (Hurriyet, 2012). During the last year of high school especially, in order to prepare for the Access to Higher Education Exams (YGS-LYS), students will often only worry about their dershane studies, and neglect their regular school work. In fact, it is quite common for students to stop going to school a few months before the exam just to make more time to cram and memorize as much as they can. Students usually begin going to these private tutoring centers as early as middle school, to begin preparing for high school entrance exams for prestigious high schools. 

In response to this, the Ministry of Education had announced in 2004 that high school GPA’s would have a larger significance in the amount of points added to the final exam score. This was done in hopes to increase the significance of formal schooling in a setting where private tutoring takes priority. Unfortunately, this move didn’t do much in terms of lessening the pressures of the YGS exam, nor did it really affect student’s attendance levels during the second half of the school year.

So how exactly did Turkey’s educational policies come to be this way in regards to exam-driven learning and this push toward private tutoring facilities? There are many facets to this issue, but one way to look at it is by questioning the quality of the public education system in place.

“In the developing countries, deficiencies in the educational system such as inadequate number of universities, large class sizes and low public educational expenditures are often cited as the reasons for the high demand for private tutoring. As such private tutoring can be regarded as a market response to the mediocrity in the public school system” (Kim and Lee, 2001). Because the public school curriculum does not provide adequate tools to prepare students for the selection exam, students who wish to attend college are forced into private courses, assuming they can afford it. While nearly 2 million students take the YGS every year, less than 300,000 are awarded spots in schools. Of the students who take the exam, over 50,000 receive a zero. We can deduce the intensity of competition when taking these figures into consideration. When looking at PISA levels, it was found that in Turkey there is a “high level of correlation between the student’s socioeconomic background and her/his achievement in the test. This is the highest value among OECD countries after Hungary and Belgium.” (Blanchy & Sasmaz, 2009) If there is a persistent lack in the system in supporting students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, those students will continue to remain at the bottom of the spectrum, lacking the skills and competencies necessary to succeed. 

If the government chooses to close down the dershanes, won’t students who come from higher socio-economic backgrounds still find ways to obtain private lessons, turning these prep courses into some sort of underground ordeal? Perhaps they wouldn’t be to the full extent of 15-20 hours/week lessons that the dershane provides, but either way shouldn’t it be up to the family to decide whether or not to send their child to prep classes? While I agree that dershanes do create inequality in opportunities, it should be taken into consideration that perhaps they aren’t the cause of the problem, rather the result of the bigger underlying problem that is the quality of education in public schools. Students who live in less economically advanced regions and have limited access to educational resources will have even less of an opportunity to attend college if dershanes are shut down without an effective system in place to narrow the educational gap.

It is obvious that the issue is much deeper than the inequalities that may arise from the dershane system; rather, the issue is with the failure of the public education system across Turkey in and of itself. Without fixing the foundations upon which the public school system stands, the need for after school prep classes will not subside. Taking away the choice or freedom to educate your children, however you see fit, certainly isn’t the solution, not in the short term, at least. If public schools cover the topics necessary to pass the college entrance exams, over time students will rely less and less on after school private courses. Eliminating them altogether without a serious plan to reform public school curricula would only bring about chaos.

Is the Gaokao Doing its Best to Help Education in China?

As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural, northwest China, I taught English at a university that was known for having low-level students. In my first writing class, I had the students warm up by free writing for five minutes about a given topic. One of the topics was “their biggest regret.” All but one of the students in my 30-student class revealed that not studying harder for the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam, and getting into such a terrible university was the thing they regretted most.

Was this really their fault though? Like most other countries, China struggles with some form of inequality. Ask your traveling Chinese friends where they are from. It’s probably somewhere you’ve heard of, Beijing or Shanghai. Most of my students have never left their province. They would never dream of asking their parents for that much money. And also like most other countries, this inequality can be heavily reflected in the education system.

In China, education is compulsory until the 9th grade. Then students can decide to test into senior high school to prepare for college. Starting around age 12, children in China begin to spend most of their time at school. They study from the early morning hours to very late in the evening with small breaks for lunch and dinner. Most of them spend this part of their life studying for the infamous gaokao. This exam is administered once a year and takes place over 2-3 days. Students are tested in Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language. They also have to option of taking a science or an art section. If the student does not like his or her score, they have the option of repeating their senior year and then the exam. Before the gaokao students choose three universities, based on their anticipated results, to receive their scores. The last one or two are usually safety schools. The student will know which university they will attend once they receive their scores as each university has a cut-off score. In theory, it is the only thing a university looks at when considering a potential student and it will eliminate the inequality when they select students.

The results of this exam will dictate their future. Many of my students talked to me about their last year of senior high school, just before college. They spent the entire year studying only for the exam, in class and out, yet they still felt they did poorly. This article from the New York Times article tells the stories of a few individuals around their time of the exam, as does BBC’s video Gaokao Fever.

Close to 10 million students take the gaokao each year, and of those, around 75% are admitted into colleges. This is pretty high considering it is the only thing that will admit them to school. There is a huge drop-out after compulsory middle school. Some provinces estimate up to 40% of their students do not continue with their education after grade 9.

The gaokao not only determines the student’s school, but also their major, which depends on their scores in each section. Once a major has been given, it is very difficult to change and happened to only two or three of the 500+ English majors I taught. This may be changing though, and varied throughout the country. In a conversation with a college English teacher from another area of China, she said, “My school has given students more freedom to [change majors]. Nearly everyone can in the first college year, but only a small portion of students have done that. I don’t know if it is because it’s a common practice in universities now or just because we have a new school president who’s very liberal.” I think what’s most interesting about this is the students do not wish to change their major. This may indicate that the gaokao is doing what it is supposed to do, putting students in majors that fit them best, at least with this particular university.

It’s hard to say whether creative thinking or accumulation of facts is the better education philosophy when most of us have only grown up with one or the other, but even the policy makers in China are starting to change their idea as the economy grows and they face the challenge of keeping up with the rest of the world. Is that because the west has the money and power? Or do the Chinese really see a need for change?

You and Hu (2013) examine the recent policy changes that have been taking place. Where should the reforms start, in the national curriculum or within college admissions? The policy makers of China see the need to diversify their education system while the educators look to tradition for guidance. Like all other countries, China is struggling with the rapid developments of economy and preservation of its culture. A high school teacher recently revealed some of her struggles asking, “How teachers are supposed to integrate western teaching methods when they are busy preparing the students for the gaokao?”

If the universities do begin to diversify their selection process, guanxi, the very cultural relationship factor, may very well impede the harder working students. The gaokao is designed for equity. If the policy makers open the college application process up to resumes and interviews, it may be much easier for families with power and money to pull strings and get their children into top universities.

If a new “quality education” does make its way out of these policy reforms, what will the system look like? And how long will it take?

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Myschool’ Website: Short-Sighted Policy on Public Vs Private in Australia

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The public and private school debate has elevated in Australia.

While choice has always been part of Australian schooling, governments of all political hues have been enhancing their commitment to educational choice by increasing funding to the non-government sector (Forsey, Davies, & Walford, 2008).

 The Australian Minister of Higher Education has spearheaded a project spending $3 million on research and creating a website “Myschool” that uses national standardized tests to compare performance of socio-economically and demographically similar schools across the country. Any parent and community member can now search and compare profiles of almost 9,500 Australian schools.

The launch of the website has raised several major issues regarding the private versus public debate in the field of education, questioning sociocultural ideology behind school ‘choice.’

There are several issues not only with school choice but also with how the website goes about comparing such schools. Forsey et al. (2008) note several reasons for why parents find ‘school choice’ so crucial. The first is self-segregation (a trend of a specific population group trying to separate itself for self-interest) – otherwise known as ‘white flight.’ It often results in wealthier families self-segregating themselves in better performing schools. Other reasons include higher level of placement testing (schools with higher average of standardized test scores) and concerted cultivation (parent expectations for structure and child-rearing support through the education system.)

It would appear that the government run website has embraced these facts, stating specifically that its purpose is to “locate statistical and contextual information about schools in your community and compare them with statistically similar schools across the country.”

How does the website compare such schools? This is where more problems arise…

The website compares the socio-economical background with the schools performance in ‘NAPLAN’ testing. The socio-economical status is judged by examining family background information provided to schools directly by families, including parental occupation, and the school education and non-school education levels they achieved. In some cases, where this information is not available, ICSEA uses Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census data on family background to determine a set of average family characteristics for the districts where students live. Where as the NAPLAN is based on two subjects (literacy and numeracy) and includes 40 questions. NAPLAN collects data on a national level every two years and it forgoes arts, science, health, music and the ability to function as a part of the community. It thus reflects an extremely narrow conceptualization of the broader purposes of schooling.

Another controversial point is about the use of the data on the school background (ICSEA), i.e. where the school sits on the socio-economic scale. The website shows whether a particular school is doing better, worse or about the same as schools that are statistically similar in their demographic group. In a way, it is directly naming and shaming Australian public schools and specifically singling out those in the lower socio-economic areas.

Another related and highly contested issue is the use of public funds in the private sector. The below numbers, which are taken directly from the website, reveal the funding of one of the most elite private schools in Sydney compared to one of the low-achieving public schools. When looking at the below charts, on the surface, a reader would notice both some discrepancy in the amount of money spent per student and unbelievably different academic results.

Private: Sydney Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney, NSW
  Total Per Child
Federal Funding $2,593,487 $1,644
State Funding $1,747,072 $1,107
School Fees $33,278,400 $21,089
Total (including deductions)                                             $34,134,46 $ 21,631
Public: Chifley College Shalvey Campus, Shalvey NSW
  Total Per Child
Federal Funding $1,235,638 $3,051
State Funding $5,469,505 $13,505
School Fees $81,221 $201
Total (including deductions)                                             $6,843,842 $16,898

 

This can’t be all there is to education. Money in, against scores out.

The short-sightedness of comparing the scores of the wealthy private scores against the low socio-economic means we’ve already given up on the majority of our population in such areas.

But our seemingly poor scoring low socio-economic schools do so much more. Let’s for a second forget that these kids may have less educated parents or less resources at home to help bolster scores. Schools for these students are more than just a place to memorize grammar and mathematical equations. Shalvey School (listed above) offers home cooking skills (whether for the students or their family), fitness classes, healthy cooking classes, getting kids involved with club sports, Smith Family I-track program for 20-30 students being mentored online from business people in the community about goal setting and personal development, University of Western Sydney student mentoring with pathway, Impact club for outdoor, home handy man and film course, learning grounds program for Aboriginal students focusing on number and literacy development, classes for women to make prom dresses while learning about community issues.

The school also offers classes for parents on how to use of computers, help students with homework, use numbers around the house, and improve literacy.

These schools are making communities stronger, they are making communities safer and maybe, just maybe (although not in standardized tests) they are making these communities smarter.

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*Forsey, M., Davies, S. & Walford, G. (2008). The globalization on school choice? An introduction to key issues and concerns. In M. Forsey, S. Davies, & G. Walford (Eds.), The globalization of school choice? (pp. 9-26). Oxford: Symposium Books.