Some thoughts on Vietnamese education after listening to Diane Ravitch’s talk at Lehigh University

The talk by Diane Ravitch at Lehigh University made me reflect on Vietnamese education system. Though I have been working as a teacher in Vietnam for 12 years, attended numerous training courses, and listened to a myriad of talks about education reform in Vietnam, I have never had an opportunity to listen to any educators who can vehemently express disapproval of the current education policies. What I heard about school reform in the US in Diane Ravitch’s talk brought me a refreshing experience and helped me better understand Vietnamese education.

Since “Doi Moi”(renovation) process in 1986, together with the economic reform, Vietnamese education has undergone significant reforms in education and has seen certain achievements. However, teachers and students who implement and are supposed to benefit from these reforms are almost always voiceless. There are articles in the media criticizing some aspects of the education system. However, in Vietnam, it is nearly impossible to find an education activist like Diane Ravitch or Sir Ken Robinson who can overtly criticize national education reforms, arguing they are killing students’ inquiry, creativity, and critical thinking, and propose that drastic measures should be taken to transform education rather than reform a failing system. There was once a high-school teacher in Vietnam who quite often publicly fulminated against the corruption in the Vietnamese education system. However, his debating points were not well-received by most people who were used to taking the negative sides of the public education system for granted. After several years of being the lightning rod of criticism, his voice in the fight against education corruption is no longer heard.

Quite different from public education in the US, Vietnamese public education is not threatened by educational privatization because public schools are recognized to be of higher quality than private ones.  However, there is still a need to protect public education as the ‘civil rights issue of our time’ in Vietnam. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UNESCO,  which was passed nearly seven decades ago, states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” However, that right is not entirely ensured in Vietnam. Because public schools are underfunded, some students cannot enjoy free K-12 education.  Tuition and other hidden fees can become a burden for many households of students, including even primary students. The dropout rate after primary education is high, especially among students in rural, mountainous areas because their families cannot afford their education and/or child labor is more valuable than school attendance. Diane Ravitch is absolutely right when stating that poverty is among the root causes of low education standards.

Though there are no incentives and sanctions imposed on schools and teachers based on the results of high-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam. These tests not only drive teachers to teaching to the test, cause hierarchy among subjects, and lead to feeling “shame” and further marginalization among marginalized youth (Rich, 2003), but also make most students resort to purchasing private tutoring and consequently create “teacher corruption” (Dang, 2007). Unlike the US where low-performing students are offered free tutoring, private tutoring is a thriving market in Vietnam in which students (and their parents) – whether they are low achievers or high achievers – are the eager buyers of tutoring services, hoping to enhance their children’s academic performance and teachers are enthusiastic sellers, aiming to supplement their low income (Dang, 2007; Kim 2013). Private tutoring in Vietnam is not borne by the government’s encouragement to enhance the quality of public education like in the US. Its existence instead may threaten the quality of mainstream education. Private tutoring may “create disaffection” at school because students are bored with over-learning or they have learn the contents in advance during tutoring lessons. In addition, tutoring can decrease the effectiveness of teachers. Teachers may teach less during the school day to save their energy for the after-school tuition (Buchman, 1999) and students may have to attend lessons to please teachers (Dang, 2007). High-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam indeed directly or indirectly creates a fertile ground for private tutoring, which deepens the social inequalities between the rich and the poor, the rural and urban areas, and becomes a financial burden for many families.

I am totally convinced by Diane Ravitch’s argument that testing is “undermining education” and students’ academic performance and achievement should be evaluated through a process of learning rather than merely the test scores.  In order to improve education, we need to enhance the quality of teachers’ professional lives and increase their salaries rather than threaten to fire them. Above all, tackling poverty-related matters is the key to improving educational standards.

Sources:

Buchman, C. (1999). “The State and Schooling in Kenya: Historical Development an Current Challenges.” Africa Today, 46 (1), 95-116.

Dang, H. A. (2007). The determinants and impact of private tutoring classes in Vietnam. Economics of Education Review, 26(6), 683-698.

Kim, H. K. (2013). An analysis of the causes of shadow education in the era of the schooled society. The Pennsylvania State University.

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

Rich, W. (2003). Historical high‐stakes policies relating to unintended consequences of high‐stakes testing. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice,22(1), 33-35.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

The Uselessness of Standardized Education

During my junior year of high school, my class, the graduating class of 2010, sat down to take our last PSSA exam. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Exam, like most other state administered standardized exams, covers the subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, and now, science, and is administered with the intention of measuring students’ academic standards and how well schools aid and enable students to reach these proficiency standards. It is a painfully dry and boring exam. Junior year, we had three school days where this exam seemingly took over our lives. If you weren’t physically taking the exam, you were mentally distressed about the thought of going back to a desk and filling in a bubble sheet for three hours, or even better, writing a narrative essay about ‘your typical day at school’. For me personally, that subject has never been, and probably never will be one that evokes genuine excitement and interest.

Later that year I was having a conversation with a fellow classmate about our senior year schedules. As I ranted about trying to make sure I had sixth and eighth period free (to have the shortest school day possible), she mentioned how an acquaintance was being required to take an extra reading class in addition to her core requirements in the fall. It turns out a friend of hers made a bold move and filled out the reading portion of her answer sheet in the shape of an elaborate smiley face. While most of us found this defiant move entertaining, the reprimand of having to take an extra class was everyone’s worst nightmare.

An idea that I never had until recently was that maybe this classmate of mine was better off than any of us after pulling off such a stunt. While we lethargically plowed through the questions, succumbing to standardization and believing that our intelligence could be measured by the content in front of us, she wasted no time stressing about the idea that her intelligence would be defined by the pattern of bubbles filled in on a piece of paper. While we waited for our scores to be sent home so we could stigmatize or praise our intelligence according to arbitrary standards, she had the piece of mind and courage to believe that her intelligence could not be measured by a standardized test. In my opinion, she was right.

I have been inspired by Diane Ravitch’s stance on standardized testing. Standardized testing stifles creative and innovative thinking, which are two things that are valuable in our world’s twenty first century. Schools place too much of an emphasis on test scores, and preparing students for these tests, that the classroom no longer inspires creativity and critical thinking in a time when it is needed more than ever. In addition, standardized test scores are used as an indication of school success without taking into consideration any of the challenges that schools and students are facing. The needs of students taking these tests are not taken in to consideration, and because of this, entire schools are affected and in some situations, shut down. We cannot continue to allow standardized testing to be an indication of an individual’s or school’s knowledge and success.

Adopting a Holistic and More Liberal Approach to Education

On 10th of February, Lehigh University hosted Diane Ravitch’s lecture “School Reform: Finding Common Ground” at the Zoellner Arts Center. As a graduate student in Comparative and International Education, I felt pretty lucky to have the chance to attend this lecture and listen to Dr. Ravitch’s speech about the U.S. public education. Her arguments were really thought-provoking and eye-opening.

First, I would like to start with Dr. Ravitch’s statement about poverty. Underlining the fact that poverty and inequality are very prevalent in the U.S. society, she argues that holding public schools – including their teachers and administrators – accountable for their relatively low test scores is neither fair nor realistic approach. She suggests that we need to get to the root of the problem. It is a common mistake to state that education is the answer to all of our problems and expect that education will sort all our problems. It is more like a fantasy projection as indeed many of the problems that we have in education today stem from existing social and economic structures. As Ravitch concluded, we need to tackle the broader problems of poverty and segregation first.

Secondly, I would like to touch on Ravitch’s arguments about test scores. As Ravitch suggests, if a test does not have a diagnostic value, it is nothing other than a score. There is an increasing obsession with test scores worldwide, which compels countries to perceive that rising test scores are a sign of success. However, placing more importance on test scores and pushing for more testing make students focus on testing only rather than learning. Indeed, such an approach to education may not leave much room for imagination and creativity. In addition to that, strong push for standardized testing creates a sense of competition among students, which hampers interaction, collaboration, and effective learning. When high test scores become the final goal in education, then the question comes to mind – ‘What is education for?’

At this point, I would like to refer to Finnish education system, which usually ranks the highest on the PISA test. Contrary to common approach to education, Finland has taken a very different path. As Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg highlights in one of his speeches:

“I want nobody here in the room to leave thinking that Finland has the best education system in the world, that’s an illusion that has been created by foreigners. Because in Finland we don’t think of education as a global competition. We actually don’t care if we are better than anyone else. Education for us is for individual enhancement and for the common good.”

I think the secret of Finnish success lies in the way education is perceived. Education is not a global competition and should not be perceived as commodity in the labor market. Rather, education should be a common good and prepare students for life. As Ravitch says, we should have more zeal to make our society better through education, which is much more important than high test scores.

Finally, I completely agree with Ravitch’s recommendations regarding well-rounded curriculum, arts education, and physical education. Narrowing the curriculum and putting more emphasis on math and science have negative consequences on students’ learning. Education consists of both intrinsic and instrumental values and it should enable students to grow not only professionally but also personally. Therefore, a holistic approach to education would be more beneficial. For as long as students are not exposed to suitable conditions, which can foster their imaginative function and spark creativity, it will be unrealistic to expect that school graduates will reach their full potential, be aware of what they would like to do in their lives, and be motivated in their careers.

Teaching for America versus Teaching for Life: How the teaching profession is being undermined

Diane Ratich had a heated debate with herself on Tuesday night, as she took a playful approach to presenting both sides of the education reform debate. As someone who is relatively new to the educational field and reform debate, this type of presentation of the subject conveyed how truly frustrating finding common ground for real reform is and will be. Current leaders in policy are basing their arguments on false premises, arguing that our low test scores contribute to us falling behind as a nation. However, dropout rates are lower than ever and graduation rates are higher than they have been throughout history. However, that does not mean our schools are in good condition as right now our public school system is being undermined by privatization and by devaluing teachers as a profession.

As a student, I did not realize how heavy the results of my test scores weighed in measuring the success of my teachers. However, I do know I became a pretty good test taker rather effortlessly. This is one of the main takeaways that struck me from Ravitch’s talk. She notes how teachers are evaluated based on students they never taught and are a highly inaccurate measure of an effective teacher. She stated that teachers only have about 1-14% of an influence on students test scores. These are facts that decision makers are ignoring. Instead, they use test scores to justify firing teachers when in fact we need to figure out a way to retain teachers. The way we have gone about valuing our teachers throughout history must change, and she suggested the only way to do so is to ensure professionals are occupying the field. This led to another interesting aspect of Ravitch’s lecture – Teach for America.

As a college senior just last year, I was completely clueless as to where I would be heading in the next year and Teach for America had been sending a consistent influx of e-mails to me until it finally seemed like a pretty viable option for a person who did not know what she wanted to do. It also seemed like a good opportunity to do some good while figuring it out. While the motivation for pursuing Teach for America are often sought after with good intentions hoping to help with the shortage of teachers, I did not realize how profoundly  this undermines the teaching profession and our public schools. My degree was in environmental studies with a global studies where as teachers spend an intense 4-5 years during their undergraduate education learning and becoming masters of the profession. What does this portray to those who want to teach for life and for their career? Additionally, there are plenty of recent graduates who have an extremely hard time finding teaching positions which is where I do not understand the disconnect. Should Teach for America only hire education majors or people that want to continue in this field?

Thankfully, I was not accepted into the program because even with the five-week intensive program, I was in no way prepared to teach in front of a class. Most Teach for America members talk about how they struggle through their experience. However, they come out with a valuable experience that demonstrates their persistence and commitment to the cause, which definitely looks good on a resume for the next job. But what about those students who had that teacher? How are they effected by a par time teacher playing such a large role in their education. Overall, this is just a Band-Aid for the system, and ignores the larger problem at hand – poverty and inequality.

Allowing unqualified, inexperienced young people who have no real inclination to continue in this field to be put in places where there is often more unfavorable conditions, like poverty and inequality, offers little help to the students and suggests that anyone can teach. This also contributes to the devaluation of teachers in society, when really they should be valued the most.

It seems people in power have used this in addition to other methods, like charter schools, instead of addressing more macro issues, like poverty and leadership in schools. Ravitch suggests making sure principles are qualified in order to hire qualified teachers that are assessed based on their performance in the classroom, not on student’s test scores. This puts more pressure on the decision makers and the leadership of schools for improving our public schools as opposed to putting all the blame on teachers. Overall, policy makers must start addressing root problems instead of making decisions based on false premises that do not improve the landscape for public school systems in the long run.

Which way will education in America go?

As an international student in America, I did not know much about “No Child Left Behind” until reading Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” As a graduate student in a Comparative and International Education program, I have an advantage of gaining a wider perspective on the field. Ravitch started this book by sharing her personal experience of being a supporter and later a critic of the reform. It gave us an insight into how the reform was developed and implemented, and why Ravitch has changed her position in this educational reform.

What a beautiful slogan it is to call it “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB)! After getting to know the context, the reform was no more than just stimulating the growth of standardized tests in the United States. When many educators have been criticizing standardized tests, why did President Bush still push for it?

One of the goals of NCLB was that all students in all schools had to be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Surprisingly, setting this high standard was to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore, which were the targets of America. Growing up within the education system in Hong Kong, I particularly would not support the excessive emphasis on the academic results. One of the weaknesses of students from Asia has been a lack of critical and analytical thinking. Ironically, America would like to learn from us owing to the economic success in some Asian regions. The size of population and areas of America, Hong Kong, and Singapore has varied so much with very different cultures, history, and settings of systems. It also implies that each implementation could be a very different process which may lead to different consequences. Would the academic results and economic growth really have the direct correlation? I doubt it. The United States is famous for its technological invention. To name a few, there has been rising up of reputable companies including Apple Inc, Facebook Inc. Google Inc, and Microsoft Corporation. Will this shift towards standardized tests gradually diminish the strength of “Western education” in innovation?

During her talk at Lehigh University on Feb 10th, Ravitch pointed out that Shanghai has won the rankings of the international assessments. It was verified by the results shown in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009, according to CNN news. The world was shocked and overwhelmed by better performance of Shanghai’s teenagers in their mathematics, science, and reading than their peers in the United States, Germany, and Japan, though it was the first time that Shanghai participated in this tri-annual survey of the world’s school systems. Nevertheless, there is a cost for it as cheating commonly occurred among students in China. It not only happens in the national examinations in China, but also in the SAT examinations which Chinese students have to pass for entering universities in America. It is not a secret as these kinds of cases sometimes become visible in international media. It also becomes a widespread issue of underlining standardized test scores that educators in China have to deal with.

In addition, Ravitch (2010) also shared the research results documenting that there are not many differences in academic performance among public schools and charter schools. The gap between black and white students has not narrowed either after implementing NCLB. Unfortunately, the policy just further widened the gap of inequality, which was completely opposite to the original aim. At the end of the day, who should take the responsibility for the failure of “No Child Left Behind”? Why are the schools, teachers, and students the “victims” in this experiment, rather than the politicians or policymakers? Sadly, education reform is just like a gamble. Those who are in control would still enjoy obtaining considerable income and not receive any punishments. Instead, schools without good performance have to be shut down. Teachers and students are just “chess pieces” in their hands. This scenario has already illustrated the injustice in execution process, which did not only waste the resources, but also the time.

I totally agree with Ravitch that sustainability could only been achieved by improving curriculum, instruction, as well as working and learning conditions of teachers and students. If data or test score are the only driving forces for the schools leading students to learn about the STEM subjects, we can imagine how linear the society will be in the future. Where is the holistic learning environment that educators should provide for the next generation? How can students adapt when they go to the liberal arts colleges which the United States is well-known for?  Would it lead the decline of liberal arts colleges in the future? It will entirely change the dynamics of higher education in America as well. If these problems will not be taken into consideration and addressed seriously, ripple effects would definitely be created for the whole educational system.

References

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining                 Education. New York: Basic Books.

Diane Ravitch Speaks at Lehigh: A Strong Public School System is the Answer

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On February 10th, 2015, Diane Ravitch gave a very inspiring talk at Lehigh University about the “Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public schooling.”  Commenting on the public vs private school divide in the United States, Ravitch argued that privatization of American schools is a dead end to America’s education and that the real struggle and effort should be more centered on enhancing public schools’ performance.

Considering Ravitch’s background and her commitment to American schooling, she is best positioned to speak about the kind of reforms the nation’s schools need to undertake. Initially, Ravitch supported the legislation proposed by the Bush’s administration of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB); however, the NCLB turned out to be an abomination to the American public school system. In fact, this legislation has put more than one child behind and led to an unequal share of educational triumph. While the percentage of testing is successfully high in America, it is, however, considerably low in public school districts where poverty and unequal access to welfare plagues those disadvantaged communities.

During her speech, Ravitch role-played a debate, where she stood as her opponent and then gave straightforward answers from her own point of view. She advocates the right to premium access to public schools for all children in America regardless their race, ethnicity, religion or social background. One of the most powerful things she mentioned during her speech was referring to poverty and segregation as the roots of failure of American schools. Not only children in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States are more likely to perform poorly on the standardized testing but are also subjected to drop out quickly and easily from schools than white middle-class American children ever would. She says that instead of getting rid of teachers whose students have low testing scores, there should be an implementation of peer assistance and review to assess these teachers. Moreover, she proclaims that the professionalism of teaching should be reviewed and teachers should become proficient after ten years of training in order to enhance the profession and give it the value it should have in such an advanced society.

Still, those advocating for privatization of schools say that public institutions are mediocre and should become charter schools, parents should have the choice to send their children to better institutions where they would have better access to education and would be assisted closely to increase their performance on the standardized tests. From this perspective, according to Ravitch, education is viewed as a business opportunity, neglecting its core principle of equality of access to knowledge.

In order to break free from the standardized testing and stop blaming teachers and children for low test scores, Ravitch suggests some alternatives to promote and improve public schooling in America. She says that the issues should be tackled as early as the pregnancy phase, that pre-natal care should be administered to all mothers no matter their race or social status. Quality early childhood education should start around the age of three for children of different social backgrounds and funding should be made available to decrease class size and refine public schools infrastructure. Teachers should teach more and test less. In fact, Ravitch calls for a change in curriculum in order to prioritize arts and languages just as much as mathematics and reading. She argues that the marginalization of these subjects decreases the motivation and creativity of children in schools and in life. She asserts that there is no need for privatization of schools in America, but a reform that should benefit all children and not only the privileged ones. For America to compete with other nations, its educational system should be rehabilitated and renewed completely to meet all children’s needs and to put an end to segregation in America’s schooling system.

As I listened to Ravitch talk about students’ low performance on standardized tests and decreasing motivation and a lack of imagination among children, I could not help but remember Robinson’s book The Element, and his video about Changing Education Paradigms, where he calls for a reform of the educational system and curriculum to allow children to regain their power of imagination and innovation, while ending the era of mass schooling and standardized testing, where schools look more like manufactures that produce data  and are measured by the annual testing.  If education would continue to be seen as an area of economic interest and schools as for-profit organizations, then education would lose its fundamental function as a basic human right that should be accessed by each and every one of us no matter where we come from, what we believe in, and where we are headed.

Look to the Horizon: Education Reform Extends Far Beyond the School

There is much debate in education theory as to how a mass system of education should be structured in order to provide opportunity for every child. There is also debate as to the meaning of education, whether it should help students gain an understanding of life and their role in society, or rather to become recognized as a competent – and competitive – asset to the workforce and economy. I would argue that the United States focuses on the latter. This means that a proper education is often the only route to professional success, and therefore, those without access to a good education are often prescribed to fail.

The United States is home to many of the world’s most revered academic institutions, yet for many, primary and secondary public education is failing. Why is this? There is much discussion about how a system of education should be structured in order to provide every child with opportunities for success. Currently, it can be said that the U.S. system has adopted what can loosely be defined as the “conservative restoration,” combining two, often contradictory, theoretical backgrounds of neoliberalism and neoconservativism. Neoliberalism calls for the marketization of education, and neoconservativism calls for harsh standardization (Apple, 1993). This type of system pushes for school choice, the privatization of schools (charters, for example), yet also often unattainable standards in public schools. Many assumed this would lead to a better system overall because of market competition. What has actually resulted is the deterioration of the public system, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor. Those who have the means to choose better, more resourceful schools (which are often private schools) do so, while those in poverty are stuck in public schools that do not have the resources or infrastructure to support the children they teach.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was mandated by the Bush administration in hopes of bringing equilibrium in education (Ravitch, 2011). Through implementing high stakes testing, the goal was to find public schools which are failing, get rid of bad teachers, and give students the opportunity to choose where they go to school, with the expectation that everyone will win. 2014 (the end date of NCLB) has come and gone, and arguably, the end goal was not achieved. The United States is now struggling between a failing public education system, and the rise of for-profit charter schools and voucher systems. As NCLB has ended, it is imperative for the U.S. government to enact education reform that will bring positive change. How do we begin to do this? The answer, in my opinion, lies outside of the school system.

At the end of her speech at Lehigh University on February 10, 2015, Diane Ravitch listed about ten suggestions that she finds vital for school reform. Many of these included the provision of resources in all schools, yet others also extended to prenatal care and support for young mothers, and importantly, the need to attack the root causes of our failing education system: poverty and segregation.  I, personally, could not agree with her more. Education is not solely the institution of schooling – it occurs on a daily basis from the moment a child is born. If there is no familial support for a child in their home and wider community, a school cannot be looked at to provide this support, and every child cannot be expected to achieve the same level.  If our government were to focus on policies which would ensure that every child would receive support from the time they take their first breath, regardless of their social, economic, racial or familial background, I believe the success of students would grow exponentially. Further, I would be inclined to call for a shift of curriculum focus to that which fosters in every student a perspective that can identify differences – be it cultural, economic, racial, or moral, to name a few – and seek to understand them, and the commonality that can be found in the differences. We are all human, after all, and I believe we are all searching for them same answers. A successful school system can help us achieve that.

Sources:

Apple, M. (1993). The politics of official knowledge: Does a national curriculum make sense? Teachers College Record,     95(2), 222 – 241.

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

Chasing a Passion or Leaving Others Behind?

After reading “The Death and the Life of the Great American School Systems” and watching Diane Ravitch speak on how charter schools “have become in many communities a force intended to disrupt the traditional notion of public schooling” by “siphoning away the most motivated students” and resources from the public schools, I have been feeling torn and slightly guilty, as I have my daughter enrolled in a charter school. Since her first week in charter school three years ago, I have not questioned this decision. Like most parents, I want the best for my child, but now I have to ask myself whether that decision is contributing to the problems public schools face?

It wasn’t because I was unhappy or dissatisfied with the public school system that I transferred my daughter to an alternative public school. I believe that it was my daughter’s motivation that brought her to the Arts Academy Charter School. I’m not sure if I would have agreed for her to leave her public school if she wasn’t as motivated as she is. In fact, before deciding to enroll her in the charter school, I was skeptical about whether she would receive as good of an education as was available in her original school. My daughter has a learning difference and I was afraid that the charter school wouldn’t have the same resources needed for her success. She was determined to go to the charter school to explore her passion and to be able to spend part of the day doing what she loves to do – figure skating. So we looked into it and I was pleased with the information I received. I believe there has to be some type of motivation for attending any school other than public school. It takes some effort on both the student’s and parent’s part. In the case of my daughter’s charter school, students have to be motivated by having some type of interest in art, otherwise why would they bother going to school there?

How do we get all students to be motivated? Sir Ken Robinson states in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything:

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” (p. 238)

I believe there are public schools as well as charter schools that are succeeding at this, while there are some that are failing to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most public schools, they aren’t equipped to personalize education as there are too many students with a vast amount of interests. Discovering each student’s talents would take too much time away from focusing on standardized tests in Math & Science. This doesn’t leave much room for the teachers to foster creativity. While many charter schools are focusing on a particular interest of the student and have like-minded students attending their schools.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by tax dollars. In Pennsylvania, the school district of residence of each student is responsible for funding the charter school. The formula, set by the state, is based on the district per student operational cost from the prior year less certain federal reimbursements along with expenditures for facilities, transportation, and adult education. In general, the school districts must give about 20-30 percent less than what the state gives the district per student. This formula has been controversial because every time a student leaves the district, it hurts the traditional public school’s budget with their fixed costs. Another controversy is that some of the charter schools are profit-driven, benefiting large corporations and entrepreneurs. While there are some money-making opportunistic charter schools, there are some that struggle with funding just as much as the traditional funding schools do. There has been agreement on both sides that the formula which hasn’t changed since 1997 needs to be fixed to make the system more equitable.

“Without knowledge and understanding, one tends to become a passive spectator rather than an active participant in the great decisions of our time.” This quote by Diane Ravitch really resonates with me. Choosing to have my daughter attend a charter school that is not focused on profiting financially but on providing an education that enriches the lives of their students and inspires them to greater achievement, I believe is not contributing to the problem. Not being aware that there is a problem does contribute to it. It is important to educate parents and the taxpayers about the issues that we face in education and to demand the policy makers to make changes for a more equitable system that can provide the resources and motivation for all students. With the “knowledge and understanding” there is a greater chance for success and change over time.

References

Commonwealth Foundation. (2011). Charter School Funding in Pennsylvania http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/research/detail/charter-school-funding-in-pennsylvania

Hardy, D. (2014). So the charter funding formula is unfair – but to whom? http://thenotebook.org/october-2014/147728/so-charter-funding-formula-unfair-to-whom

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

Robinson, K. (2013). Finding your element: How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life. Penguin UK.

To The Victims of Testing: When Tests Can End One’s Life

Dear Diane Ravitch,

I applaud your courage to admit openly and publicly the mistake that was made with No Child Left Behind. It is unfortunate that healthy reflexivity is almost entirely absent from policy making today. Perhaps, if all policy makers as well as scholars are more open to reflect and possibly admit their mistakes, we could live in a different world today. However, my post is not about self-reflexivity, it is about victims of testing. I wish to devote this post to orphans in Russia who have suffered from mistakes in testing and evaluation. I would like to share two short real life stories that captured my heart and mind.

Galina is now about 28 years old. Her family abandoned her the day she was born. Galina was born with some physical disability. At the young age, she has been tested, evaluated, and diagnosed as “mentally retarded.” Do you know what that means for a Russian orphan to be labeled “mentally retarded”? It means a child will get minimum if no education; until the age of 18th, he or she will be living in an orphanage with minimum contact with the outside world. When these children reach their 18th birthday, they will be transferred to a mental asylum where they will spend the rest of their lives literally behind the walls. They will not get married, have children, get driving license – they will have almost nothing. Galina ended up living in asylum. However, curiosity and inner strength encouraged her to seek for a way out. In fact, Galina was an intellectual and a talented human being. She wrote a petition for the hospital administration asking to live on her own. It took three years for the administration to consider her appeal. Finally, she was granted a permission to live on her own, which is a very rare and an extraordinary case to begin with. Typically, if you are labeled as mentally retarded once, there is no way out. People do not like to admit their mistakes. Now, Galina is studying in a college and she has aspirations for higher education. She is a talented artist and she loves to draw and paint. She loves travelling and exploring the world. Galina is a protagonist of a recent documentary ‘Ten Percent’ by Elena Pogrebijskaya.

Galina’s case is extraordinary and cheerful. However, it is depressing and frightening at the same time. Just imagine if Galina, while being an intellectual and a talented human being, was placed in asylum for being “mentally retarded,” then how many other talents did we suppress and lock in asylums? How many lives full of potential, discovery, curiosity, and exploration ended up in the mental hospitals?

Galina, for sure, is not the only one who has been wrongly diagnosed by the virtue of human ignorance or human laziness to double check the “finding” or flaws in seemingly “objective and scientific” testing and evaluation, or human cruelty – or altogether. A good friend of mine, who is also an orphan, was called into court by the orphanage administration who wanted to prove that he is mentally retarded. For orphanage administration, it is sometimes easier to deal with “mentally retarded” as they get more funding from the government and at the same time they have less accountability – there is no need to provide education or provide housing. All of “mentally retarded” orphans will be transferred directly to asylum. Some people helped my friend to prove in the court that he is not mentally retarded. As a result, he was not placed into asylum. However, he had to live almost 6 years on the streets, as he did not have any housing. Despite the hardship, he did not lose his humanity. He managed to get a job, he is currently working in social services and he helps elderly people. Half of his salary goes to the government for renting a room to live. He applied for higher education for three executive years and finally got accepted. Remember, people wanted to prove him mentally retarded.

What would have happened to Galina if she did not have enough courage to defend her rights? What would have happened if there was no one to help my friend in the court? Both of them would be locked in an asylum with no rights to education, travel, marriage, and work under the justification of psychological and IQ tests’ results.

These are just two cases that demonstrate how wrong our “scientific” tests can be. The same applies to school tests, however…. How many lives did we lose for students committing suicides because of failing test scores? How many students with low tests scores did we discourage to further pursue knowledge? How many people in this world did we make feel bad and insignificant about themselves because of low tests scores? How many people suffered because of the incorrect testing and evaluation? How many victims of testing are out there?

Devoted to all the victims of testing…..
______________________________________________________
Here is the list of documentaries about Russian orphans:

1) Bluff, or Happy New Year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pGbQ_6Ervw
2) Mama I’m Gonna Kill You: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyBfZMZ6Tlo

3) Ten percent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V48fL1ysHqU