Confronting our Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes an intense emotional stress reaction experienced after an individual recognizes that they hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time (Festinger, 1957). This discomfort happens when realizing the logic that two things that oppose each cannot both be true. Cognitive dissonance can occur when an individual learns new information that conflicts with already held beliefs or when they perform a contradictory action to their belief. When people realize that their internal consistency is challenged, they get extremely distressed and will either do things or change their cognitions to bring that consistency back.

A simple example of cognitive dissonance is one that many of us have probably experienced. I have often told myself, “It’s time to eat healthier.” I make a pact with myself that I will cut some unhealthy foods from my diet. However, then a craving for frozen yogurt comes around, and before I know it, I’m on the way to get myself some froyo. I add all of the delicious candy toppings, and my attitude and my head tells me that my kind of frozen yogurt is unhealthy. I feel dissonance between my attitudes and my behaviors of eating it. Yet, I justify my decision to eat this unhealthy food and reduce my cognitive dissonance because “hey – at least it’s not ice cream.”

Cognitive dissonance occurs with my frozen yogurt consumption, as well as serious and systemic issues. It informs how we, as humans, deal with these things.

I think that humans are, at the core, inherently good. Cognitive dissonance exists in large proportions because if we were always aware of how unjust society is, we would be sad and angry all of the time. To deal with some of the horrors of the real world, we resolve our dissonance by making excuses, trying to rationalize, or ignoring injustice. With that being said, no progress could ever happen if we let our cognitive dissonance rule. The purpose of these three blogs is to address and challenge our cognitive dissonance in order to raise awareness to the important issues that plague our world.

One of the ways cognitive dissonance helps humans rationalize injustice is through the idea of meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy is the notion that people work for what they have, and successful people have worked for it and earned it. Thus, people in poverty and people who have not been successful didn’t work hard enough. This ties into the idea that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good life, if they try hard enough.

Although effort is incredibly important, this concept devalues the importance of systemic influences and blames victims of inequities. An individual is impacted by their overarching multilevel systems, and often, issues are stimulated by problems in the system, rather than in the individual.

In examining the myth of meritocracy and its role in cognitive dissonance, I will discuss the experience of homeless families. Typically, when someone thinks about the homeless, they automatically think of an adult man who has done something to deserve his homeless status. People in cities walk past homeless people thinking they are crazy, are on drugs, or are lazy. People’s cognitive dissonance leads them to think that the homeless person has done something to deserve their situation. Yet, people’s dissonant perception of homelessness and the myth of meritocracy are often wrong.

Although a majority of homeless people are adult men (67.5%), homeless families compose 1/3 of the homeless population in the United States (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). These homeless families typically consist of a mother in her late twenties with two children. In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 43,000 homeless children (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). Homeless children are more likely than other students to have mental health, physical health, and academic concerns.

Often, these homeless families are victims of circumstances that have led to their homelessness, due to systemic factors like unemployment, poverty, lack of affordable housing, and domestic violence incidents. The homeless family is just like any other family, struggling to support themselves, trying to help their children succeed in school, and caring about each other. When systemic influences put people in a compromising position, it seems impossible to get out of it. An example can be thought of in an experience of a mother who is fleeing, with her children, from an abusive partner. In this kind of emergency, this family needs to escape immediately. Often, this mother will have nowhere to go, and must stay in a shelter. Her income is dramatically lower, due to the absence of her partner, and she must work alone to support her children. In the crowded and loud shelter, she tries to maintain a normal life while balancing her lengthy job. She wonders how she can best support her children when the world has served her an unfair and grim situation.

Yet, when she begs for money on the subway, all people see is a woman trying to scam them to get money to buy drugs.

Our cognitive dissonance does not allow us to see the full picture, makes us jump to conclusions, and doesn’t allow us to think about the serious issues that impact our society. How can a school-aged child who is homeless and seeking shelter be successful at school? How can a single mother provide for her two children on one low-wage salary? How can we walk past a homeless person on the street and make judgments about their life? And, most importantly, how can I, as someone who is concerned about trying to justify my frozen yogurt consumption, stand idly by? I cannot – and therefore, by addressing and confronting my cognitive dissonance, I will fight against trying to rationalize injustice and will attempt to help others confront their cognitive dissonance as well.

 

 

References

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

National Center on Family Homelessness. (2008). The characteristics and needs of families experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.familyhomelessness.org/media/147.pdf

Cognitive Dissonance and Charity

A question that often plagues me is, is there true altruism, or do people do nice things to make themselves feel better? And, is doing nice things for others just another form of cognitive dissonance that helps people better realign their behaviors with their attitudes? While this might seem like a negative outlook, I think it’s important to examine the idea of charity. As I have said before, in the previous blog, I do think all humans are inherently good, so I am not trying to say that charity is anything besides people trying to be kind to others. However, thinking about what charity means, what charities we give to, and how that makes us feel is important.

Paulo Freire (1997), a revolutionary Brazilian expert in literacy, renowned thinker, and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, explains what he thinks about charity in terms of true charity and false charity. True charity, he explains, is having complete solidarity between oppressors and the oppressed. True charity shouldn’t be needed if solidarity and equality exists and if there is an egalitarian, fair, and socially just society. Yet, alas, we live in a world of capitalism and market economy. And people say that, within that system, there will always be winners and losers. That is where Freire’s idea of false charity comes in. False charity is when individuals who are part of the oppressing group donate resources with the intentions of helping the oppressed group, but those things actually don’t help the oppressed group at all. This often happens when the source of charity actually reinforces the oppression or the charity is not what the oppressed need. One might wonder how an act of kindness and charity could possibly reinforce oppression. How can an act of kindness have these unintended consequences?

An example that we discussed in class involves fundraisers that come in the form of buying a good, and having some portion of the price of that good be donated to charity. This is seen often when the owning company or corporation donates some percentage of the value price of a good to a charity. This happens in coffee shops. A high-end coffee shop will charge $5 for a specialty coffee and say that with the purchase of this drink, they will donate $1 to children, or some form of charity organization. What the common person sees is an easy way to help out, because they happened to be buying a coffee anyway. So people will donate, believing that their $1 is aiding someone somewhere. Cognitive dissonance has happened here. The kind soul that has just donated their dollar feels an emotional reaction to the thought of needy children, while they are so lucky to be buying a specialty coffee. Therefore, by donating $1, this person is able to make their emotional reaction go away, because they have helped these children. What has really happened is that the company has taken advantage of human goodness and the human reflex to help others. They have provided an easy way for people to rid themselves of their cognitive dissonance. “If I donate $1, it’s ok that I can drink my fancy frap-chino-latte-whatever while other people can’t find water.” This money, while $1 might truly go to some people, also gives $4 to sustaining that coffee corporation. This is a corporation that probably has high stakes in making a profit and sustaining the market economy, which in turn thrives in exploiting people, sustaining injustice, and keeping the status quo, which leaves some children needy. This is false charity – where a person’s actions actually work to maintain the unjust society that is the reason why people need the help of charity in the first place.

Another form of false charity is when an oppressive group gives an oppressed group what they think they need, not what they actually do need. This aligns with the idea that the oppressors know better than the oppressed about what they need. A common example of this could be seen in programs that donate gifts to families, in which people buy things for families who might not have the resources to buy presents. When a person gives to these families what they think they need, without even stopping to consider asking what they might need, this could be false charity.

There is also false charity in people completely scamming people’s goodness and selfishly taking money. The U.S. Navy Veterans Association raised $100 million in contributions from donors who believed their money was going to needy veterans. Yet, this association was false and money went to fundraisers, the creator, and Republican lawmakers (Stern, 2013). This foundation is certainly a false charity that played on people’s cognitive dissonance and took full advantage of them.

I am not saying that giving to charity is bad. Rather, I am saying that it is worth considering why and how we give back to those less fortunate. We need to make sure that donations are actually helping others and it is not simply a way to make ourselves feel better and alleviate our cognitive dissonance. People should consider using websites like http://www.givewell.org/ that do research to ensure that charities are evidence-backed and vetted. We must always consider the unintended consequences of our actions to make sure that our intentions align with our behaviors. Our desire to decrease our cognitive dissonance and give to those less fortunate is great, as long as we address the realities of the issues and ensure that we are, in fact, doing good.

 

References

Charity Reviews and Recommendations, Retrieved from: http://www.givewell.org/

Freire, Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Herder and Herder: New York.

Stern, K. (2013). The Charity Swindle, The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/opinion/the-charity-swindle.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar&_r=0

 

Cognitive Dissonance and No Child Left Behind

Students thrive in a school environment where they are able to interact with their teachers, have more individualized learning plans catered to their skills and needs, and feel safe in the school community. My best learning experiences were in community-based classes that fostered analytical thinking and asked me to challenge what I was being taught. However, we live in a nation where schooling is typically not like that. To better understand the experience in schools, I interviewed my friend who is a preschool teacher with experiences in classrooms of pre-K, kindergarten, and second-grade. She describes that, “the only time that I have had free reign to be creative with my teaching was as a preschool teacher, where there was no pressure to teach to a test because tests don’t exist at that level. Students any older than that are always preparing for some sort of test, whether that is a simple quiz, a unit test, or a state exam. The fact that schooling is so based around exams limits your freedoms as a teacher.”

We know that all students would benefit from a great education that is catered around individual needs, but not all students receive it, due to social, political, and economic factors. Our current policies on schooling are not helping to achieve the goal of quality education for all.

The wording of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pulls at the heartstrings, and it feels bad saying that you might disagree with “not leaving a child behind.” The act can be interpreted as a large-scale form of cognitive dissonance, an attempt to rationalize and forget why schools are failing.

The act aims to increase teacher accountability, raise standards of teaching, and ensure that students across the country are learning similarly well. It places an incredible emphasis on achievement testing, basing success of teachers and schools on students’ test scores. School funding, teacher salary, and school maintenance is all based on how students perform on tests. This places immense pressure on all people involved in schools.

Children feel pressure because they know that their teacher might get fired if they don’t score well on their test. On No Child Left Behind, this teacher says, “in theory it’s a good idea, but it was executed poorly. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to go to school and learn to the best of their ability, but it’s unfair that they’re expected to take all of these exams. There are the anxious test takers that freeze up when it comes time for an exam. It’s not right to do to the kids.”

Teachers feel like they need to base their entire curriculums around the test content, because their jobs and the students’ welfare is at stake. This teacher says, “in a large classroom setting, it’s difficult to cater to everyone’s needs because there are time pressures. The curriculums tell you specifically what questions to ask and how to teach it. In some cases, you’re pretty much given a script to read from, and that leaves no room for creativity at all.”

Administrators fear the test results because they dictate whether their schools will continue as usual or the government will take over. This act has instilled a sense of fear and tension within schools that are supposed to be safe havens.

The No Child Left Behind Act seems like an attempt at an easy fix to a system that needs be prioritized more by the federal government. It puts the education system into simple terms: if you score better, you get more funding. That ignores the systemic impacts on schools and students. It is easier for students in wealthy communities to score better on tests because those students do not have some of the same concerns as students in poorer communities.

In a case study example of schools in West Tallahatchie, Mississippi, as seen in the documentary “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” LaLee’s grandchildren spent their days trying to find fresh water, taking care of their family, and seeking out school supplies that they could not afford (Dickson, Frömke, & Maysles, 2001). How could a child who is looking for fresh water have time to do their homework? They do not have the same opportunities to succeed and are at a disadvantage in school. These children should be bolstered by the government. Their schools should be given more funding to help support the children who need it the most. No Child Left Behind does the opposite. It rewards the schools that are achieving the highest, which are typically not attended by students in poverty. It punishes schools that are struggling and could use help most.

This act feeds into the myth of meritocracy, essentially saying that lower achieving schools have not worked hard enough, and therefore should not be the recipients of more funding. What the act does not consider is the extreme hardships faced by students in poverty, and the systemic reasons why students are not achieving as high as their counterparts.

A system that only rewards schools based on achievement testing actually sustains an inequitable schooling environment around the country. When high stakes testing is the most important thing, it devalues the concept of the whole student and undercuts the quality and creativity of education. However, with a name like No Child Left Behind and an attitude that is trying to rationalize why some schools fail, this policy allows people to lessen their cognitive dissonance and forget about the schools that struggle the most. This policy allows people to make sense of the fact that some students are achieving much lower than others, and that is not ok. The education system in our country should work to support children who need help, not punish them.

 

References

Dickson, D., Frömke, S., & Maysles, A. (Directors) (2001). LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. United States: HBO.

No Child Left Behind, Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml

An Educator Encouraged His Dauther to Drop out of High School?

The Business of Education

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/06/27/36heller.h33.html

In the interest of full disclosure, I know the author of this article personally.  His older daughter is good friends with my girlfriend, as they graduated the alternative-option The Delta Program, affiliated with State College Area High School (PA) together in 2011.  I actually got to know the Heller family quite well as I celebrated my first Hanukkah in their East Lansing home last year.  I have had only a few education-based discussions with Dr. Heller, mostly trying to convince him to apply for the Presidency at my alma mater, Penn State University.  However, I know he is a brilliant man, incredibly highly respected in the education field and is very simply, a “good guy”.

So why would the Dean of Education from Michigan State University allow his daughter who, by all accounts is incredibly smart, leave high school without earning her degree.  Is this an example of professional hypocrisy?…

View original post 690 more words

The iPad Orchestra

When my younger brother was little, his special education teachers gave him a large, bulky device to help him communicate and verbalize what was always stuck in his head. He could form sentences through words and pictures, and then click on the large white box at the top of the screen for a monotone voice to read out what he put together. Of course, given my brother’s sense of humor, he enjoyed making silly sentences and blasting them at full volume for all to hear. In addition to adding humor, his device helped him sound out words that we could not understand, making him a more confident speaker.

My brother was diagnosed with autism far before the world of iPads, iPods, iTouches, and i-Everything elses. He had always been interested in technology, and his school enjoyed testing different types with their students. Recently, there have been more and more articles published about apple products being used for special education purposes, helping to “deepen engagement, communication, and creativity” in classrooms around the world. I find the most interesting use of this application in the special ed. music curriculum.

A PS 177 music instructor in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, New York uses tablet computers to reach his students with disabilities. The entire band is made up of students who all play traditional musical instruments and iPads. Yes, that’s right – they play iPads. The iPad now has applications that allow people to produce complicated orchestral-style arrangements, allowing people to play all kinds of different instruments at the same time with just a push of a button. Instead of having to learn the intricacies of different instruments, students can play with the sound of different notes in creating music. This is especially close to my heart because my brother has always loved creating music.

support.apple.com

support.apple.com

This iPad revolution is not exclusive to the United States. On June 4th of this year, an exceptional educator from the United Arab Emirates received an award for “bridging gaps between children with special needs and their classmates by creating the first electronic tablet orchestra that includes children with special needs in the UAE.” This teacher, Hanan Al Attar, is a music supervisor at the Sharja Education Zone, and agrees that replacing traditional musical instruments with the iPad is a good solution to a short supply of instruments. Her orchestra is comprised of 68 children with both mental and physical disabilities.

Why are iPads so effective for special needs children? Educators believe that the combination of clear, big, and bright visual cues coupled with the easy-to-use touchscreen make it simple for kids to use without creating a visual or sensory overload. The iPad has therefore been significant in changing the way that people look at others with disabilities. Karen Gorman, the director of Assistive Technology for New York City’s Public Schools, and Hanan Al Attar agree that people are starting to look at the talent of students rather than at their disabilities.

Apple has published a video themselves to highlight their great contribution to the special needs community. The video profiles three schools, one in the Czech Republic, one in Japan, and one New York’s District 75, the world’s largest special education district. In all three locations, there seems to be an emphasis on “the individual learner.” Special needs students each have a wide range of abilities and disabilities, and each must therefore have a specialized education plan for maximum success. The iPad has allowed students to learn socially through different virtual games and simulations. Activities in such activities include washing their hands before eating or turning off the stove before leaving the room. The iPad can also perform the same function as my brother’s old device, allowing students to form words and sentences via pictures and sounds. Apple claims that their product has the potential to make the nonverbal verbal, and to enhance the social, emotional, and academic performance of special needs students across the world.

Though the iPad is more expensive than individual instruments, I completely agree with its use in a special needs music classroom as well as its use in other special education classes. The special needs community is a part of the student population that is often times segregated into separate schools, even though students greatly range in their abilities in each school. I think that the iPad has the potential to promote an individualized education and special attention to students, as well as expose them to the new technologies that are being exposed to all students across the mainstream and disabled spectra. As technology continues to change, educators and policy makers should use it to their advantage in promoting new learning opportunities. And these opportunities should clearly not be exclusive to the mainstream population.

“Get the door. It’s Domino’s!”

In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture began to raise nutrition standards for foods served in schools, causing consumer advocates and nutritionists to believe that fast foods would disappear from school lunch lines. This did hold true for many commercialized products, as most fast foods did not meet these new “healthy” standards. However, some food giants like Dominos began to use these new rules to their advantage, changing their already existing products to fit in with the reformed school nutrition guidelines.

Sensing that this change would come, Dominos quickly looked toward its research and development team in developing a new type of pizza eating experience, designed specifically for school-aged children. In 2010, Dominos introduced the “Smart Slice,” which has 1/3 less fat, 1/3 less salt in the sauce, and 1/2 of the fat in the cheese. It also uses 51% whole-wheat grains as opposed to exclusive white grains that have more sugar. In 2010, the “Smart Slice” was being delivered to school cafeterias across three states. Now, this has expanded to over 3,000 lunchrooms in 38 states. I think it’s about time for some critical Domino’s-inspired analysis.

as.lsu.edu

as.lsu.edu

First, let’s look at the actual extent to which Domino’s has made a drastic nutritional change to their pizza. If we look at the nutrition information on the Domino’s website, it does not specify the calories for one slice of pizza. Instead, let’s look at the smallest pizza size, the 10”, which is designed for individual consumption. Domino’s reports that for a small, 10” thin crust pizza the serving size is 1/4. That is much smaller than one regular slice of pizza. I speak from collegiate experience when I say that most people consume the entire 10” pizza, which is 880 calories – a calculation that Domino’s does not give on their website. And that’s just the thin crust! If we switch this calculation for “hand tossed” crust, which is what Domino’s is known for, the serving size magically changes to 1/6 of a 10” pizza at 200 calories. This means that this individual pizza would cost you 1,200 calories of the average 2,000-calorie a day intake.

The calorie count for the “Smart Slice” is most likely slightly lower than these calculations, although I cannot be sure because the nutritional information about this specialty is no where on their main consumer website. There is simply a beautiful picture of the “Anatomy of a Domino’s Smart Slice,” but nothing about overall nutritional content.

And if that wasn’t enough of an “ew” moment for you, we haven’t even gotten to the discussion about the effects of this commercial material on children’s minds! Dominos delivers these pizzas directly to schools, and “its trucks, employees, insulated boxes and lunch-line placards help imprint the company’s red-and-blue logo on the brains of students.” Students are becoming “brand brainwashed” in schools, and nutrition and consumerist experts warn that this will drive more students to head to Domino’s after school hours. Not only is Domino’s able to develop a loyal following of young eaters, but the “Smart Slice” creates a false sense of reality that Domino’s pizza, or pizza in general for that matter, is healthy.

Here’s the kicker: the “Smart Slice” is not available at any local Domino’s locations and the company has no plans to sell this type of pizza in their actual stores. So their increased adverting in schools may claim to be aimed at this “revolutionary” pizza slice, but I (and I hope most consumers) can see right through this type of immoral advertising.

Domino’s is not alone in this endeavor, and this is not a new phenomenon. For years, commercial companies have been promoting school-related projects, textbooks, lunches, posters, and more in the hopes of advertising to young children. It seems genius for these companies: reach a large number of young people who are likely to buy a certain product, and target them where they spend the most time exercising their brains. If students are learning important material while sifting through corporate logos and slogans, the advertising strategy is likely to work.

A Domino’s spokesman was quoted by the New York Times, stating, “Some schools like the branding because brands drive sales…”. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with this type of marketing tactic’s affect on students? Shouldn’t schools realize that equating one of the unhealthiest food chains with health is not such a good idea? I think it is time for a cold, hard look at these corporate sponsorships and their impact on the youth of America.

Who Doesn’t Want Permanent Employment?

Teacher tenure has stirred controversy among teacher’s unions, state unions, school administrators, and government officials since the policy first appeared during the late 19th century. A couple of weeks ago, three states and the District of Columbia eliminated tenure, claiming that granting teachers permanent employment may be harmful to students. On June 10th, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled, “Teacher tenure laws deprive students of their constitutional right to an education.” This is especially significant given that California is our nation’s most populous state. This decree has potential ramifications for education systems across the country.

Nine students from the Los Angeles school district brought forward the lawsuit, claiming that tenured teachers limited their access to equal educational opportunity. In California, teachers are eligible for tenure after just 18 months of teaching, which administrators and policy makers argue is not enough time to observe a teacher’s potential and/or effectiveness. The plaintiffs in the case argued that ineffective teachers are disproportionately placed in schools that serve low-income and minority students. Citing the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Judge Rolf Treu stated that “all students are entitled to equal education” and that “the current situation discriminates against minority and low-income students.”

 

Though I disagree about Judge Treu’s use of this historic court case in arguing against teacher tenure, I do understand the frustrations of students, parents, and administrators regarding ineffective teachers being granted permanent employment. Tenure laws do make it more difficult to hire and fire, which is concerning in schools that already do not receive enough funding. Struggling schools are sometimes left with ineffective or under-trained teachers, coupled with students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When the system becomes more rigid and teacher mobility becomes more difficult, the argument against teacher tenure is clear-cut: schools need effective teachers, and tenure has the potential to offer under-qualified teachers permanent positions, affecting students’ access to a quality education.

It may also be important to look at the tenure program from a monetary perspective. John Deasy, the Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, testified during the trial stating that, “It can take over two years on average to fire an incompetent tenured teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so…can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.” This opportunity cost is a significant expense to school districts that already have limited funding.

 

home.isr.umich.edu

home.isr.umich.edu

Though I agree that this is an unnecessary expense, I think that it is important to look at this case from the teachers’ perspectives. Teachers and state unions argue that overturning these laws would allow administrators to make unfair personnel decisions, including firing without legitimate cause. Many believe that the current tenure system preserves academic freedom, something that is slowly being taken away through the increased use of standardized educational tests and procedures. Tenure also helps attract talented teachers to a profession that does not pay as highly as others.

When this ruling is final, it will “prohibit the state from enforcing a law that gives teachers permanent employment after less than two years on the job.” Other states are impatiently watching this ruling to unfold, knowing that it will greatly influence tenure policies across the country.

Recently, the tenure debate was important enough to be featured on the front page of the New York Times website. But I do not think that enough educators, teachers, and professionals are talking about it. The fact that students brought forth the lawsuit proves that those within education policy are too scared to bring tenure into the spotlight. The debate calls for difficult questions and discussions about employment, teacher training, low-income versus high-income districts, and school funding. These seem to be the subjects that cause nightmares for policy makers.

Among all of this current, front-page debate, I still remain conflicted on this topic. I do sympathize with the argument against tenure, especially given what I know about ineffective teachers being disproportionately placed in under-performing schools. However, I also understand the attraction towards tenure in drawing talented people into the education field, providing job protection, and allowing academic freedom. Perhaps the reason why I am still so conflicted is because this issue rarely makes a newsworthy story. Rarely do students learn about tenure, not to mention those in the education field themselves. If this debate encompasses so many other important factors of education policy reform, shouldn’t it be at the forefront of discussion?

The Problems of the Unified State Examination in Russia

It was a warm sunny day in 2005. I was wearing my suit and tie. The day before, I followed advice of my English teacher and did nothing except relaxing. My classmates and I went to another school to take our first Unified State Examination (USE). I had my ID, a black gel pen, some snacks, and a dictionary (just in case) in my backpack. I had spent many hours with my English teacher on holidays and weekends and a few hours with private tutors, which together granted me with confidence for the test.

In 2001, USE was launched as an experiment in five Russian federal districts: Yakutia, Mari El, Chuvashia, Samara, and Rostov. In 2002, sixteen federal districts were added to USE. USE expanded to 47 districts in 2003, 65 in 2004, and 79 in 2006. Finally in 2008, the experiment reached every Russian school. Starting from 2009, the USE became an official tool for finishing secondary education and starting higher education. Certain regulations allow students to take USE before or after the announced dates.

The state examination is called unified because its results are used both for graduation from high school and for entrance into higher education. The USE consists of parts A (questions with multiple answer choices), B (questions require short written answer), and C (one or more writing assignments). A and B results are coded and processed by a computer. Qualified experts assess the C part. Russian language and Mathematics are mandatory subjects on USE, which are required for graduating high school. Three or more subjects are needed to apply for university admissions.

The universal examination is a recognized educational trendsetter in Russia. Universities are ranked by freshmen USE results. Teachers are awarded by their students’ USE results. Schools are rated by USE results. Private tutoring is proved to be a highly effective and marketable service for USE preparation. The USE assignments have transformed and continue to define school curriculum.

 

Numerous debates have taken place since the introduction of USE in 2001. The USE is expected to provide equal and just opportunities for every citizen of the Russian Federation to apply for any university admission if he/she meets requirements. However, students of nomadic schools (same citizens of Russia) who are striving to preserve their native endangered language, cannot meet requirements since their tutors cannot train them thoroughly. All tests, except foreign language, are in Russian. In 2009, the Russian Supreme court declined a claim for USE organization in other languages of the Federation. Children of native peoples left out of the system and obliged to study all subjects in Russian for getting a university degree. Moreover, foreign language will be the third mandatory USE as of 2020. In 2012, official reports stated that 2.9% Russia’s students failed the USE. Students who plan to apply for Arts and Humanities take the same Mathematics USE as future engineers.

The entire secondary education system is designed to prepare students for the standardized final testing. The USE caused a birth of State Final Assessment (SFA), which requires ninth-grade students to take two mandatory and three optional exams. Counselors state that exams are stressful for teenagers. There is some sense in it. Pressure starts at school when teachers motivate you by scaring of possible failure.

from ysia.ru

from ysia.ru

Some critiques point out that USE has caused corruption in schools located in remote areas where students score higher than in cities and towns. Nevertheless, it has reduced corruption in university admissions.

Students often use the 10-time-zone magic of Russia: students who start USE in Asian Russia help their colleagues in European Russia by displaying answer forms on the web. In 2012, 167 students from 46 federal districts were caught and their results were annulled.

As the Unified State Examination is widely criticized, the Education and Science Ministry makes an effort to further develop the test and address some of the critique. I think that the USE should be offered in all languages of the Russian Federation to preserve native languages, to provide equal access to education, to follow the state Constitution, and the article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration.

 

 


http://www.ege.edu.ru/ru/main/main_item/

http://gia.edu.ru

http://минобрнауки.рф/пресс-центр/2336

http://минобрнауки.рф/пресс-центр/2478

http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Единый_государственный_экзамен

Lowering Education Standards for Ethnic Minorities: Rethinking Preferential Policy in China

In China, the month of June means so much for high school students. As the most well known high-stakes exam in China, an annual National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) takes place during three executive days in June. As this year’s university entrance examinations are approaching, the question of “is it fair for ethnic minority students to get extra points?” stirs a heated debate, like it always did in the past. As a Han ethnicity student, I took NCEE in 2006. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how I felt when discussing the preferential policy with my Han friends: I don’t like the policy because it is unfair to me, but I have no choice. Looking back today, I have to admit that this preferential policy still sounds controversial to me.

According to Chinese education policy, school entrance scores can be lowered for ethnic minorities. Translated into practice, the policy means ethnic minority students get an extra 10/20 points in the NCEE, which amounts to about 1.5% /3% of the total points of NCEE (usually 750 points). According to the central government, this policy is aimed at educational equity nationwide: in minority-populated areas, students may be disadvantaged due to historical, geographical, and economical reasons. Given such factors as low quality of teaching force and lack of resources in minority-populated areas, as well as maintaining solidarity among ethnic groups as the rationale, the Chinese government put forward the preferential policy. Although the starting point of the policy is to solve the problem of inequality, the theme of national solidarity stands out. Obviously, this policy has a hidden political agenda. “Choosing between ethnic and Chinese citizenship” is an identity struggle among minority groups. With the adoption of the policy, minorities feel they are less disadvantaged by NCEE, which may lead to a sense of belonging and loyalty to their Chinese citizenship.

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Most criticism toward the policy arises in the developed areas where minority students enjoy as good education as Han majority, other than in ethnic autonomous regions where Han students study in same schools as minority students. In the former case, both Han students and minority students enjoy educational resources. In the latter case, minority students in backward areas lack resources, so do Han people who live in those areas. The Han children attend the same schools as minority students. They cannot afford books, do not have access to tutoring, nor do they have high-qualified teachers in class. The evidence proves that the policy itself is outdated. When it was approved in 1987, there were not so many minority students studying in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Nowadays, there are many ethnic minority students studying in developed areas and enjoy the same resources as their Han counterparts. Likewise, there are great economic development im ethnic autonomous areas. In this context, it is no wonder why Han students and parents feel angry. I would like to call this phenomenon “reverse-ethnic discrimination”: in Chinese society in general, Han is the dominant group that assumes superiority and enjoys benefits that ethnic minorities do not have. NCEE is a reverse situation because Han students are subject to a position where minority students benefit while the majority students do not. This reverse-ethnic discrimination is the result of government’s political manipulation—for the purpose of national solidarity.

As I mentioned earlier, the preferential policy is problematic in itself. It is problematic also because of its implementation. Each year there are reports suggesting that some parents change their child ethnicity from Han to a minority group, so that their child could get an extra 10 points in NCEE. Preferential policy for minority students causes corruption, which is detrimental to the educational system. A metaphor NCEE is “Policeman”, which means students have to do whatever NCEE tells them to. Another widespread metaphor is “bridge”: Millions of students swarm to a bridge, i.e. NCEE, and only a handful of them can arrive at the other side of the river, i.e. college. My question is: is high-stakes testing the root of all the problems? If we evaluate a student on many criteria, NCEE being one of them, will the situation be different?

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In terms of solution, I agree with many others: the preferential policy shall continue on. However, there should be better regulations. Some people suggest that allocation of university enrollments should be changed: offering extra points to students from areas of poor economic development and poor educational quality. However, this suggestion cannot meet the country’s political agenda. To my mind, the challenge for the country is how to maintain national solidarity, while achieving educational equity.

http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_604238710100j70a.html

http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5f6c55eb0100dx8y.html

Privatizing Public Schools and Publicizing Private Schools

I was amazed to learn that a girl studying business at Lehigh named Susan is from the same city in China as I am. Yesterday she invited me to lunch, so we had a good chat about our life experiences. I am seven years older than her. It turned out that we attended the same primary school. Later on, while I attended a middle school nearby, she attended a private school. She was the first person whom I know to attend a private school in my hometown. Our conversation helped me reflect on private education in China.

 

Let’s start with the private schools in the city I was born and raised up. I grew up in a medium sized city in eastern China. I attended public schools I was assigned to. By the time I graduated from primary school, there was only one private school, called New Era, in the city. It was a newly established private middle school. In the following years, more private schools were established at various levels. According to Susan, when she graduated from primary school, she had a couple of choices. She could either attend a public middle school, just as I did, or attend one of the private schools. She finally chose a newly established middle school named Bridge near her home. What is interesting about both the New Era and Bridge schools is their connections to by public middle schools. Most of the teachers worked in the mother public schools prior to the establishment of the private schools. New Era and Bridge charged more fees than public schools and generated great profit each year; in return, the mother schools assigned their best teachers, administrators, resources, and facilities to the private schools. These public funded and public run private schools became the first choice for many parents and, at the same time, the target of public criticism.

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Theoretically, each primary school graduate is assigned to a certain middle school based on geographical proximity. The student’s parents can waive attendance by demonstrating their child will attend another private or public middle school. If parents want to choose another public school than the one their child is assigned to, they have to pay an extra amount of money and bride school officials. Parents also have the choice of private schools. Let’s take New Era, for example. Its mother school Brooks used to be one of the best middle schools before any private schools appeared in the city. Later, it established the affiliated private school, New Era, which was still run by the mother school. New Ear has two ways to attract students. The first way is by publicizing and advertizing the desirable educational quality of New Era among all of the students assigned to Brooks. Because Brooks assigns most of its high quality teachers to private schools, parents who can afford the high tuition usually choose to send their children to New Era instead of Brooks. If the parents cannot afford the high tuition or prefer public education, their children stay in Brooks. Many parents who cannot afford to send their children to New Era complain about the poor teacher quality in the mother school. The second way that New Era recruits its students is by advertizing to the broader community. Anyone who is interested is eligible to apply. Nowadays, New Era became one of the best middle schools in the city, while its mother school’s reputation dropped because its students’ performance in high school entrance exams has been on decrease.

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China is not immune to the process of globalization. Chinese government rides on two competing forces of socialism and global capitalism. With socialism at its foundation, the government guarantees that public schools are predominant in number. As a result of global capitalism, private schools have gained momentum (Mok, 2005). The private sector is encouraged by policy because private schools are considered a driving force of enhancing educational quality in the country overall. Meanwhile, public schools have been privatized to make profit. Currently, there is inequality within public schools due to the embedded private sector. To my mind, public schools should offer equal resources to all enrolled students. In the wave of neoliberal market economy, how can the Chinese school system, especially in the public sector, maintain a place where all students benefit?

References

Mok, K. H. (2005). Riding over socialism and global capitalism: Changing education governance and social policy paradigms in post-Mao China. Comparative Education, 41, 217-242.