Vote for Ravitch: Goal for U.S. Education Renaissance

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a talk “Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” led by Dr. Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at NYU, historian of education, educational policy analyst, and author of best-selling books on #AmericanEducation, #standardizedtesting, #publicschool, #charterschool. Thank you to Professor Iveta Silova who bought tickets to all CIE403 students!

Professor Ravitch was previously a policy maker. Between 1991 and 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Assistant Secretary Ravitch led the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards. In 1997-2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. Today, returned from “dark side” in the policymaking world, Dr. Diane Ravitch criticizes current U.S. education policies, leads an army of educators promoting equality, human rights, racial diversity, cultural diversity, and curriculum diversity, while striving to re-think and turnaround education reforms.

7 PM Lehigh Zoellner Arts Center, Baker Hall was full of school teachers, administrators, professors, scholars, and students. Lehigh College of Education Dean Sasso introduced us to our distinguished guest. Dr. Ravitch organized her lecture as a dialogue between her and Mr. Reformer. We witnessed how solutions to problems of education are found on the surface not in the root: “Low test scores – fire teachers”, “low test scores – pay more for good scores.”

Diane Ravitch concluded her talk with a set of recommendations:

  • Increase funding.
  • Reduce class size to 20 or less students.
  • Offer full curriculum, including Arts and Physical Education.
  • Support highly-prepared and motivated teachers (at least 10 year higher education)
  • Teach more, test less.
  • Fund schools with psychologists, librarians, and nurses.
  • Ban charter schools by law.
  • Reduce segregation.
  • Reduce poverty.
  • Change public perception of the teaching profession, raise quality, and raise standards.

I truly agree and support reforms proposed by Ravitch and I find them universal and applicable to any country. It is not too late to stop, recognize failures and mistakes, it is not late to change, to adopt and implement new reforms. Why do we need standardized mandatory tests? What do test scores prove? This international race should find an end for children are our future.

Reforms proposed by Ravitch sounded like a good platform for an election run. I do not know whether she will decide or not to return to politics, but I have no doubt that Dr. Diane Ravitch will find support in thousands of people who share and support her views and ideas. So, Vote for Ravitch when time comes!

Photo Feb 10, 8 17 18 PM

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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.

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.

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

The Controversies of Moral, Civic, and National Education in Hong Kong

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Civic education seems an indispensable element for the citizens in most of the nations. Some countries may refer to it as “Citizenship Education” or “National Education.” According to Branson and Quigley (1998), civic education in a democracy is education to encourage citizens to become actively involved in their own governance. In other words, citizens should have critical mindset and not just passively accept the demands of others.  It includes the study of civic law and civic code, and the study of government with attention to the roles, rights, and duties of citizens in the operation and oversight of government.

Ideally, democracy is fully realized when every member of the political community shares in its governance. Members of the political body are its citizens and membership implies participation. Citizens’ participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership.[1] The goal is to engage citizens to be actively involved in the governance or politics and cultivate their positive attitudes towards their own country.

Not surprisingly, the introduction of Moral, Civic, and National Education into Hong Kong’s public school curriculums through Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s “Policy Address 2010-2011” has raised a lot of controversy in the society, especially in the academic arena. The HKSAR Government planned to implement the reform in various stages by initially introducing a new subject in primary schools in 2012 and then in secondary schools in 2013.[2] Notwithstanding a gradual implementation approach, there have been waves of demonstrations by parents, teachers, and students. During the peak day on July 29, 2012, 90,000 people (or 32,000 according to the government’s estimates) went on the streets to demonstrate in super hot and humid weather.[3] The protesters firmly believed that the main political motivation behind Chinese Central Government in Beijing was to use Moral, Civic, and National Education as a tool to “brainwash” the citizens in Hong Kong with its communist ideology. They were afraid that the degree of freedom in this special administrative region would be gradually limited or eventually diminished. The demonstration had even caught international attention through the mass media such as New York Times, NBC, CNN, or BBC news.

 

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The main reason for this controversy was that people in Hong Kong have been suffering from an identity crisis after a century of British rule. Annually, the University of Hong Kong implements a public survey through Public Opinion Program to keep track of the progress of the citizens’ identity. In the questionnaire, one of the questions directly asks about the self-perception of identity among the people of Hong Kong, with the following multiple choices available as a possible response: “Hong Kong Citizen,” “Chinese Citizen,” “Hong Kong Chinese Citizen,” “Chinese Hong Kong Citizen,” “Other,” “Don’t Know / hard to say,” or “Refuse to answer.”[4] Most of the Hong Kong citizens always distinguish themselves from the Mainland Chinese.

Ironically, most Hong Kong people are actually the early settlers from China. As students during the British colonial era, however, we did not study anything about a national identity associated with China. We can see that education is a powerful socialized tool to influence one’s mind. After handover to the Chinese regime in 1997, we have witnessed a series of ongoing clashes between Hong Kong and Mainland China in political, economic, and cultural aspects. More and more conflicts between these two places have surfaced with the massive coverage of media every day.

In introducing Moral, Civic, and National Education in Hong Kong, different actors played an active role behind the scenes – including the Chinese Central Government, the Hong Kong SAR Government, various political parties, educators, and youth (students) – all with their own interests and agendas. This created a divisive scenario, i.e. Chinese Central Government, the Hong Kong SAR Government, pro-Chinese political parties, educators, and students, on one side, and demonstrators against them, on another side. Some youth put their health at risk by going on hunger strike outside the government headquarters for days and days to illustrate the intensity of their anger, although some critics believed that political parties paid students for going on strike. Later, the hunger strike included teachers, a parent, and even a retired professor.[5] Following the serious resistance and criticism from the broader community, the government finally was willing to delay the introduction of the new school subject by suggesting a three-year trial run period, allowing the schools to start, at the latest, in 2015 after consultation and major amendments of some sensitive terms.[6]

 

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Moreover, there have been divergent views towards Moral, Civic, and National Education among the community-at-large and the official website of the Education Bureau of the HKSAR Government. It seemed that Education Bureau of the HKSAR Government has included civic education in a very subtle way. The website says that the new subject could develop students’ ability to analyze and judge issues relating to personal, family, social, national, and global issues at different developmental stages, and increase their motivation to make commitment and contribution. The areas will include current issues, moral education, national education, life education, values education, basic law education, health education, sex education, environmental education, and human rights education.[7] Conversely, the public may believe that it would be chiefly to promote national education and enhance students’ understanding of China and national identity.[8]

This education reform literally reflected how little trust Hong Kong citizens have in the Chinese Central government. It may also show how frightened the next generation is about convergence with the motherland, Mainland China. From my own perspective, this trend is just unavoidable as it is a way for Hong Kong to have a better integration. The influence from China overall will be further intensified in the coming decades. Hong Kong people just cannot deny the fact that we have to depend much on China, particularly in the economic development. At the very least, we have to deal with the influx of increasingly large numbers of Mainland Chinese tourists every day. Hence, we have a saying: “Hong Kong people have dual feelings towards China, both hatred and loving emotions.”

 

[1] Branson, M.S. & Quigley, C.N. (1998). The Role of Civic Education. George Washington University. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from http://www.gwu.edu/~ccps/pop_civ.html

[2] Liu, J. (2012, August 31). Hong Kong debates ‘national education’ classes. The BBC. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-19407425

[3] Lai, A. (2012, July 30). National education’ raises furor in Hong Kong.  Cable News Network. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/30/world/asia/hong-kong-national-education-controversy/

[4] University of Hong Kong (2014). Public Opinion Program. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from http://hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/qre/tp1312075_18.html

[5] Lai, A. (2012, September 4). Hong Kong school year starts hunger strikes.  Cable News Network. Retrieved on April 4, 2014,from http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/04/world/asia/hong-kong-national-education-protests/

[6] Chong & Tam (2012, October 9). Controversial guidelines on national education shelved. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1056653/controversial-guidelines-national-education-shelved

[7] Education Bureau of the HKSAR Government (2014). Moral, Civic and National Education. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from   http://www.edb.gov.hk/en/curriculum-development/4-key-tasks/moral-civic/index.html

[8] International Business Times (2012, September 6). Hong Kong Protestors of National Education Wary of Integration with Mainland China. Retrieved on April 4, 2014, from http://www.ibtimes.com/hong-kong-protesters-national-education-wary-integration-mainland-china-780011

Vietnam’s stunning PISA results: What they don’t know and what they do know

Only more than two months ago when PISA 2012 scores were officially released, the world once again experienced “the PISA shock.” It is the first time Vietnam has ever participated in this international assessment implemented by the OECD. Worried. Anxious. No high expectations. Then… stunned! Vietnam was among top twenty! Its overall 17th-place ranking out of 65 countries outstripped many more developed economies. A kind of shock!

Many government officials and education experts, both regional and international, generously praised Vietnam for its unexpectedly high scores at the PISA 2012. In the region, some countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia even suggested emulating Vietnam to improve their PISA performance.

Meanwhile, responses from most local media and social networks seemed more discreet. Coupled with happiness and pride, many people responded to the high scores with great skepticism. They became puzzled over the performance that was beyond their expectations.

It was indeed happy to have such incredible scores at an international competition for the first time. Vietnamese people  should be much proud of their high performing 15 year olds, given that the students are educated in one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of less than $USD 1,800!

And let’s imagine this scenario – on a beautiful day, teacher delegations from other lower performing countries paid a visit to Vietnam. They wanted to understand “the Vietnam myth.” They would interview a number of key education stakeholders about the reasons for such impressive PISA results. And their interviews would reveal the following answers.

Vietnamese 15 year olds: Oh, we don’t know why. What we did was simply trying our best!

Teachers of 15 year olds: No, it is unlikely our efforts. The recent comprehensive study by Madam Nguyen Thi Binh (former Vice President of Vietnam) shows that teacher quality is alarmingly worrisome. Admittedly, many of us need to seek ways to supplement our low salaries. Yes, we are moonlighting; we are doing other extra jobs. We aren’t committed and dedicated enough to teaching at school. We don’t know why our students got such high results!

Parents of 15 year olds: We were taken aback by the high scores. Our children are attending public schools, which have been long criticized for failing. Schools everywhere are notoriously plagued with many evils: “achievement disease,” extra classes, corruption, degraded moral, low teacher quality… As parents, we constantly set high expectations for our children while finding alternatives to equipping them with knowledge and skills we believe are necessary. We don’t know. Maybe, not sure, the high scores are the result of extra classes!

For many people, the high PISA scores, while adding to the glorious collections of gold medals and prizes of Vietnamese students in international mathematical or physics Olympiads, leave them with more unanswered questions. Why are there many (poor, disadvantaged) students who drop out? Why are students often complained for not being creative, critical, and lacking important soft skills? Why are there many young graduates who fail to get jobs? Why aren’t there many articles written by Vietnamese researchers in international peer-reviewed journals? Why does the economy rely much more on cheap labor than innovations? And why is Vietnam still so poor?

While not providing satisfactory answers to the international teacher delegations regarding the reasons for the high performance in PISA, Vietnam is certain about what it wants for the time ahead. If continuing to join this international competition club, Vietnamese teachers and parents do not want the nation’s education policy to be directed in ways that further promote ‘bad practices’ (exam-driven curriculum, private tutoring, standardized testing, corruption, and others). They will not want to train the children to become test-taking machines without the ability of communication and teamwork. They do not want to sacrifice “cultural and community values” (Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B., 2013, p.116)  and other human development concerns for the meaningless global ranking.

Undeniably, it is hard to avoid competing for rank in a “race,” especially when it is an international competition. It is for the national pride. It is much harder to avoid the backwash effect of the tests. But Vietnamese teachers and parents do hope that “the tail will not wag the dog” and that PISA will not pose negative impacts on the country’s curriculum and teaching. This only takes place when both people and educational leaders acknowledge that PISA is not a perfect indicator. It is not at all a comprehensive measure either. More importantly, when the policy makers are not complacent with the country laurels, it is capable of capitalizing on its strong PISA performance with practical reforms. So whether or not to take PISA again, it does not matter. The most pivotal thing for Vietnam is to concentrate on what really matters to the students.

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Restructuring of Schools

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As I am about to graduate from a private American university, I wanted to reflect on my motivations for coming to the US to study, in the first place. Five years ago when I moved here from Lithuania, I was seeking quality higher education and personal growth through immersing myself into the American college experience. Five years ago, I was running away from what I perceived to be a chaotic and uncertain situation in Lithuania’s educational system.

In the post-soviet period (starting in 1991), the Lithuanian educational system – along with most other spheres of life in the country – began long and fundamental reforms to reorient the country away from the failing Soviet ideas of communism to the Western ideas of democracy and capitalism. The most obvious western influences were coming from Lithuania’s desire to join the European Union (EU), which required Lithuania to fulfill specific European standards in healthcare, human rights, and economy, among other requirements. Most of the reforms, including the ones in the educational system, were directly related to these requirements. In retrospect, as a student who emigrated from Lithuania, I cannot help but wonder whether my country is just jumping from one ideological system – the communist one – to a new one – the neoliberal system – while constantly being influenced by some greater world powers. In my blogs, I will take a closer look at some of the educational reforms in newly independent Lithuania ranging from school restructuring and school financing through student vouchers to anti-LGBT amendments to the “Law on the Protection of Minors.”

I will start by reflecting on the chaos of the educational reforms that were referred to as “restructuring”.

Because I was born only a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was basically part of the first generation of students to go through the educational system of newly independent Lithuania. I would always hear comparisons from my sister – who is twelve years older than me and went through the educational system of Soviet Lithuania – about how she used to receive grades on a 5-point scale instead of the newly established 10-point scale, or how everyone had to learn Russian as their one mandatory foreign language.

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Russian was not even available in the schools that I attended and English has been my foreign language since first grade. It is hard for me to make comparisons of specific curricular or organizational details based only on the stories of others who experienced the Soviet educational system, yet I can still recall the great fuss of school restructuring through personal experience. These “restructuring” reforms were happening right before Lithuania finally joined the EU in 2004. In the case of my sister’s school, the official restructuring from a Soviet educational system to a Lithuanian one occurred at the start of the 1998 school year, which was my sister’s last year of school: back in the Soviet system, this would have been her 11th year, but with the new educational structure she was among the cohort that had to complete a newly added 12th year. So from the Soviet educational system of 11 grades Lithuania transitioned to the system of 12 grades – more similar to western models.

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I later attended this same school that was being restructured once again: from being a middle school (serving grades 5 through 8) it suddenly turned into a “general” school (serving grades 1 through 10) and even switched facilities with a different school – all of this in 2002. This whole new type of “general” schools was supposed to serve the students who wished to complete only the 10 mandatory years of education in Lithuania. The duration and definition of “primary”, “middle”, and “high” schools were also shifted around, in addition to the establishment of such new categories of schools as “general” schools or “gymnasiums.” In the near future, these “general” schools will be restructured yet again into “pro-gymnasiums.” I know – confusing! All sorts of complicated and chaotic things were changing that I did not understand (or care for) at the time, but all the moving of classrooms, students, and teachers was quite unsettling and discomforting for a student that should only be focusing on doing well in school. All of this was part of great educational reforms to establish a western Lithuanian educational system that have not stopped ever since.

Currently, many teachers, teacher union activists, and school administrators are disheartened by the unending reforms. Shortly after the economic upswing of having joined the EU, the problems of the educational reforms have been brought back up by the lingering effects of the global economic crisis. Teachers are being fired as student numbers dwindle, schools are being closed or merged (especially in rural areas), and administrators are fighting for funding in the shape of student vouchers. The neoliberal educational policies of Lithuania’s ministry of Science and Education that are introducing competition through “increased financial independence,” decentralized management of school funds, and freedom of school choice are causing chaos in the education system.

Perhaps competition in the spirit of neoliberalism is not very helpful in such a vital field of human life as education. Perhaps it is disruptive and discomforting for students to constantly have to adapt to new educational policies: after all, any educator knows that students need safe and stable environments to grow, develop, and learn. Perhaps that is why some Lithuanians silently and melancholically remember the stability of the Soviet era where everything – not just education – was much more certain and unchangeable, albeit it was also imposed on them against their will… Now, at least, there is freedom to discuss and debate education policies and choices. Similarly, the joy of their students’ achievements and the responsibility for any problems, too, are all dependent on what direction Lithuania decides to develop. The question is whether the global neoliberal experiment in education is the right direction for Lithuania.