All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy? Not for Korean students?

As a Korean international student, I could not help but feel heartbroken by the article “The All-Work, No-Play Culture of South Korean Education.” Although South Korea is known for its good quality of education among developed nations, its excessive emphasis on exams often makes the lives of students miserable. Suicidal rates among teens are high, and the leading cause of suicide is due to stress from exams and school work. Specifically, the annual college scholastic ability test poses a lot of pressure on high school students.

In a typical high school class, teacher-student interaction looks like giving and receiving knowledge. Teachers deposit their knowledge to students, and they rarely discuss. Freire (1990) described this type of education system in his book “The Pedagogy of Oppressed” as banking education. Students are passive agents who teachers must deposit knowledge into, which limits students’ freedoms and creativity. This really falls into the Korean education system where students experience a lot of pressure and stress from schools, and their future career paths are already set by their parents and teachers. Students have limited choices and are oppressed to follow the school curriculum focusing on getting a high grade on the ability test. The values of students are measured on their grades on the test, and even teachers treat students based on their grades. It separates students in class, school, and even society on a larger scale.

This kind of education system also creates another hostile environment for those who are not good at taking tests/exams. There are some students who have knowledge but not excel at tests. They are the students who have test anxiety. The Korean education system does not take this into account, resulting in limiting potentials of students with test anxiety.

It might be unrealistic and difficult to change the system all at once. However, as Freire (1990) argued, we can still create a better school environment by encouraging open-discussions between students and teachers. Instead of depositing knowledge into students, teachers can actively involve students through student engagement activities, which will motivate students to learn independently. Accordingly, students will feel more autonomy and power in their life decisions. Although in the end, students might have to take the ability test, genuine dialogues between teachers and students will alleviate stress and anxiety regarding the test. Students will be no longer passive agents and feel less oppressed.


Freire, P. (1990). The Pedagogy of Oppressed

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

One for all, or all for some? Re-examining the limitations of gifted education in the public school system.

I am a product of a supplemental “gifted education” curriculum in a public school system. Up until taking this curriculum course, I did not reflect deeply on what that actually meant not only to myself but to the larger system I belonged to. Discussing the topic of gifted education in class prompted me to think more purposefully about the meaning behind the word “gifted” and how these types of programs may unwittingly foster inequality not only within the school setting but in society at large. The issues that gifted education pose are bi-fold and, at times, overlapping: sociocultural and academic.

A classmate in the field was recently discussing the extreme difference between low-income and high-income areas where she has taught. She mentioned that, while the average percentage of ‘gifted’ students in a school is ~ 3%, in some high-income areas it can be as high as ~ 50%. This poses a serious concern – it is inconceivable that this difference can be chalked up to actual differences in capacity. More likely, it is a combination of culturally perceived differences and how much exposure a child has to intellectually stimulating materials (i.e.  books, tutoring, etc.). Another classmate referred to this phenomenon as “economic giftedness.” This issue is mirrored in the under-representation of racial and ethnic minority students in gifted programs. Ford (2008) discusses this issue through what she calls the “deficit thinking” that occurs in the public school system:

“With deficit thinking, differences in someone who is culturally, racially or ethnically diverse are interpreted negatively as if the individual and/or characteristics are abnormal, substandard, or otherwise inferior. For example, a student who speaks nonstandard English and is making good grades in school may not be referred to screening and identification if the teacher neither understands nor appreciates nonstandard English.” (Ford, 374)

Ford also points out that academic aptitude exists across racial, ethnic and economic divides. It is illogical, then, that there is such a dearth in minority, low-income students receiving the label of ‘gifted.’ This problematic situation demands that policy makers and curriculum designers address how to provide gifted education programs that are both excellent and equitable.

There is another issue plaguing gifted education that straddles the border between cultural and academic. This is how we (collectively) define the term ‘gifted.’ The type of gifted education that Ravitch and Ford discuss is typically centered on scholastically advanced students, as measured by a standardized IQ (intelligence quotient) test. Winner (1996) discusses the potential ethnocentrism of gifted education by highlighting the differences between ‘western’ definitions of ‘giftedness’ and those of other cultures. Specifically, she discusses how the Pueblo “have no word for giftedness” and instead believe that “special abilities should not be used as a basis for evaluating one person over others. For this group, a special gift is meaningful only if it is used in a way that benefits the community” (Winner, 4). In other words, individualistic western culture values individual success over community well-being and rewards competition rather than collaboration. As such, gifted education can reproduce a number of inequalities, creating a divisive environment within the school (an example of the kind of ‘hidden curriculum’ also discussed by Ravitch).

Further issues with gifted education that warrant discussion are the curriculum and assessment of such programs. In my experience, many ‘gifted education’ programs are project-based and have an emphasis on divergent thinking. This is in contrast to the rote memorization being pushed in ‘normal’ classrooms. We must question why the methods being employed to teach the ‘best’ students are not made available to other students who may benefit from similar approaches. Additionally, some states employ ‘merit pay’ for teachers, judging their performance on students’ scores. In this scenario, teachers of gifted students would, theoretically, receive higher pay than those of ‘average’ or ‘below-average’ students. However, in one of her blog posts Ravitch blasts this ‘myth’ stating that when a “students’ scores are already at the top… they have nowhere to go, so the teacher will get a low rating.”

While students who excel at school should, in my opinion, receive an education capable of stimulating them and encouraging their talents, I also believe that this benefit should not be reserved for those who score the highest on standardized tests. It is high time that we (both culturally and in terms of educational policy) recognize non-standard forms of ‘giftedness,’ encourage critical thinking and creativity and, most importantly, rid ourselves of the ‘deficit’ mindset that is denying so many capable children the opportunity to excel, solely because they do not fit the societal and/or academic standard.


Winner, E. (1996). Gifted children: Myths and realities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ravitch, D. With VAM: All Teachers of the Gifted Are “Bad” Teachers. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from

Ford, D. (2008). Recruiting and retaining gifted students from diverse ethnic, cultural and language groups. In J.A. Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and Perspectives, (371-392). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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.



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

No Child Left Behind, Retrieved from:

Testing within the Special Needs Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children are More than Test Scores!

Last week I was at my son’s elementary school for a meeting with his teacher.  She began to talk about how important it was for him to be ready for the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests). I told her that not only did I find this type of assessment irrelevant to his education, but also inaccurate.  I even suggested I’d rather he didn’t participate in taking them. A look of confusion came across her face, like she hadn’t even thought about having a choice in this matter.

Standardized testing has been a crucial aspect of the No Child Left Behind act that has been introduced by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. Each state is required to create assessment tests and yearly progress reports in order to receive federal funding. This has been a top down policy that was decided in Washington with little to no involvement of students, teachers, and parents that have been affected by it.  Supposedly, such standardized tests were expected to not only provide accurate assessments of student achievement but also measure the effectiveness of teachers as well.  But a decade after the policy’s implementation, there has been no proof of its effectiveness.  Rather, standardized testing has reduced education to acquiring skills that merely prep for the test.

Comparing U.S. students to those from such high-achieving countries as Finland, Korea, UK, and Singapore, Linda Darling-Hammond argues that American students are “the most tested” in the world. She finds that not only are students in these countries minimally tested but they also rarely take multiple-choice exams.  She further claims that spending so much time on improving test taking skills takes away time from effective teaching and critical thinking skills that cannot be measured by such tests.

Yet, public protests against standardized testing are rare. Many teachers find themselves in a difficult position if they seriously contest the system that promotes “teaching to the test.” Should they refuse to participate in the standardized tests imposed by the state, they risk poor evaluations, charges of insubordination, possible suspension, and even loss of their jobs. To a certain extent, then, many teachers—perhaps even a majority—are forced to implement standardized tests and teaching practices that they not only despise but know are against common sense and the real educational needs of their students.

While many teachers may be discouraged from actively protesting the standardized testing movement, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle are just doing that…by not participating in the mandated standardized tests called MAPS (Measures of Academic Progress) and they are not the only ones. Over 130 professors and researchers from various universities, including Harvard, Tuft, and Brandeis, have spoken out publicly against standardized testing. From New York City to Texas and Florida, parents, teachers, and elementary and middle school students are beginning to express their frustration with slogans like “KIDS ARE NOT A TEST SCORE.” Garfield High’s defiance of this policy clearly shows the rest of us that we do have a voice in education policy as stakeholders especially in a nation that we call a democracy.