Bad Education: why our systems need fixing

Society
Education

They are calling it ‘the intellectual massacre’. Since the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016, he has systematically purged educators who criticize his government, accusing them of terrorism.

Teachers are one of the biggest groups to be affected by Ankara’s post-coup crackdown. Erdoğan has sacked and blacklisted tens of thousands across the country, prompting one woman to say her government was targeting their very ‘existence’ with its actions. Academics have also been fired en masse, with close to 5,000 out of work, reduced to giving symbolic lectures in parks.1

Erdoğan is not the only authoritarian leader hostile to education. Any self-respecting populist understands the importance of keeping citizens malleable and is keen to stay in control of their nation’s narratives. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set to work rewriting text books to glorify his government.2 In Hungary last April, vitriolic nationalist President Viktor Orbán went to war on the Central European University, whose mission is to promote ‘the values of open society and self-reflective critical thinking’.3 The list goes on.

Education is a key battleground – and not just for the demagogues. The attack on critical thinking comes in other, less obvious, ways as well. Recent years have seen an upsurge in private-sector activity in education, part of a package of neoliberal reforms that push for competition and high-stakes testing – and privatization as the means of delivery.

The battle over how best to educate our children and who controls this, is nothing new. But with enrolment rates rising, vast unmet global need and powerful new tech players in the mix, the subject is highly politicized – quality, public education is on shaky ground at a time when it has never been more important to defend it.

The neoliberal approach to education is spreading in new ways, often under the radar. It pops up as privatized models of schooling such as the independent charter schools in the US and New Zealand/Aotearoa, or free schools in Sweden; Australia has contracted out its national assessment programme to Pearson, the world’s largest edu-business. Across the Global South, in countries such as Kenya, the Philippines and Ghana, chains of low-cost private schools are expanding.

There’s creeping commercialization in public schools too, with companies selling services such as digital learning, data services or professional development.4 The ‘Global Education Industry’ is quite a prize, now valued at $4.3 trillion. Although it takes different forms, its economic rationales are the same: efficiency, choice and competition premised on a narrative of scarcity or failure of public systems.

The UK is grappling with the rise of unaccountable academies. Technically run as charities, they operate as semi-independent hybrids, spending taxpayers’ money but subject to fewer rules than local-authority run schools, able to set their own salaries and admissions policies and adopting private-sector managerial practices.

England has seen more than half of secondary schools and nearly a quarter of its primary schools turn into academies since 2010. Investigations by Channel 4 television found trusts that run academies to be spending taxpayers’ money on inflated wages, lavish perks and generous contracts for companies belonging to board members.5

There is less evidence of the promised ‘uplift’ for those said to be struggling in the public system. Instead, academies and ‘free schools’, are shown to drive increased segregation and to let down the vulnerable.6

‘The academy model lends itself to being fussy about who you take,’ explains Rachel Crouch, a former headteacher, who resisted academy status at her primary school in Oxford. ‘They have to show they are improving schools, to justify their salary. So of course some academies will fail pupils such as children with special educational needs. All they are after are the results – and that becomes more important than the individual child.’

Testing goes nuclear

Technology has put wind in the sails of the testing brigade. With vast amounts of comparative data now available and easily shared, teachers and administrators are held accountable for their students’ learning in new, disturbing ways. This is no coincidence – it flows from the neoliberal notion of education as a commodity. By free-market logic, the ‘product’ must be measured and compared, and those who make it valued accordingly.7

Big data has taken evaluation to new extremes. In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neill describes how an algorithm designed to assess educators led to the firing of one particularly popular, talented teacher in Washington DC, along with hundreds of others. The scoring system – which was not revealed to teachers – purported to assess their effectiveness in teaching maths and language skills. From the poor standards of work produced by children who had scored high the previous year, the unlucky teacher concluded that last year’s teacher must have cheated. But there was no feed-back loop, no amount of community appeals could fix the result. The algorithm was unchallengeable.

Cheating frequently occurs when pressure is applied to teachers to produce high standardized test results. In Atlanta, ruthless managerialism appeared to generate spectacular gains, which later turned out to be due to cheating by over 180 staff terrified of losing their jobs.7

Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it

‘You’ve got a huge industry of people who are focused on improving the assessment of learning, ranking and scoring people,’ says ActionAid’s David Archer.

The classic example is edu-business Pearsons, who publish textbooks, run exam boards and invest in low-cost private school chains – and clocked up sales of over $5 billion in 2016.

‘It’s a disturbing loop,’ says Archer. ‘The more Pearsons can make the case that learning is the same wherever you are, the more they can standardize books, and exams; that means they can produce them at lower costs per unit and make bigger profits, on an industrial scale.’

To top it all, there is no evidence that improving standardized assessment will lead to improved quality of learning. ‘As the classic phrase goes: weighing a pig does not make it fatter. And what about the process? You could torture children – or drill them – to get results but that’s not a quality education. What about cultivating the full human personality?’

Low cost and for profit

The problems of privatization and standardization are not confined to the West. In the Global South, private providers now make up 13 per cent of primary school enrolment (compared to 5 per cent in the West) and 25 per cent of secondary schools.8

Private schools come in many shapes and sizes. Faith-based schools, or those run by NGOs or particular communities, have always coexisted with public provision. But there is a new trend: the expansion of chains of private-schools that target poor families. Since 2014, these for-profit low-cost schools have seen exponential growth. The most ambitious is US firm Bridge International Academies, which currently runs over 500 schools, educating some 100,000 children in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and India.

 A child practises writing the days of the week on the wall of her house in Meme, Cameroon.
A child practises writing the days of the week on the wall of her house in Meme, Cameroon. ©Chris de Bode/Panos

Bridge’s uber-standardized, scalable model is predicated on employing teachers who read scripted lessons – devised in Boston – on an e-reader. They say they can deliver schooling 30 per cent cheaper than governments and predict net earnings of $750 million by 2025.9, 10

Omega Schools in Ghana, run by British professor and entrepreneur James Tooley, operate on similar principles. They offer standardized lessons delivered by high-school graduates, with children using a pay-as-you-go bracelet, a system praised as an innovative solution for parents with irregular incomes. If you’re charged up, you get in.11

‘Can we play with education like that?’ asks Delphine Dorsi, a human rights lawyer who co-ordinates the international Right to Education Initiative. ‘A kid’s schooling is so important for them, for society. If they miss class, how will they catch up? Can we treat students as customers, like paying for electricity, like it’s a normal business?’

Could do better

The vast majority of research suggests that low-cost schools create segregation, just like any other private school.12 By targeting the poor, not the very poor, they create what Stanford University’s Frank Adamson calls ‘meso-levels of stratification’. There is also little or no clear, independent evidence that education provided in these schools is of higher quality than the public sector, when students’ results are adjusted for socio-economic status.8 The claim that such schools are extending education to those who would otherwise not get it, is also unproven. Most out-of-school children are in rural areas, but there is scant evidence of low-fee schools in these remote places.

Civil society has issued repeated warnings about the unregulated spread of private providers. Various UN treaty bodies concerned with human rights have put out strongly worded recommendations. But donors such as Britain, the US, Netherlands and the World Bank are seduced. They have invested millions into Bridge, and other providers. With an estimated 263 million children still out of school, or in school but not learning much, the private sector has sold itself as a solution in slick keynote speeches at the World Education Forum and similar gatherings.

‘Can we treat students as customers, like paying for electricity, like any normal business?’

It’s true that public education is in a dismal state in some low-income countries whose education systems are chronically underfunded, hampered by a low tax base, insufficient aid and corruption.

‘States are struggling,’ agrees Dorsi. ‘We absolutely have to respond to that. But we cannot do so in a way that undermines the right to education. It’s not a question of ideology. It’s not that “public is better”. It’s that quality education should be accessible to everyone regardless of their ethnicity, language or wealth. All states have signed up to that.

‘Is there corruption? It’s everywhere, in the private sector too. If it’s an issue let’s fix it. If donor states are so good at negotiating tax agreements in their favour, they could negotiate transparency rules too.

‘States are struggling with other issues – disasters, war and disease. They don’t have enough money, so things go slow. Let’s work with the state to fix that.’

Reaching the poorest

‘If Bridge were going to places where education is not available, then I would be more interested,’ says Lucy Maina, programmes director at the Africa Educational Trust (AET), which works in some of the world’s most fragile, isolated places – such as Dol Dol, northeast Kenya, where it supports primary schools and runs an adult-learning scheme for Masaai women.

‘It is like the sun and the moon, if you talk of equity between here and other parts of Kenya,’ says Maina. ‘In these poorer places, everything is hard to reach, hard to get.’

Some 80 kilometres on bad roads from the nearest large town, Dol Dol has no internet and low literacy – but plenty of drought, cattle rustling, female genital mutilation, child marriage and wildlife such as buffaloes and elephants that stop children from getting to school.

Teachers often don’t last long around here. And because their kids do so badly at school, parents would often see no point in sending them. They would rather their children were herding cattle.

Over a three-year period, AET has turned the situation around. They started by coaching primary-school staff to teach younger Masaai children to read in their own language – a method that has boosted learning outcomes across the board. Then AET taught mothers basic numeracy and literacy.

‘You have to teach close to where the women are because they have so many chores,’ says Lucy. Women will often bring containers to collect water after the class, an axe to split firewood for the evening meal and grandparents to entertain the babies.

Some 400 women are now numerate, reading and able to write their names. At a personal level, it is transformative – they can receive and send money, make calls, one woman is now a polling officer and voted in the last election for the first time.

‘You could torture children – or drill them – to get results, but that’s not a quality education’

But it has important knock-on effects for some 2,000 offspring too. ‘They compete with their own children, and learn from them,’ Maina says.

These newly literate parents, equipped with the statistics on how many staff should be in their area by law, have successfully lobbied the Kenyan government to recruit 19 new local, bilingual teachers. ‘Now they see their own people come back to serve them. There is a lot of excitement about learning,’ says Maina. Already, children’s test scores are improving and there is better retention of students.

Empowering teachers

‘The World Bank talks about absenteeism and points to teachers as a cause,’ says Rene Raya, who works for the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) in Manila. ‘But it’s a symptom of neglect. Teachers are victims of a weakened educational sector – low salaries, no care for their wellbeing and professional development. They are demoralized and disempowered.’

ASPBAE is one of 5,000 organizations in the powerful grassroots Global Campaign for Education network, which spans 87 countries around the world. Raya describes how just a small intervention by an NGO – a two-week crash course on languages and social awareness – went a long way to motivate teachers.

‘Afterwards they worked hard for their students, campaigning to get them back in school,’ he says. The NGO reinvented the school board, bringing in local members and empowering them to decide on funding. Parents started to give tutorial support to struggling students.

Related: Leave no one behind? An update on progress towards the dream of universal education.

Seeing the improved public school, parents who had taken their children to private schools brought them back.

‘Actually you don’t need to spend billions of dollars to strengthen public education,’ says Raya. ‘You need recognition and a voice in decision-making.’

Critical thinking

In Pakistan, one educator is grappling with quality, specifically how to encourage critical-thinking skills.

‘As a society, we don’t question enough,’ says Aamna Pasha from Karachi in Pakistan. She trains educators in schools serving low-income groups to teach for higher cognitive skills in children aged 11-14. ‘I want children to be able to deconstruct a problem and think about possible solutions,’ she says, ‘to know that there can be more than one opinion, other perspectives.’

Pasha guides teachers – whose classes have anywhere between 5 and 60 students – how to go from being instructors to facilitators of children’s creative group work. Crucially, she adapts the curriculum to children’s different realities. So for a topic of endangered animals, in Karachi, children work on Indus river dolphins; in Gilgit, up in the remote, mountainous North, the Markhor deer. In Gilgit children took matters further, visiting and interviewing a hunter, advocating for the deer and proposing alternative career paths.

‘The children adapted very well,’ laughs Pasha. ‘It took teachers a little longer.’

Children report increased confidence, and teachers that their pupils are more engaged. The students of one NGO-run school for children of fishers that has been on Pasha’s programme for three years, just passed the Year 9 exams with As. Three years earlier, the entire cohort had failed.

Back in Oxfordshire, Rachel Crouch is singing the praises of Philosophy for Children (P4C), which has primary-school children mull over moral questions such as, ‘when is it OK to steal?’ and explore values such as honesty and friendship.

‘The schools doing P4C are taking skills further,’ says Crouch. ‘Children are becoming articulate, able to discuss and debate. When they go out and get jobs, they need to be able to do that – it’s their future.’ She’s convinced her school’s recent SATS scores (national tests for 11 year olds) – the highest ever – bear testament to that.

Seriously equitable

Equity, an engaged curriculum, motivated teachers – these things are not rocket science, and they get results. Systems in Finland, parts of Canada and Cuba with a strong commitment to public ownership consistently out-perform free-market cousins Sweden, the US and Chile in international PISA assessments over time.13

Finland’s top-scoring public system comes with none of the intrusive testing that damages confidence. Teachers spend 10-15 per cent of their time studying, all have post-graduate level training and schools are free to set their own curriculum; there are no school inspections, but the Finnish government can call in a random sample of 10 per cent of students’ work. The country spends 30 times more on training for staff than on evaluating the performance of students and schools (in test-based education systems it’s the opposite).14

Finland’s top scores come with none of the intrusive testing that damages confidence

Finland works hard to achieve equity – striving to make sure students’ education outcomes are not determined by their wealth or background, investing more heavily in schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Ultimately, there is no great mystery as to what is required for a solid public education system: investment and good teachers. In Western countries this should be easily achievable. But low- and middle-income countries are looking at a financing gap of $39 billion per year to secure a quality education for their children. In low-income countries they are over 40-per-cent short.

Tax, not aid

Some of the gap should be met by aid – currently at $12 billion per year. But topping up to $39 billion – less than 2 per cent of what the US spent on arms in 2016 – is unlikely.15 Aid to education has stagnated and only a small percentage is harmonized, well targeted and in line with national government plans. Donors are often too keen to ‘put their flag in things’ and push their own ideas about how best to do education, David Archer from ActionAid reports.

‘In the end, it’s going to come down to tax,’ says Archer. ‘Governments need to have a big enough national budget – raised fairly through a progressive tax base – and choose to invest that properly in education.’ Ending tax incentives to transnational companies in Ghana could raise enough revenue to double its education budget; in Sierra Leone, the increase would be seven-fold.8

Brazil shows what political will can achieve. It increased its budget allocation to education from 10 per cent in 2000 to 18 per cent in 2016. Combined with a cash transfer programme to parents, the number of years in school for the poorest 20 per cent of children doubled from four to eight.8 (Sadly, the new rightwing administration has now stepped back from these important gains.)

No place for profit

The profit motive has no place dictating what is taught, how it’s taught nor how our schools are organized.

We need a system of education that redistributes investment and engagement with the aim of better quality for everybody – good teachers, a curriculum that connects, support for inclusive and progressive learning.

None of these things are difficult. They are happening all over the world, but they will need to be fought for and fiercely defended. A lot is at stake. In a world of growing demagoguery, people need to be taught how to think for themselves, to imagine better futures and harness the power of imagination.

‘The challenges of our world are so huge,’ reflects Delphine Dorsi. ‘We’re killing the planet and fighting each other. If we want equity, if we want to work together to build a better society, then education is the key.’

Top image by Chris J Radcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

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Wired, June 2017, nin.tl/ModiTextbooks
The Washington Post, April 2017, nin.tl/OrbanCET
New South Wales Teachers Federation, nin.tl/Commercialization_Australia
weownit.org.uk, nin.tl/PublicOwnershipSchools
The Guardian, August 2016, nin.tl/PovertyGapWidens
Rethinking education – whose knowledge is it anyway?, New Internationalist, 2016.
Education International, 2016, nin.tl/PrivateProfitPublicLoss
The Economist, January 2017 nin.tl/BridgeFinanceChallenge
The New York Times, July 2017, nin.tl/NYTBridge
educationinnovations.org, nin.tl/OmegaSchools
ducation Rigourous Literature Review, ‘The role and impact of private schools in developing Countries’, 2014, nin.tl/PrivateSchoolsImpact
Frank Adamson et al, Global Educational Reform, How Privatization and Public Investment Influence Education Outcomes, Routledge, 2016.
Pasi Sahlberg in School Administrator, 2012. nin.tl/FinnishEquity
sipri.org nin.tl/MilitarySpendUp

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