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Articles, Debate, Education

Privatization of K-12 Education

It helps to have the polarized stands on education articulated before beginning a debate. Chubb and Moe’s controversial book, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools do this best when they write,

“America’s public schools are governed by institutions of direct democratic control, and their organizations should be expected to bear the indelible stamp of those institutions. They should tend to be highly bureaucratic and systematically lacking in the requisites of effective performance. Private schools, on the other hand, operate in a very different institutional setting distinguished by the basic features of markets – decentralization, competition and choice – and their organizations should be expected to bear a very different stamp as a result. They should tend to possess autonomy, clarity of mission, strong leadership, teacher professionalism and team cooperation that public schools want but … are unlikely to have.”

The statement lays the onus of the argument on the structural difference between public and private schools. But in all truth, therein lies the only difference. The structure determines the funds, the decision about the allocation of funds, the accountability relative to the usage of funds, the academic climate created thereby and finally the student achievement whose positive numbers should in turn generate more funds to start the conveyor belt all over again. Note how structures and funds are so intimate!

The problem is that the structure (and the race for funds) is inhabited by people, all with a wide range of interests, ideas, opinions and perspectives about what education stands for and should achieve. This inherent conflict, in a ‘democratic’ setting, creates constraints by the players within a structure. More precisely, it creates (1) administrative constraint, concerned with the authority of central office administrators, (2) personnel constraint, which focuses on union issues over personnel issues and (3) school board influence/constraint, which deals with the school board’s authority.

The multiple bureaucratic levels of involvement are correlated with a depressed academic climate and low student achievement in the public school system. When you throw a highly diverse socio-economic student body and volatile classroom dynamics into the mix, the odds seem to stack up heavily against public schools.

But data suggests we take a step back from all these negative perceptions regarding public schools and take a closer look. A study by Sandra Glass (1993), showed that public and private schools experienced similar constraints – they had to deal with the same state and federal laws, limited funds, the demands of parents, college admission requirements, the same College Board examinations and so forth. Moreover both exhibited a high level of administrative autonomy and a high level of student achievement. In fact the data seems to portray that these public and private schools had a high level of administrative autonomy because of high levels of student achievement. This explains why there are heavier constraints on public urban schools which face low student achievement.

The National Center for Education Statistics conducts regular NAEP surveys of student achievement in American high schools. One such survey (Shankar and Rosenberg, 1991) compared the mathematical proficiency of grade twelve students who had been exposed to various levels of mathematical instruction. Those students who had taken higher-level mathematics courses scored higher than those that had taken only lower-level courses – this irrespective of public or private schooling. In fact, the data showed public school students with a slight edge.

When private schools can control the selection of their students giving them more opportunity to choose the more talented ones with economical and educational support at home, enforce disciplinary standards and create a sense of ‘community’ why is the difference in achievement so marginal? By contrast, public schools must enroll all students, even those from impoverished backgrounds who lack a support structure at home to give them educational direction.

The gap between data and perception can be closed if we jump through the loopholes. Student achievement results in mathematics are based on the levels of mathematics that the students had studied. Therefore, the opportunity to learn at higher levels was more influential rather than a public or private setting. There is no denying that private schools can provide greater challenges and variety to students in curriculum but there is nothing stopping the public schools from doing the same. In fact the best public schools in America provide unique programmatic advantages which reflect a broader range of interests.

None of this means that American schools do not face serious problems, that educational opportunities are equitable in our country or that our schools cannot be improved. Dr. Ken Robinson’s (Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! – YouTube.)talk provides some unique insights on an educational revolution that might be necessary to adapt to the changing pace and tempo of our road ahead. As for now, “We have no reason to be complacent about schools’ performance …. But when schools are doing better than ever before, the best way to encourage continued improvement is not a concerted attack on school governance and organization. A more effective approach would be praise for accomplishment, provision of additional resources to programs whose results justify support, and reforms on the margin to correct programs and curricula shown to be ineffective.” (Richard Rothstein, The Myth of Public School Failure, 1993)


Articles, Debate

Change, Can We?

Change we can

It is difficult to forget the moment of unparalleled joy, of hope, of promise, when it was announced that Barack Hussein Obama was going to be the 44th president of the United States of America. People ran out to the streets vindicated. Despite a looming economic crisis, world over, hope roared. America had stood by its promise to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. History, for once, seemed to do what was right and just.

The euphoria soon dwindled and a sordid reality seemed to come crashing down. The economic crises, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the maladies that state welfare programs entrenched, the flailing infrastructure, the faulty education system and the rise of the ‘rest of the world’ – the common man’s faith in the American dream seemed lost.

Come 2011, Obama could barely keep his head over troubled waters as criticisms of his Presidency poured in from all sides.

His Universal Health Care Bill has been universally panned – the criticism being that he waited for consensus and allowed the rectification of a bill, whose benefits no one claims to have received as yet. Opposition points this as a sign of his passivity, his inclination to appease all parties and a government bid to interfere in and regulate the free market

An added negative is the forecasted $900 billion hole in the federal budget over a period of ten years.  This is read as Obama’s tendency to increase the federal deficit through increased federal spending.

The opposition’s cant is that there is a productive unemployed youth incapable of affording health care/insurance that are being latched onto the health care program of their parents under Obamacare.  This has been labeled as a symptomatic policy that has governed Obama’s presidency that will turn America into ‘a European Socialist State’, ‘an Entitlement State’ and a ‘Welfare State’.  It doesn’t help that the unemployment rate has remained at 8.5% despite growing confidence in the economy.

Coupled with criticism of Obama’s personality – a crafty orator, aloof, disconnected, non-committal, passive and worn out – the past three years in the Oval office have been anything but transformative.

But on the other hand, there are numbers that contest all these allegations from reliable sources. Ever since the implementation of Obama care, the percentage increase in U.S health care spending (2009-2010) has been only 4%; the lowest annual increase in the past 50 years. He cannot be faulted for his military and foreign policy stratagem either. As The New Republic notes, “In 1953, the United States had almost one million troops deployed overseas—325,000 in combat in Korea and more than 600,000 stationed in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. In 1968, it had over one million troops on foreign soil—537,000 in Vietnam and another half million stationed elsewhere. By contrast, in the summer of 2011, at the height of America’s deployments in its two wars, there were about 200,000 troops deployed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and another roughly 160,000 troops stationed in Europe and East Asia. Altogether, and including other forces stationed around the world, there were about 500,000 troops deployed overseas. This was lower even than the peacetime deployments of the Cold War. … The comparison is even more striking if one takes into account the growth of the American population. When the United States had one million troops deployed overseas in 1953, the total American population was only 160 million. Today, when there are half a million troops deployed overseas, the American population is 313 million. The country is twice as large, with half as many troops deployed as fifty years ago.” On another plane, the auto bail-out saved thousands of jobs and sale numbers in the American industry have seen a positive turn globally and this government, despite its many grid locks, has managed to fend off being drowned with the Euro crisis.

So the problem definitely isn’t overseas commitments or a Socialist socio-economic transformation. The problem is perhaps, the deeper issue of accountability. Who do we hold responsible, why, for what and to what extent?

With the elections sweeping over the nation and the hope that brought Obama to the Oval office turning malevolent, one wonders what precisely guides the voting public to invest their trust and hope in a single person? Is it a paradoxical social contract in which we all mutually select a single man to articulate our communal needs while we go about fulfilling our individual ones? Or by making every leader an extension of our own failures, do we expect a messianic sacrificial lamb – someone to wash away yesterday? Or is it an unconscious hierarchical instinct, harkening back to the primal food chain; predators on top?

Whatever instinctual process guides our choice of leadership, the disconcerting fact remains that we now understand leadership and change as synonymous. As a rhetorical device, change is evocatively powerful – a mono syllable that easily translates into a chant or a mantra. But it is the process of change, rather the actions that lead to ‘change’ that are more complicated, more conflicted. The larger mass seems to ignore this aspect of change and focus on the mantra instead. In this lies the paradoxical logic that guides the choice of leadership. In fact lately, it is those that coin the best mantra for change according to the times that sway the tides rather than agenda, records, discourse and analysis.

Truthfully speaking, it is a conflicted chaotic reality that determines change. Transition periods don’t occur in the blink of an eye. It isn’t a shout or a slogan and a sudden enlightened new world order. The process of change is tiresome, gruesome, demanding and forces every man, irrespective of the labels that govern his station in life, to rise, to attain a silent heroism through principled pragmatism.

But when chants and cants replace analytical engagement, one wonders what’s next, and who is going to pay for it.


Articles, Debate

Financing the future?

9914820-background-concept-wordcloud-illustration-of-microfinance-glowing-lightThere is a startling similarity – frankly, an alarming one! – between the subprime borrowers and the clients of micro financing institutions functioning across the developing world.

The clients in both situations had and have little to no collateral, there are practically no means of verifying their income, they are the socio-economic segment most vulnerable to external shocks and have little to no understanding of financial services, products and institutions.

Are we ramming into another subprime crisis with our eyes wide shut? Aren’t the poor poor enough? Do they need to be pushed into the same credit whirlpool we’re still reeling from?

To quote Pancho Otero, head of IPM (Micro-Enterprise Policy Institute), “Micro Credit is the most powerful tool that has ever been invented to eradicate poverty. With this strategy well implanted, the poverty of a country will be eradicated.”

Almost a miracle cure to global poverty, wouldn’t you say? But he has a point. With its relatively straight forward strategy, standardized simple operating model and focus on community development through community responsibility, the numbers are overwhelmingly positive. This is no hand out, no sense of degradation from living on the receiving end of charity.

The skeptics among us wonder about the flip side.

Karla Brom, an expert on risk management, corporate governance and an international banking consultant, defines Micro Financing more precisely as “… the provision of financial services and products to the poor and unbanked.” She stresses the ‘unbanked’ and explains the micro financial product range as Loans, Savings, Micro Insurance and Remittances.

Perhaps this isn’t quite the flip side but it is definitely not as exuberant a proclamation about the messianic prowess of Micro Financing. This is mainly because of the many socio cultural hidden costs. There have been reported increases in domestic violence and abuse, farmer suicides because of an inability to repay loans, misuse of loan money, increased gender inequalities, etc. Truthfully, there is no means of quantifying the social ramifications of micro financing institutions.

But the fact remains that Micro Financing is a market based solution to eradicate poverty and has seen a whopping 154% growth in the past decade. The sector is worth billions and has seen widespread success in a diversity of populations and markets.

Pancho Otero stresses that a Micro Finance Institution’s primary goal is to improve the level of income of those who do not have access to working capital. A means for poverty mitigation or irradication. He condemns using micro-credit as bait for other humanitarian objectives like education or health care. Yet, as Karla Brom points out, without humanitarian objectives working simultaneously with Micro Financing Institutions the point of having more income is lost when there are no developmental initiatives for clients to invest in or take advantage of.

Can we take sides? Can we afford to?

Watch the videos and post a thought!