Mmegi Online :: Education: Rolling the dice of quality
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Last Updated
Monday 26 September 2016, 17:31 pm.
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Education: Rolling the dice of quality

A study by Professor Tabulawa and several of his colleagues at UB spells out an intricate relationship among the private sector, government and the market, and how these forces are changing the quality of higher education in Botswana. Visiting American academic, PROFESSOR SONJA DARLINGTON, underscores startling parallels with the system in this country
By Staff Writer Tue 27 Sep 2016, 00:25 am (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Education: Rolling the dice of quality








In an American education course last autumn, students found that access to a public school in Chicago was equivalent to rolling a dice in a casino.  Through a seemingly random process, at the high school level, one student might gain access to a highly selective school where the facilities are first rate: commodious rehearsal spaces, plenty of curricular options, and an array of study-abroad opportunities.

Another student might find entry into a charter school where the classes are small, the teachers matriculate from fine colleges, and the staff counsels students into selective educational institutions.  Yet, another student might experience non-functioning classrooms, heavily gated school grounds, and certainly no one promoting a college-bound culture.

As the students in this course grappled with the odds of being able to attend the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), they became acutely aware of the widening gap among students in gaining access to well-functioning public schools.  Many of them had been born into privilege and what they wanted to believe was that American education was an equal opportunity experience.  Yet, what they began to realise through class readings, visiting Chicago schools, and discussions in which they shared their educational backgrounds, was that American education was one of the most unfair games around.

For a closer explanation of what is happening in Chicago and in other cities in the US, Pedro Noguera, Joan Anyon, and Charles Payne are educators whose research clarifies issues that are helpful.  For example, Noguera in City School and the American Dream describes how social ills, such as drugs, violence and poverty influence educational opportunities in particular schools and how these social factors must be addressed in order for students in different districts to become educated citizens.  Noguera rejects the idea that a good education is only for well-endowed, upper class families.  Jean Anyon, in Radical Possibilities, argues that the failure of public education ought to be placed squarely in the lap of bad economic policies that increase poverty and social inequality. 

She demands that corporations that pay less than 10 percent in taxes must be part of a plan to distribute wealth among the economically disadvantaged.  Anyon dispenses tough medicine, but for an overall American education system that is suffocated at the lowest and middle levels, she prescribes ways in which the stratification of education can be undone to serve the weakest, as well as the strongest sectors of its citizenry.

Finally, a third scholar to focus on what ails education in Chicago is Charles Payne who scours the issues that have bedevilled school reform.  Payne initially seems to make it seem as if improving urban education is impossible, but his discussion is more nuanced.  He asserts that reform is not found in a single curricular movement, a group of leadership gurus, or the so-called "right" teachers.  Rather, school reform is a complex, fragile and elusive goal befitting highly complex institutions that involve people with many different ideas willing to seriously debate their function, their purpose and their responsibility.

As the instructor for this course on the Chicago Public Schools, I wish I could take credit for having brought these three scholars together.  But, I cannot.  I depended heavily on the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, which has invested in long-term studies about CPS policies and practices.  Of particular interest for this course were the 2006 study on CPS graduates' college enrollment, their college preparation and their graduation from four-year colleges and the 2008 study on the future of high schools and the potholes found along the way - all found online. 

I relied on Eliza Moeller, one of the authors of the 2008 study, to introduce me to the work of her group and to the intellectual giants, Noguera, Anyon and Payne, whose books I utilised in my course.  The strength of this course and its impact on students was also greatly influenced by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Consortium (ACM) which worked with the Chicago School Research team and also provided support for first generation, poorly resourced students in the CPS schools by linking them to the institutions that eventually change their lives.  At an ACM event sponsored at Lake Forest College in Chicago, I learned of the rocky road to educational access in the CPS school, and I became inspired to bring the complicated issues found in the CPS schools to the college classroom at Beloit College where I teach.

Lest anyone presume that education classes in college are only about reading research studies and promoting academic arguments, I am proud to say that my students, as part of a Labs Across the Curriculum Grant from Beloit College, travelled to Chicago and visited Von Steuben (highly selective), Pritzker (charter), and Mather (neighborhood) schools.  During their visits, they met with high school students, teachers, and counsellors and attended classes in various subjects, and they also investigated the nearby community environments.  The course provided a one-week stay in Chicago to connect what students read in the research literature with the reality they found in the three CPS schools.

Students in this class also participated in a half-day workshop with CPS students at an ACM event.  They mentored CPS high schoolers that wanted guidance with their college applications and needed support to help them decide which college was a good fit for them.  In addition, as preparation for this course, Cecil Youngblood (Director of Intercultural Affairs, Assistant Dean of Students, and the other instructor for this course) and I met with many CPS counsellors during a

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summer workshop prior to teaching this course.  They were the contacts that invited Director Youngblood and me to visit their respective schools with our Beloit College class.

At the conclusion of the semester, students in this class were responsible for a three-minute video that addressed their findings about the three CPS schools.  These three-to-five minute videos were almost all about the process of public schools access that created instant winners and losers.  In their video, students Kate Parsons and Miranda Cole discussed the powerful symbol of school choice, and they investigated why school choice had become a sacred public trust that was being thrown away to unregulated market forces.  Their interviewees stated that as former CPS students, they were unaware of their options, chose schools on the basis of comfort, and participated in institutionalised tracking.  For his video, Nate Brault rapped on why CPS kids have such different educational opportunities.   He questioned a selection process in which a single test dictated a child's future.  As his lyrics stated, "money can get you/ into the worst school or the best."

Olivia Canizares and Aaron Bushur 's video illustrated that a high school's college-going culture was the determining factor in knowing about educational possibilities.  They expressed regret that access to school was really nothing more than a crap shoot.  Yasmin Rodriquez and Matt Johnson III questioned why education was no longer the means for achieving social mobility.

Their video followed the lives of the Washington and Arroya families as they tried to navigate access for one of their children into CPS.  Alida Sanchez' key point was that neighborhood schools (being neither charters nor highly selective schools) ought to function as safe havens for families in distressed areas.  She insisted that creating better schools required community action and wanted folks to fight for better educational institutions in Chicago. 

Afterall, Sanchez said, Chicago succeeded in getting only 7.9 percent of all of its students college ready last year.  Sanchez and her classmates were rightfully alarmed at what is happening in CPS schools and in many other districts, including New York City. They understand that education has become a form of social engineering in which economically privileged students, 10% percent of them nationwide, enter private schools and the rest scramble for the few resources available through a lottery. 

Private interest is served by allowing exclusive schools in the market place to flourish.  Private interest is also served by allowing the corporate sector to pressure government to close neighborhood schools that are failing. (They are cast as a drain on public resources.)  In stark contrast, public interest is underserved by limiting the possibilities for a quality education among lower middle class and lower class families.  Public interest is also underserved by closing schools that are the only public resource near places known as "no zones," areas without any medical facilities, shopping centres, or police and fire stations. 

Unfortunately, the public-at-large, in many places around the world, is experiencing growth among wealthy educational institutions and the disintegration among poorly resourced educational institutions. Likewise, in many places around the world, the outlay of market capital is manipulated into fields such as medicine, engineering and business and withheld from other fields such as languages, arts and humanities.  

The markets that serve private interests and at the same time starve public interests are NOT left unregulated.Increasingly, markets are becoming managed by the state, a partner that helps to promote the commodification of certain kinds of knowledge that align with its political objectives.  Professor Tabulawa at the University of Botswana describes this process of privatisation and at the same time this increase in state control as "a relentless instrumentalisation of education in general."  In The State, Markets, and High Education Reform in Botswana, published in the journal of Globalisation, Societies and Education, January 2013, he and several other colleagues theorise on the startling influence of both the state, as well as markets on the reform in Botswana's education reform.

According to their research, the key themes found in policy documents for Botswana are competition among providers, privatisation, choice, efficiency and deregulation of Tertiary Education.  Their research article is well worth reading as it spells out the intricate relationship among the private sector, government and the market, and how these forces are changing the quality of high education.

From their perspective, the change "signifies a shift to knowledge in the service of the economy".  For the academy and then as it moves through the education hierarchy, this means that inter-disciplinarity will be organised to serve market needs, parents and taxpayers will subsidise education ultimately at all levels, and the wealthiest customers/clients who buy into the system will be in the best position to influence the curriculum and how it is taught as education in nothing more than a tradable commodity.

Citizens who are concerned about the lack of investment in the public good, meaning equitable educational opportunities for all, ought to take it upon themselves to read Tabulawa, Noguera, Anyon and Payne.  They, like my students, are very concerned that educational resources are being squandered on a few while the majority are woefully undereducated and rejected from the market place all together.

If this course has taught my students and me anything at all, it is that as American educational institutions exist today, only a few students get the best there is to offer, and these few students will be trading in the futures of others.  I sincerely hope my students, as well as the greater public, would not continue to accept these odds.

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