Education Newsletter #10: Castro, Cuba and Education

Hey everyone, welcome to the 10th newsletter! I had made a mental note about so many articles that I wanted to include in the newsletter and they have piled up over these months. Today’s newsletter will talk about Castro-Cuba-education, the manipulated school examination system in Tamil Nadu, saving India’s higher education, teacher unions, vocational education, Uganda’s flailing experiment with privatizing education, Finnish teachers in US schools and learning beyond PISA

Fidel Castro has died:

Cuba has one of the best education and health outcomes in the world. A Harvard professor remembers his young life in Cuba and how they had good education despite poverty. He ends with a message that’s valid for India as much as it is for USA.

“Let’s learn from Cuba a new American mission that sees education as a human right, and not as a service that can be abdicated to localities or to the workings of markets… We will now need to insist more than ever on the state’s obligation (and I mean state in the full sense of the aggregation of our collective aspiration duty and aspirations in government) to social justice in education, embodied in a project that ensures that ALL are educated in ways that, in the words of Amartya Sen, remove the obstacles “that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.” We will not get that kind of justice in education with vouchers, I am very certain of that.”

Manipulated ‘excellent’ scores in Tamil Nadu schools
Our fellow citizens in Tamil Nadu have tried to ensure justice from their understanding of it. Analysis of 10th Board results reveals that it’s clearly not a normal distribution.

  • Hardly anyone scores below 35. More than 10% of students score exactly 35 which is the passing grade.
  • There are significant spikes at 98 and 100 where one would expect less students
  • Number of students passing in English, maths, science and social science was the same — 92.6%

This is nothing new. Our esteemed national boards like ICSE and CBSE indulge in this practice heavily too. Tamil Nadu is just following the national standards.

Can India’s higher education be saved from the rule of babus?

A noted scholar compares the higher education of India and China. Contrary to popular belief, China has been more open to foreign faculty, institutions and benchmarks to improve its higher education. It is ironic that regulation and governance of higher education in authoritarian China are far more decentralized than in democratic India. We have made our higher education of, for and by babus.

Decline of teacher unions highlights decline of the teaching profession

Unions are not bad. They preserve integrity and advance a profession. The failure of our unions (doctors, teachers, lawyers) on these two counts highlights increasing conflict and distrust from the society. Manjunath writes about teacher unions, a hardly discussed topic in our discourse. Our teacher unions rarely participate in any serious discourse about quality of education. This has led to a loss in their credibility and the teacher’s profession as a whole. Amartya Sen’s NGO has done some good work in Bengal in reforming teacher unions which can provide us some hope.

Validating Vocational education
‘Assuming college is always the best option turns career-minded students away from true learning’. The lower status of vocational education in our culture has distorted our aspirations and higher education system. 98% of our workforce is untrained and uncertified. More than 70% of our higher education is NOT in technology and skills. No surprise that more than 80% of our graduates are unemployable and our companies can’t find skilled manpower. “Only 14% of Americans believe that college adequately prepares students for success in the workplace, and only 11% of business leaders agree that college graduates are adequately prepared for the workforce. But 96% percent of chief academics officers at colleges and universities are confident that they are preparing students for job success”. Wonder what results would show up in India. This article makes a compelling case for recognizing and validating interests beyond our narrow definition of higher education.

Uganda outsourced its national schooling to a private firm, the court orders its closure
Bridge International Academy uses unqualified teachers, makeshift infrastructure and scripted lessons that teachers read. All of this to make education ‘affordable’. The court has ordered its closure because of ‘unsanitary learning conditions and unqualified teachers’. Bridge’s pitch is that this is better than the status quo even though there hasn’t been any credible study so far. Even if Bridge is better than the status quo, it will still be a pretty low standard and the problem is that it is going to remain there. Scripted lessons and cheap labour as teachers can only go so much further (which is not much) in providing quality education. It will set no foundation for improvement in the future.

Finnish teachers in USA
Teachers don’t make or break the system; system makes or breaks the teachers. Pasi Sahlberg, Harvad professor, has long argued that even if teachers were exchanged between Finland and USA, it wouldn’t change the results much. The anecdotes seem to confirm this.
A teacher says: “I have been very tired — more tired and confused than I have ever been in my life. I am supposedly doing what I love, but I don’t recognize this profession as the one that I fell in love with in Finland. If you asked me now, my answer would be that most likely I would not continue in this career. I am already looking into other options.”

Let’s learn from PISA and look beyond PISA
There has been an unhealthy fascination with PISA ever since they started in 2002 and Finland, more to its own than the world’s surprise, topped the rankings. Sadly, the focus has been on the rankings and not how they were achieved. Sweden is right next to Finland, England next to Scotland and USA next to Canada. Yet, they seem to learn nothing from their neighbours. People claim that this is because of their economic superiority. Perhaps this is why India will never want to learn anything from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, no matter how good their policies. The countries that have done well in PISA in early 2000s was because they didn’t focus on it. Now, the early ‘toppers’ are moving on from PISA while the others (Korea, Taiwan, China) are focusing increasingly on PISA testing at the expense of other facets of education. This is self-defeating. International benchmarks can change anytime. We need to figure out what is good education to

Thank you for reading the newsletter. Please recommend it to people who might find it useful. People can sign up here. The previous newsletters can be accessed at medium and my blog.
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