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Sunday, April 5, 2009

International Education

This year for spring break I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Santiago, Chile. My dad began working here (I got into Santiago this morning) last October, and my family decided to come down this week to visit and tour the area. One of the things I'm always most interested in when I travel to another country is their educational system. I think international education is fascinating, and it's always interesting to see how other cultures handle it. So sometime this week we'll be heading down to the Chilean department of education to talk to some people and get a sense for how education works in Chile.

Being lucky enough to have the opportunity to see how other countries educate their children really reminds me how good we have it back in the States. You often hear people complain about the state of public education in the US, but quite frankly, many of our public schools are really outstanding. Now I know this may sound a little ironic coming from someone who was complaining about public schools in DC just two posts ago, but when you look at public schooling in the US as a whole, we are truly doing better than most. Try stepping into a one-room schoolhouse in West Africa that holds sixty thirteen-year-olds and one teacher who hasn't been trained and makes barely over twenty dollars a month. I know what you're thinking: you can't hold a country in West Africa to the same standards you hold the US, and I agree with you. That would be ridiculous, but it does provide a reminder of how much better we really have it in comparison with the rest of the world.

Even in comparison to highly-developed, well-off Western European countries, we, in the States, have the capacity to (and often do) provide extraordinarily high-quality education. Nobody can argue that our post-secondary schools are second to none. There are, however, pockets of extreme horribleness amongst our many excellent public schools. These few shockingly-awful schools are the reason public schooling in the US tends to get such a bad rap. I read an excellent article in The Economist cited below that spoke to this reality. According to the article, 2,000 (out of 28,000) high schools in the US "produce more than half of all dropouts". A staggering reality to be sure. Although I'm a little wary about its accuracy, I don't doubt that something close to that is very true.

http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13279059

It's not that we can't or don't provide excellent public education in the US, it's that we don't provide it to all students. The public funding structure in many states is such that the haves receive quality instruction and the have-nots may not receive instruction at all (see San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez). However, funding is not the only issue here. Indeed, there are many. I surely don't pretend to know all of them nor will I attempt to address them. Rather I'd like to suggest (as many others often have, do and will) that the root of the problem in public education is socio-economic disparity, an issue much more difficult to tackle and therefore much more likely to be ignored in a country where lots of political capital might buy you an extra teacher or two, but certainly not an army of foster parents, drug counselors, social workers, and the like. These are the people who I believe, if applied intelligently to our impovershed communities (poverty referring not only to lack of money, but also to lack of social capital, emotional stability, and community trust), might make the most significant differences in the way our failing public schools perform.

Public schools like the one mentioned in the Washington Post article I mentioned two posts ago struggle mightily to find well-intentioned, experienced, expert teachers because the students coming out of those neighborhoods are not the students most teachers can easily reach. This is in large part due to a lack of social upbrining in early childhood that no seven or eight-hour school day is going to remedy. I don't at all mean to suggest that impovershed neighborhoods are incapable of producing quality students, or that teachers do not have a responsibility to make every effort to reach these students. I would, however, suggest that the situation as is makes it significantly more difficult, and nearly impossible, for teachers to meaningfully affect a majority of their students' lives under current conditions. (For any non-teachers out there, let me just add that those inspirational teacher movies often piss real teachers off because it just doesn't happen like that.)

Despite all this, I have a feeling that when I go to visit the Chilean department of education, I'll be reminded how well we teachers have it in most of the US.

Food for thought...

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