"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, October 21, 2013

From the Eyes of the Poor

President Obama sends his children to Sidwell Friends School, a PK-12, co-educational Quaker day school with campuses in Washington, D.C., and Bethesda, Maryland. Sidwell Friends, a private school, charges about US$ 35,000 a year in tuition. The school is home to the Kogod Arts Center which includes a 415-seat professionally equipped theater, an art gallery, and newly constructed state-of-the-art classrooms and studios.

Sidwell Friends School's Kogod Arts Center
Photo copied from www.sidwell.edu
Obams's daughters are not the first members of the White House family to attend the school. The Capitol-File magazine writes:
In 2008, when the White House announced that Malia and Sasha would be enrolling at Sidwell (joining three of Vice President Biden's grandchildren), The New York Times called it the Harvard of Washington's private schools. Forbes referred to Sidwell as "the latest distinguished darling for political parents." 
But long before the Obama girls, or even Chelsea Clinton and Albert Gore III, Sidwell boasted first-family headliners such as Julie and Tricia Nixon; Archie Roosevelt, son of Teddy Roosevelt; William Henry Harrison, descendant of two presidents; and Herbert Hoover's son Allan. (Even Nancy Reagan attended lower school there.) 
And while JFK's children were schooled at the White House, their older cousins attended the school. Catherine O'Neill Grace, a Sidwell student at the time, recalls how on the day of Kennedy's assassination, Ethel Kennedy came to get her sons Robert Jr. and Joe out of assembly, and how the middle school principal asked parents in the carpool pickup line to turn off their radios until the Kennedy boys could hear the news from a family member.
Sidwell Friends is indeed a favorite among White House occupants. One might therefore say that looking at Sdney School is looking at basic education through the eyes of the rich and the powerful. The problems in basic education addressed by education reformers worldwide are not supposed to be present in such a school. The problems are somewhere else. It maybe logical then to state that solutions to problems in basic education are to be found in schools like Sidwell Friends. The solution is to simply allow poor children to enroll in these elite schools, or copy these schools into existing public schools.

The president of the Philippines exemplifies this way of thinking. For example, his first two points in his education are as follows:
1. 12-Year Basic Education Cycle 
We need to add two years to our basic education. Those who can afford to pay for up to fourteen years of schooling before university. Thus, their children are getting into the best universities and the best jobs after graduation. I want at least 12 years for our public school children to give them an even chance at succeeding. My education team has designed a way to go from our current 10 years (6 elementary, 4 high school) to a K-12 system in five years starting SY 2011-12. Kindergarten (K) to Grade 12 is what the rest of the world gives their children. 
I will expand the basic education cycle in this country from a short 10-year cycle to a globally-comparable 12 years before the end of the next administration (2016). 
2. Universal pre-schooling for all 
All over the world, pre-schooling is given to all young children as the first year of basic education. We don’t solve this deficiency by renaming day care centers as pre-schools. We need to build a proper pre-school system and make this available to all children regardless of income. All public school children (and all public schools) will have pre-schooling as their introduction to formal schooling by 2016.
It seems that in president Aquino's eyes, adding two years and equalizing the number of years in basic education for rich and poor children is the solution. Is it really that simple? Sadly, it is not. The thinking that all that is necessary is to provide what rich children get to the poor assumes the wrong values. The rich send their children to elite schools for the simple reason that the rich see something different in these elite schools. Some middle class families may likewise aspire to send their children to these special schools so that their children get a step ahead in life. It is indeed difficult to reconcile an aspiration to get ahead against the ideal of "education for all".

It is worse in the real world. Education reforms drawn by people are nowhere near what happens inside these prominent private schools. This is mind-boggling since the children of education policy makers as well as reformers are studying in these elite schools. Yet, they prescribe something different for the poor.

Solving problems in basic education from the perspective of the elite is, in the first place, very different from the eyes of the poor. In Memos to the Council of Behavioral-Economics Advisors, Bertrand, Mullainathan and Shafir wrote:
The behavioral patterns of the poor, we argue, may be neither perfectly calculating nor especially deviant. Rather, the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes.
Poverty defines lives. It is much more than just a description. Solving problems in basic education require much more than just designing schools or curricula. It has to go farther than desiring to provide the same education we give to our children to the children of the poor. It requires the eyes of the poor....




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