Saturday, July 16, 2016

Questioning the System

Today, we skimmed over the history of the education system before delving into the topic of discussion. To start his lecture, Yun posed the question of whether education is more of a stratifier or an equalizer. I responded by saying that knowledge is an equalizer while education is a stratifier, due to the inherent disparity in quality of schools. After acknowledging my answer along with some other people's, Yun pointed out that reforms could be unequal as well, as some benefit while others are excluded. Ms. Simms then joined in to talk about the situation more. The Coleman Report showed integration played a large role in improving schools. However, according to her, the quality of schools usually depends on local funding from property taxes and donations from residents near the school, leading to de facto segregation by wealth in schools as well. She also pointed out that charter schools provide alternatives for families that have few options, but also stated some of the negative aspects of charter schools, such as that they take away money from regular public schools.
Note-taking during the lecture
Our guest speaker for the day, Dr. Andrew Sparks, stepped up to the podium to elaborate more on the educational system. First, he started out by asking us whether we thought education was a right, before answering his own question by going over some history and looking at some constitutions that provided for education. Up until the 17th century, formal education was only for the elite and it was private. To this day, the U.S. Constitution includes nothing about education, although the constitutions for all 50 states do. Most other countries also include constitutional provisions for education, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations lists education among those rights. However, despite education being listed as a right in many regards, many are being excluded from opportunities for education and face systemic injustice and inequality.

We then paused the lecture to do an activity, in which we were put into groups and each had to describe our schools, talk about strengths and weaknesses, discuss any difference in quality of education in our area, and mention inequality in education at our schools. After each of us did so, we discussed whether racial diversity had much effect on schools, especially in comparison to the vast impact wealth can have. We eventually agreed that racial diversity could help provide perspectives, but had little effect on the quality of education we receive. Eventually, he resumed his lecture, talking about how systemic inequality occurs, which is through higher expulsion rates for minorities, disparity in amount of resources, as well as availability of courses at a school. IQ tests were used to classify and assign responsibilities to recruits during WW1, which he compared to the modern SATs, as both seem to display a preference for whites over minorities. However, the 1983 National Commission and Excellence in Education ushered in an era of reforms by establishing standards-based curriculum and market-based competitive reform. Results have been mixed for difference in achievement gaps over a 30-year period, suggesting that they weren't completely effective. He illustrated the situation affecting many schools throughout the U.S. through the example of Philadelphia, which started with the loss of manufacturing before other issues compounded the degradation of schools in the city, such as the "white flight" to the suburbs, heavy weighting to local funding, rising costs of infrastructure, and pensions for the city and school employees, which all took away state funding for the city schools. While they were able to improve slightly with a federal stimulus, the progress stopped with the exhaustion of stimulus funds. However, today, there is more awareness about the situation and many efforts to remedy it, including various reform approaches, the successful implementation of other models, and improvements in technology.
Just outside the lecture room
In our discussion following a break for lunch, we talked about various topics we had touched on previously, before I asked whether the goal of social justice was to nullify privileges or balance out everyone's advantages and disadvantages, to which Yun responded to with some uncertainty, understandable due to the difficulty of the question. He talked about trying to level out the playing field, suggesting that he thought it was more the latter than the former. As we continued to talk about other issues, eventually it seemed to me that our efforts are somewhat in futility, as there seem to be far more problems than solutions, and even then, the solutions we have still have yet to be applied in society. I raised the question of whether our current approach to social justice is enough, as it seems the rate of progress is being exceeded by the rate that problems arise, to which he answered by saying that at least for now, we could continue our current approach until a better one was proposed. He then proceeded to ask me what I thought. In my opinion, we currently lack cohesion or unity, and that we need to clarify what we intend to accomplish and consolidate and unify efforts on a global scale. Once we had moved on from that topic, we discussed whether equality of education was the same as equality of opportunity, to which most of us disagreed, as some would still have advantages in the resources provided to us outside of school. Yun then gave us a presentation on how education is the largest stratifier, especially with college education, as it created a barrier for those without college degrees and makes degrees less significant, instead increasing reliance on connections, of which the wealthy typically have more. I thought it was interesting that one of the defining aspects of privilege was being able to make people feel at ease by fitting into any group, which I hadn't really considered when thinking about privilege. He also examined how SES related to childrearing approaches, which eventually led to different perceptions of the system, as the high SES kids tended to think the system existed to help them, while the low SES children tended to think the system was a constraint.

After returning to our regular lecture room, we participated in another activity from Dr. Sparks, in which we were to design an educational system in a hypothetical racially and ethnically diverse island nation that would need to be competitive economically in the world as well. My group ended up disagreeing largely on the equal distribution of funds, which would come solely from the state to create more equality among the quality of schools, as one member in particular believed that one should be able to pass on advantages to one's children, despite having learned about the effects of social reproduction earlier and to some extent, the idea of social justice, which does involve some compromise from those that benefit from the system. Eventually, the group mostly settled on a system not very different from our current one, which I found unsatisfactory and rather disappointing, given that we had potentially unlimited possibilities within those parameters.

In my opinion, we could use a more significant overhaul to our current educational system. The core curriculum should consist of math, science, language, worldview & culture cultivation, social studies, art & technology, as well as practical skills for life, such as logic & problem-solving, nutrition & health, economics, emotional management, engineering, and law & justice. This should ensure the general public will be versatile and well-equipped to handle the circumstances they encounter in life. In addition, education for students should be made a priority, so it should be funded entirely by the state at no expense to families and should provide educators with higher wages and benefits to attract more interest in the teaching profession, which should lead to better teachers. In addition, each class should have multiple teachers to provide increased individual attention, varying perspectives, and teaching styles to help students get the most out of their education. I also think that students should be placed in classes based on ability rather than age and that students should be able to advance through each subject at a different rate, as most students have a stronger affinity for some topics over others and should not be constrained by age or performance in their weaker subjects. Education should focus more on teaching students to truly understand the concepts, as opposed to simply preparing them for tests, so while tests are necessary to test how well a student knows the material, they should focus more on comprehension than correct answers by asking students their rationale behind each step. However, accuracy is still important as well, so students still need to see what they did incorrectly and redo the problems they missed until they get the correct answers and are able to explain how they got those results. Furthermore, as opposed to allowing regression among students during the summer, there should be mandatory career exposure summer camps, in which students will be able to immerse themselves and explore various aspects of different fields. This should help students find their interests, as currently, many students do not seem to know what they want to do for a career. I also think that the government should do bimonthly maintenance checks in schools to ensure they are meeting standards, which should be high, as education should be prioritized and students should have access to the best resources available. New technology and equipment should be provided to schools every three years to ensure they are never outdated or in disrepair. The government should host competitions for companies to create the best technology with the reward of government endorsement, as well as sponsoring innovation fairs for students to take advantage of the creative capacity of youth, which could also attract interest among companies. The innovation and improvements that should result from these competitions should then be implemented in schools to give students the access to the newest technology available. Of course, many of these ideas are rather idealistic and perhaps unrealistic, but I think these changes could benefit students and the education system.

Once class ended, I went with one my friends, Sam, to do research for our capstone projects in the Van Pelt Library. We distinctly remembered seeing a study section, so we explored different floors to search for it. Ironically, we went to every floor except the first until we had run out of options and realized it was on the first floor. Once we found an open section to do our research in, we spent a little over an hour there, finding various articles on our topics and finding facts from them. My topic is the correlation between air pollution and socioeconomic status (SES), and I found that people of lower SES and minorities tend to live in areas with more toxic air.
Our study section
After a brief dinner at the 1920s Commons, I returned to the Quad to do laundry and research my topic further, but the entire time, my thoughts were mostly consumed with analyzing and questioning the flaws of the system, which is quite far from perfect. I'm also somewhat frustrated with the seeming unwillingness to deviate from the status quo, as most of the students exhibited conventional thinking, simply adopting and defending widely held beliefs and ideas rather than questioning them and forming their own opinions. I think it is especially frustrating to me because these are all very capable students and I am certain they have the capacity to do so, yet they do not, making me feel somewhat disillusioned. However, I still have hope for them, and I will continue to question the system and try to develop my own ideas.
View from the 1920 Commons

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