Points In Between: Episode Five
The Great Equalizer
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 5: The Great Equalizer
Selena: The thing that I think is most different than in American schools is we didn't really have a lot of standardized testing. Whenever they tested us you would have to stand up, you would go in front of the class, you would be asked questions, and you would have to answer them.
Serafin: But then over there you have homework like every day... even on the weekend you get off school Friday, you have Saturday, Sunday. You've got like hella homework to do and it's like, “Oh.” By the time you're done it's 8:00 PM Sunday. “I to go to bed. I've got to go to school tomorrow.”
Those were the voices of Selena, who first went to school in Bosnia, and Serafin, whose schooling began in Senegal. Their comments echo a sentiment I heard from a lot of the people I interviewed. And that is: American schools just don’t feel that hard.
But it’s too simplistic to take that perception at face value. At its core, this is about two basic questions: What is the point of educating everyone and What is the best way to do it?
A school system, as an institution, is an embodiment of our – often messy and contradictory – answers to those two questions. Our debates about length of the school day, or funding sports facilities, or testing are all really debates about why schools exist and how they can best fulfill that purpose.
If you’re a student who only experiences one system of schooling, these larger questions are hard to see behind the day-to-day minutiae of assignments. But if you move from one system to another, the differences can be unsettling. It feels like the rules have changed, and you’re right. They have.
Mia grew up in China, where access to college is dependent on a single test that comes at the end of high school: the gaokao. China has a 2000-year history of using testing as a pathway to political power or economic success. The gaokao is the modern iteration of that tradition. In that system, being a “good student” means developing the skills to excel on that test.
Mia: I think a good student here is absolutely not the type that I was in China, especially in high school. I think like before like learning process means to me that you just need to practice, practice a lot about the class you take and exercises you do. But now is like – since I have a different purpose - so I'm paying attention to every information that I get, no matter from textbook, class, or even people that I talk with. So now I don't need that identity to be a good student.
Before we started our interview, Mia showed me a Powerpoint presentation on her laptop. It was about how her understanding of education has changed since she came to America. I didn’t ask for it. She just wanted me to know. It was sweet and I asked her more about it during our interview.
Mia: My religion background is my mom is a Christian and when I was in high school, especially the period of passing the exam, she talked with me a lot. Obviously I was stressed out and had like, a bad time. And she just talked with me and prayed a lot for me and like told me that God loves you no matter what you do. And because of that, like, I think my family is quite different from other like traditional Chinese family because my mom don't have much expectation to me. But like when I got into college I actually I didn't take Christian[ity] or religion seriously. I wanted to like solve problems and, maybe, focus my future.
When Mia came to UC Berkeley, immersion in a new system, with its new expectations, changed her.
Mia: I think I couldn't be that person anymore. I was like, I was the kind of person also chasing for perfection. When I went through the mid-terms, I never had the experience of like writing papers. No matter how hard I try, I can't be that perfect me anymore. So like, you know, this is my identity of a Good Student. The midterm broke that identity and when I was like so weak and - I cried to my parents. I also had homesick[ness]. All emotions just came together. At that time like my friends, they are Christians. I came - a lot of Christian friends, they came to me and like tell me, “Your identity is not about school but also like much more about God, how God sees you.” So I remember like how when I was in high school my mom told me Christianity. So I think, I want to get to know more about Christianity, whether I can find my meaning and my identity in Christianity and I think now luckily I found it.
Mia’s inability to be a “good student” in this new system prompted her to entirely re-evaluate the point of education.
In any system, the markers for student success are constructed, based on that larger underlying purpose for educating people. Change the purpose and it should follow that teaching methods and evaluations also change.
To really consider this, we need to do some historical digging. It’s going to get a little long, but truest me. There’s a point to it.
There have been a lot of changes in American schools, of course. But if you were going to pick one single year to help you make sense of our shared understanding of the purpose of American schools, it would be 1848.
The early 1800s were kind of strange by modern standards. If you went to school in the US you’ve probably heard of abolitionism. But you may not know that the fight to abolish slavery was one of a whole range of movements focused on the moral character of individuals and society. This was the time period tht saw the rise of Evangelical Christianity and transcendental philosophy. But it’s also the time when Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham cracker, argued that a diet of bland foods could prevent both cholera and masturbation. The temperance movement suggested that alcohol caused both immorality and poverty. Those are only a few examples of a huge number of social movements at the time.
So that’s the background.
Our year, 1848, was itself momentous. In the West, after defeating Mexico in war, the US added a half-million square miles to its territory, along with the non-English-speaking people who lived there. In upstate New York, on the other side of the country, women at the Seneca Falls convention asserted that women should have the right to vote. Along the Eastern seabord, Irish Immigrants, escaping the potato famine, poured into Boston, New York, Philadelphia Baltimore. Within two years these mostly Catholic newcomers would be 25% of the population in those cities.
Across the Atlanitc, in Europe, 1848 was also the year that Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. In it, they argued that violent class conflict is one of the unavoidable constants of human history. And they predicted that growing industrialization would eventually lead to revolution and a complete re-ordering of industrial societies.
That same year, 1848, within months of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, on the other side of the Atlantic, Horace Mann delivered his 12th Annual Report of the Secretary of the Board of Education. Not a very sexy title. Mann was the first Secretary of the first state Board of Education. His state, Massachusetts, was the most industrialized one in the US at the time – though the process was still in its infancy. Massachusetts was also the home of the Common School movement – the movement in favor of creating free, compulsory, state-funded public schools – and Mann was its best-known advocate.
That 12th Annual Report wasn’t a philosophical reflection of schooling, although it certainly contained some philosophizing. It went to the Massachusetts legislature. It was about money. It’s basically an argument explaining why tax money should be collected to pay for schools and why students should be required to attend school.
In that 1848 document, Mann laid out the arguments that are still, in a lot of ways, at the core of how we think about education in America. And to understand the current student experience in American schools, it helps to know why we have schools.
Mann predicted that public school could become, in his words, “the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization.” This is first because of the scale of its impact, how many people are affected. He said, “all the rising generation may be brought within the circle of its reformatory and elevating influences.” And also because young people are, in his words, “pliant.” When you get them young you can mold them into “a greater variety of forms than any other earthly work of the Creator.”
An “effective force of civilization” isn’t just teaching you arithmetic. It’s more subtle than that.
Consider this example from a 14-year old. He’s been in the US for 4 years.
William: My name is William and I'm currently living in Houston and I used to live in London, England.
William attended what Americans would call a private school in London. The scope of public schools is obviously far greater, but the practice of inculcating behaviors is the same.
William: There were many entrances. It was sort of a large … but every single day the headmaster was standing by the gate where you should enter and you had to look him directly in the eye and shake his hand before you were allowed to enter, just so you learn how to socially interact with adults better. And I think to this day that helps me.
Learning to shake hands with confidence could never be considered an academic skill, but you certainly might call it an “elevating influence” to use Mann’s words.
I asked Angel about writing essays here in California, versus the style she was taught in high school, back in Taiwan.
Angel: What’s very different is that the English essay require you to state your opinion in the first sentence and the topic sentence should be really specific and the whole essay should be really logical and understandable. And actually, in Chinese like writing, maybe the topic is about struggling and you have to write an article about that in Chinese. And, like, the English essay, the hook [is] just in the beginning maybe a few sentences, but like in the Chinese article is like maybe the whole article is the hook and in the end of the article, you express your opinion.
If you’re a student just trying to get a paper written, you might be frustrated by a teacher who says you can’t use “I” in a formal essay. You might struggle to articulate your main idea in a single sentence in your first paragraph. But you probably aren’t challenging those conventions on the basis that you reject the larger cultural norms you’re being forced to model.
Angel: I think in Chinese society it's …there's more oppression for you to speak out your opinion in public if you're opinion is different from others. There’s not...well, the American will embrace more diversity of your perspective. But in Chinese society if you have a different opinion or you want to say something to criticize, you may be a little bit careful of your wording. You encounter more like pressure to [if you] speak out a differing opinion. I think it's in general is like this, or was in high school.
Shiraj commented on a different standard sort of American writing assignment: the research paper.
Shiraj: The teacher is giving you two weeks and then there should be something really good about it and I don't know what… what should it…what detailed thing should it be because I can write an essay in an hour. But I always feel like something's missing because why would the teacher give me two weeks? Like how you find quotes and then you analyze it? That's something I never did. But then the good thing here is also they give you many examples of how you do it. But it's just weird because you get two weeks and I don't know what to do for two weeks about it. [laughs]
Shane: Well, I mean, as a teacher I can tell you that at least a solid week of that I expected my students to procrastinate and not do anything. But I mean it was for doing research and finding new information.
Shiraj: There the information is already given to you, in India. It’s like, just write a letter to the editor about the problem in your society. The garbage problem. Or maybe write a letter or maybe write an essay about a day in your life. It was very simple or very, very realistic. Here it’s way detailed.
That topic, the research paper raises another question. Exactly what information and skills should you use this, in Mann’s words, “effective and benignant force of civilization” to teach? And how?
Roya: Arts was big. We did a lot of like making – they say in Farsi “kardesti” - making like a clock or making a house, like building things with cardboard. I was really good at that...my artistics I always got the highest score in school.
You’re listening to Roya, describing part of her schooling in Afghanistan.
Roya: So we had physics, we had algebra, we had science. The system in Afghanistan with education, it was really exposing a lot of subjects, early stage, that you have six [or] seven subjects that you have to know. And each class is like 30 minutes, 35 minutes, but then you get exposed to so many different subjects.
When Vishnu arrived from India, he encountered a reorganization of subjects he was already familiar with.
Vishnu: Most schools here only have one science that time or like one math at the time. In India it's like, you do all the maths at the same time, all science at the same time. You begin low each thing and go up. It's not like you do begin low, go up, begin low, go up again and again. So it's kind of like that and like.
For Juan, who came from El Salvador at age 16, the reorganization of subjects wasn’t just curious. It was frustrating.
Juan: The last math class I took there I was taking a little bit of trig and pre-calculus with algebra mixed. So when I came here, my school transcript from there, you know school was looking at it and they were like, “Let's do pre-algebra.” So I took pre-algebra and that was super easy. So like I moved algebra. And that was kind of easy so I talked to them and then like, “OK let's move you to pre-calc.” I was understanding some part of it, but after the first week I was kind of lost. So that's when they told me, “OK let's move you back to algebra 3/4”. So I was kind of frustrated because most of the things in algebra 3/4 I already had taken it there and I was pretty good, but I couldn't take pre-calc because I was kind of lost.
When I asked about the differences in skills and expectations between the US and elsewhere, the most common response had to do with math.
Yesica, Vishnu both commented on it.
Yesica: What I was learning in 6th grade I had learned that in 3rd grade and I was just like, "Man...why are these people like…" Not that they're slow. They just like pace them too slow. They don't have them, like, “Do this, quick." So as far as education, I think like Mexico was pretty good because it moves faster.
Vishnu: So we had a question on the board saying you need to solve this equation or something. I like took the pen and paper, like piece of paper and a pen, and solved it in a few minutes. The guy next to me had a calculator, he kind of started solving in like five minutes. I still got it first. So people looked at me like I'm totally different cause I get super fast in my head. I kind of feel like it's not that the math in India is far ahead than this place. It's like, I don’t know, I just felt like the way we got taught math in India is like more intuitive than just saying, “This adds to this.” If you look at something saying, “This happens and that happens” you'll see, “OK, this happens.” In India, it's like why did this happen, so I think that helped me a lot.
Vishnu also reflected on access to cellphones and how he thinks that has affected the skills students are expected to develop.
Vishnu: In class people would be like, “OK, take a cell phone out and tell me what you think. Look this guy up.” But in India it's like we didn't have cell phones so you know all the stuff by heart, like go online look it up in your house, and go to school next day. I feel like some people are totally addicted to technology, like need it to pass the class, while some people don't need it. I just feel like one half are super-smart and the other half is kind of lagging, but they still do well in class. It just shows how technology like impacted them a lot.
When Ruth returned to the US from Mexico, she learned new essay-writing skills. But she also noticed some skills and experiences that were missing from her American school.
Ruth: …but what we did have in Mexico that I've never witnessed here in the U.S. is oratory contests within the school, within the county, and within the state. And so you would prepare something that you had strong feelings about to argue and then you had to stand up, memorize it stand up there, and present it. I remember at least two within the school and then going to other schools because I would win and would have to compete with other local schools… this sense of being much more easily woven into the fabric of politics or local affairs.
When Ruth won at the local level, she went off to the regional competition.
Ruth: …so then we were in the only auditorium in town giving our speeches. I feel like it's served me really well to be able to stand in front of crowds and learn that early on and speak.
Ruth’s next account is a great example of the way students experience schools. Activities can combine skills, culture, and camaraderie all at once.
Ruth: We had a national anthem contest where you would, you know…and here I am somebody who's like daughter of very radically…you know, learning the Mexican National Anthem in all of its like subtlety and deliciousness and traveling by bus with all of my classmates in choir to compete with all of the public schools within Mexico City and you know feeling just so, so sad when we didn't win the - I don't know what sector - the delegation or something.
Shane: Were there other songs or was just everyone singing the Mexican anthem?
Ruth: Everyone singing the anthem over and over again like school after school after school.
Shane: Do you remember having any kind of like feelings about the meaning of the song in reference to you singing it or your parents commenting on it all?
Ruth: I don't remember anything of that. I remember - you know, a lot of the language is so archaic or poetic or pompous that it's hard to understand some of the lyrics. I remember being very focused on what parts needed to be whispered and what parts need to be belted out and a little bit of shame of like my parents knowing that I was going everywhere singing the national anthem. But there was such pride.
Just in case you missed the episode about leaving home, my questions about Ruth’s parents weren’t because she was an American singing the Mexican anthem. I asked because they were in the country as Communist Party organizers and communist philosophy opposes nationalism.
Ruth’s stories introduce another theme, as well. That’s the way schools use competition as a tool to encourage student engagement.
Yesica, who also moved from Mexico, and Angel, from Taiwan, both explained.
Yesica: I would always like to compete for the first place in class because the way that they have it in Mexico, they have always first, second, and third places in every classroom and they'll just honor them at the end of the year. But that was always something for me, like I always wanted to do the competition so I'd either always get first or second and the times that I would get second I would get like salty because like you kind of stay together with the same kids so you know who is your competition as you move up in the year. Like, "Okay, it's this guy, so now I have to beat him next year." But that was good. Like there was always a sense of competition.
Angel: You study really hard and you just study every day and try to get the highest score in the exam. I think that’s the…maybe the only criteria of a good student. The good students are the first – in the first place of the class.
Shane: And you always know who they are?
Angel: Yeah, you always know. Yeah, I think there is a policy change the third year in my high school because a lot of people complain about that, you should not like show all the students ranking in public. So, in my third year there was like confidential policy. But in reality you're still know who is in the first place. [laughs]
Let’s go back to the history for a minute. Mann’s 1848 document also appealed to people who thought funding schools would be a bad investment. He wrote:
For the creation of wealth, then,--for the existence of a wealthy people and a wealthy nation,--intelligence is the grand condition.
By intelligence, he meant education. In other words, educated people are productive people.
It’s hard to be certain what sort of education is going to provide both an “elevating influence” as Mann said, and also the knowledge to make people productive. The accounts you’ve heard so far show that there is limited agreement about what students should learn or how they should learn it. Even within a single school, these ideas are in constant flux.
And once you’ve decided what students should learn, how do you know if they are? And how do you convince them it’s worth their effort to try?
Looking back again, in 1845, three years before his report, Mann decided to administer a written test to over 500 students in Boston. He wanted to determine whether or not they were learning. He suspected they were not. He got the idea from a trip to Europe.
At that time in America, oral tests were the norm. Kids spent a few short hours at school each day, basically memorizing their textbooks. Misbehavior was met with corporal punishment. Students showed what they learned by reciting their texts for the teacher.
Basically, those students in Boston bombed that first written test. Mann published the results, with critiques and comparisons. Then he used the results to argue for more support and more oversight of schools.
It took almost 50 years after that first experiment for written testing to become widespread in schools. 100 years after Mann’s report, in 1948, the Educational Testing Service was established. That’s the outfit that created the SAT. Since that time, our use of standardized testing has only increased.
But as with subjects and skills, tests and testing are not the same from place to place.
For example, several people had never seen multiple-choice tests before coming to the US. Here’s William.
William: The multiple choice were fairly easy. You'd be given a sheet or something to read off of and then the answers would be in the text and you just…answer C is the exact same thing that's written in the text so… that was a bit…odd.
It wasn’t just the construction of tests that came as a surprise. It was the timing of them and role they played in classes.
William: I remember the first graded assignment I had was something where were given the test then you went through it. And then when you were done, you handed it in.
And then you looked through your notes or whatever and then you got the test back and was able to go through it again before it was graded. So I was a bit confused at first. It was not what I was used to, getting a second shot at an assignment and getting to look at what was on the test. So that, yeah, that was new for me.
We started midterms and finals at a very young age. I think Year Four specifically…
Year 4 is the equivalent of 3th grade in the US
William: …that's when I started having midterms and finals. No multiple choice, all short answer, and there'd be about - it depends on the subject really - I remember the history midterm was especially hard because there was a really tight time limit and a lot of questions and all of them were really deep and you required deep answers.
If we were taking an exam or something, if you were to merely look up at someone, you'd get a demerit and then like three demerits was a detention and demerits carried on for I think a month before reset. So, when I came to the United States and I saw someone cheating on someone's paper I would kind of …make a big fuss out of it and people called me a snitch for that. But it was just the way I'd been taught. So it took me a while to set into the relaxed format of testing in the United States.
Shane: Did you have a different amount of homework?
Vishnu: Not exactly. So we had the same kind of homework but in this country, in the US, like many people like look at homework as a way to boost your grade. In India your homework doesn't help. It's like if you do it, it doesn't help you, if you don't do it, it effects you, so you need to do it anyway. Only two tests matter. It's like the end of 10th grade and the end of 12th. So, even if you like flunk school and like get Fs on all your tests but do good on these tests, you can be the top one in your school.
Shane: So does that mean that being good at taking that test is a much bigger part of being a good student there?
Vishnu: Yes, so we didn't have participation, like that doesn't matter in school. Even inEnglish like no discussions happen. It’s like kind of basic. And if you could do get on tests you’re pretty much set for college, like the top colleges only take the top 2000 people who do good on tests so that's all people wanted. But maybe in American schools people participate a lot, people like talk lot in class, try and interact, and like go outside the class if that makes sense. So, that didn't exist in India.
We’ll come back to the topic of testing, but a little detour here. I want to note this mention of class participation. A couple of nights ago I went to my local city council meeting - something on the agenda was important to me – and if you’ve ever been, you more or less know the format. At different points in the meeting interested members of the public are each allowed to speak for a minute or two about items on the agenda, with pretty broad latitude in terms of what counts as “about” an item on the agenda. There are all kinds of speakers and as I listened to everything from impassioned arguments to angry diatribes to meandering philosophical reflections, I thought about Vishnu’s comments. Class participation is practice for being a productive team member at a job, but it’s also practice for the actual doing of American-style, town hall democracy, in its most basic sense. And I wondered, as I sat there, if that’s why we grade for it, if that’s why we care about it in school. Anyway, food for thought, Detour over. Back to testing.
Just about everyone I spoke with noted the frequency of testing in the US. In their early experience, they generally had fewer exams but with bigger consequences.
Roya: Afghanistan's system of education was really tough. So there was basically, if you couldn't pass classes, you go back. It just was difficult so it's… the pressure was really hard. You have to sit and you have to pass these tests. And if you don't pass the test that means you stay next year with different kids that you're not even exposed [to] and you start the whole year doing the same thing till you pass that class.
Shane: And what - do you remember that being common? Do you remember a lot of new kids who came from the year before or was it a once in a while?
Roya: So let’s say it wasn't that it wasn't a lot but there were always two or three kids who will repeat that, which was kind of discouraging for those kids because now they're older kids sitting in the younger classes. I can imagine how tough it would be for them. Other kids would look down on you if you didn't pass so…because we had - in my classroom we an older girl, she was in our class but because she didn't pass. So, I mean, we built a bond with her but it wasn't because she wasn't the same group with us moving forward.
Even though Lingerr lived in the Gambia, her middle school education was aligned with curriculum in the UK in a way that prepared her for something called the IGCSE exam. You can look that up if you’re interested. I’ll just say, her success on that exam enabled her to go to high school in England, where the community was different but other things were not.
Lingerr: It’s funny because the teachers were better but the strategy was still the same: just cram knowledge into your head and regurgitated for your A-Levels this time, which are the sole definer of getting into college. And that's a really big difference, I think, between the United States and England because, like for example, I wanted to go to Durham and they were like, “OK to go to Durham you need two As and a B on your A-levels. That's it.”
Siobhan: You write a personal statement and that same personal statement goes to every one of the colleges that you're applying to. They get your predicted grades. So each teacher has to predict a grade for their student and that is what the colleges get. And so when you're accepted what they'll say to you is, “We conditionally accept you conditional on you getting your predicted grades.”
Lingerr: So there's this night in England where everyone gets their A-level results at the same time, at the stroke of midnight and when you get that you'll see whether or not you'll to able to go to the school based on these three grades.
In Brazil, Juliana also faced an exam, a college entrance exam called the vestibular.
Juliana: I do remember that exam was early in the morning and I woke up and my parents - my dad usually he gets way stressed about anything, so he was the one who was basically freaking out. I was trying to maintain calm but he was like, “Oh we're going to be late!” and all that kind of stuff and, “Oh don't eat that! It's bad for your tummy!” and all that kind of stuff. “Oh, did you bring the water!?” Yeah. He was freaking out but I was trying to maintain calm and, yeah, he basically drove me and I did the test and yeah, we didn't have any type of break or anything like that but it was quite stressful and in the end you get so tired of it, like any other test. And then I would just go home and wait for the next day because it's usually two days’ test, Saturday and Sunday, so I would try to relax and sleep and - I don't know - play some video games.
Brazil has both public and private colleges.
Juliana: …but you do want to go to a public college because it's not only harder to get in, but it's the education it's considered …there are some debates over this, but usually it's better because it's free as well. Completely free.
As Lingerr noted, the relationship between success on a single exam and access to college education is a pretty striking difference between the US and many other countries. Especially compared to countries with free or extremely low-cost public colleges, higher education in the US can be incredibly expensive. It’s also impossible to know exactly what you need to do to be admitted to many schools. On the other hand, the US system contains flexibility.
As I said earlier in the episode, Horace Mann delivered that 12th Annual Report to the board of education in the same year the Communist Manifesto was published. Americans were aware of the tumult that was caused by industrialization and they were worried about it. Mann’s last argument here was a direct response to that concern.
This is the one that most people know and repeat, even if they don’t know where it came from. I’m going to excerpt. First he says:
According to the European theory, men are divided into classes,--some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn.
Then, he makes this promise:
Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men--the balance-wheel of the social machinery…
if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.
In other words, equal access to education is what gives Americans equal access to opportunity. And equal opportunity will prevent class conflicts by offering a path toward upward mobility. This is appealing. If you’re well-off, it promises that funding education will promote social stability. And if you’re struggling, it promises you can earn more money if you get an education.
That’s a big promise and I know this sounds cynical, but it certainly was never clear to me as a teacher how a lesson on – say – the reforms of the 1840s – could lift someone out of poverty. I think there are a lot of real, emotional, personal benefits to education, but in this instance I wonder if the tool doesn’t fit the task.
Still, we can be hopeful and take it as true. But then we have another question: What if some people have access to better schooling opportunities than others?
This is not a problem unique to America. Juan compared what he found in the US to the range of options available in El Salvador.
Juan:…the campuses, definitely, the school campuses are a lot bigger. Down there, only the really rich schools, private schools, can have the really nice soccer fields –I love soccer - soccer fields or you know tennis, whatever sport. Of course the lower the income possibilities that a student gets, of course the resources get smaller. So that's what I liked about the public schools here. They you know you get more resources from that point of view.
Juliana discussed differences within Brazil.
Juliana: In Brazil, private schools they are considered the best ones because you're basically paying and you see results. Public schools, they are not very good. You wouldn't necessarily want to go to a public school if you had the choice. But there are some that are I would say OK. Now it's getting better, the education. But still you would prefer going to private schools because it's not only safer, but you will learn more.
In the US, despite the Brown v. Board of Ed decision in 1954 and federal efforts at desegregation in the late 60s and 70s, racial segregation in public and private schools still persists. And so does unequal access to educational resources. I asked Juliana if anything similar exists in Brazil.
Juliana: In private schools, you do have, uh…with lighter skin but you also do have with darker skin - a few, not a lot. But still, you can see because Brazil is a very diverse country. It's not very common for you to see you like just, for instance, like white people in one school but you kind of get when you go to public school you can kind of see there are more students of color in public schools than in private.
Siobhan comes from a working-class family in Wales and her wife is a teacher at a prestigious private school in California. There’s a worlds of difference between those two palces. Trying to describe her wife’s place of work makes for some interesting conversations.
In 2017, almost 5.1 million students attended private, rather than public, k-12 schools in the US – that’s about 9% of all US students. Many of those schools are religiously affiliated, but plenty are also independent like the one Siobhan describes here.
Under-resourced public schools and well-appointed public schools and private schools like the one Siobhan describes are all points along a continuum. And obviousl money has a lot to do with access there. But Siobhan is interested in peoples’ willingness to pay for school, not just their ability.
Siobhan: The fact that So many people in the U.S. are willing to pay for education is fascinating to me. That's something I think about a lot and it came to my mind again because I was thinking about the tuition here. This particular school I think at the moment is $42,000 a year. I mean that’s absolutely unthinkable to 99 percent of Brits. Just spending that on education is completely unthinkable.
And I so I think about that a lot and I talk to my wife about it a lot, and I do understand that, I mean, there are many reasons for it. But one of them, it's clear that the public schools are not as well funded in some cases, but certainly not as well sort of looked after and regulated and kept an eye on. You know in the UK the reason most people - well there's many reasons - but one of the reasons most people do not go to private school is because you can rely on your state school to be fine, you know? And Brits aren't trying to...[laughs] in some ways we're not trying to excel. We're just trying to be okay. And you can rely on your state school to deliver "okay". There are going to be some schools that get into trouble of course, but you know for the most part parents don't have to worry. So I understand here that there can be that worry dependent on where you live and that's going to make you more willing to spend money. But it takes such a different mental state to be willing to fork out like that.
This episode began with two questions that are at the heart of any school system: What is the point of educating everyone? and What is the best way to do it? The episode was framed around some of Horace Mann’s arguments in favor of public education because they lie at the core of our understanding of what school is. You heard about ways schools teach cultural norms, facts and skills, differences in how students are assessed, and some thoughts on disparities in access to educational resources. The one thing we didn’t talk about at all? The relationship between students and the people on the other end of that equation: their teachers.
Episode six of Points in Between will focus on how teachers and students interact, both here in the US and abroad.
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.