Thursday, July 31, 2008

Regarding "The Failings of Chile’s Education System: Institutionalized Inequality and a Preference for the Affluent"

The following response was sent to COHA by Mr. Bernard McElhone in response to Andrea Arango's article regarding the Chilean education system.

You must be especially proud of Andrea Arango's report on Chilean education. The clear writing and attentive research are far above average for COHA. There is hardly a tendentious formulation or bloody shirt to be found. I hope this praise has not cost the woman her non-paying position at COHA.

Inevitably, though, there are a few points with which one might disagree. I mention these simply to open for you and the COHA staff another perspective on the matters considered in the release.

1. In 2800 words no mention appears of the trajectory in test scores nationwide under the current educational system. Are more Chileans literate and numerate when compared with their predecessors of five or ten years ago? How do their achievements compare with those of neighboring countries, where the effort at educational leveling is further progressed? Surely, those are basic, more critical evaluative questions than asking which students gain access to a particular rank of university.

2. The question of poor people's access to better primary and secondary schools is complex. It is insufficient to attribute the disparity of access at the primary and secondary levels to inconvenient transport and a lack of knowledge of an occult admission process. It has been demonstrated across the world that the middle class will suffer great inconvenience to ensure their children's educational success. They instill a greater respect for education, they tutor them, they program their days, they game the application systems for better public and private schools. It cannot be a surprise, then, that middle class children achieve higher rates of admission to choice schools than the poor. After all, they have been formed as education-seeking missles since they left the womb.

The two small points raised in this regard (access to transport and knowledge of the system's variables) could be readily addressed via the provision of transport vouchers and a program of public
notification regarding school rankings. Many cities allow students to travel free on the mass transit system, and so could Chilean cities. School rankings could readily be broadcast via the news media, as they are in many places. The sad/happy truth, though, is that the middle class is largely self-selecting. The people who join are those who decipher and negotiate the system, not those who manage to discern and protest yet another pea under another heap of matresses.

3. The fact that more than a fifth of Chilean students fled the public schools when given the opportunity is a telling fact about life in that system. If the calculus were based on families rather than students, the rates would be still higher. Parents do not thoughtlessly inconvenience themselves and upset their children's social networks by bouncing them from school to school. They transfered because, like so many government systems, the public schools had come to serve constituencies other than the children they purport to serve. My point is best illustrated by a case mentioned in Ms Arango's essay, that of the encouragement of test-day absences. I doubt that there is a private or semi-private school in Chile where the administrators would direct children to be truants in the service of test scores. Yet, that maneuver is a device employed by education bureaucrats in many countries. The thread that ties those bureaucrats together, across borders, mountains and oceans, is the fact that they are almost inevitably government employees.

4. . The essay cites more than once the lower quality of public school teachers when compared with their confreres in the more private systems. In a free market, that sort of failing is addressed by the gradation of salaries according to job performance. Even in the public sector, that rational approach is sometimes employed. The US military, for example, pays increments for everything from qualification as a parachutist to the ability to speak a second language. The pay enhances capacity and performance. Yet -- I just know -- if the spectre of performance pay for teachers were raised, it would be opposed as a further imposition of divisive capitalist norms on a well-intentioned, failing system of education. The inept teacher would be more deserving of protection than the under-served student.

5. At the level of higher education, many solutions to the cited problems are available. You will recall that Jews in the US, denied access to the Ivy League, made the New York public colleges models of underfunded, intellectually glorious institutions. Similarly, poor Asians across the US bring their academic excellence with them to less prestigious public schools. Their very presence enhances the institutions. Protesting one's inability to gain admission to PUC is less effectual that taking the Chilean version of a Kaplan course. In the American model, the Ivy League, confronted with the promise, achievements and growing influence of those whom it had rejected, adjusted its admissions policies in order to avoid becoming a dumping ground for the stupid privileged. As recent world history has made clear, that process is sadly incomplete, but its force and direction are undeniable.

All of which is to say, Ms Arango (did I mention what a good expository writer she is?) and her sources might have identified aspects of the Chilean education system in need of improvement, but they have not made the case for tearing up the blueprint and beginning anew.

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