Republica Repost–Whither Education Policy?

Good private schools are being praised for the wrong reasons and the rest are selling snake oil.

During a recent conversation about education in Nepal here in New York City, a fairly informed fellow Nepali essentially argued that public schools are a thing of the past. So I asked him what percentage of students he believes goes to community schools in Nepal. He said 25 percent. The actual proportion is above 80 percent!

Among “city people” like that gentleman, the belief that “almost everyone’s children now go to private schools” seems widespread. And that is disturbing because such blurred vision or willful disregard of reality also underscores educational policies. While our educational experts and policymakers certainly know the statistics, they seem similarly insensitive to the vast majority of poor people around the country who can’t afford private schools. Even worse, the general premise for everyone’s strange attraction to “private” schools is that these schools are inherently superior. Good private schools are being praised for the wrong reasons and the rest are selling snake oil. And if that is the direction that we are headed as a nation, may the Lord Pashupatinath help us.

Read full article on Republica (Feb 16, 2016)

In another conversation, another gentleman (who had higher formal education) argued that the most capable professionals and leaders now were products of private schools. That is another dangerous argument: schools produce more or less talented students not because of their private/public status but because of the quality of education. Wherever private schools produce more talented students, that is a coincidental relationship rather than a causal one; wherever they don’t, and far too many don’t, they are not blamed for being private. The worst thing about this equally widespread belief is that most of those who attend public schools have internalized an inferiority complex. But while that belief could become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many in public schools, a sense of superiority doesn’t necessarily lead to success for students in private school. Too many come out mediocre when judged independently. Just visit the playground of any private school (outside of the handful in Kathmandu and a few other cities) and listen to the English they speak. I call it the “what-like what-like” English, not just littered with Nepali words but also using Nepali syntax that no one outside their creole community can understand. That is not the kind of money and time and national hope we need to be investing in.

Private schools—or at least those that we see in the cities where we do most of our writing and policymaking and leading about education for the rest of the nation—may look like an inherently good idea. And because those who come out of it seem more successful, it is very easy to forget that their success had little to do with the schools being private and more to do with the fact that their family and school had far more privileges for them that those of the public school counterparts. That is, even if they were somehow made affordable for everyone’s children, there is a far more insidious consequence of the strange attraction to private schools.

It’s not the idea that private schools are run by private owners or groups, that they don’t allow politicization, that they hold teachers responsible, that they optimize resources, or anything like that. It is the idea that private schools are by definition English medium. That’s a dangerous slope on which the entire society has been sliding down for some time now. And no educational policy or development seems to be correcting this course.

Per some reports in the past few years, district education officers are encouraging their constituent schools to switch to English in order to “improve” education. These leaders of education are either delusional about causes and effects or they are ignorant about basic issues of education. Switching to English without ensuring that existing teachers can continue to teach effectively is a recipe for further destroying public sector education. So, how they are solving any problem?

But the most puzzling is how and why even education experts are still found advocating for English medium without considering the dangers of switching to a foreign language without necessary preparation—or if that preparation is possible or even necessary. In reality, as the famous scholar of applied linguistics, Alan Davies, who served Nepal early in his career and died this past September, the ideology of English medium was created by the upper middle class that used to send its children to Darjeeling English as a class-marker wasn’t available in Nepal until the 1980s. The entire idea of “private” schools as “English medium” – which is no more logical than their name “boarding” – is a blatant but highly marketable lie. The fact that it is marketable doesn’t make it a better idea for the general masses – and, indeed, it isn’t helping most of the teachers and students in private schools themselves (outside of a few in big cities). Teachers don’t teach well in English, students don’t learn well in it.

So, where are we today in terms of educational policy? What policies have been developed in light of the historical change in the body politic? What, for instance, is the new policy that address the change in administrative regions? How are public institutions of education from bottom to top going to function in the non-Kathmandu- centered structures?

About a month ago, I started all the news items and reports that I could manage to find. No luck. I found a few ministerial speeches in the news, but those reports had little or no substance beyond repeating bromides about quality education. No agencies seem to be taking any initiative toward new educational policies and practices. Nothing seems to be addressing the status quo.

Yes, there are changes in SLC, specifically the new grading system. While this may solve the problem of centralization that put students from Jumla in the same race against students in Kathmandu; but there is no indication that the new assessment is based on or aligned with better curriculum and teaching. At the university level, the shift to semester system is similarly problematic: simply splitting the academic year into two parts will not a new educational culture make!

On the broader and national scale, where, indeed, are we? And where are we headed?

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