A common talking point in circles in that college attainment in the U.S. used to be among the highest in the world, but is now ranked middling-to-low (the ranking cited is typically around 15th) among OECD nations. As is the case when people cite rankings on the PISA assessment, this is often meant to imply that the U.S. education system is failing and getting worse.*
The latter arguments are of course oversimplifications, given that college attendance and completion are complex phenomena that entail many factors, school and non-school. A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this post - obviously, the causes and “value” of a postsecondary education vary within and between nations, and are subject to all the usual limitations inherent in international comparisons.
That said, let's just take a very quick. surface-level look at the latest OECD figures for college attainment (“tertiary education," meaning associate-level, bachelor's or advanced degree), which have recently been released for 2010.
Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.
Since the shock of 9/11 and the tragedy that ensued, many policy analysts have questioned whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, while ignoring countries such as Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation in the world) as well as India, Turkey, and others with large Muslim populations.
Now, in the aftermath of Arab Spring, Islamist political parties have gained political power through elections in the Middle East and, for many analysts, the jury is still out: Can Islamist governments be responsive to the people who elected them? Will it be one person, one vote, one time? It appears that these questions are about to be answered: The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which governs Turkey, has been in the forefront for many years. In Morocco, a majority of voters also handed power to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a party inspired by Turkey's moderate Islamists. Tunisia’s Al-Nahda (Renaissance) party and its prime minister were elected to office after free and fair elections. In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) established by the Muslim Brotherhood, won the Presidential elections and his new prime minister has formed a cabinet.
Against this background, the fundamental challenge to these governments in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is economic and not religious. The newly-minted Islamist governments are going to be tested daily and this time held accountable by voters who are no longer afraid to speak out.
Our guest author today is Jeffrey Mirel, Professor of Education and History at the University of Michigan. His book, Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants, published in 2010 by Harvard University Press, is available in bookstores and online.
How do you get people who hate each other learn to resolve their differences democratically? How do you get them to believe in ballots not bullets?
What if the answer is “public schools” and the evidence for it is in our own history during the first half of the twentieth century?
In the years spanning about 1890-1930, two institutions—public schools and the foreign language press—helped generate this trust among the massive wave of eastern and southern European immigrants who came to the U.S. during that time. This is not a traditional “melting pot” story but rather an examination of a dynamic educational process.
As discussed in a previous post, roughly half of Americans believe that government should take some active role in reducing income differences between rich and poor, though, as one would expect, this view is less prevalent among Republicans, more educated and higher earning survey respondents.
These data, however, lack a frame of reference. That is, they don’t tell us whether American support for government redistribution is “high” or “low” compared with that in other nations. The conventional wisdom in this area is that Americans generally prefer a more limited government, especially when it comes to things like income redistribution.
It might therefore be interesting to take a quick look at how the U.S. stacks up against other nations in terms of these redistributive preferences.
Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.
The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.
The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.
A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.
It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.
In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?
Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.
Two years ago, Elena Bonner, frail in body but not in mind or spirit, had this to say about conditions in Russia:
The West isn’t very interested in Russia….There are no real elections there, no independent courts, and no freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil -- of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers -- who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s.Here, in a few sentences of remarkable insight, Bonner, who died recently, neatly summarized much of Russian reality today.
The Albert Shanker Institute has released "Muslim Voices on Democracy: A Reader"—a free, downloadable publication that highlights the speeches, articles, and ideals of pro-democracy Muslims. It is designed as a resource for high school teachers to use in American classrooms, as they seek to help students make sense of the complex forces at work in the Muslim world.
You can download the publication (PDF) here.
The individuals featured in this collection include intellectuals, union activists, dissidents, and journalists. Although the voices of women are featured throughout the publication, it contains a special section devoted to their unique challenges and contributions to the democratic political dialogue. The publication also features a glossary of terms and a list of resources for further study.
Our guest author today is Radwan A. Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. A version of this post has appeared on other sites that follow political developments in the Muslim world.
As head of the Tunisian High Council for Political Reforms and the Achievement of the Goals of the Revolution, Dr. Iadh Ben Achour has declared his opposition to international monitors for Tunisia’s July 24th elections. He says international “observers” -- essentially a pro forma intervention -- would be acceptable. This is a mistake and represents a misplaced emphasis on sovereignty and a major retreat from the post-revolution commitments of the interim government—including the president and former prime minister, both of whom recognize that Tunisia has never organized free and fair elections, and most Tunisians won’t accept the election results without international supervision or at least monitors.
The “sensitivity” about foreign intervention has been used (and abused) by oppressive governments and regimes around the globe, helping to set the stage for massive election fraud. We have been down this road before, under Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and the other Arab dictators. True sovereignty belongs to the people, and the best way to protect that sovereignty is to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Today, many Tunisians do not believe that this interim government is capable of organizing truly free and fair elections, and are afraid that these elections—as in the past—will not reflect the will of the people.
Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.
Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?
This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.
One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S.