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The pandemic is an opportunity to reform education in the US | Education



School will start again for us in southern California next week. In some ways, it feels like school just ended. Or it never really ended.

What will be or will not be of the 2020-2021 school year has felt like a constant backdrop to our sundrenched pandemic summer. What will school look like? How will we manage work and school? Will we survive? How is this changing us? Questions languished in the thick summer air.

There have been plenty of emails from the school district, with phases and plans and slideshows and links. There have been articles and articles and articles about how other parents are feeling, what they are doing, what they are not doing. Pods, micro-schools, and tutors cloud my vision, already blurred with uncertainty about how to balance academics, social-emotional health and work.

To cope, I have not really engaged in any of it. I have taken the passive-aggressive stance of ignoring it all. I see the emails but I skim them. I make a half-hearted effort to remember when the next district Zoom call is, but I have not listened to any.

I value the education of my kids. I value the education of society. I spent seven years as a high school teacher. So my reluctance to engage has been gnawing at me. Why have I not jumped on this very important issue? As the first day of school draws frighteningly nearer, I think I know why.

Sure, I am tired. I am tired of the pandemic – as we all are. I am tired of negotiating screen time and mourning the loss of kids’ sports and the breakdown of the life we once knew. But I have also been able to see the positives. I know there are benefits to slowing down and I was happy to read about how others felt this way too.

“We have been too busy!”

“The kids have been over-scheduled!”

“Work should have always been more flexible!”

“Let’s make some changes!”

These are all the silver lining sentiments that were the only bright spots in a depressing stretch of weeks.

But I think my reluctance to jump into the education crisis of 2020 stems from the fact that we have been shouting things we do not really mean. As another season wanes and back-to-school approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear that coronavirus has not reminded us to slow down, it has amplified our collective anxiety about keeping up.

When the announcement that school would begin virtually was made, there was a flurry of texts and articles and conversations about pods and micro-schools and tutors. In my predominantly white and affluent community, much of the conversation was centred on how do we ensure our kids do not “fall behind”.

I know there are real logistical concerns for working parents about starting school. In some cases, the need for pods and tutors is simply logistical. Parents need childcare, and if their kids can be educated in the process, great. But the formation of pods feels inherently exclusive and unequal – both academically and social-emotionally. What about the kids who, for whatever reason, have not joined a pod? What happens when they see eight classmates sitting together at Johnny’s house on Zoom? What happens when they need help and their parents are on a call or on a job?

I realise these kinds of worries and challenges are a privilege when so many are worried about keeping a roof overhead and food on the table. The concerns about the equity of pods and tutors, and the ideas of opportunity hoarding have been raised.

But what about the underlying premise of all of this? We have created an education system based on competition. We are teaching our kids how to become dutiful participants in the rat race.

In 2016, my family moved back to the United States after living in Asia for four years. When I returned to my classroom, I was disappointed by some of the changes I saw. Mainly, the hyper-competitiveness of education seemed to be working directly against cultivating a genuine curiosity about the world and a love of learning. Students were burned out, stressed out and grade-obsessed.

The American Psychological Association has been tracking stress among teens since 2013. In 2018, they reported that not only has stress in teens continued to rise, but also that teens report the highest levels of stress of any age group. This echoes the findings of the Pew Center for Research, which also found anxiety and depression in teens on the rise.

“When it comes to the pressures teens face, academics tops the list: 61 percent of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades.” Indeed, the most popular question in all my classes, asked nearly every day was: “Will this be on the test?”

I understand that there needs to be a system in place to measure students’ progress and growth. I know there is value in understanding how they compare with their cohorts. But we treat our education system as a game.

Schools have to compete for money, teachers and resources. Students have to compete to get the best test scores. Families have to compete to get into the best districts. Parents push their kids to get into the best universities, so someday their kids will be in the best district. We are perpetuating a vicious cycle.

For years, politicians have been trying to ensure no child is left behind, schools race to the top, and every student succeeds. But the tutors and pods and micro-schools are just another reminder that none of these reforms has actually worked. In the American education game, it is still the richest who win.

There are many factors that contribute to this disparity in education, but if you whittle away at higher test scores, better teacher retention, higher graduation rates, better access to community support, eventually you are left with a dollar sign.

American schools are funded by a combination of federal, state and local money. NPR’s School Money Project puts the averages about 45 percent local money, 45 percent from the state and 10 percent federal.

Better-funded schools can provide students with smaller class sizes, better teacher salaries, better facilities and more access to support staff like counsellors, nurses, and enrichment teachers. Additionally, students in richer districts can afford more extracurricular activities like sports, tutors, and music lessons. They even have more access to less tangible benefits like family vacations and trips to museums.

The Hechinger Report, a study published in May 2020, revealed just how large the gap between rich and poor school districts in America are. The study looked at trends among school districts between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, the top 1 percent districts nationwide funded their schools at almost three times the level of the bottom 1 percent, with the top schools spending an average of $21,000 per student and the bottom spending an average of $7,500 per student.

What is more, most of the low-performing schools are in urban areas with predominantly minority students, further perpetuating racial and ethnic inequality in education. The Center for American Progress published a report about the long-standing educational inequality between white and minority students. According to author Ary Spatig-Amerikaner, “The most shocking is the data showing that schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students.”

In Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor districts is much wider than the miles between them, like high performing Fairfield and low performing Bridgeport. In 2005, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding – a group of parents, teachers, students, unions and residents – fought the state for more equality in funding education.

For years the lawsuit was tied up in courts but, in 2016, the Connecticut State Supreme Court concluded, “…that the trial court was correct in its initial determination that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the state’s educational offerings are not minimally adequate…the state has not violated their equal protection rights under the state constitution.” The court’s ruling has essentially cemented the status quo. These same dynamics play out in states all across the US.

We are a nation built on the merits of competition, so it stands to reason that our education system would follow in kind. But maybe educating the masses should not be a competition. Maybe competition is counter-intuitive to learning.

We are cultivating generations of kids who are excellent at finding the right answers, who may even be interested in finding creative solutions, but the endgame is always to win – the college acceptance, the scholarship, the best job, the best car, the best house, the best, the best.

When COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, there was a moment of reflection. A chance to see the world as we created it. And a chance to start making changes. Months later, we are staring at the pieces of a broken system and rushing to put it back exactly as it was before.

Our education system has been broken and unfair for decades. Students and parents are flailing (Remember the college admissions scandal?). Teachers are underpaid and constantly asked to do the impossible: take on more students, differentiate to meet all their increasing academic and social needs, provide academic rigour, be empathic, learn the latest technology, do not lose tried and true methods, involve parents, do not involve parents too much. A report by the American Federation of Teachers found: “In 2015, 34 percent [of teachers] said their mental health was not good for seven or more days in the last month. In 2017, that number climbed to 58 percent.”

We all want our kids to succeed and grow. We all know the opportunities top colleges provide. I know that competition is necessary and inevitable and when you have the opportunity to provide for your children, you take it. But this current sprint to pod-up feels so counter to the opportunity to really drive meaningful change.

COVID-19 has also given us the opportunity to understand how powerful cooperation can actually be for the greater good. Masks are more effective when we all wear them. Science is stronger when knowledge is shared, not hoarded in secret. The idea of a social contract is still very much relevant. Now, more than ever is it not the perfect time to move education away from competition and towards cooperation?

As we rush to create pods, bubbles, micro-schools maybe we make the focus not “falling behind” or “getting ahead” but an opportunity to start over.

What if we moved education reform and policies out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of teachers and families? Instead of focusing on trying to mimic the same classroom instruction over a computer screen, what about completely changing how students are instructed? Instead of focusing on delivering the same test-oriented curriculum, how about using this opportunity to really revamp entire curriculums? What if the hours of the school day were re-evaluated to match a broader spectrum of families’ needs?

What if we made the goal of school, not college or career but actually a love of learning? If we can teach our kids the value of learning, college and career will still fall into place. But what if we focus on increasing knowledge to be better, not make more.

COVID-19 has upended all our lives. Instead of letting panic, fear and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality guide us in getting back to normal, let’s redefine normal. Change the game. Because if we are really honest, no one is actually winning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Kyrgyzstan votes on constitution boosting president’s powers | Elections News




Draft constitution will reduce the size of the Kyrgyz parliament and give the president the power to appoint judges and heads of law enforcement agencies.

Voters in Kyrgyzstan went to polls on Sunday for a constitutional referendum widely expected to see President Sadyr Japarov’s powers expanded while allowing him to run for office a second time.

Japarov, a 52-year-old populist, has brushed aside political opponents since coming to power on the back of an October political crisis in which he was first released from jail by supporters, beginning a dizzying rise to the leadership.

He confirmed his dominance by posting a landslide victory in a presidential election in January. In a parallel poll, voters also indicated a preference for presidential over parliamentary rule, boosting his drive to overhaul the constitution.

Japarov’s proposed amendments promise a presidency in line with Kyrgyzstan’s Central Asian neighbours, ending a decade-long experiment with a mixed system. The draft new constitution would reduce the size of the country’s parliament by 25 percent to 90 seats and give the president the power to appoint judges and heads of law enforcement agencies.

Japarov and his supporters hope the strengthening of the presidency will make the country more stable after its leaders were toppled by violent revolts in 2005, 2010 and 2020.

But local critics have dubbed the draft document a “khanstitution” for its expansion of presidential powers.

Emil Dzhuraev, a Bishkek-based political analyst, said the proposed changes will centralise power in the office of the president. “To such an extent that, basically no national-level institution will be able to do anything without the participation or the sign off on it by the president,” Dzhuraev told Al Jazeera.

In Bishkek, Dukot Yyndybaev, a small business owner, told Al Jazeera the reforms could be a step backwards in the path to full democracy.

“Kyrgyz people have a strong will towards freedom,” he said. “We don’t tolerate backward steps away from democracy. There are more serious issues to be solved in the country than the constitutional referendum, such as unemployment. It is better not to destroy what we have achieved so far.”

Meanwhile, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission also criticised the lack of “meaningful and inclusive public consultations and debate in parliament” before the basic law was put to the people in a joint opinion published in March.

The two bodies also raised fears over the “overly prominent role and prerogatives of the President”.

Just last year, Japarov was serving a prison sentence on charges of abducting a regional governor amid a dispute about a gold mine when he was freed by demonstrators who contested the results of the October parliamentary election.

Immediately after his release, Japarov mobilised stone-hurling supporters to evict President Sooronbay Jeenbekov from office and then took the helm as the nation’s interim leader. His sentence has since been overturned.

A recent poll by the United States-based International Republican Institute showed that Japarov was by far the most trusted politician in the country.

The percentage of voters who believed Kyrgyzstan was headed in the right direction jumped from 41 percent last August – when Jeenbekov was in charge – to 70 percent in February and March, poll data showed.

If voters back the draft constitution, presidents including Japarov will be able to run in consecutive elections once more, reversing the single-term limit imposed on leaders during an overhaul of the basic law in 2010.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a key ally, expressed support for the constitutional drive in February when Japarov went to Moscow in his first foreign visit, saying that he hoped it would bring stability to the country of 6.5 million.

Voting in the referendum began at 02:00 GMT and will conclude at 14:00 GMT with results expected shortly after polls close. A turnout of 30 percent is required to validate the election.


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Museveni: We Don’t Encourage Export of Labour




President Museveni has urged Ugandans to exploit the available resources to create jobs and stem labour export.

Uganda does not encourage the export of human labour resource abroad,” said Museveni on Saturday, April 10.

”Uganda is a very rich country. It is bad to be poor. What matters is to have attitude change among our people and to put the available resources into use to create jobs,” he emphasized.

 Museveni said Uganda should emulate countries like South Korea and Japan whose nationals do not seek for jobs outside their countries.

The President was meeting the Regional Director of International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mohammed Abdiker in charge of East and the Horn of Africa who was accompanied by the UN Resident Coordinator, Rosa Malango.

Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates globally with more than 78% of its population below 30 years.

This is the productive age of many people but while the labour force is increasing with each passing year, the labour market is actually shrinking rendering it incapable of accommodating the 500,000 young Ugandans that join the labour market annually.

This makes labour export the most feasible alternative way out of this unemployment conundrum.

Uganda adopted the externalization of labour in 2005 as a measure to shed off its excess and abundant labour force though this policy has culminated into an industry that is lucrative but unregulated hence the making the need for regulatory processes more needed today than ever before.

Ugandan women were recently warned against the increasing number of criminal gangs in Kampala city who allegedly recruit girls on the streets promising them ‘juicy jobs in Malaysia and other East Asian countries and instead sell them into forced prostitution.

Remittances to Uganda have increased from $ 1.6 billion (Sh4.6 trillion) in 2016, to $ 2.0bn (Sh7 trillion in 2017 and they can only go higher as the labour export industry is regulated and formalized so that the nation can gain from the labour and exploits of her citizens.

Meanwhile, Museveni and Malango discussed the current political situation in the region including Somalia, South Sudan and the DRC.

During the meeting that was held at Independence Grounds at Kololo, the President said the political solution to Somalia was to senstize the nationals about the weaknesses of fronting issues of identity including tribal and religion as opposed to people’s common interests to achieve Socia-economic transformation, prosperity and political stability.

Mr. Mohammed Abdiker thanked the President for his tremendous input on two fronts mainly; fighting for the political stability of Somalia and South Sudan and combating Covid-19 pandemic.

He thanked the President for his support to IOM programmes on disaster response and refugees.

The post Museveni: We Don’t Encourage Export of Labour first appeared on ChimpReports.

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Opposition sidelined as Benin votes in presidential election | Elections News




With most rivals in exile or sidelined, Benin’s President Patrice Talon looks set to win a second term in office.

Voters in Benin are set to cast their ballots in a presidential election on Sunday, days after deadly protests against President Patrice Talon, who is heavily favoured to win a second term.

Talon, a cotton magnate first elected in 2016, faces off against two little-known rivals, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue.

Opponents accuse the 62-year-old Talon of undermining Benin’s vibrant multi-party democracy by sidelining most of his main opponents.

Protests in several cities last week turned violent. At least two people died in the central city of Save when troops on Thursday fired tear gas and live rounds to break up protesters who had blocked a major highway. Five others were wounded.

In the commercial capital Cotonou, several people said they feared violence on election day.

“The events of these last days scare me,” said Christophe Dossou, a student. “I prefer to remain cautious.”

Benin’s President Patrice Talon denies targeting his opponents [File: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

Among the protesters’ complaints are Talon’s U-turn on a pledge he made as a candidate in 2016 to serve only one term, and changes he pushed through to election laws that he said were aimed at streamlining unwieldy government institutions. In practice, those reforms resulted in total control of parliament by Talon’s supporters and the exclusion of leading opponents from the presidential race.

One opposition leader Reckya Madougou was detained last month on accusations of plotting to disrupt the election, a charge her lawyer says is fabricated.

A judge from a special economic crimes court created by Talon also fled the country last week after denouncing political pressure to make rulings against the president’s critics, including the decision to detain Madougou.

Meanwhile, businessman Sebastien Ajavon, who came third in the 2016 presidential poll, was convicted of drug trafficking in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while another potential rival, ex-finance minister Komi Koutche, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement. Ajavon lives in exile in France, while Koutche lives in Washington, DC.

Talon denies targeting his opponents.

He has campaigned on his economic record, which includes improvements to key infrastructure such as roads, water and energy supplies.

Soldiers stand in line to block supporters of the incumbent president during an electoral campaign rally at Abomey-Calavi, on April 9, 2021 [Pius Utomi Ekpei/ AFP]

Benin, a country of about 12 million people, became Africa’s top cotton exporter in 2018 and recorded average annual gross domestic product growth of over 5 percent before the global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we did was not easy,” Talon said at one of his final campaign rallies on Friday. “We are strong and we know how to get it done.”

He said he expects a “knock-out victory” for which there would be no need for a runoff vote.

The United States, German, French and Dutch embassies as well as the European Union delegation in Benin all called on Friday for calm and for the vote to go ahead in a free and transparent manner.

“We urge all parties to express their perspectives peacefully,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “We urge the electoral institutions and courts overseeing these processes and verifying these results to ensure these elections are conducted freely, fairly, and transparently.”

Results are expected to be announced on Monday or Tuesday.

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