Education Inequity: The Village in the Valley

“Basically, it’s kind of like this for teachers: Your scores suck, they move you to a less ideal situation. So, let’s say you end up at one of the top schools in the capital, but you can’t hang. They’ll put you just outside the city where the classes might be bigger, the kids might be tougher, and your life will just be generally more inconvenient. Let’s say you screw it up again. You can’t improve the scores at that school either. They’ll move you further out, to kids with fewer prospects, and you might be a bus ride or two away from the city. The process repeats itself, until you’re the only teacher in the little village at the crest of the mountain, where everyone speaks deep dialect, the kids will never ever leave, you’re getting some rice and a piece of hog fat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re two days down a rocky, windy, fog-shrouded, vomit-inducing mountain road from anything that resembles your old life.”

Kind of like the English professional soccer system, I thought.

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“Shit. So what happens when you screw it up at that school?”

“They just kill you. Nah, I’m kidding. Nothing. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably get your wits about you and get yourself out. Otherwise, I guess you’ll just stay at that school forever.”

“So, essentially, if you’re a bad teacher, your punishment is to go teach where they need good teachers more than anything.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the story.”

“Man. That is fucked.”

“Such is the world we live in, no?”

I’m reclined under a bunch of palm trees in a tiny village in a valley. A mango tree peeks out from behind the palm fronds. Every once in a while a ripe green mango will thud to the ground. It’s sticky, sultry out here. The kind of hot that makes you think of porches and fans. Mr. Peng is about 5’1” with a frame of ample proportions. He’s got that kind of roly-poly physique that you can tell is a product of lifelong consumption of naturally delicious food—fresh mangoes, house-raised chickens, and lots and lots of rice. Mr. Peng’s largesse did not come from empty factory calories that maneuvered their way into all kinds of weird places and make the body look like some sort of depressed dumping ground for preservatives. He actually looks strikingly like the Buddha around his neck, but with a beautifully full head of black hair.

Mr. Peng and his wife are teachers at the middle school here in the village. They also run the local hotel, which is across a concrete parking lot from where we sit, eating fallen mangos, bayberries, and drinking some kind of mysterious booze that tastes like a mixture of nail polish remover, rice crispies, and urine. Or what I assume those things taste like. Mr. Peng’s family is obviously quite wealthy for this town. He shows me some pictures of his mother and father in-law on vacation in Singapore and France with one of those flag-waving tour groups. People here do not go to France.

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A nearby village across the Yangtze

Being a teacher in the village is backbreaking, he says. More than anything else, it’s the constant perception of hopelessness. Daily hopelessness mixed with long-term hopelessness. There are 1500 students at the middle school and 81 teachers. At first glance, that might not seem so crazy. We love the “student-teacher” ratio metric, and 18.5-1 isn’t all that bad. Keep in mind though, that “teacher” means a lot more than “teacher.” Responsibilities extend far beyond the classroom, in both a literal and abstract sense. These “teachers” are also security guards, administrators, and, ostensibly, parents. In that regard, 18.5-1 is actually insane.

Mr. Peng says his students are always fighting, “falling in love,” and smoking and drinking on campus. What can we do, he says. There aren’t enough of us. He consistently laments problems of space. The next morning, he takes me to the school.

“This is where the basketball court used to be.” He says, pointing to a pile of rocks and dust awaiting construction. “I can’t imagine there’s another middle school in all of Yunnan without a damn basketball court. How do you think that affects the kids? Why do you think they’re fighting and sneaking off with their girlfriends and boyfriends between periods and during class?” He looks at the rubble, slides a rock under his foot, and shakes his head. “But what can you do?”

The school is actually pretty peaceful, kind of pastoral. One might even call it serene. The plants are well manicured, and though there is that omnipresent construction of modern China, there aren’t really any big machines. Just a few guys in reed hats squatting around some craggy looking tools. It’s the weekend, after all. No one here but these workers and a few teachers assigned to “guard” the school until Monday. The buildings are stacked almost literally one on top of another.

Mr. Peng passes into the courtyard. “Last year when the education bureau came, the school picked a few teachers and told them what to say. The rest of us not to say anything. That was really difficult for me. But, they came back a few months ago and the school didn’t say anything. I took the chief aside to look at this passageway. It’s the only one that leads from the courtyard and the classrooms to the cafeteria.” He motions to a footpath between two buildings the width of maybe two-and-a-half average-sized doorways.

“1500 students.” That’s all he says and I understand. “And the chief was surprised, and a little shocked. But he really cared. A couple weeks later they made another passageway over on the other side. Everyone felt a lot more at ease after that.”

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Me and some students

We walk around the grounds. The school is nice, it really is. It doesn’t have that run-down one-room schoolhouse feel that one might want to associate with a “poor” school. Mr. Peng tells me that the situation is pretty awful for the students. Students spend three years to complete middle school in China. At the end there’s a test that decides whether they’ll go to the next level. Mr. Peng says that the amount of year three students is about half that of year one students. I don’t think I need to spell out what that means. Of that number, he says perhaps 40% will pass the test to go to high school. So, maybe a quarter of the ones that started will continue–to high school, that is.

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Gao Fu Cai with his pet goat

“English is the biggest problem.” English is historically given the same weight as Mandarin and math on both the high school and college entrance tests. There are very few countries that do this—treat foreign language like a core subject— and there are certainly a vast array of countries with infrastructure better suited to such a heavy emphasis on foreign language. For starters, the other language on the test—Mandarin—is more often than not basically a second or third language as it is. As I see it, the prominence of English is the single biggest flaw in the current system—the biggest contributor to inequity, but is, fortunately, slowly being changed. “Many of the kids just lie on the desks during class. What else can they do? They have to study English, but there is really no one to teach them. The English teachers, they work hard, but they don’t speak English. If they were here today—the kids—you’d be the first English speaker they’d ever met.”

Just think about that for a minute. That’s like trying to learn math from someone who doesn’t know the times tables. It’s not the teacher’s fault, though. They surely want nothing more than for someone to teach them how to speak better English. Compare and contrast with the big cities on the east side of the country, where there are armies of well-trained local teachers and plenty of foreigners ready to do the job. Mr. Peng said the highest English score at the Middle School last year was 82%. I cannot imagine what that kid did to get to 82%.

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There is an assumed inherent “fairness” in this system of standardized tests—in ours too. In any system with standardized testing. The wealthy kid in the city is getting the same questions as the poor farmer’s daughter. But, it’s not about the questions. The same question, of course, may mean very different things to you and I. The paths we take toward gaining proficiency to answer that question will certainly be wildly different. The test may not be designed to be unfair, but it will become unfair as time goes on. Same with the American system of loading up on extra-currics and being “well-rounded.” The system may not be designed to be unfair, but those with the ability and resources can make the system work for them. If tomorrow, by some glitch in the structure, the world’s most prestigious and lucrative job became car-washer, by the end of the next few decades, the next generation of car-washers would be, on the whole, minted from the upper reaches of society. It will always be that way unless the world really changes or something.

You can make your changes at the climax of the system. You can try to change the end results by changing the ­end result. But, frankly that is some stupid, stupid stuff. The end result is a framework for how best to prepare. You don’t level the playing field when the game is over, you know.

Education inequity is not something I think that much about. It doesn’t rule my life. I am a teacher at a school. I have to plan classes and grade homework. But, I do think about it sometimes. And, as a teacher, it is almost inconceivably sad.

I think that many people in positions of influence, wealth, privilege etc. hold, consciously or not, a feeling that those on the underside of the coin are somehow not entirely self-aware of their condition. This provides, again consciously or not, an alleviation of responsibility and guilt. This is super dangerous. It is the act of confusing disenfranchisement, voicelessness, and cyclical inequity with ignorance. And it is simply untrue. The moment where Mr. Peng was unable to talk about the problems at the Middle School was a rather in-your-face example of this. But, it’s all around. And the most voiceless in any society are kids. They are also the most impressionable, the most malleable. They are far and away the most prescient “return on investment.” If you want to change the flow of the cycle, school is really the only place to start. That is, of course, if you want to change it.

The strongest impression that I get whenever I think about inequality in education is pure and utter, purely, utterly pervasive faultlessness. It’s like a Syrian civilian whose bombed out house happened to be trapped in the middle of an ideological civil war or a poor Bangladeshi farmer whose home and livelihood has been washed away as an abstract upshot of far-off and endless industrial revolutions. There is nothing they can do. In fact, there is nothing they could do. It is not that they are not aware; it is that they are not allowed to speak. My students can study hard–that will improve their chances. It really will. Their situation is by no means hopeless. They can beat the odds. But there’s nothing they can do now about all the developmental landmines they’ll come across. Surely, that’s a responsibility that falls elsewhere.

“So that’s the school.” Mr. Peng notes as we leave through the gate. “What do you think?”

“Hard to say. I mean I understand everything you said. But, as a school, it looks nice.“

“It does look nice, doesn’t it.”

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My Available Past: Coming Home to Sherman

“Will it ever be the same?”

“Stupid question.”

“Kinda the same?”

“Of course not! No one steps in the same river twice and all that. Nothing endures but change. Heraclitus, you know?”

“I don’t know. I think things could be more the same than different. There’s a range. Like, obviously, I’ll give you the endurance of change. But, how about the rate? Change, it can be super fast, super slow, it can even work in retrograde.”

“Eh, change can never work that way—you’re equating change with progress—which is wrong. Change is just time. Thinking that we can control it—that’s absurd. Anyhow, there’s probably some theoretical postulation of space and time that disproves what you’re trying to say. Be that as it may, remember that it’s not about the river. It’s about the one stepping in.”

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Every time I come home everyone has a nicer TV. Leaves are still trapped below the snow, unable to break through and find their way back to branch. Houses look the same to me—quiet and inviting. Streets, too. The same. People are the same. A little older, a little rounder, a little less hair, but the same. Discussions are the same: It’s the coldest winter ever and what’s the deal with the new budget proposal and so and so’s kid got into such and such school and so and so won’t stop talking about how their damn kid got into such and such school which isn’t really that good. Surely not as good as your kid’s. Stores are the same. Their names might change, but that doesn’t mean much. The TVs are always nicer, bigger, clearer, and flatter. Most everything else—more or less—the same. And I love that.

Funny, how that goes. By the time I was old enough to be conscious of my surroundings I only wanted to extricate myself from them. I was restless in my plodding circadian tedium. It just wasn’t that….. interesting. And it’s so fucking cold that you hate random objects—like your neighbors—with an entirely inexplicable passion. And you have to drive to the mailbox just so you can get an LL Bean catalogue. And there aren’t any bars and even if there were you’d have to drive to them and almost certainly get pinched by the cop who, because it’s so cold no one wants to leave their house, has nothing better to do than wait around the block for the guy who had one too many sips of Bacardi Breezer. But there aren’t any bars anyway. And there’s no one between the ages of 15 and 60 (Apparently not true.). And so and so always seems to have another kid to talk about. tumblr_mcdajeJoc21r63tw8o1_500

And I don’t want it to ever change. Every time I come home that’s what I say. I couldn’t wait to get out, I never want to come back, but I don’t want anything to change. How does that work? I suppose most of us humans are always trying to change our current state and affect our future state. Otherwise I guess I’d be sitting here typing this for the rest of my life. I’ve found that perceived pure and true satisfaction and ease are rarely something that can be experienced consciously. It’s always something we’re searching for, always something just over the hill. I’m sure that’s even realer in today’s hyper-accessible world. I’ve written about it before. https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/10/19/the-bearable-lightness-of-heqing/

Ferris Bueller, on his day off, brilliantly said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.” More often than not, by the time we stop and look around, what we’re looking for has come and gone. I suspect that’s why I don’t want Sherman to change. As I get older—and I’m told I’m not very old—I realize what a special place it was that I spent my childhood. I appreciate it in a mindful way that, not so long ago, I never would have understood. Maybe this newfound comfort is more about myself than the place. Maybe it’s a bit selfish. Perhaps, I lucked out that I spent year after unappreciative youthful year wanting something more, but by the time I was able to stop and look around, this place, this circumstance, that I wanted to leave was still there. I didn’t miss it. It’s intact. Perhaps I want my past to be a living, breathing thing that I can still experience—albeit through a different, more cognizant lens—at a moment’s notice. A semi-immutable venue that will always persist. My past, re-livable at my convenience.

The other night, I went to dinner with my oldest friend, Tyler, his parents, and my parents. After dinner Tyler and I hopped in a familiar car, wound our way up and around frigid corners of 39, past houses that have existed since the dawn of time—our time, by rank and file swaths of branchy trees, begrudgingly relenting at that insufferable Speed Limit 25 sign, passing the school where we both grew and did great and stupid things, and up Sunny Lane to a house I first set foot in nearly 20 years ago. We went downstairs to do battle on a ping-pong table whose green has faded a little and whose net sags a lot. The guys on either side are taller, potentially wiser, certainly stubblier. The feeling of joy and competition and friendship hasn’t changed. Not in the slightest. pingpong3a

How lucky I am. How lucky I am to get to relive these things we call memories. When Heraclitus said “No one steps in the same river twice,” I’m not so sure he was talking about the river. That’s how I feel when I come back to places I’ve been, places that matter to me. And, I guess no place matters to me as much as this one. This place hasn’t changed all that much. But I have.

Me and the TVs.

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The Menu Costs of Progress (featuring Taylor Swift)

Something keeps me holding onto nothing…

-Taylor Swift

If you’ve taken a base-level economics course, you know the term “menu cost.” A menu cost is the cost that a business incurs upon encountering a new economic environment, a new status quo. The term has an explicitly literal derivation: When the price of fish changes, restaurants are forced to print new menus to reflect the new cost of salmon and tuna. Ever seen “market price?” That exists because some prices fluctuate so much that it’s not even worth communicating them to customers in any way that isn’t verbal. Any time the economy experiences inflation, a restaurant—like any other business—has to change all of its prices. That takes time and money. And effort. Inasmuch, companies don’t always respond immediately to supply and demand shifts with price changes. But in the long run, they always will.

Let’s talk about Taylor Swift.

A few nights ago, I was sitting in a hostel bed in the middle of a wall-shaking Kunming thunderstorm. Below me, a 20-something dude was snoring. I’d like to point out here that people who snore in hostels should be incarcerated for a minimum of 5 years. At the very least, they ought to be charged triple for a bed. I couldn’t sleep. The thunderstorm was a non-issue. It was the snorer that stood between me and my slumber, and he was absolutely relentless. I watched the hours tick away: 12, 1, 1:30. After a while I gave up and decided to overpower him with the eardrum-tickling stylings of Taylor Swift. I received her full anthology from my 31-year-old ex-accountant Chinese roommate at Summer Institute last year. He was her self-proclaimed “biggest fan,” a phrase that he imparted in such a way that implied he learned it in a book called Contemporary English. Since my library contains little outside the realm of edgy rap, I figured Taylor was my only shot at sleep. I slid to her page and hit shuffle.

I’d never ventured beyond the classics: Love Story, 22, You Belong with Me etc., so most of the library was brand-new. I realized a few things very quickly. Every single Taylor Swift song sounds exactly the same. Sure, it’s a mind-bogglingly awesome sound, but each track is a regurgitation of the one before it. I would be remiss if I said that this wasn’t the way most artists, especially the ones on the radio, operate. Have you ever heard, “Hey, you gotta check out Keisha’s new stuff. She totally reinvented her sound.”

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Most importantly, though, the deeper I got into albums like Red, Speak Now, and Fearless, I realized that the message was always a variation on a few themes: They mostly centered on the boy-girl thing. Shy girl wants popular boy (You Belong with Me, Speak Now), sleazy boy does girl wrong (Dear John, Mean, Girl at Home), girl is attracted to bad boy (Treacherous, Red, The Way I Loved You, Trouble), boy and girl classically fall in love (Stay, Stay, Stay, Love Story, Everything has Changed). Yeah, the snorer was relentless. Each song is subtly framed in the context of an idyllic small town (Taylor is constantly stung by the loneliness of big cities), a fairytale experience (princes on princes) and the generally generic, “timeless” concepts of love and marriage. Whiteness is also assumed, if you watch her videos. But, that’s not exactly where I’m going.

As I began to lose myself in the wonderworld that is the Taylor Swift anthological experience, something else came to me. These concepts are dated. The concepts of expected chivalry, happily ever after marriage, happily ever after marriage between guy and girl, monogamous romances starting in high school, and white knights feel more than a bit bygone. Yet, Taylor sings about them without the slightest hint of nostalgia. Could it be that the country’s biggest pop star is out of touch?

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With Taylor Swift as my jungle guide, I started to understand why some people resist change. No, that’s not it. People don’t resist change, they cling to tradition. Change and tradition both have favorable associations. Naturally, conservatives decry liberals for destroying tradition while the left condemns the right for defying change. Here’s the thing, though: tradition is easy. We know it. The longer we’ve lived with it, we actually begin to believe it, unequivocally. It’s cozy. It’s very easy to make and absorb a record about boy meets girl and such and such. There are millennia of precedent. After all, Taylor Swift’s most famous track is a Shakespearian drama adapted for ball gowns and pebble throwers. Love Story doesn’t force us to think or remove us from our comfort zone. It’s just really nice. Throw the same song on the radio and mix up the pronouns a little bit, and lots of people simply won’t be able to handle it. The phrase, “I just want to enjoy the music” comes to mind.

The idea stems from detachment. People who live in the shrinking world that unfolds in Taylor Swift’s music are perfectly content. Tinkering with it would be unthinkable. There’s a good thing going on, why should it be broken? In this way, people aren’t always too hateful for change, but rather they are too lazy to rewire tradition. They fail to recognize its marginal utility. The idea is that breaking with tradition will mess everything up, in no small part because there is (by definition) no precedent for change. This, I can assure you, is a conversation that has directly preceded each and every forward progression in human history.

 

The thing is, we know what Taylor Swift’s idyllic small town looks like. We don’t know what that town looks like with fluid gender roles, less monogamy, and fewer churches. I’m aware that those three are unrelated, but they are the future. As such, they haven’t entirely moved in yet. They are unknown. We are afraid to face that unknown but are also too lazy to create it.

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This isn’t a knock on Taylor Swift. She’s singing about her own experience. It’s a knock on a society that takes that experience as the experience. It’s a knock on a society that believes there is a connection between that experience and real-life human values. The most elementary, yet apparently enigmatic phrase in the American Constitution is: “…that from that equality they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” I view that as a hierarchy: The latter two are contingent on life (I’m not looking to get into a metaphysical discussion). Next comes liberty. Once those two are settled, the right to pursue happiness is next in line. These are our inalienable values. I see three. To me, that means, after life and liberty, happiness comes before all else.

I’m not saying take TSwift off the radio. I don’t want to hear Pharrell’s “Happy” all day long either and I also don’t believe her subject matter is obsolete. I’m just saying that it’s about time we adjust the menu costs in our society: those small changes we continuously choose to resist. It doesn’t matter if you are “weirded out” by the way people choose to live their lives. Can you imagine the things that bothered people 200 years ago? It doesn’t matter that you “like the way it is.” It doesn’t matter if you want to hear the music without thinking about the words. Because, even the stuff that Taylor Swift talks about, vanilla as it is, would have shocked listeners were it being blasted through a phonograph.

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There is a reason restaurants don’t engrave their menus in gold. There’s a reason convenience stores don’t buy elaborate neon signs to advertise the price of a pack of Trident. If they did that, they’d have to overhaul their entire business model every time Janet Yellen opened her mouth. Prices change. A lot. It’s not easy to change your prices. You’ve got to research, you’ve got to implement, and you’ve got to print new menus. But, if you’re too set in your ways or too unmotivated to change them, you’re in trouble. And not Taylor Swift’s kind of trouble.

Menus and price tags are visible everyday representations of the wellbeing and status of an economy. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. TV dramas, radio singles, every day discussions, and simply thoughts do that for the wellbeing and status of society. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. Some questions: Why do we have absolutely no problem adjusting for changes in the cost of things in the name of economic growth, yet when the concern is human progress, it takes so long? Why is supply and demand a greater impetus for change than real feelings and ideas, real impediments to happiness experienced by real people? What if McDonalds still charged a dime for a Big Mac? How long could it deny the reality that a patty now costs X, a bun now costs Y, the price of lettuce has jumped all the way to Z, and X+Y+Z equals a lot more than ten cents? How long could McDonalds honestly do that, to avoid inconvenience, until it either changed its price or disappeared? It’s pretty simple math, right? They’d do it immediately. I mentioned above that life + liberty + happiness = 3. If we’re operating at < 3, we need an adjustment. If you have to let some of your traditions, your thoughts, and your assumed convictions go so that other people can gain the third, or even the second part of that equation, you do it. You keep doing it.