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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Inequality: Trickle Down Economics and Classroom 6-2

A few months ago, I began implementing a money system in my sixth grade class. I did this principally because I was a fledgling (read: awful) teacher and my students went absolutely bonkers each time I set foot in the classroom. It was as if the very sight of me awakened their collective deepest, darkest fantasies of how to break someone. So, I elected to unleash on them a system where they were tangibly rewarded for doing good things and tangibly rewarded less for doing bad things. In short, I figured I’d buy them off. Underlying my desperate measure, though, was a passive economic and psychological curiosity. I wasn’t so much interested in how my kids would respond to shifted incentives, but more what they would do once they had cash in their hands. The result of my accidental experiment in a tiny sixth grade classroom in the middle of the middle of nowhere (not a typo) held deep illuminative power for me and hopefully anyone who reads this. My point, as you will see, is that inequality is the fault of the system, not the citizens fortunate or unfortunate enough to be a product of the system.

 

Naturally, I scaled the rewards. Students could buy things like ping-pong balls, pens, chocolate, or stickers for under $10. On the other hand, big-ticket items like basketball jerseys, dinner with me, or the opportunity to shave my head, could be priced as high as $250. For those, they would need the better part of an entire semester’s worth of savings. Of course, there were mid-range items like American post cards, foreign coins, and the privilege to choose a song before class, that were much more feasibly attainable. Note: I valued the “shave Mr. Luo’s head” prize at what I imagined was a comfortably-out-of-reach but not altogether absurd rate of $250. Next year, I’ll be doubling that figure.

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Students earned money through three predominant paths:

 

1). Behavior: students received $1 for a day with no warnings. As I teach them four times each week, I added another dollar if they went a full week without any warnings. So, one could earn $5 from behavior per week. A semester has 20 school weeks, which meant $100 was the ceiling for income related to behavior. I should say that, if a student received one warning, he effectively lost $2 for that week; $1 for the day and $1 for failing to go a full five days warning-free. If he repeated this same pattern every single week, he would lose out on $40.

 

2). Test scores: students received varying degrees of money based on actual score, improvement from previous test, and whether or not a score placed in the top 3 of the class. This domain didn’t only favor high-performing students, because improvement was weighted higher than raw score. Needless to say, though, it was highly unlikely that a student would improve each and every time he tested. For the top score in the class, when weighing factors of improvement and raw score, a student could earn around $20. There were five tests during the year, meaning the ceiling here was also around $100. It’s worth noting, that if you scored below 75%, unless you improved, you wouldn’t get anything. So, as far as class money was concerned, the tests were high stakes affairs. If you were a student who never passed a test and alternated between small score increases and decreases, you might earn $10 for the year. The gap was spacious.

 

3). Participation: students received money (usually in $1 increments) for correctly answering a specified question. Not every answer could yield a cash reward, but most could. This domain was the wildcard. Students could theoretically answer a question each class. Throw in some extra tough questions worth $5-$10, and a student could bank over $100 from actively participating.

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Upon reading the above information, you can probably guess what type of student stood to benefit in this system: well-behaved, high-scoring, active participators. If a student fit each of those descriptions he or (usually) she could be a veritable fat cat in the fiscal universe of class 6-2. For the (usually) boys or girls that could be described as disruptive, test-incapable, and—surprise, surprise—unable to actively, or at least, productively participate, they’d be getting by on a monthly piece of chocolate or the privilege to get a drink of water during class time.

 

In a nutshell, inequality was inherently vast.

 

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

 

I’ll break down 6-2 like this: There are 5 or 6 students that would fit the bill for ultra-rich. They are all (save for one) highly motivated girls that too aren’t keen on giving their teachers headaches and take great pride in having the right answer, whether it be on a test or in the classroom. On the flip side, there are 7 or 8 that would qualify for the lower quartile. These are exclusively (save for one) boys that are at least two years behind their classmates. They generally have very little self-control and score below 50 on each test. As a result of all these characteristics, they like to make paper airplanes and flick pretty girls in the back of the head as an alternative to studying. The rest of the 21 students would fall into varying levels of the middle class. These students, as a rule, were neither exceptional nor struggled in all three categories. They may have been, for example, great test takers that acted out in class or shy hard workers that hesitated to raise their hand. There were certainly some upper middle classers, who were decidedly close to cracking the top echelon. On the lower end, students flirted with the disastrous prospect of falling into the bottom 7 or 8. If that were to happen, at this level of schooling, it would be a heartbreakingly cavernous hole to climb out of.

 

My system was predicated on a simple fact: students were going to buy things. I printed a rather sizable amount of money before the semester, and was ardently determined not to print more. I knew what I had should be enough.

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It took a few weeks for students to gauge how things were going to shake out. I doubt any of them actually calculated their earning probabilities, but if one was receiving $15 at the end of the week as opposed to $3, they could easily extrapolate—on intuition alone—where their purchasing power lay. During this time, students didn’t buy much of anything. They were trying to make sense this newfangled, slightly mysterious system. After the first student, a quiet, bespectacled boy named Andy came in to buy a ping-pong ball for $5—with no catch to be found—there was a spending rush. Students could hardly believe what they were seeing. I went to town to buy more chocolate.

 

 

 

Here’s where it starts to fall apart:

 

 

After students realized where they stood, they adjusted their buying patterns. This reaction was almost inherent. Sixth graders the world over have very little purchasing power in real life terms. They were learning on the fly. I don’t know exactly what happened next—if a pact was made or if it was just a collective savvy—but the girls at the top essentially altogether stopped coming to the shop in my room. I suppose one can only buy so many chocolate soccer balls and packs of gum, before one simply does not need any more of those things. They were saving their money for bigger and better things.

 

As the semester carried on, a very clear picture began to emerge. The students at the top were accumulating more and more and letting go of very little. The students at the bottom basically spent their money the day they got it. Even the mid-range items fell out of their reach. The wide range of students in the middle had diverse spending patterns. A few of them were saving for the big-ticket items, but generally they saved a little and spent the rest. It was, pretty much, in a word: wow.

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Because the system was such that the high level performers so vastly out-earned the lower end, every time the bottom quartile spent money, a massive percentage of it went into the folders of the top few. The same can be said for the middle portion of students, but the percentage was less severe. The problem was that the top-level kids weren’t spending their money. They were making the most and spending the least, proportionally. Another important fact to note: The prices were scaled so that students had to save for an entire semester to buy the big things. Therefore, when they did finally unload their riches onto our classroom society, it would be too late for anyone else to use them with any consequence. There was no carry over. At the end of the semester, the students were gone and the money was dead. So, holding money, at such severe degrees, only served to stall the whole system. But, of course, the students doing the saving had every right to do that.

 

Now, you may be able to see where I’m going and you’re probably asking this question: How do the spending and saving patterns of the top level kids have any effect on the lower level kids? First, in this system the two probably should not have been related. I should have planned for various scenarios and printed a ton of money. But I didn’t, and the supply couldn’t expand.

 

Toward the end of the semester, I noticed the stacks of money in my bank getting considerably shorter. It got to the point where I had to go print more just to be able to give out money for rewards. However, the process repeated. All the money spent by the lower and middle level students simply ended up at the top. And the top wasn’t putting nearly enough money back in. I could print money forever, and the same thing would happen. In an exasperated outburst I finally told my students, “Look, this only works if you spend your money. I can’t keep making more money. If you don’t spend it, I’m not going to give anymore out.” So, the kids in the middle and bottom spent what little they had while the ones at the top stopped in to buy a few small items and retained the lion’s share of their money. And, of course, the majority of what was spent went back into their hands. Then I stopped giving out money.

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At that point, everyone was a loser. The students at the bottom had nothing. The students in the middle were pretty much broke. The ones at the tippy-top had money, but couldn’t make any more of it, because there was no one else feeding the system. I lost too, of course, because my students had their incentive system taken away. The ultra-rich had a choice: they could either keep their money and see if I would somehow crack and print a bunch more or they could spend a bunch of it and cash in on the big ticket items. They all had enough money to buy at least one large prize. They chose the latter, thankfully. But, sadly, it was already June and there was little time left for further accumulation.

 

 

I was inspired to write about my classroom from a Politico article a friend shared with me called The Pitchforks are Coming by Nick Hanauer. The piece sought to debunk trickle-down economics by proving that rich people can’t make money if the middle and lower classes don’t have any money to spend. While I was reading it, a “holy shit” light bulb went off in my head. Hanauer was describing my classroom as though he’d been in it.

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There are obviously differences between a 36-student classroom economy and a large-scale global machine. There were no taxes, no inheritances, no creation of wealth, no mortgages, vital sustenance, or car leases. But, there are many fundamental similarities. The crucial caveat is that the supply was not infinite. In the end, one had to spend money for others to make money. The students that made the least money spent their money quickly, the students in the middle saved and spent (they were the model of the whole system), while the students at the top, though probably spending at a similar clip (in actual physical dollar terms) as the students at the bottom, proportionally sat on the greater sums. It’s easy to see how, given the above information, their accounts would continue to expand while the others contracted: The money always went back to them, because the system was so prodigiously in their favor.

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In the United States we are supposed to have systems in place to check this kind of thing: marginal tax brackets, estate taxes, minimum wages, unemployment benefits, the list goes on and on. But, those checks are failing miserably. Not only does money not trickle down (because a “trickle” shouldn’t be acceptable in the first place), it trickles up. The inequality gap only gets bigger and bigger over time. More and more people slip from the edge of the middle class into poverty. Less and less people make the forward jump. The reason, as I have said over and over, is simple: the system is too slanted. Jamie Dimon can make tens of millions of dollars a year while the guy that mops his floor may make $40,000. At least my system was designed to motivate students to behave, participate, and improve. Our system barely even does that anymore. But, that’s a discussion for another time.

 

The most telling thing about my classroom was that the students with the most money lost out when they hoarded everything. In a capitalist system, making money is explicitly tied to spending money. If no one is spending, no one is earning. Saving is crucial, yes, but only when necessary, and only when it’s done in anticipation of creating wealth down the road. There is a point where the inequality gap gets so large, that it is no longer possible for the economy to budge. Historically, the greatest instances of American economic growth are almost always in concert with the lowest levels of inequality. United we get richer, divided we stagnate.

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The fatal flaw of my system was that the students controlling the largest sums were not compelled to spend it, until the very end. The fatal flaw of our American system is that the checks in place to force the ultra-rich to bequeath some of their fortune to the masses are ineffective and riddled with convenient loopholes.

 

In the end, though, my top-performing sixth grade students came to the realization that not only was using their money good for everyone else, it was good for them. Maybe the best and brightest minds in America can come to that realization someday too.