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Month: August 2015

Respect for Teachers in Peru: A Familiar Struggle

Respect for Teachers in Peru: A Familiar Struggle

Milagros is much loved by her students. When we passed through the gate of her school a pair of them ran up and embraced her on either side, pressing their cheeks against each of her hips. In class the students are anxious to show her what they’ve done. During our conversation later in the day, children came to hug her and offer her parts of their lunch. Her school is far away from the more developed center of Arequipa, Peru and while the surrounding area doesn’t resemble the archetypical images of poverty in the developing world, it’s clear that there isn’t much money here. Milagros transferred to this school to have the opportunity to teach 2nd grade because, “Many of the children don’t know how to read or write. And that is something very important to me.”

I asked Milagros what surprised her the most when she started teaching last year, “The teachers, because they don’t have any passion. But I think I understand maybe why, because they always have trouble with money and time, and the government doesn’t respect their jobs. But many of the teachers get so angry with the students.”

International education school classroom in Peru

Milagros reminding her class to raise their hands to speak

A couple weeks earlier I spoke with a pair of young German women who had just finished a year of teaching in Peru. I asked them what they thought the biggest problems with education in Peru were and they were quick to answer, “The problem is the teachers.” They described classrooms where the teacher would simply sit in the back of the room and read PowerPoint slides. “The students aren’t motivated but I wouldn’t be motivated either… And who would want to be a teacher when you get paid around 350 Euros a month?”

The other German explained how her co-teacher at a private school had to share a house with five other teachers, and then the more animated one spoke up again, “I think a lot of it is how…” she had trouble finding the words, “In Germany, if you say that you’re a teacher, it’s like,” her face lit up, “‘Oh, you’re a teacher!’ but in Peru if you say you’re a teacher,” her face turned sour, “It’s like ‘Oh… You’re a teacher.’”

In a taxi in Cuzco, I asked the driver what he thought about public education in Peru, “The main problem is that there isn’t very good instruction. The teachers don’t have a good education and they don’t know how to teach.” He then spoke with pride about his son who had recently graduated and was now studying biology. But he was certainly not impressed with his son’s teachers.

School in Peru International Education

Milagros’ school and the volcano that looks over it

Even Milagros’ principal was critical, “The teachers here,” she said with some hesitation, “keep to themselves. They are not always trying to get better and sometimes they lose patience when they get older. But this is something we have to work on.” Talking with Senora Mamani was interesting because her demeanor reminded me so much of the sharp and dedicated administrators I know in the Unites States. People who are trying to do as much as they can with limited resources. But Senora Mamani’s resources are even more limited than her U.S. counterparts, since she is the only administrator at the school.

And this may be the single most startling fact I’ve learned about education in Peru. Jose Revilla told me that while there are about 60,000 schools in Peru there are only 48,000 people in administrative positions other than principals. When you consider that many wealthier schools have many administrators the situation looks even more dire for schools like Milagros’.

How can you expect teachers to get better if there is no one to coach and support them?

“Ojala que vengan. We don’t have personnel here. We don’t even have anyone to clean,” said Senora Mamani when I asked about other administrators. She then offered the same resigned but committed smile-shrug I’ve seen so often in administrators in rural Louisiana.

International Education Principal in Peru

The School Principal, Senora Angelica Guispe Mamani

An article in El Comercio (a major Peruvian paper) quotes education experts saying that the main reason most people become teachers is because more selective fields are out of their reach. They’re looking for an occupation that’s easy to get into.

Senora Mamani cited a lack of parental support for their children’s academics as the primary obstacle to education, but when I asked why parents aren’t supportive it turned out that this too was connected to the prestige of teachers, “I think it’s because they don’t respect the teachers. They think that teaching is a simple activity when, in reality, it’s completely the opposite. It’s the most difficult.”

/international Education - Students at recess Peru

Elizabeth with students at recess

Teachers are the foundation of a country’s education system. In the United States, public policy focused on merit pay, and the transformation of tests from tools for student assessment to weapons for teacher evaluation, has triggered a backlash to this kind of ‘blame the teacher’ talk. But the reality is that the U.S. suffers from many of these same problems (though to a lesser degree). And with this in mind, I think it’s interesting that none of the people I talked to in Peru spoke of a need to fire or punish bad teachers. People only spoke of the need to provide more support, more training, and more resources for teachers.

It’s true that teachers can’t be the only agents of change in turning education around, but we shouldn’t forget that they are by far the single most important force in the lives of students and that the spectrum of teaching is very, very wide indeed. Unfortunately, policies in many U.S. states have served to poison this conversation and have scared many accomplished people away from, or out of the profession. I wonder how different the dialogue in the U.S. would be if policies focused on how to help teachers develop instead of how to rank them according to their students’ scores on multiple choice tests? As Jonathan Kozol once said, in a less than eloquent metaphor, about students and testing: “You don’t fatten the sheep by weighing them.”

It seems that in Peru people know what to do but they don’t have the resources. In the U.S. we have the resources, but we don’t seem to know what to do with them.

Will

Hiking Colca Canyon Photo Gallery

Hiking Colca Canyon Photo Gallery

After almost a week in Arequipa, we decided to take a two day hiking trip into Colca Canyon. We booked the hike through our hostel and were picked up at 3am by a small bus. The first stop was Cruz del Condors- a look out point known for glimpses of Andean condors, the largest flying birds in the world.

Condor in Colca Canyon

Here’s a pic with human beings for scale:

Condor flying in Colca Canyon Peru

During the stretches when we couldn’t see condors, we admired the cactus flowers.

Colca Canyon Cactus FlowerNext we arrived at the trail head at the top of the canyon, and looked down to The Oasis where we’d sleep that night.

Colca Canyon Oasis

We paused to enjoy the breeze.

Hiking Colca Canyon

And admire the giant cacti.

Colca Canyon Cactus

Some stretches were long and not that steep.

Colca Canyon 3

We paused to rest.

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And admired how far we had climbed down. Over 3,300 ft. by the end of it.

Colca Canyon

Eventually we reached the river at the bottom.

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Some locals prepared us lunch.  Alpaca stirfry.

Lunch in Colca Canyon

And we relaxed.

Relaxing in Colca Canyon

But we still had several miles to hike to the oasis and we were getting tired.

Colca Canyon hike

Still, when we looked back to admire the valley behind us we saw that it was beautiful.

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Our guide paused to explain about the culture of people in the canyon and how different plants were used as natural remedies since there’s no hospital around. We knew we were approaching civilization when we started seeing ads.

Colca Canyon Hotel sign

After almost 7 hours of hiking we finally reached the charming streets of The Oasis.

Colca Canyon Oasis

We drank some beer and had a nice dinner. We started hiking back up at 5AM the next morning (sorry no pictures).  We were given the option to take a mule up instead, but we declined.

On the way back we stopped in small towns with markets and cool colonial churches.

Colonial Church in Colca PeruWe also stopped for views of the pre-Incan terraces that are carved into the mountains.

Colca Pre-Incan Terraces

The terraces stretch for miles and miles and truly cause you to marvel at how rich the civilization which created them must have been.

pre-Incan terraces in Colca Canyon

The final stop was at over 16,000 ft. above sea level where we could see the peaks of several volcanoes. But here’s a pic with the rest of our hiking group. Four Spaniards and a woman from Macao.

Colca Volcanoe point

Depending who you ask, Colca is either the deepest or second deepest canyon in the world, though we didn’t hike into the deepest part.

The hike was tough, but all in all, it was one of our favorite parts of the trip so far.

If you’re in southern Peru, you should definitely check it out.  You can always take the mule back up.

Will & Elizabeth

Being Sick On The Road

Being Sick On The Road

The day after Machu Picchu, I woke up to an unholy alliance between my sinuses and bowels. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days. My body ached, I couldn’t breathe, and my trips to the bathroom left me demoralized and anxious. Liz reminded me that we had to check out of the hostel at 10:30. That night we had a ten hour bus ride. I cringed at the thought of just sitting up in bed. A stream of questions added a self-inflicted insult to injury: “What am I doing here? Why did I think this trip would be fun? Can I handle over nine more months of this?”

In the months and years leading up to this trip Elizabeth and I would often try to measure our excitement by reminding ourselves that it wasn’t going to be comfortable. We mentally prepared for long bus rides and resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d get sick, probably more than once. Actually being sick is different story, but at least we came prepared.

And this is probably the biggest lesson we knew, but have now internalized. If you’re going to do extended travel outside of the developed world: Bring Medicine. Here is a list of the meds we brought and have already used in our first three weeks.

  • Azithromycin (diarrhea anti-biotic)
  • Cipro (diarrhea; I’m allergic to arithromycin)
  • Loperamide Hydrochloride (anti-diarrheal)
  • Rehydration salts (rehydrate after diarrhea)
  • Zantac (acid in the stomach)
  • Pepto-Bismal (all things stomach)
  • Claritin-D (allergies and congestion)
  • Zicam (cold symptom relief and prevention)
  • Emergen-C (cold prevention)
  • Purel (obvious cold prevention must)
  • Advil (aches and pains)
  • Kleenex (we’ve gone through a ton of these)

Sick in Cusco

I eventually rolled out of bed and re-packed my bag. Liz wasn’t feeling great either. She had sharp pains in her stomach and felt generally weak. We spent the next eight hours camped out on the couch in the lobby waiting for our bus. We watched the hostel move, the dogs come and go. At one point, the man at the front desk tucked me in with a blanket (pictured above). And at least we weren’t spending any money.

By the time we arrived in Arequipa, Elizabeth’s stomach had cleared up. Mine would take a few more days. I worried I might have had some sort of superbug but it turned out Elizabeth had misread the dosage frequency on the Cipro. (For more on the importance of quickly forgiving your spouse for innocent oversights see our previous post). We took things easy for a few days in Arequipa like we planned, and I appreciated the fact that there are worse places to recuperate.

roof deck in arequipa misti volcanoe

It’s been over a week now since I was writhed in bed doubting the whole idea of this trip. Things have changed. We’re now on a bus heading toward the Chilean border. In 48 hours, we’ll be in San Pedro de Atacama, surrounded by deserts, volcanoes, and the best stargazing in the world. A couple days ago, we hiked to the bottom of the deepest canyon in the world and then back up again. My sinuses haven’t cleared up and I’m on a daily Claritin habit, but life is good. We went to the pharmacy in Arequipa to restock on our meds and again, we feel prepared. There are no more doubts. I feel on top of the world.

  • Will

Colca Canyon

Machu Picchu Photo Gallery

Machu Picchu Photo Gallery

We got in line for the day’s first set of busses at 4:30 AM, to make sure we were some of the first people let into Machu Picchu. The air was cool, and clouds clung to the nearly empty ruins around us.

Machu Picchu in fog

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We climbed a not often climbed set of stairs.

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And started to explore the architecture.

Temple of the Condor Machu Picchu

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We got friendly with the local llamas,

Llamas in Machu Picchu

and started to wonder: what’s cooler, Machu Picchu or the surrounding mountains?

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Elizabeth was quick to point out that the Incas thought of them as one and the same.

Machu Picchu alone fog

We looked around and congratulated ourselves again on arriving before the crowds. It really is pretty cool to be here alone.

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After a little over an hour of exploring the ruins, we decided to take advantage of the second part of the tickets we purchased and climb The Mountain! The Mountain is advertised as a trail, but it’s really more of a 2,000+ ft. staircase.

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At first, the views below us were clouded in, well, clouds… But soon Machu Picchu began to appear.

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Machu Picchu from above

Machu Picchu from above

After a few thousand more steps and many breaks, we reached the top.

La Montana Machu Picchu the Mountain

And we saw that it was good.

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Eventually, we had to head back down… Parts were treacherously narrow.

Machu Picchu mountain

And parts went through charming patches of rainforest.

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But the views were more clear now, and we paused to take them in. La Montana Machu Picchu view from above

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Machu Picchu from above

When we returned to the bottom we were exhausted.

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We looked back and up look at The Mountain and felt a swell of pride. See that tiny little flag up there? That’s where we were.

Machu Picchu Mountain la montana

But now it was time to leave. On our way out, we took one final photo.

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It was only 1:00PM but we had had quite a day. We were tired, on top of the world, and still hours away from realizing that germs already inside us were about to take advantage of our exhaustion in the most unappealing ways. But more on that next week.

Cheers,

Will & Elizabeth

Machu Picchu Without a Tour: Logistics and Highlights

Machu Picchu Without a Tour: Logistics and Highlights

It’s no wonder Machu Picchu was only rediscovered about a century ago – it’s not easy to get to.   We did the trip in 5 days and that seemed fast. Getting to the Incan city involves arriving in Cuzco (we did it by bus, but you can also fly), getting to the town of Aguas Caliente (we took a 4 hour train), getting from Aguas Caliente up to Machu Picchu (we took the 30 minute bus), and then the whole thing in reverse to get back.

And that’s only one way to do it. Some people hike the Incan Trail (a 4 day excursion) or stop in the Sacred Valley on their way from Cuzco. You can also skip the 30 minute bus ride and hike up to Machu Picchu from the town. These are not the only choices. Options and combinations abound!

Some people hire a tour company to put together portions or all of this trip. Knowing this would be one of our most expensive excursions, Will and I decided to do Machu Picchu without a tour and put together the whole thing ourselves. Here’s what we booked.

Our Trip Breakdown:

Item US$ Total Tips
Lima to Cuzco Bus Ticket

$63 x 2 tickets

$126

We did an overnight bus. You can read about it here.
   
VIP House Hostel (Cuzco) $21.72 x 3 nights $65.16 Right across from a supermarket – a life saver!
   
Peru Rail Train Tickets $154 x 2 round trip tickets $308 Expensive, but a high class affair.   Go to the bathroom before you board – it’s too bumpy to use the onboard facilities.
   
Ecopackers Hostel (Aguas Caliente) $29.53 $29.53 4 person dorm was perfect for 1 night.
   
Bus ticket to Machu Picchu from Aguas Caliente $24 x 2 tickets $48 You can buy them day before at the bus station starting at 2pm. Be in line by 4:30am to get on the 5:30am bus if that’s your plan!
   
Machu Picchu Tickets w/ La Montana $45.58 x 2 tickets $91.16 Make sure you print your tickets! The extra hikes sell out early.
   
“Machu Picchu: The History and Mystery of the Incan City”Edited by Harasta & River $0 with Kindle Unlimited $0 If you go without a tour, purchase some sort of guidebook so you know what you’re looking at.
   
Cuzco to Arequipa Bus Ticket $42 x 2 tickets $84
 
Taxis to and from Bus Station: $6Train Station: $14 $20
 
Total: $771.85**

 

**We spent another $130 on food in Cuzco and Aguas Caliente combined. We ate out for dinner but made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Breakfast was included in both our hostel stays.

 

Highlights:

Trying New Foods in Cuzco

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Coca Tea: Made from coca leaf, this tea is used to calm altitude sickness – which we greatly appreciated! Our hostel offered an endless supply in the form of loose leaves and hot water.

Alpaca: We paused for a second when the filets came out medium rare, but I’m so glad we threw caution to the wind, because it was tender and delicious. Better than elk (Will tried it at Yellowstone).

Quinoa: Unlike any quinoa we had tried before! Creamy, cheesy, with potatoes. I can’t wait to figure out how to make this at home.

Cuy (Guinea Pig): Our guinea pig arrived with an orange pepper in its mouth, perched on top of a larger, stuffed pepper. After setting the platter down, the waiter crowned it with a little vegetable hat and offered to take our picture. The guinea pig was then returned to the kitchen to be quartered for sharing. It tasted a lot like rabbit, unsurprisingly. This traditional Peruvian food is obviously quite celebrated – we saw it depicted in several Peruvian churches on the table at The Last Supper.

The Vistas in Aguas Caliente

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Aguas Caliente is lost in time – a tiny city nestled between rainforest covered Andean peaks. The streets are connected by bridges, and trains (the town’s only connection to the outside world) run through the center. Our hostel had a rooftop bar that felt perched in paradise. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

Seeing the Ruins (almost) Alone

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What’s better than gallivanting around cloud-ringed ruins by yourself as the sun comes up? You feel like the original explorers, discovering something ancient and mysterious. You get to have one on one encounters with the resident llamas. You get to see the views without all those people in the way. We had to take the first bus to get up there in time for this experience– which meant a 3:45am alarm. We also bypassed the ruins near the entry gate, where many tour groups get held up, and made a beeline for deeper locations. Being at Machu Picchu almost alone? Worth every effort.

Summiting an Andean Peak (La Montana)

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When I read the description, it said that the climb up Machu Picchu Mountain (La Montana) was a moderately challenging hike on a wide path, following an old Incan road. Well, Incan’s didn’t really build roads as much as staircases. This hike was a 2 hour staircase up a mountain.

I didn’t consult Will when I booked our Machu Picchu tickets with the La Montana hike included. I told him it was the easiest hike available (which I believe it is…yikes.) About half way through he turned to me, exhausted, and asked, “Are we SUMMITING this mountain?” Luckily, he was excited to do it.

Worth it. From multiple points along the way, we saw Machu Picchu from above, in addition to the surrounding landscape. Not to mention the accomplishment of summiting a mountain in the Andes! I successfully didn’t throw up.

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More pictures coming this week!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Confession: we were completely freaked out by the thought of taking a bus through the mountains of South America. Will even cited it as his greatest fear on our journey. I binged on negative TripAdvisor reviews and created contingency plans in my head if we were robbed or in an accident. When buses crash in Peru, they sometimes fall more than 1000 feet.  But we wanted to see the Andes, and we didn’t want to pay the high cost of flying. So we took the bus. In hindsight, we are so happy we decided to travel this way because, not only were we safe the entire time, we got to see the countryside of Peru and some awe inspiring scenery.

When you hear “traveling South America by bus” you usually think of a rickety bus with the luggage strapped to the roof. While that is definitely still an option, South America also has some beautiful buses with big leather seats, on demand movies, and meal service. Given the treacherous nature of the Lima to Cuzco route (there was a US travel advisory about this route in 2013), we decided to take one of these very safe, more comfortable companies that tracks their buses by radar and has two drivers who take shifts. While more expensive, it was still about a third of the price of flying (if you count the hotel room we didn’t need to book.)

We arrived at the Cruz Del Sur bus station in Lima at 4:45pm for our 5:30pm bus. In Lima, each bus company has its own station, so you must go to the right one. We checked our bags at the central desk and waited in the cafeteria for boarding to begin.

Boarding was quick and easy – they checked our passports and inspected our carry-on bags. The whole bus was loaded in about 15 minutes. Heading out of Lima, it got dark very fast. We unfortunately didn’t have much to look at as we departed. This is what our seats looked like:

Cruz Del Sur bus Seat Lima to Cusco by bus

Everything was smooth sailing down the Pan-American highway. We settled into our leather recliners and each watched a different movie on our entertainment screens. After about 4 hours we tried to go to sleep. That was around the same time the road turned into an amusement park ride. Back and forth, up and down mountains. Just when we thought we’d hit a stretch of straight road, the bus would turn again. I’m not sure when I dozed off.

I do know I woke up at 6:30am high up in the mountains with a terrible case of altitude sickness. Will stumbled to the bathroom as the bus followed the swerving road. “I just almost threw up.” He reported. I ate one of the rolls we brought from Lima and started my regimen of Pepto Bismol tablets and Advil. This is also when we noticed the breathtaking scenery – the reason we took the bus. We wanted to see the Andes Mountains. Please note, most of these photos were taken through a dusty bus window, while in motion.

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Right after Abancay (a very small city), perched on the side of a hill, the bus came to a stop and the doors opened. Several people got off. Curious, Will and I stepped outside to find one of the two drivers feeding a stray dog out of his lunch container. Will asked him what was going on in Spanish. He replied, “It’s the middle of the day,” and gave an emphatic shrug. We saw that we were in a long line of stopped vehicles. Suddenly a boy selling soda and a cart selling oranges appeared, going from stopped vehicle to stopped vehicle. People from the vehicles in front of us were walking up and down the road, chatting, smiling, buying oranges. Will and I took some photos and chatted with a French couple for about 30 minutes until the driver called, “Amigos!” and motioned for us to get back on board.  The title photo shows the view from the road.

Lima to Cusco by bus pictures

We arrived in Cuzco around 4:30pm. After picking up our luggage from the check desk, we hopped in a cab with a couple from Italy and were at our hostel in 10 minutes.

The truth is: there are some risks associated with bus travel in Peru, but many of those same things (motor vehicle accident, robbery) can happen when you are living your life at home. The route from Lima to Cuzco is extremely winding, and you feel it even on a good bus.  But if you can handle sitting in a recliner and watching movies for 20+ hours, you can handle this bus.  The payoff is seeing all of Peru, and hours of priceless views!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

P.S. Prior to this trip, I searched all over the internet for information about bus travel from Lima to Cuzco.  I hope this is helpful to others!  Feel free to reach out with questions.

A Day with Ensena Peru

A Day with Ensena Peru

The Pamer school in Lima isn’t like most schools in Peru, but its classrooms would fit in at almost any charter school in the United States. Each classroom has the school’s vision and mission posted on a board. The most effective teacher we saw made use of call and response attention getters, “Yo-Yo,” she says, “Hey, Hey” responds the class. When it was time to focus, she called them to a learning posture similar to SLANT or SPARK but with the interesting addition of smiles. “I’m going to call on the student with the biggest smile,” she said. And there they sat, a class of just under 30 students, all sitting up straight, with beautifully authentic smiles on their faces.

As we drove to the school, Jose Revilla, the Executive Director of Ensena Peru, apologized for not being able to take us to a public school – they were on vacation. He explained that Pamer is a middle-income school that focuses almost entirely on preparing students for college entrance exams. He lamented that this narrow focus confined teachers to focusing mostly on the memorization of facts and rules, at the expense of more general education competencies. It was a frustration that was echoed by the teachers we talked with.

“What stood out to me the most is how confining the school is. The students don’t have time to express themselves or explain what they think*,” said Fiorella a first year upper elementary teacher with Ensena Peru. She compared the school to her own education where her exams were more like interviews, and she had many more opportunities to develop skills that are more important in life. When I asked what skills she thought were most important she answered, “The ability to argue and explain their thinking. The ability to work in teams.”

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Diana, another teacher explained, “It’s like all they are used to is to say, A, B, C, or D. When you ask them to explain ‘why’ it’s like ‘what do you mean why?’ Even working in pairs is unusual. They are only used to teachers telling them what to do.” Diana has had some success pushing students to explain themselves more, but it’s been a lonely battle and still in the context of explaining answers on multiple choice tests. Liz, a former lawyer turned fourth grade teacher, was disappointed the students didn’t have more opportunities for arts and music since the tests focused mostly on math and grammar. Even the most effective teacher we saw, Fernanda (not an Ensena Peru teacher) was still engaging students at a fairly low level of thinking – preparing them to answer basic questions about grammar.

Talking with these teachers, it was also surprising how similar their presence and demeanor was to the Teach For America teachers we’ve worked with the past few years. They are tired, frustrated, and deeply committed to being a positive force in the lives of the children they work with. As Liz put it, “I love the work that I do. When you help someone, you gain more than them. It’s a world that’s yours, and I’m so happy in my class.”

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From left to right; Jose, Will, Fiorella, Diana, Liz, Elizabeth

In fact, happiness was the prevailing emotion in the school. There was a palpable sense of joy amongst the students, and I don’t think it was just because we were visiting. Students laughed, supported each other, and smiled. Always with the smiles. Remember, Peru has some of the happiest students in the world. As Jose explained, public school teachers may not know their content very well, and the country may not have very high academic standards, but the teachers are very committed to building students self-worth and often believe that caring for their students is more important than the content they have to teach. Indeed, PISA’s international survey of teachers shows that Peruvian teachers prioritize developing a student’s personality more than teachers in almost every other country.

Jose went on to explain that, maybe that would be Peru’s saving grace. “Because,” he explained, “When you look at the most successful people in the world, they are not the people who know the most. They’re the people who are able to work well with others.”

Our day at Pamer has been one of the major highlights of the trip so far, and we hope to visit a few more schools before we cross the Chilean border.

Questions and comments are always welcome.

Cheers,

Will

A special thanks to Miluska and Jose for arranging this visit. It was awesome.

*A note on language. Some of the interviews in this post were in English and some were in Spanish. Where I felt uncomfortable doing a verbatim translation I paraphrased the main ideas of what was said.

 

Our First Destination: Travel Anxiety Overcome

Our First Destination: Travel Anxiety Overcome

On the eve of our first flight, Will went to bed congested, and I woke up with a knot in my stomach. When the alarm went off, I sat up and asked him how he was feeling. He said, “In love,” and I poked him in the ribs. He smiled and asked if I was sure I still wanted to do this. I couldn’t believe he was asking me that when I felt like I wanted to throw up. “Of course,” I said, “Let’s go.”

Over the past year, our departure date has grown to mythical proportions. We’ve repeated the phrase, “On August 4th we fly to Peru” hundreds of times. But as we actually set off for the unknown – knowing we wouldn’t return for 10 months – it was scary.

I started out a nervous ball of energy, feeling homesick, anxious, and a little weepy. Flying south with the east coast of the U.S. in the window, I tried to sleep off the urge to cry. When we landed at the Panama City Airport for our layover, my nerves downgraded to mild. The Hub of the Americas reassured me with its early 1990’s décor and ridiculously high end shopping. Just like when I first moved to Louisiana – I realized that in many new places things are different, but not that different.

Once we landed in Lima, most of my nerves were gone. The airport was bright and friendly. Immigration and customs were a breeze. We got our new SIM cards and hopped into the hostel car service. We’re staying at The Healing Dog hostel, which is complete with its own Peruvian Hairless Dog, Pisco. We decided to start out in a 6-person dorm to see if we could handle the cheaper option. Verdict: it’s okay, with earplugs. We have private rooms for the next two cities.

Day one was filled with travel gaffes. First, we spent way too many soles on coffee. Then we went on an odyssey around a high end mall to get our Machu Picchu tickets reprinted (I lost the reservation number.) Then we got ripped off by a cab driver. But the day was also filled with good food, new scenery, and general settling in.

Day two left us more empowered. We took off from the hostel early to meet with Ensena Peru (a Teach for America cousin) and visit with teachers and students. We will post about this experience soon – in short, it was wonderful and energizing. The visit reaffirmed that visiting schools around the world is the right thing for us to focus on. My ball of nerves is nowhere to be found.

There are some great blog posts out there about dealing with travel fears, filled with excellent advice. The trouble is that none of that perspective actually eliminates the anxiety, it mostly assures you it will pass. But this is okay, because I don’t want to eliminate the fear, I want to overcome it. When you are scared, or homesick, or worried and that feeling passes it is transformed into freedom, empowerment, and a smaller, more familiar world. This has now happened once, and I look forward to it happening many more times in the coming months. Thank you, Peru, for being my first anxiety transformed.

Cheers,

Elizabeth

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

Over the past year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into how education works in other countries. I’ve learned a lot that’s forced me to think critically about some of the most fundamental aspects of our American education system. These five realities stand out to me as the most consequential.

Reality #1 – U.S. Students Don’t Like School and Aren’t Very Good At It

Where+are+the+happiest+school+kids

This chart was created with the OECD’s PISA test data by Jake Levy, a data analyst at Buzzfeed. The scores are an average of math, science and reading. The x-axis is how students respond to the question, ’Are you happy in school?’ The PISA  is an excellent test given every three years. It requires critical thinking (not multiple choice), and focuses more on ‘what students can do with what they know.’ Economists have found a direct link between PISA scores and GDP growth and PISA scores have also proven a more accurate predictor of whether or not students will go to college than report cards. (Source: Amanda Ripley’s reporting in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way)

As you can see, the United States falls into the ‘sad and stupid’ quadrant. Not only does our system fail to educate our children, but in the process, it turns them away from the idea that learning can be fun. Great. Why aren’t people talking about this? Are we, as a nation, resigned to ironic acceptance of our educational inferiority?

Maybe more interesting than what this chart tells us directly, are the questions it can spur. Like, ‘What’s the difference between Korea and Singapore?” They both score in the top 5 for performance but Korea has the least happy students in the world while Singapore’s students are some of the happiest. What’s the point of doing well if you suffer along the way? What’s the secret to the more pleasant paths to success?

Reality #2 – U.S. Teachers Spend More Hours a Year in ‘Performance Mode’ Than Teachers in Any Other Country

OK, so that’s not completely true. For elementary school teachers, we’re #1. For secondary school teachers we’re #2, behind Chile. But still…

We know what teachers need to be more effective. They need time to plan interesting and rigorous lessons, time to give meaningful feedback to students (multiple choice tests are most tempting when you don’t have time to grade), time for collaborating with other teachers, quality professional development, direct coaching from mentor teachers for people new to the profession, etc… All of those things teachers in more effective countries make priorities.

The thing is, teachers in better performing countries actually have substantial time in the day dedicated to all those things. A High School teacher in the U.S. averages 1,051 hours in front of students per year. Compare that with the average of 656 hours for OECD countries. That’s almost 400 extra hours per year for all that good stuff I was just talking about! And that already takes into account the fact that we’re in school two weeks less per year than the OECD average!

Let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great.

There literally aren’t enough hours in the day for U.S. teachers to do all of the things that correlate with better instruction. Teachers in the U.S. often complain about mandated collaboration but not because they don’t want it. It’s because they’d rather be planning or grading, and they don’t have time for all three. It’s also common for U.S. teachers to give up the limited planning time they do have, to do individual tutoring, which is noble, but it shouldn’t be necessary. That reality plays into a ‘teacher as altruist’ expectation that we would never hold to other professions. Who assumes a lawyer gets into the profession for their love of ‘the rule of law?’ I hope that most doctors get into the profession to help people, but as a society, we don’t expect them to stay after hours to consult the uninsured.

There’s a very dangerous sense in this country that teachers aren’t ‘really working’ unless they’re standing in front of a group of students. How would you feel if I told you, you had to give 30 separate one hour presentations next week, and not only did you have to deliver them, but you had to execute them so well that each of the 100+ people in the audience would be able to recall over 80% of the details at the end of the week, and by the way, they’re teenagers. How much time would you like to prepare for something like that? How much individualized management would you need to do to make sure people were track? How much stress would you feel?

Reality #3 – Our Most Privileged Students Aren’t that Great

Education reformers in the United States tend to focus almost exclusively on the ‘Achievement Gap’ – the fact that poor and minority students in the U.S. perform tragically worse than their more privileged peers. A built in assumption to this focus, is the idea that our most privileged students are being educated just fine. The problem in the U.S. isn’t with the fundamentals of our education system, it’s with the consequences of poverty.

But, what if we just look at the most privileged groups in each country, including those who attend private school? How do our most privileged do against the most privileged of other countries? It turns out, not so well. When we look at just top quartiles in the PISA’s socio-economic breakdown we come in 25th out of 39 countries in math. And remember, our most privileged are even better off than most of their counterparts in other countries.

We should certainly be working to close the gap in performance between demographic groups, but let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great. If we’re truly going to maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly global economy we’ll have to rethink how our best schools operate too.

  Top Socio-Economic Quartile Only Bottom Socio-Economic Quartile Only
Ranking in Math Scores Country Socio-Economic Index Score* (How advantaged are the most privileged) Country Socio-Economic Index Score (How disadvantaged are the least privileged)
1 Hong Kong-China 0.50 Hong Kong-China -2.00
2 Korea 0.92 Macao-China -1.91
3 Switzerland 1.29 Korea -0.97
4 Japan 0.85 Japan -0.99
5 Belgium 1.27 Liechtenstein -0.89
6 Poland 1.08 Switzerland -1.00
7 Germany 1.42 Finland -0.68
8 Netherlands 1.15 Canada -0.75
9 Liechtenstein 1.42 Netherlands -0.82
10 France 0.95 Poland -1.22
11 New Zealand 1.04 Germany -0.99
12 Macao-China 0.28 Iceland -0.34
13 Canada 1.44 Australia -0.84
14 Finland 1.28 Ireland -0.97
15 Czech Republic 0.93 Denmark -0.70
16 Austria 1.19 Belgium -1.05
17 Australia 1.18 Norway -0.56
18 Portugal 1.21 Austria -0.97
19 Luxembourg 1.41 Latvia -1.39
20 Ireland 1.20 Czech Republic -0.98
21 Slovak Republic 1.06 Italy -1.29
22 Denmark 1.44 Russian Federation -1.10
23 Hungary 1.01 New Zealand -1.05
24 Spain 1.16 Sweden -0.82
25 United States 1.35 Spain -1.50
26 Latvia 0.90 France -1.10
27 Iceland 1.71 United States -1.14
28 Italy 1.24 Portugal -1.85
29 Norway 1.35 Luxembourg -1.42
30 Russian Federation 0.82 Hungary -1.46
31 Sweden 1.25 Slovak Republic -1.25
32 Greece 1.22 Greece -1.34
33 Turkey 0.07 Turkey -2.74
34 Uruguay 0.69 Thailand -2.72
35 Thailand 0.27 Mexico -2.66
36 Mexico 0.61 Uruguay -2.23
37 Brazil 0.39 Tunisia -2.86
38 Tunisia 0.42 Brazil -2.64
39 Indonesia -0.28 Indonesia -3.09

* Since income and poverty measurements don’t compare well across countries the OECD and PISA use what they call an “Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status” It takes into consideration things like the highest level of parents education, the types of jobs parents have, if there’s a quiet place to do school work at home, if the family owns art, and other questions that allow for a more normalized comparison of privilege across countries.

Reality #4 – A Country’s Education System Matters More Than Wealth or Demographics

Let’s look at Finland and Norway. They’re both Scandinavian countries with fairly homogenous populations and low child poverty rates. But Finland’s students consistently score as some of the most capable in the world and Norway’s students perform even worse than the United States. What’s up with that?

Let’s look at Poland and the United States. Both countries have similar levels of childhood poverty, and on the whole, U.S. students participating in the PISA have considerably more affluent home environments than their Polish peers. But Polish students achieve at much higher levels than U.S. students. Even more interesting is the fact that that, 20 years ago the U.S. outperformed Poland on international tests.

The least advantaged students in Hong Kong are worse off than the same group in the U.S. but they score just as well in math as America’s most privileged students.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve.

Finland, Singapore, Poland, and China have all dramatically improved their education systems in the past decades while the U.S. has remained remarkably consistent in its subpar performance. Each country is unique, but all of their reform strategies had two things in common. 1) They increased the rigor of their standards. 2) They prioritized teacher preparation and professional development.

In the U.S., we’ve also tried to improve our education system in recent decades, but we’ve taken a different approach. We’ve tried to incentivize and manage improvement through a rigorous system of testing and accountability. Turns out, that hasn’t worked as well.

Reality #5 – U.S. Teacher Morale is Going in the Wrong Direction

The 2012 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” showed that teacher morale in the U.S. is at a 25 year low. In 2008, 62% of teachers reported feeling very satisfied with their job. In 2012 that number was down to 39%. Over half of teachers reported feeling great stress several days a week. I believe that this dynamic is today’s single greatest threat to our nation’s long-term economic security. The causes of this dissatisfaction are complex but ultimately less relevant than its consequences. The simple fact is that, it’s hard for students to learn from people who are constantly stressed out by their jobs.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve. But across the country applications to teachers colleges are on the decline and fewer and fewer people are applying to alternative certification programs like Teach For America as well. Why would intelligent/capable people want to pursue a profession where over half the people are stressed? It doesn’t even pay very well.

__________

Maybe this sort of lackluster education system was OK in the second half of the 20th century. Getting out of WWII with our infrastructure intact certainly gave us a good head start. For a few decades there, we were graduating a higher percentage of our people from college than any other country. But that percentage has flat lined at around 25% since the 1970s and the rest of the world is passing us by.

The solutions we come up with need to be uniquely American, but we’d be foolish not to learn from the rest of the world. This school year we’re traveling  the world to see what these other systems look like up close. I hope you’ll follow along. We need to act and act big. Education isn’t going to fix itself.

Excited to learn,

Will

For the research for this post, I’m indebted to Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” and Dana Goldstein’s “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” as well as to several articles by Linda Darling-Hammond, and to whoever compiled the myriad of spreadsheets found on the OECD’s website. Some of the analysis is my own. It’s a skill set I developed during my two years as a policy analyst for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

A special thanks to Caitlin Jordan for creating the featured political cartoon at the top of this post with very little notice.