Dr. Maya Kalyanpur is a Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of San Diego and a Distinguished Scholar for Global Ed Leadership. Maya holds a Ph.D. in Special Education from Syracuse University. She has conducted research on the intersections of culture and special education and international development and disability studies in India, the US and Cambodia.
Education scholars in the field of international development are often excited by the increase in enrollment of children in primary school in the Global South because it indicates that families, especially low-income parents, are now beginning to recognize the value of education and the long-term economic and social benefits that will accrue to their children from accessing and completing schooling (Pritchett, 2013; Singal, Lynch & Johansen, 2019). However, the truth is families have always valued education. Indeed, we are all familiar with the adage that a parent is a child’s first teacher. What we are seeing now is families, particularly low-income parents, being beguiled by the false promises of the current milieu of neoliberal market economies. Although these structures are built to benefit the wealthy, the claim is that through a trickle down of the wealth, poor families can expect to mitigate their circumstances and improve their lives. In other words, while it appears that families are making the right choice in accessing education, the fact is they have no other choice: if they hope to access some of the wealth, they must participate in these educational structures.
The structural adjustments––recommended by international agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and international private sector agencies such as equity fund companies and banks––have created a form of market fundamentalism similar to religious fanaticism that has severely depleted public and social sector investment (Baradaran, 2020; Stiglitz, 2006). Private sector investment in education, which has become the new growth industry, has perpetuated age-old inequities in access to quality education. Although more children than ever are receiving an education, the quality of education that low-income students receive is far inferior to what upper-income students receive. Large class sizes and poorly trained and therefore poorly paid teachers––all hallmarks of healthy profit margins––contribute to the factory-style assembly line production of a large mass of students who are learning merely to master the art of taking and passing benchmark exams. Those who fail to acquire this skill of memorizing the curriculum to regurgitate it at the exam fall by the wayside, either of their own accord or by the decree of school professionals and a learning disability certificate The acquisition of English as a highly desirable skill to attain considerably more social and economic dividends further disadvantages students who are learning this curriculum in an academic language that is essentially foreign to them. The ‘glass ceiling’ affects those who do succeed in completing their secondary education and then must compete to enter higher education with students who have benefitted from elite private schooling and are habitués in English, while the ‘sticky floor’ effect ensures that the poorest of the poor never get off the ground (Loomba, 2015; Mosse, 2018).
The imposition of international policies on, for instance, the rights of a child and inclusive education that assume a universality of contexts exacerbates these inequities. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child established the notion that children had the right to schooling, while the 1994 Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education focused on relocating students with disabilities from special schools to inclusive schools, as an outcome of the trends in the Global North (Urwick & Elliott, 2010). However, these conditions do not prevail universally. All children in the Global South are not students: 121 million school age children and adolescents are currently out of school worldwide, most of them poor, rural and, often, girls; and children continue to be forced to work in mines and construction (Ajmera, 2106; UNICEF, 2015). The basic infrastructure for including children with disabilities, such as special education professionals, modified curricular resources and physical accessibility, is lacking in most contexts in the Global South. New perceptions of who is disabled have infiltrated ancient communities, creating new social stigma for families and individuals, ironically in the quest to provide inclusive systems (Le Fanu, 2013; Yates, 2018). Assessment measures that are rarely standardized for local populations are used in the belief of the universality of knowledge, intelligence, and the norm. A paucity of services, and the assumption that the market will provide, generally privileges upper-class students who can afford the fees associated with such supports. Poor parents, already resource-stretched as they seek to educate their children within these systems, must now stretch themselves further to avail of services, such as private tuition and remedial services, that attempt to bridge the curricular gap between the expectations of school and the realities of home. But, if they aspire to a better lifestyle for their children, they have little choice.
Most significantly, this “global norming” (McDermott, et al., 2011) undermines indigenous structures of schooling. The deep-seated notions of school as an architectural location that children must go to and sit at desks, and must attend for a certain number of hours each day each week––the very structure of what being at school means, is incompatible, for instance, with the lifestyle of the children of migrant construction workers and nomadic cultures. It dismantles indigenous practices of learning while under a tree or seated on the floor or imbibed through observing community elders (Black, 2011). It overlooks the possibility of a school calendar that responds to agricultural cycles that still prevail in Southern countries as it had in Europe and the US before shifting to the rhythms of industrialized societies (Stratton, 2016). It assumes a universality of knowledge and skills and the desirability of learning information suitable for a global market, such as technology, algebra, that may not necessarily hold. The Covid-19 crisis has shown us, more than ever, the need for innovation in the field of pedagogy and education. Perhaps this could be a catalyst for us to examine these assumptions in what we teach and how we teach and the implications of these assumptions for poor children where the contexts for what and how they need to be learning might be very different.
Thank you, Maya, for these reflections on what and how we teach children in the Global South and the universal notions of knowledge and skills. To learn more about Dr. Kalyanpur’s work please visit her university profile. If you are interested in learning more about issues of indigenous knowledge and the impact of new educational structures on old societies please visit https://schoolingtheworld.org/ for a relevant documentary and additional information.
meet Dr. Maya Kalyanpur