A System Without a Soul: Part I

They didn’t use my test. A month prior, my school approached me about writing the eighth grade provincial English exam for the second trimester. Every trimester, the state evaluates the students: one exam for each of their ten subjects. Today is exam day for English, and I’m holding a test that looks nothing at all like the one I wrote. To be honest, it looks more like somebody’s fanciful dream: My goodness, colleagues, I wish our students were at this level of English. The italicized sentence expresses a desire. The subjunctive verb tense does not exist in English; we use the past tense to express desires.

The state office of education probably decided my exam was too easy. I don’t follow the curriculum, which is far too advanced for my eighth graders; I teach what my students might grasp. Or, even more likely, the education office never even looked at my exam. Papers have a habit of getting lost here. I read the first question on the test, a reading comprehension question based on a text. “How much land Mozambique has?” The grammar is incorrect. That does not matter, though, because my students won’t understand the text anyway. According to national standards, this exam represents thirty-three percent of my students’ grades. To form questions in English, the auxiliary verb “Do” is employed: How much land does Mozambique have?

7:30am arrives and we must distribute the exams. Teachers are assigned to proctor each classroom. I teach seven different classes of eighth graders, more than six hundred students in total. Two professors do not arrive to proctor the exams. The students talk to each other. They copy one another’s exams. The cheating is more pronounced in the classrooms without proctors, but it happens in every room. I am their English teacher and it is my job to enter each classroom and explain the test. I’m not sure what to say. I tell my students to use the words in the questions to search for the same words in the text. I tell them to guess on the multiple-choice questions. I tell them they can use their notebooks, because nothing in their notebooks will help. I’m frustrated, so I even mention to some that the first question is written incorrectly. I’m in a pickle: I don’t want to disillusion my students with the education system by placing blame on the state tests; but I don’t want the backwash from this overly advanced test to disillusion my students’ interest in English. To be in a pickle is an idiomatic expression specific to American culture; no wonder none of the other teachers here seem to be in pickles.

 

Disillusion is a verb that can be defined as follows: “to cause (someone) to stop believing that something is good, valuable, true, etc.” A synonym would be to disenchant. This would imply that my students are under some kind of spell, an enchantment that prevents them from seeing reality. The spell that I hope they believe: our education system functions properly. The reality: the Mozambican education system is (auto) paralyzed at the waist. I’ve attempted to use “auto” in a reflexive sense: the Mozambican education system paralyzes itself at the waist. It sets students up for failure – by applying an overloaded course schedule in a university-style lecture format to high schools with poorly trained teachers, oversized classes, and a lack of teaching resources (most of my students have no books) – then lies to the students and to itself when it changes the grades to say that the majority of students have learned the material. In reality, a recent study demonstrates that a majority of the teachers have not even learned the material: “Only 65 percent of Mozambican teachers can successfully subtract 86 minus 55.”

The lying will come next week at conselho das notas, which literally translates to, “The grade council.” It is an institutionalized – meaning this happens formally at every school in the country – opportunity for teachers and school staff to change students’ grades. Everyone meets to discuss the grades for the trimester: You know, Teacher James, Alberto is my nephew and I really think he should pass English this trimester even though he did not arrive for a single class. As is so often the case in Africa, much of the grade changing occurs based on family ties. In this manner, a student who may not even know how to read (I have plenty in my classes) can graduate high school because he is so-and-so’s cousin.

I recently read a great book by a Mozambican author, Mia Couto, containing a scene that sums up the situation perfectly (you can find a review of the book here). In the novel, lion attacks begin to plague a district in northern Mozambique. The state commissions a hunter from the capital to resolve the issue. In a brief exchange between the hunter and the district administrator, the latter admits that he would like to fake a report that says the situation is under control. When the hunter asks why lie, the administrator replies: “It’s what we subordinates do. We never say that there is a problem. Admitting that there are problems only produces problems with the bosses” (my translation). Deception occurs at all levels of the Mozambican bureaucracy. If my school reports low test scores, rather than re-evaluate the manner of testing, the state will blame the school for not meeting standards. My director and assistant directors could then be punished via a transfer to a school in the middle-of-nowhere-bush-Africa or even fired. So, instead, we change grades, we make excuses, we lie, and we don’t bat an eye. None of the scores that my students cheated to obtain on the poorly written but overly difficult state exam will matter because all of those grades can be changed to create the appearance of success. The façade means more than the substance. That is why we re-paint buildings when high-level officials visit instead of actually patching the cracks that are slowly breaking apart the walls.

If you cannot tell, I would describe my current condition as disillusioned.

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