GRE Practice Argument Topic 5: Balmer Island Mopeds

ESSAY PROMPT

The following appeared in a letter to the editor of the Balmer Island Gazette.

“On Balmer Island, where mopeds serve as a popular form of transportation, the population increases to 100,000 during the summer months. To reduce the number of accidents involving mopeds and pedestrians, the town council of Balmer Island should limit the number of mopeds rented by the island’s moped rental companies from 50 per day to 25 per day during the summer season. By limiting the number of rentals, the town council will attain the 50 percent annual reduction in moped accidents that was achieved last year on the neighboring island of Seaville, when Seaville’s town council enforced similar limits on moped rentals.”

Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the recommendation is likely to have the predicted result. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the recommendation.

ESSAY

The introduction of a strict daily limit on moped rentals from 50 to just 25 per day on Balmer Island in order to achieve a 50% reduction in moped accidents is a policy that raises a number of important questions from both the point of view of economic viability and feasibility given the specific features of the Balmer Island community and its potential differences from its model neighbor, Seaville. There are also a number of specific concerns with regard to the efficacy of such a policy implementation across both communities.

First of all, there is the question of population. Balmer Island’s population during the summer months balloons to 100,000. But what percentage increase does this represent with respect to that community’s population during the off-season? And how does that compare with Seaville’s population? On the topic of demographics, the average age of moped users would be another useful factor to come to take into account since it is common knowledge that younger drivers are more predisposed to traffic accidents.

In addition to these demographic concerns, such infrastructure issues as the quality of each community’s roads and multi-modal transportation infrastructure might also come into play. For instance, a high rate of bus or taxi usage in Seaville may have tacitly contributed to or helped catalyze the effects of that town’s moped policy. Plus, the sheer quality of roads and bridges may have accounted for some of the accidents on Balmer Island. That is, it might be pertinent to know the relative age of these two communities’ roadways and their relative levels of maintenance.

Beyond these concerns, it would certainly be helpful to know precisely what sort of policy Seaville implemented that saw such a drastic decrease in the number of accidents from one year to the next. We are told that it was similar to the one under consideration on Balmer Island, but in what respects is it different? And how was it enforced? Were any fines issued to rental companies? Were there any costs associated with increased levels of vigilance or policing? What was the reaction to the policy by all the relevant stakeholders? In the prompt, Seaville’s moped policy measure seems to be viewed as a positive or strived-for model by the denizens of Balmer Island, but policy makers would do well to investigate the longer-term effects of the policy both on public safety as well as the local tourist economy. How was it successful apart from the reduction of accidents? Limiting transportation options for visitors may indeed decrease noise levels and add to the overall beauty of the island, but what unintended negative consequences might there have been?

Most obviously, I can’t imagine that the moped rental sector of the town’s industry was very enthusiastic about the mandated cuts. Then again, this may have allowed for price cuts. So, one final, crucial line of questioning would go to the core of the matter itself—what were the effects on the rental companies? Were Seaville moped rental services able to charge more for their newly scarce commodity? Or on the contrary, were their businesses undercut by new public awareness of the environmental nuisance of the bikes?

These are some of the centrally important questions that Balmer town council would need to address in their deliberations over this policy.

REFLECTION

I wrote this essay after watching 2 episodes of Breaking Bad.  It’s not clear how this timing affected my writing.  But I feel more confident about this ESSAY than about yesterday’s “ISSUE TOPIC.”  I just asked myself, “What would Gus Fring do in this situation?”  And the answer came tapping from the tips of my fingers: poison Don Eladio, take your revenge on the Cartel, and score a 6 on the open-ended section of the test.  So, that’s probably what I did.

But don’t take my word for it!

GRE Practice Log Issue Topic 2

The following is my log of practice essays written in advance of my GRE test next month in Osaka.  The Issue Topics and Argument Topics are all taken from the ETS website.  Every possible topic is apparently listed there comprehensively.  I want to get as high a score as possible and give the educational testing industry as little of my money as possible.  But the tricky part about these open-ended questions is that they require human judgement on both the creation of the problems and the evaluation of the answers…  So, I need to find some good graded model answers (on the cheap).  Naturally, any comments are welcome.

ESSAY PROMPT

To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.

MY ESSAY (written in 30 minutes)

I agree that to understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities, but I agree with some reservations. Indeed, the opposite extreme of this statement seems obviously false—that is, a full understanding of a society would be impossible without studying its major cities. So, that is one caveat. But also, the history of humankind extends into times and places prior to the existence of cities. So, limiting one’s study to cities would certainly be a misstep. Finally, it has been my experience, having grown up on the edge of a small city, that life in cities is inextricably linked to the rural areas around them, making a meaningful separation of urban and rural society impossible. All that being said, cities are, after all, the most concentrated population centers of a given society. And society is defined by the relationships between people. So, it is natural that the study of a society would necessitate an investigation of its cities.

First to go in to more detail about some of my reservations about studying society only through the lens of its cities, I believe the strongest evidence to support this reservation is historical. Humans have not always lived in cities. Cities are a rather new development in the evolution of society. So, for a more historically contiguous view of society writ large, ignoring the countryside in favor of the metropolis would be folly. However, the bulk of humanity in a given society reside in its cities today.

Second, my personal connection to both city and country life neither bias me for or against cities. However, I have grown up understanding the value of both. Institutions like museums and public infrastructure like trains and libraries and schools are present in much greater concentration in cities. And these institutions are certainly rich in value for the study of any society. On the other hand, the natural beauty and the ways in which humans have found to live either in harmony or at odds with their natural environment is most easily accessible through prolonged exposure to rural society.

Finally, on purely economic grounds, often cities depend very dearly on the enterprise of the surrounding countryside. The wealth of mines, pastures, dairies, and farms supply the bulk of humanity that populate cities. And these economic linkages are reflected in culture as well. But a study of a society that neglects these linkages between urban and rural would be incomplete at best.

 

Therefore…[unfinished]

Teachers donating sick days is a symptom of a wretched system

On July 24, Florida high school teacher Robert Goodman posted a picture of himself during chemo treatment. Having run short on sick days, Goodman appealed to fellow school employees, who donated enough days for him to take a semester off and complete treatment.
Goodman’s is one in a slew of stories about teachers and workers donating sick time or parental leave, a trend lauded earlier this summer by Good Morning America. But while it’s heartwarming to see the extent to which teachers support each other, part of the reason that’s true is that teachers have become so acutely economically vulnerable. As his students start school this week without him, lack of paid leave — for personal sickness like Goodman’s, the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a loved one — shows just how vulnerable teachers are, and how inhumane the system has become.

AP World History Is Worth Saving

Teachers are pushing back against proposed changes they say would reframe AP World History as Eurocentric. Teaching Tolerance stands with them.

Source: AP World History Is Worth Saving

The College Board, which makes these tests, should be coming out with a response to all of the teachers who have told them what a terrible, dishonest switcheroo this would be.

Also, one argument that I didn’t hear Teaching Tolerance making has to do with other existing AP history courses– namely AP European and US History (and to some extent AP Art History) which between them seem to duplicate most of the material that would be covered in an AP world history course from 1400 to the present.

Micro Review: Reading Japanese Education by Diane M. Hoffman

The opening Chapter, in DeCoker and Bjork’s Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization is a very helpful starting point for this collection of essays.  Hoffman begins with criticism of any “holistic” view of Japanese education which seeks to explain the entirety of a complex system by offering some “grand model.”  One such “grand model,” is the “Centrality of the Ministry of Education.”  Hoffman, doesn’t deny that their is some utility in for example a critical understanding of Japanese education in terms of a powerful centralized bureaucracy, but she is rightfully wary of any such account that mythologizes or adds excessive moral significance to such artifacts as political organization.  In this regard, Hoffman is somewhat skeptical of the genre of ethnographic research in general.  But she allows that research that seeks to understand Japanese education in comparison with other contexts is most useful when it neither erases diversity nor seeks to hold up Japan as a model.

The reminder of Hoffman’s essay describes four guiding themes or “tensions” in Japanese educational research.  She is observing patterns in existing research rather than suggesting areas for future study.  Likewise, her identification of themes or tensions don’t foreclose on alternatives.  Those four themes are as follows:

cultural versus structural effects

individual versus collective selves

education for belonging versus education for transformation

and homogeneity versus diversity.

In my experience as a teacher in Japan, and in my limited exposure to the literature on Japanese comparative education, I can see why these themes would present themselves as most evident or available means of analysis of the education system here.  First, as Hoffman echos in her essay, the Japanese nation and the Japanese cultural identity are conflated at every turn, both in and outside of academia.  But it is undeniable that “Japaneseness” is a cultural category that has had far-reaching effects even spilling over into political structures like citizenship and discourses in education like globalization.  I suppose this is the thematic substrate that I am most interested in accessing in my own writing about Japanese education, particularly in light of Hoffman’s closing salvo on “culture, power and difference in reading Japanese education,” but more on that in a moment.

The individual versus collective selves theme, is another one that I see becoming more prominent particularly in light of the neoliberal dominance of educational policy.  That is, the urge in neoliberal discourses of education to treat all aspects of educational systems as flows of capital has often bumped up against a deeper historical imperative for cooperation and a native democratic humanism that predates the arrival of liberalism in Japan from Europe.  Here again, though, the key is how best to use these categories of analysis without essentializing them or mythologizing unnecessarily.

Hoffman’s theme of education for belonging versus transformation is the one which I am least familiar with.  She mentions it specifically with regard to discourses of situated learning– from shellfish divers to violin teacher training.  This is an area of the literature which I will hopefully get a bit more exposure to as I read through Bjork and DeCoker’s collection.  It is also an axis along which it seems like it would be helpful to analyze teacher education in general.

Finally, comes Hoffman’s category of homogeneity versus diversity.  This one seems much more familiar and easily accessible to me, especially given my experiences as a foreign national working as a foreign language teacher in Japan.  But it also strikes me as a useful access point for criticism of ability tracking that is so prevalent here.

To return to Hoffman’s closing nod to “Japan and its Others” for a moment– here was another area where I thought the literature around linguistic imperialism might be usefully expanded.  Hoffman helpfully points out that power has long been undertheorized in the field of Japanese education.  I think this is particularly true when it comes to my particular professional corner of it: foreign language education, which in Japan typically means, EFL/ ESL.  It would be interested to trace the changing tides of EFL/ ESL education in Japan compared with the changing tides of the clout of Japanese Education in general in the world.  I wonder what patterns such a historical analysis might uncover.

Hopefully more to come in that vein next entry.  Now it’s time to pick up my son from Kindergarten.

 

Follow-Up

One promising thread that I was able to pick out from the intro to DeCorker and Bjork’s collection, Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization: Culture, Politics and Equity, was their aim to critique views of Japanese education which elide complexity in favor of a treatment of the Ministry of Education policy as THE driving force in the education system here.  They don’t mention specific authors they wish to critique, who come at Japanese education from this standpoint, but a review I read in the History of Education Quarterly (a journal which is a little light on Japanese Ed. history) takes this view.  Of course, MEXT is undeniably a powerful entity in the creation and implementation of education policy and curriculum here.  Furthermore, it is an organization with a more than 130-year history, which is to say, it is not undeserving of study.  However, I think it will be more useful to look at present-day education in Japan through a historical lens that de-centers what has been the central education authority in Japan.

Why do I think it is important to decenter the center in this case?  Well, apart from having a contrarian streak a mile wide, it has been my experience that teachers have the greatest influence on what education amounts to.  While they are beholden to the dictates of organizations like the Ministry of Education on paper, the realities (for better or for worse) off classrooms are always deviating from these norms.  I realize that it’s not nearly so easy to get a picture of what actually happens in classrooms as it is to follow the paper trail left by a government ministry dedicated to dictating what ought to be happening in classrooms.  But the counter-examples that are available will be instructive for teachers who may see their social-reconstructivist aims as being at odds with the curriculum from above.

The example of Hiroshima Jogakuin, the Protestant missionary school for girls, which was very much subject to the Ministry’s war-time dictates, and came under increasing scrutiny due in larg part to its employment of American staff (including head teacher, Nanny Gaines).  The activities of these foreign teachers in Japan and the support they received from their Japanese counterparts is I think a great model for present-day curriculum involving the cooperation of Japanese Nationals and non-Japanese native English speaker teachers (NESTs).

But that will have to wait.  And I will have to pick this thread up again a little later on.

Micro Review: Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization, Gary DeCorker & Christopher Bjork, Eds.

This post will be the first in a series of micro-reviews/ reflections on a collection of essays I recently got my hands on:

Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization: Culture, Politics, and Equity

Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization: Culture, Politics, and Equity, edited by Gary DeCorker and Christopher Bjork.

For a couple of years now I have been working off and on on a research project focused on Japanese teachers and schools which have worked against the grain of the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbukagakusho or MEXT).  I picked up this title because it focuses on the contemporary moment in Japanese Education history, and a couple of specific initiatives (like the Super Global High School Program) that I am interested in placing in deeper historical context.

***

As I write this my son and daughter are running around, having finished breakfast– both vying for my attention, as their mother is on her way to work.  This effort (my first in a while) at more academic writing comes in the midst of some of my most challenging efforts at parenting as well.  But hopefully this series of reviews will be a step toward a doctoral program and a career in history of education research and teacher education.  I just need to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

To be continued.

Medium: The Hiroshima Global Academy, a Japanese school full of promise.

The following is from the site Medium.com, from their series on inspiring teachers.  It looks like a good summary of what HiGA aims to be and some of the history of and rationale for this particular kind of education innovation in Japan.

 

I’ve heard about Fumi during a discussion with Ota Tamaki about the amazing OECD-Tohoku School project that was launched following the catastrophe in Japan in March 2011, and the Innovative Schools Network 2030 project as a successor project of the OECD Tohoku School with broader participants including Hiroshima. In a few words, OECD Tohoku School is a two and a half year project, in which 100 junior high and high school students from disaster areas came together for workshops. Through this project-based learning, the students organized an event in Paris in summer 2014 to appeal the wonders of Tohoku region to the world.

Source: The Hiroshima Global Academy, a Japanese school full of promise.