Reeling from a long year of work and toil, December is the month we turn toward our families and friends with joy and gratitude. December is a month of great generosity. Some of us have so much to give that we also look outside our families and think about those who are hungriest for warmth, joy and support. Here in Bucharest it is common to step-up our efforts and bid for charity. Initiatives to help children, including support for those in foster homes and orphanages, abound.
Romania’s recent history saw the country register very high rates of child abandonment. In the early ‘90s, Romania’s child protection relied on large institutions - which offered poor conditions to more than 100,000 children – and we know these children are some of the least fortunate members of society. Nowadays, Romania has not only halved the number of children in the child protection system but it is also promoting a major shift away from institutional care towards more individualized and efficient forms of care, such as extended family, foster families, and family-like homes.
Still, psychological strains and tragedies persist - even in this newer, more modern system. Recently, a 14 year old girl from a child protection center decided to take her life because she had been returned to the orphanage after living with a foster mother for 11 years. Her foster mother had fallen ill and the family could not manage to care for her and the other children at the same time. In her suicide note, she told her adoptive mother she loved her and that she couldn’t stand the fact that she was taken away.
For me, an adoptive mother of a now 23-year-old daughter who was abandoned at birth and that joined my family from an orphanage in Manila - first as a foster child and then as an adopted child - this story brings home many memories and a stark reminder that the agenda is still out there.
Looking at the past development of life expectancy, we can see a clear trend of considerable gains across all world regions since 1950. The question arises: Will this past trend continue forever, allowing future generations to live at some point to the age of 150 years and even beyond? Or is there some limit to increases in life expectancy—an upper bound which human kind won’t be able to cross?
Yes, there is a physiological limit to human life, but there is no absolute maximum age, which no human can ever cross. In biology, the concept of life span determines the age a species can reach under optimal circumstances. For humans, this life span stands at about 97 years. So 97 should, in principle, be the limit to human life expectancy. But there is a twist that gives us hope for more.
The European Union (EU) has settled into a “new normal” of mediocre growth, with real GDP set to expand by about 2 percent in 2015 and in 2016. With sizeable unemployment and still not full capacity utilization, this weak pace of expansion is a clear reminder that there is a more profound and longer-term crisis in Europe than the economic and financial turmoil of 2007-08, the recession in 2012, and the challenges of the southern cone that required large International Monetary Fund programs.
Few of the challenges that have plagued Europe this century have been resolved. Government spending and debt are up, yet potential growth is weak. Fixed investment has declined substantially to lows not seen in decades. Medium-term risks are elevated, but with fiscal space greatly reduced and with monetary policy in unconventional territory, policymakers have precious little ammunition to tackle any future shocks.
Testing: For better and/or for worse, many education systems are built around it (although some perhaps not as much as others). In numerous countries, a long-standing joke asks whether 'MOE' stands for 'Ministry of Education', or 'Ministry of Examination'? (This joke is not meant to be funny, of course.)
'Testing' is a source of and trigger for controversies of all different sorts, in different places around the world. The word 'standardized' is considered negative by many people when it is used to modify 'testing', but it is perhaps worth noting that a lack of 'standardized' tests can have important implications for equity. Within the U.S., the Obama administration recently declared that students should spend no more than 2% of classroom instruction time taking tests. However one feels about the wisdom of setting such hard targets (one could argue, for instance, that it's not 'testing' per se that's the problem, to the extent that it is indeed a problem, but rather 'bad testing') and the various types of time accounting shenanigans that might predictably emerge so that the letter but not the spirit of such declarations are met (a school could be creative about what it feels constitutes a 'test' or 'instruction time', for example), there is no denying the centrality of testing to approaches to education in schools around the world.
'Testing' means different things to different people. There are important distinctions between assessments that are formative (i.e. low stakes means to provide feedback to teachers and students on how much students are learning, as a way to identify strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly) and those that are summative (e.g. high stakes final exams).
The point here is not to get into a debate about testing, as illuminating and energetic (or frustrating and political) as such a debate might be. Rather, it is to shine a light on some related things happening at the frontier of activities and experiences in this area that are comparatively little known in most of the world but which may be increasingly relevant to many education systems in the coming years.
The nature of tests and testing is changing, enabled in large part by new technologies. (Side note: One way to predict where there are going to be large upcoming public sector procurement activities to provide computing equipment and connectivity to schools is to identify places where big reforms around standardized testing are underway.) While there continues to be growing interest (and hype, and discussion, and confusion) surrounding the potential for technology to enable more 'personalized learning', less remarked on in many quarters is the potential rise in more personalized testing.
The science fiction author William Gibson has famously observed that, The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. When it comes to educational technology use around the world, there are lots of interesting 'innovations at the edges' that are happening far away from the spots where one might reflexively look (like Seoul, Silicon Valley or Shanghai, to cite just a few examples that begin with the letter 'S') to learn practical lessons about what might be coming next, and how this may come to pass.
When it comes to testing, one such place is ... Georgia. This is not the Georgia in the southern United States (capital = Atlanta, where people play football while wearing helmets), but rather the small, mountainous country that borders the Black Sea which emerged as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union (capital = Tbilisi, where people play football with their feet).
Georgia is the first country in the world to utilize computer adaptive testing for all of its school leaving examinations.
What does this mean,
what does it look like in practice,
what is there to learn from this experience,
and why should we care?
In March 2014, with support of the World Bank, a Delivery Unit (DU) was set up in the Romanian Prime Minister’s Chancellery. Its mission: Get better results quicker for the PM in four priority areas.
Tax administration was one of them. The PM’s concern was the pain of paying taxes. Offering online services, for the first time, was one of the ways to decrease the cost of compliance. The DU estimated that they could save the taxpayer up to 12 days a year of waiting at the tax office.
The DU’s role was to plan for these improvements together with the Romanian Ministry of Public Finance and the Tax Administration Agency (NAFA). In a Delivery Agreement, the specific targets, metrics, activities, deadlines and responsibilities were spelled out. The DU was to then monitor the progress monthly against an agreed trajectory and help unblock problems in implementation.
In September 2014, the NAFA launched the online taxpayer platform called Private Virtual Space (PVS). It allows taxpayers to file their tax returns, get their tax bills and see their payments. The target was to enroll 30% of the eligible taxpayers by December 2015. Though the DU tracked progress monthly, the enrollment rate was still at 0.6% in June 2015. Clearly, the monitoring on its own did not help.
What is the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee? In principle, the response is clear: economic migrants are essentially people in search of opportunities for economic betterment, while refugees are fleeing a peril for their lives and their specific status is defined under the 1951 Geneva Convention.In the face of such despair, traditional mechanisms for managing economic migration simply do not work, while refugee law does not apply.
There is evidence that firm- and industry-level agreements that led to wage premia in CEE countries increased after EU entry. These agreements were negotiated by trade unions with employers or employer associations. But union membership in these countries has been falling since the 1990s. At the same time that union members became less numerous, they managed however to be more effective in negotiating their objectives, especially with regard to the wages of workers covered by collective agreements.
More than 180 countries have submitted their intended national climate plans to get on a low-carbon development pathway ahead of COP21 climate talks, now underway in Paris.
Called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), most include mitigation targets to be implemented by 2025 or 2030. But these plans are not just about numbers. Many of them, particularly those put forward by developing countries, also propose climate actions within the countries’ overall development framework, including adaptation. Hardly surprising, as after all, tackling climate change is about effectively managing a country’s economy.
It’s a serene place. Five women and their children currently reside at the domestic violence shelter.
They are escaping abusive husbands, parents, in-laws, or siblings. Their stay ranges from three months to a year, and apart from shelter and food, residents have access to a dedicated team of lawyers, counselors, social workers, and health care professionals. Perhaps more importantly, they encounter others who have also escaped violence and sought alternative lives for themselves.
These women are the lucky and courageous ones. Those who dared to make that phone call to seek help. Those who risked breaking the silence in spite of family, religious and community norms. Those who were listened to by the police, who had a ‘strong enough’ case to obtain official ‘victim’ status. This status ensured them a room in the shelter.