Making public policy work for education: Reflections on the career of Mike Kirst

Michael W. Kirst

This week, John Fensterwald at  Edsource highlights the career and accomplishments of Mike Kirst, who will retire at the end of his fourth term as President of the State Board of Education in California.  The story includes a link to Mike’s recent talk at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, where Kirst reflected on his career after receiving AERA’s Distinguished Public Service Award.

 

Mike Kirst has had more impact on public policy in education in the United States than almost any other academic I’ve ever met. Given that in another reflection on his career from 2015, Kirst calls himself an “accidental professor”, I could also say that he’s the state policymaker who has had the most positive impact on researchers and academics.  Mike has developed that impact by moving seamlessly between positions in government and academia.  Throughout, he has both pursued research aimed firmly at addressing meaningful problems of educational policy and developed public policies informed both by what researchers have (and have not) learned. Interestingly, both he, and another enormously influential academic in the US, Howard Gardner, grew up in the coal regions of Eastern Pennsylvania.  (Gardner has also reflected on his life and work in a recent interview, and I have written a bit about Gardner’s powerful influence on me in Mind, work, and life: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Howard Gardner’s 70th Birthday).  In the1960’s, Kirst worked in the Federal office of Budget and Management in Washington, D.C. where he helped to develop the budget for the first Title 1 program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (When Kirst and colleagues produce a memo for then President Johnson proposing a budget of 750 million dollars, Johnson sent it back saying “none of these is good enough, I want a billion dollars.”).  In the 1970’s and early 80’s, Kirst served as an Advisor to the California Governor, Jerry Brown, and as a Member and then President of the California State Board of Education.  In 2011, after Jerry Brown became Governor again, Kirst was appointed for another two terms as President of the State Board of Education.  In between, Kirst was a Professor of Education at Stanford Education, authored several books and numerous articles and reports, and co-founded Policy Analysis for California Education.

As EdSource describes some of Kirst’s most recent accomplishments:

Working in tandem, Kirst and Brown reshaped K-12 education in California during the past eight years. The state introduced and oversaw the implementation of new academic standards and assessments in math and English language arts and adopted new standards in science. Through the Local Control Funding Formula, which Brown shepherded through the Legislature in 2013, the state shifted control over budget decisions from the state to school districts and created an equity-based financing system that directs more money to low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

But for me, the final quotes of the EdSource piece highlight how much we can learn from Mike and his honesty, reflectiveness, and ability.  As Mike described it, when he and his colleagues first joined the California government in the 1970’s: “Our view of the state board was we need to get these old guys out of here in Sacramento and we’ll solve these problems.”  But at 78, as he put it “we all come back (35 years later) and we’re a humble bunch of people, proceeding with great humility, plunging into the unknown.”

If only the rest of us could begin our work by building on what Mike has already learned…

Thomas Hatch

 

School Networks, Accountability and Improvement in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, and Chile

**This post also appears on International Education News**

Last week, IEN described a number of the sessions from this year’s conference of the American Educational Research Association conference. This week’s post draws from a session focusing on educational networks and accountability organized by Melanie Ehren and chaired by Cindy Poortman and Mei Kuin Lai .  Participants included Melanie Ehren and David Godfrey; Martin Brown, Joe O’Hara, and Gerry McNamara; Alvaro González, Carmen Montecinos, Luis Ahumada, and Mauricio Pino; and Christopher Chapman; with comments by James Spillane and Thomas Hatch.  This post draws from the comments Hatch made during the session. Previous posts on IEN from Melanie Ehren and Chris Chapman address related issues of networks, improvement and accountability.

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School networks have taken off around the world:

  • In Northern Ireland, 30 Area Learning Communities bring together voluntary coalitions of “post-primary” schools to develop plans and share practices to address a special area of need
  • In Chile, nearly 500 School Improvement Networks, with an average of 10 schools each, stretch across all 15 regions of the country. Within each network, school administrators such as principals and curriculum coordinators meet on a monthly basis to discuss best practices and ways to make improvements
  • In England, the government has incentivized a variety of school-to-school partnerships including “Multi-Academy Trusts.” Similar to charter school networks in the US, Multi-Academy Trusts are chains of publicly funded independent schools (called “academies”), run by a Board of Directors (called a “Trust”) to increase efficiency and improve performance. As Melanie Ehren and David Godfrey report, “in 2012, there were 312 academy chains in England, with 39% of the academiesbeing part of a chain. By 2015, nearly two thirds of the 4725 academies were in MATs and 517 MATs had 2 to 5 academies, 98 with 615 and 19 MATs with 16 or more or schools (some up to as many as 66 schools), located in different regions across England.”
  • In Scotland, six ‘Regional Improvement Collaboratives’ take responsibility for leading system improvement across Scotland by joining schools and other organizations and public institutions in different regions. The Collaboratives intend to provide a coherent focus and related support for educational improvement efforts.
  • In New York City, the Learning Partners Program brings together almost 200 schools in small groups of three and four to participate in biweekly meetings, monthly intervisitations, and related educational development activities.

 

Fueled by a belief in the power of social networks and social capital, these educational networks reflect the idea that when schools work together with one another or with other agencies, they can share their expertise and support one another’s development, improvement and success more effectively than they can working on their own.  As Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Michael Fullan report, as yet, there is little evidence that connects school network activities directly to improved student outcomes; but the efforts to study and learn from both the successes and challenges of these networking efforts so far, raise a number of questions that can be addressed to help harness the power of networks for schools.

 

What does networking really involve?
The benefits of networking depend crucially on exactly who is interacting with whom around what and to what end.  In Chile, the networks may depend on head teachers and administrators talking together across schools, but in Scotland they may rely on teachers joining together in inquiry groups.  In either case, those individuals and groups will then need to find ways to share whatever they learned with their colleagues “back home.”

 

What kinds of supports will make networks effective?
Many initiatives in education are based on the hope that someone, somewhere, already has the resources and expertise needed to improve schools.  As A Nation at Risk in the US stated 35 years ago: “It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.”  Some networking strategies reflect that hope by suggesting that putting people in the same room together will lead to productive learning.  In contrast, as James Spillane, David Cohen, and Donald Peurach argue, concerted efforts and investments need to be made to build the infrastructure that can support educational improvement.  Effective networking, for example, relies on meeting structures and routines, expert facilitators, protocols, and the development of a host of other resources and capabilities.

 

To what extent do networks reduce or increase work and complexity?
Ideally, networking should reduce work and create efficiencies by encouraging individuals and groups to share ideas and distribute responsibilities.  Nonetheless, interacting and collaborating is hard work.  It takes dedicated time and the development of the infrastructure to support networking takes funding, and resources away from other valued pursuits.  As a result, networking strategies done poorly can end up undermining rather than building collective capacity.  As a consequence, successful networking depends on reorganizing and rethinking the use of time and resources – deciding what not to do as well as what to do – not just adding more meetings onto already overloaded schedules.

 

To what extent do networks need to grow informally and “organically” and to what extent can they be induced?
Some of the excitement around social networks grows out of a belief that the informal and voluntary connections and interactions among people provide a particularly powerful and motivating opportunity for learning.  However, many school networks depend at least to some extent on education authorities providing encouragement or establishing requirements for schools to work together. Can networking be both voluntary and required or will required networking result in the kind of “contrived collegiality” that can limit the development of collaboration?

 

How can the collaborative goals and practices of networks mesh with the goals and practices of individually-oriented education systems?
As the participants in the AERA symposium on Networks and Accountability pointed out, the informal, collaborative, non-hierarchical basis of many networks runs counter to the pervasive focus in many education systems on standardized assessments, individual accountability and bureaucratic control.   That leaves those invested in networks to figure out how to carve out spaces and put in place supports that can foster collaboration and promote collective goals and purposes while buffering those efforts from most existing accountability initiatives.

All of these questions point to the considerable work that needs to be done to make educational networks as powerful as many hope they will be.  Though the work seems daunting, it also opens up possibilities for outcomes – engagement, trust, learning, and satisfaction— rarely obtained more easily or effectively than other approaches.

— Thomas Hatch

 

 

The evolution of collective impact in New York City

For Deborah Chang, collective impact begins with rock climbing – an informal way to build the personal relationships and trust that undergird institutional and organizational connections. Chang started “ClimbingCrew” by inviting colleagues, friends, and friends of friends, many of whom were involved in educational technology in New York City, to go rock climbing once a month.  But those conversations also helped her to realize the limits of their work in educational technology: “It got to the point where I realized education technology is all well and good but there were conversations that we weren’t having.  We weren’t having conversations about diversity and equity and housing justice and all of these really big challenges that are part of the system of educational inequity.”

In order to expand these conversations and her own work beyond education and technology, Chang set out to meet, interview and learn from many of those who were already deeply engaged in work on education and community development in the Bronx, Harlem and in other parts of New York City.  From these conversations, Deborah established #NYCEDU with a mission “to ensure that all children have the skills, resources and community support they need to flourish.”  To pursue that mission, #NYCEDU concentrates on three main activities: convening local leaders, facilitating community innovation, and building systems for scaling impact.  All of that work contributes to the development of resources, structures, expertise, and relationships that enable the initiatives of many different institutions and organizations to add up to more than the sum of their parts. This kind of “infrastructure” for collaboration and collective impact has been missing in places like the US, even as countries like Finland with an emphasis on shared responsibility make it a central part of their education systems.

 

The evolution of collective impact

#NYCEDU is part of a larger national and global movement to support collective impact – a term that took off after John Kania and Mark Kramer, from the FSG consulting group, published an article with that title in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011.  Kania and Kramer distinguished collective impact from other forms of collaboration by arguing that “Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”  From their perspective, the collective focus helped to shift attention from efforts to develop and scale individual and often isolated interventions to cross-sector collaborations, like that of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati which their article helped to establish as a national model.

As Jeff Henig and colleagues pointed out in two reports for the Wallace Foundation (“Putting Collective Impact Into Context” and “Collective Impact and the New Generation of Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education”) collective impact initiatives have a long history in cross-sector collaborations.  In fact, these reports identified 182 different community initiatives with well over half in existence before 2011 that met their criteria for collaborations: the initiative had to be place-based and education-focused; include the participation of top leaders from at least two sectors (such as education and government); and have school system officials playing a prominent role.  They also found that one in four of the collaborations launched before 2011 now use the term “collective impact” somewhere on their websites. As Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver noted in their article “Collective Impact 3.0”, Kania and Kramer’s term established a clear, distinctive label that helped those in the field to categorize and describe their work.  As one collective impact leader they quoted put it, the term provided a kind of shorthand so that they don’t have to try to explain what they are doing, and, instead, “We can spend more time doing the hard work on the ground.”

Five years later, frameworks and lessons for collective impact continue to evolve. A number of articles expand on and update the framework, and the Collective Impact Forum, sponsored by FSG and the Aspen Institute, hosts events and an online community to support continued development of collective work. In “Collective Impact 3.0” Cabaj and Weaver also argued that enough had been learned by those engaged in collective impact and other collaborative efforts to warrant what they called an “upgrade” in the collective impact framework.  While suggesting that the key conditions for collective impact that Kania and Kramer’s laid out in 2011 are “roughly right”, Cabaj and Weaver also urged a shift from what they termed a “management approach” in which a set of leaders and organizations develop and manage a collective effort to a “movement approach” that brings together a diverse group of stakeholders to develop and pursue a common vision for the future.  From their perspective, movements “open up people’s hearts and minds to new possibilities, create the receptive climate for new ideas to take hold, and embolden policymakers and system leaders.  Movements change the ground on which everyday political life and management occur.”

 

Expanding collective impact in New York City

Like other parts of the US, New York City has had a long history of organizational and institutional collaborations and more recent collective impact initiatives including 30,000 Degrees and South Bronx Rising Together.  As Chang spoke with the leaders of these initiatives around New York City, Cabaj and Weaver’s article resonated with what she was learning.  In particular those conversations highlighted three challenges.  Ensuring: that meetings and collaborations go “beyond Manhattan” to take place in all neighborhoods and elevate the voices and leadership of those most impacted by educational inequity;  that education initiatives take on major challenges like poverty and racism that contribute to poor educational outcomes; and that community initiatives find ways to address the policies needed for systemic solutions.

Those realizations led to some straightforward developments.  For example, Chang, who was then serving as an organizer for “Startup Weekend Education”, moved it from a location in Manhattan to the Bronx. These conversations also introduced Chang to a host of people across the boroughs of New York City who have the expertise that successful community-based collective efforts depend on – people like like Ocynthia Williams, a long-time parent organizer and founding member of the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice and now co-director of Harlem Renaissance Education Pipeline.  As Chang put it, these growing connections help to bridge the gap between the people “who know what to do, and those who want to do it but haven’t figured it out yet.”

Those conversations and connections also paved the way for the launch of #NYCEDU’s partnership with the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation (ASID). ASID seeks to facilitate the coordination and collective impact of a growing set of initiatives designed to address school segregation in New York City.  For Chang, the partnership with ASID is more than a pilot effort.  It’s a way to create the “backbone” and infrastructure that can support additional collective impact efforts in New York City.  As one example, Chang described the development of a calendar that now lists many of the different events related to school integration and desegregation. That calendar enables those who want to get involved to find out what’s happening across the City.  But the calendar also makes it possible to see where things are happening – what are the hotspots as well as the neighborhoods that are left out – so that strategic and collective choices can be made about how to support the work in the future. Now that this calendar has been tested, #NYCEDU plans to launch additional calendars to facilitate coordination around different issues.

As another example, #NYCEDU is co-organizing a conference on April 7th, Frontier 2018, to explore how cross sector collaboration can support more holistic and coordinated improvements in schools.  That event will bring together leaders from education, education technology, community organizing, social entrepreneurship and arts activism to seed collective impact throughout the city.  The conference will also help to address the fundamental issue that even these leaders have had relatively few formal opportunities to develop many of the skills and abilities demanded by collaborative, cross-sector work. As Chang puts it, “there is professional development and learning and a whole new way of thinking that is required to shift to a collective impact mindset.”  In particular, Chang continued, “Collective impact leaders are hungry to have conversations about diversity, equity and identity.” To help meet that need, Frontier 2018 hosted a workshop in preparation for the event that brought the conference speakers together to build connections, design interactive sessions that engage diverse audiences, and shape the conference goals.

For Chang, all of these initiatives revolve around bringing together the people, putting in place the platforms, and creating the policies that will make it possible to address issues like school segregation that no single institution can address on its own. Ultimately, as Chang points out, success will also depend on a willingness for all those involved to let go of power and control so that a truly shared vision and agenda can emerge.  Ironically, for Chang and others engaged in collective impact that means that the organizations they are working so hard to build will be most successful when they have outlived their usefulness.

 

— Thomas Hatch

Roundup of Education Reflections and Predictions 2018

 

With the New Year comes the usual flood of reflections and predictions.  Last year’s roundup highlighted key themes and issues related to school choice, new schools, and education and the economy.  This year, reflections on 2017 summarized education research (What we’ve learned: 5 lessons from education research to take into 2018, Chalkbeat); touched on philanthropy (Philanthropy Awards 2017, Inside Philanthropy); shared the thoughts of edtech’s “most seasoned champions and critics” including Larry Cuban, Mimi Ito, and Diane Ravitch (Reflections from 2017 for the journey ahead, Edsurge); and captured broader economic and societal issues in charts and maps (12 charts that show the real problems policies must tackle, not the made-up ones, Economic Policy Institute; 13 maps that explain 2017, CityLab). 

            Perhaps reflecting the slow pace of educational policy, some of the key questions and predictions for 2018 sounded a lot like those raised in 2017 (Trump, congress, and education in 2018: Eight big questions, Education Week).  Some predictions are decidedly pessimistic (Nine education predictions for 2018 — some of them heartbreaking, Larry Ferlazzo via The Answer Sheet); others suggest a more positive outlook – particularly for educational technology (4 augmented and virtual reality projects that point to the future of education, Justin Hendrix via Edsurge; OER had its breakthrough in 2017. Next year, it will become an essential teaching tool, Mike Silagadze via Edsurge); and some simply striving to identify which education stories will make the news (From DACA to Devos: Education predictions for 2018, Claudio Sanchez via NPR; 12 Important Education Storylines We’ll All Be Reading About in 2018, The74).

Predictions and reflections also centered on topics like philanthropy (7 Trends of 2017 and 11 Predictions for 2018, Nonprofit Quarterly) and higher education ( 7 Trends Coming in 2018, Julie Peterson & Lisa Rudgers, via Inside Higher Education).  Reflecting the local nature of education in the US, some predictions focused on specific states like New York, California and Indiana (As Gov. Cuomo lays out his 2018 agenda, here’s what that could mean for New York’s schools, Chalkbeat; California education issues to watch in 2018, Edsource; Here are Indiana’s most important education issues ahead of the 2018 legislative session, Chalkbeat). But, as usual, it was hard to find much in the way of predictions for education outside the US, except for some thoughts on future trends for the UK and India (Brexit, tuition fees and China: my predictions for academia in 2018, Simon Marginson via THE; The key edtech trends that will continue to impact education in 2018, Sivaramakrishan V via inc42).

Looking across the trends and predictions (and comparing them to years past) highlights again how many hopes are tied up in concepts like personalization, mobile and virtual learning, and in educational technology in general. Yet issues like school choice, charters, and even universal preschool education (a big issue in 2017) did not feature as prominently this year. In my own work, the emphasis on opening new (often small and/or charter) schools that dominated the 1990’s and 2000’s seems to be giving way to a new emphasis by many educational organizations on developing and disseminating new tools, resources, and curricula (often “open source”) as a way to expand their influence. Regardless, it is easy to predict that enduring issues – funding and the economy, segregation and inequality, the intransigent structures and “grammar of schooling” – will continue to challenge every effort to improve education, but that some progress can be made when those issues are taken seriously.

— Thomas Hatch

           

 

 

 

 

Headlines around the world: PISA (2015) Collaborative Problem Solving

When PISA results are released, my colleagues at internationalednews and I often scan the headlines to see how media around the world are responding.  This month OECD released the results of the Collaborative Problem Solving assessments carried out for the first time in 2015.  The OECD notes that the assessments attempt to measure the extent to which students can “maintain an awareness of group dynamics, ensure team members act in accordance with their agreed‑upon roles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts while identifying efficient pathways and monitoring progress towards a solution.”  Among the highlights in OECD’s summary:

  • Across OECD countries, 8% of students are top performers in collaborative problem solving, but, on average, On average, 28% of students are only able to solve straightforward collaborative problems, if any at all.Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70
  • Students in Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States perform much better in collaborative problem solving than would be expected based on their scores in science, reading and mathematics, but Beijing-Shanghai -Jiangsu-Guangdong scored much lower than would be expected.
  • Girls perform significantly better than boys in collaborative problem solving in every country and economy that participated in the assessment. On average across OECD countries, girls score 29 points higher than boys.

 

 

 

The release of the results garnered considerable attention from a wide range of countries, and, in a departure from the usual gloomy portrayals, many (though not all) headlines were either neutral or put a positive spin on the results.

Alberta students great collaborative problem solvers, international test finds

Edmonton Journal – Nov 28, 2017

Australian students among world’s top performers with this surprising skill

The Sydney Morning Herald – Nov 21, 2017

Brazil among the worst in new OECD study

VEJA.com – Nov 23, 2017

PISA 2015 latest report: Young people playing video games are worse off problem solving in the team

(Estonia) Delfi – Nov 22, 2017

Finnish 15-year-olds among best performers in new PISA tests

Helsinki Times, Nov 28, 2017

Pisa test: how well students solve problems together

(Germany) derStandard.at – Nov 20, 2017

Hong Kong pupils among world’s best group problem-solvers (but Singapore tops the chart)
South China Morning Post – Nov 20, 2017

Korea tops PISA scale in collaborative problem-solving

The Korea Herald – Nov 23, 2017

Survey ranks Japanese children’s problem-solving skills near world’s best

The Mainichi – Nov 21, 2017

According to the latest PISA study, Spanish students do not know how to work correctly as a team, and it is worrisome

Bebés y más – Nov 27, 2017

Scottish school children lag behind English at problem solving
Telegraph.co.uk-Nov 21, 2017

Singapore students top OECD global survey in problem solving through teamwork
The Straits Times – Nov 20, 2017

Pisa: UK does better than expected in collaborative problem-solving
TES News – Nov 20, 2017

US ranks No. 13 in new collaborative problem-solving test

The Hechinger Report – Nov 27, 2017

OPINION: Known for its intense testing pressure, top-performing South Korea dials it back

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter
Seoul – Retired British football star David Beckham teaches South Korean children some soccer skills during a publicity tour for insurance group AIA.
Seoul – Retired English soccer star David Beckham teaches South Korean children some soccer skills during a publicity tour for insurance group AIA. 

 

In a world where education is supposed to drive the economy, is it possible to be overeducated? Some think that’s the case in South Korea.

The unemployment rate is comparatively low, at just over 3.5 percent at the end of 2016. But the unemployment rate for those age 15 to 29 was more than double the national averageand one out of three unemployed people were college graduates.

In addition to the economic consequences of a glut of college graduates, many also decry the personal, social and financial costs created by a system that creates intense pressure for students to get into a top college. The high performance of South Korea’s 15 year-olds on international tests like PISA goes hand in hand with a last-place ranking on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index of adolescents’ self-reported measures of happiness.

Parents also pay a high price for top test rankings. South Korean families spend three times more on education before college than families in the U.S. Much of that spending supports private tutoring. The average South Korean family spends 20 percent of its income on after-hours “cram schools,” or hagwons, with spending starting early. More than 35 percent of 2-year-olds, 80 percent of 5-year-olds and 95 percent of middle schoolers attend hagwons. Accounts of high school students working at hagwons long into the night once prompted the government in Seoul to impose a 10 PM hagwon curfew.

As I learned on a recent visit to South Korea, these problems lead to widespread dissatisfaction with the education system, despite its consistent high performance on the international tests. Politicians and policymakers in South Korea have taken notice of the concerns. But they face the difficult task of trying to reduce the pressure on high academic achievement when performing well on tests and getting into a select college remain deeply engrained goals in the society.

Over the past few years, the Ministry of Education has launched a number of initiatives to try to address these issues. And what began as a pilot effort to create an “exam-free semester” in middle school seems to be taking off. The initiative allows principals to eliminate midterms and finals during one semester of middle school (usually the first semester of 7th grade). According to the Ministry of Education, the exam-free semester aims to enhance the happiness and well-being of students by giving them opportunities to explore their passions and career interests. Starting in 42 schools in 2013, the initiative has been gradually expanded each year, reaching all 3,024 middle schools in 2016.

Related: How does South Korea outpace the U.S. in engineering degrees?

Along with the ban on testing, those I talked to emphasized another central component of the policy: a reduction in the number of hours focused on academic instruction each week. That means that 7thgraders only spend 21 hours a week following the national curriculum (instead of the usual 33), with 12 hours a week devoted to activities that expose students to different careers and to skills like playing the guitar not normally addressed in schools.

At the Keisung Middle School in Daegu, for example, they have replaced the main academic subjects with career-related activities on Tuesdays and Fridays. The teachers of the conventional subjects come up with activities, and, in some cases, they turn to parents and members of local businesses to lead classes and talk about their professions and avocations. The teachers also organize field trips and visits to work sites, and the school plans a “career day” in a few weeks, when all 7th graders will spend a full day in one of 35 different job placements.

Despite initial skepticism on the part of many parents, students at the school I visited and nationally have responded enthusiastically. In a 2015 survey of participating students, the Korean Educational Development Institute found that almost 75 percent of students said their relationship with teachers had improved, over 60 percent said their enjoyment of learning had improved, and 50 percent said their stress related to studying had decreased.

Responding to the growing popularity, policymakers decided to expand the initiative into an “exam-free year” for 7th grade in 2017, with pilot programs starting in some schools in 8th and 9th grade as well.

Even with the growing popularity, some South Koreans parents continue to complain that students are losing valuable instructional time that could affect their academic development and their ability to get into a selective high school. Correspondingly, some parents, particularly those in wealthier, higher-performing schools, have responded by increasing the amount of time their middle schoolers spend in hagwons preparing for high school entry tests.

Related: Lessons from Abroad: Singapore’s secrets to training world-class teachers

Pointing to these developments, other critics argue that one initiative in one year of middle school can do little to change a system where testing, ranking and academic performance are paramount at every level.

Nonetheless, the U.S. can take three key lessons from the South Korean experiment.

First, don’t expect to improve education, the economy or students’ life chances by blindly chasing high test performance.

Second, don’t try to do everything at once. Although the initiative can be considered “small” in the sense that it focuses primarily on one grade level, in only a few years it has grown to reach all 450,000 seventh graders in South Korea.

Third, don’t just hope for the best; put in place a series of interrelated supports that can help “small,” focused initiatives take hold and spread. While there is no doubt that any success of the exam-free semester depends on the work of an already overburdened teaching force, the government provides a small subsidy of about $17,000 for every school; professional development providers and teacher education institutions are focusing on helping teachers develop new instructional methods and career-related activities; and a national website has also been created – the “Dream Pathway” – where businesses and community organizations can register to offer activities and field trips for nearby schools.

Another set of interrelated initiatives seeks to address the test pressure and narrow focus on attending selective colleges. Among these initiatives, the South Korean government is implementing a policy forbidding the use of marks received during the exam-free semes­ter to calculate the grade-point averages reported for high school admissions.

The Public Education Normalization Promotion Act prohibits teaching to the test and bans education test items that require learning “beyond regular school teaching.”

Efforts are also being made to reform the admissions process in higher education, including the implementation of a rolling admissions policy in a growing number of colleges.  In 2016, over 65 percent of students were admitted through this process, meaning they do not have to take South Korea’s College Scholastic Aptitude Test (similar to the SAT or ACT in the U.S.) and are instead evaluated on their high school grades, participation in student clubs, volunteering and school awards.

Although it seems odd to those in the U.S. who are focused on getting more students into college, South Korea has also developed an “Employment First, Advancement to University Later” system to encourage more students to switch from a college track to a vocational track.

The free semester program is both small and ambitious, targeting all students and teachers but only at one level of education. No one I talked to was convinced that the program could achieve its most ambitious aspirations any time soon. At the same time, there is now at least a hope that support for a more humanistic education might find a foothold, and, eventually, begin to spread. South Korean schools are creating a break and an opportunity where everyone can – at least for a year – opt in to a system attempting to reduce the pressures and problems with excessive testing.

Thomas Hatch is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching and the founder of internationalednews.com

Is Finland’s education system changing?

Finland has been hailed for having one of the best education systems in the world; criticized as scores on international assessments have slipped; and, most recently, flooded with questions about whether it is dramatically changing its education system by making conventional subjects “a thing of the past.” Whether you believe Finland’s education system is moving up or down on some set of rankings, it’s clear that there are some teachers, school leaders, and other educators who are trying to do some things differently.  The challenge as Saku Tuominen describes it, is “not pushing new ideas into schools, but trying to identify innovative ideas that are already out there” and helping them spread. As he joked, the problem is that “whatever happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.”

To address this problem, Tuominen founded HundrED to find promising educational innovations around the world.  HundrED just released its list of 100 global innovations from Afghanistan to Venezuela and many places in between.  Last year, in a kind of test-run for their global work, Tuominen and his colleagues identified 100 Finnish educational innovations that they have documented and shared online.  During my most recent visit to Helsinki last summer, I had the chance to meet with a few of the education innovators on the Finnish list as well as with policymakers and colleagues from a variety of other Finnish educational institutions.  All those with whom I talked not only emphasized that their work begins with a recognition of and respect for the autonomy of teachers and a commitment to basic principles of equity, but also expressed some frustration with the difficulties and slow-pace of improving and changing the Finnish education system. At the same time, those conversations pointed to key avenues for supporting the development of new and more effective educational practices at both the policy and the school level.

Fin100

Policies for change

At the policy level, as Anneli Rautiainen, Head of the newly formed Innovation Center at the Finnish National Agency for Education, explains, Finland has two primary means of influencing education: the curriculum renewal process and the launch of specific policy initiatives. The curriculum renewal process takes place roughly every 10 years and includes an extensive period for public discussion and feedback on potential changes in the national curriculum framework. As a result, Rautiainen explained, “almost everyone can have a say in what children should learn.”  As part of that process, municipalities and local schools also have considerable autonomy in deciding how to implement any changes. The previous curriculum renewal process in 2004 concentrated on the development of the school as a holistic learning environment for students, but the most recent curriculum renewal process emphasizes “phenomenon-based” learning and “transversal” competences that cut across traditional school subjects. Although the new framework does not eradicate subject-based teaching, it stipulates that all students should participate each year in a multi-disciplinary learning module.  Those modules are to be designed locally by teachers, with the expectation that students will be involved in the planning.

As with all policy initiatives, some teachers and schools are already off and running.  In fact, as part of the earlier emphasis on developing a holistic learning environment some have already pioneered approaches that include multi-disciplinary projects. For example, in Fiskars, a community in Finland well-known for its artisans and craft-workers, the local school has expanded the learning environment to include the whole village.  As a result, students regularly participate in workshops that focus on topics like glass blowing and historically based theatre productions.  As a consequence, the school is already well positioned to respond to the expectations for carrying out interdisciplinary projects in the new curriculum framework.

In addition to trying to move the system forward through the curriculum renewal process, the Finnish National Agency for Education also carries out what have been translated as “spear” projects – targeted efforts to support the implementation of other policy priorities.  Most recently, those projects have included an initiative in which municipalities have been invited to apply for funding to enable a teacher in a school to support the professional learning of colleagues by co-teaching, modeling or coaching. “One of our biggest aims,” Rautiainen pointed out “is to have schools become professional learning communities, and to support learning at work, rather than taking a course somewhere else,” and this project is one way of putting that aim into practice. Another project encourages experimentation among municipalities that want to provide instruction in foreign language in earlier grades (before 3rd grade where it begins in most schools now).  An ongoing project designed to get schools “on the move” was launched in 2010 to increase students’ physical activity during the school day and included the expectation that all students in Basic Education should have at least one hour of exercise every day.

Courses for change

Mehackit and Startup High School, two of the Finnish educational innovations highlighted by HundrED, have found a different place within the conventional education system where new approaches may take root. Both organizations take advantage of the fact that at the upper secondary level (roughly ages 16-18) students have to take roughly 50 compulsory courses, but students can choose the topics for about 25 other courses.  In Mehackit’s case, they began about 2013 by offering workshops and “clubs” to engage young children in programming and coding – making things with technology, not just using technology.  But, as current CEO, Heini Karppinen, explained, Mehackit’s founders are part of a new generation of social entrepreneurs trying to respond to a context where “there are a lot of services that people would like to have, but that they don’t get anymore from the government.” In this case, the founders discovered that those children who attended Mehackit’s clubs and maker-fairs often had parents who were already tech-savvy and working in technology related jobs.  They worried that children who didn’t have parents in tech-related fields would ultimately graduate high school without having experienced the “maker-side” of technology.  To reach all children, the founders felt they needed a way to work within the formal education system.  As the new curriculum framework in 2016 also included computer programming for the first time, they saw a “niche” in working with older students, where teaching programming required sophisticated technical knowledge and skills that relatively few Finnish teachers possess.

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In response to this opportunity, Mehackit created 2 courses for 16-18 year old students that teach programming through projects focused on robotics and electronic music projects and creating multimedia art and graphics.  The courses are designed so that they can be offered by schools around Finland (and Mehackit has already exported them to Sweden and the UK as well) as easily and efficiently as possible. Mehackit not only provides teaching materials, they also hire and train instructors, many of whom are university students working on technology related degrees.  While Mehackit is a for-profit company and schools and municipalities purchase the courses, Mehackit also has a shorter workshop course for 12 to 16-year-old students; provides freely available open source materials; offers a new materials kit at cost; and has created teacher training workshops so that teacher can develop their own, comparable, courses.

HighUp

Startup High School has taken a similar approach to Mehackit.  Although Startup High School may eventually create a high school for entrepreneurial studies (along the lines of subject specific schools in Finland that focus on music, the arts, and sports), they are set to begin with an offering of three courses in the fall of 2017.  (Pekka Peura, a teacher whose work I highlighted in “Brand-name” teachers in Finland, is one of the founders of Startup High School.) Those courses are designed to enable students from a number of different upper secondary schools to learn “how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to be a change maker.” In developing the courses, the founders seek to create the kinds of student-centered, active, and multidisciplinary learning opportunities emphasized in the new curriculum that they described as rarely emphasized in Finland’s typically highly-academically oriented high schools.  Courses will include original video interviews with a variety of Finnish entrepreneurs and artists, including CEO’s, rappers, actors, and dj’s that students will access as they develop their own Linked-in profiles and plans and portfolios illustrating their own design ideas.  Perhaps most importantly, the founders emphasize, students should leave the course as part of a network of peers with common entrepreneurial interests, connected via social media.  While Startup High School could charge for the courses, their plan is to make the courses widely available for free or perhaps with a nominal registration fee that, along with contributions from sponsors, would help to cover their costs.

Although Mehackit essentially delivers the instructors and materials to each school with whom they partner (and they map and track exactly where they are in reaching out to all schools across Finland), Startup High School offers virtual courses that they lead and administer themselves and that students in a number of different high schools can take as one of their 25 elective courses. In both cases, Mehackit and Startup High School are offering new topics and approaches as part of modules or “plug-ins” that not only fit within current course demands and expectations in Finland, but can also be offered as a conventional course in many other education systems.

Opportunities and challenges

            The new ideas and approaches endorsed by policymakers and highlighted by HundrED demonstrate how Finland’s national curriculum framework can support and encourage those who want to change their approach to teaching and learning. But the autonomy that teachers and schools in Finland enjoy also means that many can choose not to change their practice quickly or deeply.  As Rautiainen puts it, the framework and policy initiatives can “nudge” the system, but by no means guarantees that changes will be made.  For example, while some reports indicate that over 90% of Finnish municipalities are participating in the “on the move” initiatives, concerns remain about exactly how it has been implemented and how it is playing out for all students.

Those I talked to acknowledged that there are number of factors that might encourage and reinforce those who choose to use their autonomy to maintain more conventional classroom and school practices.  For one thing, while the new curriculum framework adds expectations for students to engage in interdisciplinary projects, little, if anything, has been left out of the “old” curriculum.  Like Singapore’s effort to create ‘white space” in the curriculum, the changes in the national curriculum framework in Finland try to squeeze more into the conventional curriculum and school day.

But at the same time that some elements of the framework change, many elements of the system remain the same and reinforce conventional practice.  Even without high-stakes annual testing like that in the US, the high-stakes exit exams at the end of high school help to align the whole system, but they also serve as constraints reinforcing the traditional divisions between subjects. Conventional textbooks provide similar constraints. As Antti Rajala, a former teacher and currently a researcher at the University of Helsinki noted, even as they benefit from high-quality textbooks, teachers who are trying to innovate sometimes see “the textbook as an enemy.” As a consequence, as Peura explained, one of the first steps he and others make to change their teaching is to go beyond the textbook.

Along with the autonomy of teachers comes a highly independent teaching force.  Teachers can choose their own professional development plans, and, in many cases, can choose to pursue their work on their own, rather than in collaboration with their colleagues. Peura reported that on one small survey he asked teachers why they don’t share their work more often, and their overwhelming response was that “colleagues” were the biggest obstacle. Peura sees the concerns that Finnish teachers have about changing as understandable, but notes that it means that when one or two teachers do try to make their work public or share it more widely, peers often object.

Perhaps most problematic, this commitment to autonomy runs smack up against Finland’s deep commitment to equity: if early adopters take off with the interdisciplinary projects but others do not, learning experiences across Finland are likely to become less and less comparable. In fact, those I spoke to were less concerned about overall decreases in average test schools and much more concerned that the PISA results and the results of the national monitoring tests are showing that student outcomes are more differentiated and less equitable than they have been in the past.  Illustrating the inherent tension between the autonomy of teachers and the rights of students, Rajala told me that in one of the schools where he is working the principal had to deal with the fact that several of the teachers did not want to incorporate an emphasis on digital skills into their teaching.  In order to respect their autonomy while still ensuring that all the students got the same digital learning experiences as their peers, the principal had to figure out a way to schedule students so that they all got a chance to work with those teachers who were actively working to incorporate digital skills into their classrooms.

Given all of these factors, in a system largely considered to be “working,” with few incentives to change, it should be no surprise that many both inside and outside the education system see maintaining the status quo as a sensible way to operate. That’s why from Tuominen’s perspective, the key issue is to find those innovations that are working – where there is both a clear and widespread need and where the knowledge, skills, and resources to make the necessary changes are also already available.  He cites as examples “the gaming room”, which, essentially provides the plans and materials so that schools can quickly and easily create a place where students can access the most effective educational games and use them during recess and other points during the school day. Similarly, the “house of learning” provides a set of stand-alone tools that help students to plan, track and assess their own learning, without requiring extensive training.  Tuominen does not expect all the “innovations” that HundrED identifies in Finland or globally to take off, but he believes that initiatives like HundrED can help to highlight and spread those that are gaining traction.  In the meantime, however, since the Finnish system is designed to “steer” not to penalize, there will be no grading, sanctions, or public humiliation. But changing the education system will continue to be a subject of public discussion in Finland, particularly when the next curriculum renewal takes place.

Thomas Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia University

hatch@tc.edu

“Brand-name” teachers in Finland?

New York Times’ reporter Natasha’s Singer’s recent article on “brand-name” teachers, created quite a stir.  Reaction in the Times and elsewhere in the US focused on “topdog” teacher Kayla Dalzel and what EdSurge called the “murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products.” For me, the emergence of “brand-name” teachers in the US (and “super tutors” and “celebrity tutors” in places like Singapore and Hong Kong) also highlights both long-standing tensions between private gain and the public good and the way that cultural and economic context shapes education systems.

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had this summer with Pekka Peura, a Finnish high school math and physics teacher who could be described as an “entrepreneurial teacher.” Peura takes advantage of Finland’s celebrated autonomy for teachers by regularly trying out new ideas in his classroom.  At first, he simply experimented with changing his homework assignments, giving all the assignments to students in 7 week blocks rather than every single day, and letting students decide when and how to complete their work. Now he doesn’t use exams (almost unheard of in the highly exam-driven context of Finnish high schools and in math and physics courses in particular), and he doesn’t do any grading – the students evaluate themselves. Peura explained that he made these changes in his classroom in order to create learning activities and environments where students want to work hard and can evaluate and direct their own learning.

Peura surprised me, however, when he told me that, at the same time, he works systematically to build his reputation and “brand” among educators in Finland. He does that by making his teaching visible and sharing his plans and tools (like a seven week plan for teaching vector calculus) in his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube videos, as well as in a new book, Flipped Learning, by Marika Toivola, Markus Humaloja, and Peura (the book will be published in English this fall).

Peura’s efforts to “build his brand” have paid off. His Facebook page now has 13,000 members, and he regularly receives invitations to speak at conferences and visit other schools and other countries. He’s gained access to other noted educators and those who wield power and influence in education, and his books and other works certainly have a bigger audience than he would otherwise have had.

Since my Norwegian and Finnish colleagues consistently emphasize the importance of equity and common identity – and not building an “individual brand” – Peura’s approach seem more American than Nordic. But Peura has always had a larger goal in mind: changing the traditional, academic focus of the whole Finnish education system.  As Peura explained, building his reputation is a key means of encouraging other teachers take advantage of the autonomy offered in the Finnish education system and to pursue and share their own efforts to change conventional instruction. “We just need a lot of teachers that are creating their own books, and blogs and leading their own subjects,” he told me.

From Peura’s perspective, Finnish teachers need to go public precisely because it is so counter-cultural. Although the Finnish education system is well-known for supporting teachers’ autonomy and independence, Finnish teachers are not particularly prone to collaborate or share their work. Furthermore, although many know the Finnish education system is high-performing, as Saku Tuominen (an expert on innovation and founder of HundrED) regularly points out, few people can name a single innovative educational tool or practice developed in Finnish classrooms (but everyone seems to know that Angry Birds was launched in Finland).

Given these circumstances, Peura explained to me that he feels that he not only needs to go public with his own work, he needs to help build an audience that is interested in hearing from educators and to encourage other educators to make their work and ideas public as well.  As he put it, “if you have some good tools or ideas to share, there is no one to share with unless people will listen to you.”

At the same time, Peura makes it clear that the relationship between commercial enterprises and classrooms in Finland is also dramatically different from the US.  As he wrote to me:

In Finland we don’t promote companies very easily. I don’t know any teacher, who gets money from some company to advertise them. But it is familiar that some companies give technology hardware or software for free for some classrooms to test them. But we give fair feedback, if the product doesn’t work in the classroom, it is said out loud.

From my point of view it is really important NOT to connect your name-brand with some one company, because we are a very small [community] and teachers know each other, especially if you are a well known teacher, and it eats into your credibility as a change maker. And one thing that is also quite common in Finland is that we try to seek open/free solutions, so if there is a free and a commercial product/solution, we promote the free one. It is crucial for your credibility to promote commercial products only if it’s the best and only solution for some problem. 

There are teachers like Kayla Dalzel and Pekka Peura all over the world, and all have to contend with the tensions between personal gain and the public good, but the context is different.  In this case, when it comes to the US and Finland, it all comes down to trust.  In Finland, they trust teachers.  In the US, we don’t.

We sometimes forget why that’s the case.  As Peura points out, trust, visibility and reputation are inextricably linked everywhere, but Finnish educators work in a system designed to build trust in teachers. US educators do not.

Tom Hatch

10 Surprises in the High-Performing Estonian Education System

You can also read this piece at InternationalEdNews.com

For many, the most surprising thing about the Estonian education system is that it is, in fact, high performing (using the conventional criteria of international tests like PISA).  Even with some press in the Hechinger Report, Estonia’s educational performance has garnered much less attention than other high performers like Finland and Singapore. Nonetheless, Estonia has performed at a consistently high level on the PISA tests since 2006.  In 2015, Estonia was ranked in the top ten nations in both math and reading on PISA, and in science, it was ranked third in the world behind Singapore and Japan.

Perhaps most impressive, Estonia has among the most equitable outcomes of all the countries participating in PISA. Although the Estonian population is largely homogeneous, there are distinct groups of lower-performing Russian language schools, as well as considerable differences in the size and performance of schools in cities and rural areas. Although Estonia has among the smallest class sizes and teacher-student ratios among OECD countries, those figures hide the fact that there are some very small rural schools, with particularly low ratios (and students of different ages mixed together), but also many city schools with class sizes higher than the OECD average. Despite these differences, students do quite well on average across all regions, with the percentage of students who are low-performing the smallest in both Europe and the world.

In another surprise, Estonian students perform at a consistently high level despite an aging teaching population and difficulty attracting new teachers.  In fact, almost half of Estonian teachers are over the age of 50 and Estonian teachers have some of the lowest salaries among OECD countries. In addition, although most Estonian teachers report overall satisfaction with their job, only 14% think the teaching profession is valued in society. On my recent visit there, one of the teacher education institutions I visited even reported they have had only a handful of applicants for some of their programs in recent years. Certainly teachers are important – and other high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore demonstrate the value of well-prepared and well-supported teachers – but Estonia shows that it’s possible to have a high-performing education system – and sustain it and improve it – even with problems in the teaching force.

What’s more the Estonians describe their system as one in which schools, school leaders, and teachers have a considerable amount of autonomy. Schools have to provide a minimum number of course hours in set subjects, but they also have some latitude in emphasizing a particular focus like the arts, technology, or the natural sciences.  As a result, some students may end up taking more hours of math and science over their school careers, others more in art and language.  Nonetheless, on average, Estonian students still demonstrate consistently high and equitable performance

Given these equitable outcomes, for me one of the biggest discoveries was finding some school choice in Estonia. While students are guaranteed a place in their neighborhood public school, they can apply to attend private schools, selective schools, or another neighborhood school if it has space. In most private schools, tuition is largely subsidized by the state, but schools can also charge additional fees that can make them out of reach for some students. Some of the private schools are religious schools or international schools, but in recent years, a variety of other groups have started own private schools. I spoke with the founders of two different private schools who both described how parents got together to create schools when they were unhappy with their local options. In both cases, founders described the Ministry of Education’s willingness to assist and support the new schools’ efforts. As one put it, there is a “flexible” attitude toward regulations in Estonia, and the officials understand that “if there is a problem, they understand they need to solve the problem, and everybody helps.”  While only about 5% of schools in Estonia are private, there are also public schools that the Estonians themselves describe as “elite” and selective. In order to enter these selective schools in first grade, 6 year olds have to pass a high stakes entrance test for which many of those who afford it go to a tutoring center to get prepared.

With the choice and autonomy of schools, one would expect that significant monitoring and oversight would be needed to make sure that all schools are performing well. But when I asked the head of the education department of one large municipality (essentially the equivalent of a district superintendent in the US), he threw up his hands and said he trusted the school leaders and teachers to do their jobs. To guide that work, he reported talking on a weekly basis with the local school leaders.  One recent meeting focused on revising and then signing a memorandum in which all committed to 8 points of agreement including “the schools shall value developing a scientific mindset in students”; “the schools shall move towards wider use of digital teaching and learning materials”; and “the students shall get credit for what they have learned in a hobby school to decrease their study load in school.”

Correspondingly, high-stakes testing is limited primarily to exit exams at the end of high school. Results of the exit exams are made public and newspapers and others often publish rankings of upper secondary schools, but no specific rewards or consequences are attached. In elementary and lower secondary schools, in contrast, national assessments are strictly “sampling tests”, as in Finland, given only to a portion of students at the end of 3rd, 6th and 9th grades. The results of those tests are not made public, but instead provide the schools, municipalities, and the Ministry a way to gauge performance and guide planning and policymaking.

Even the Estonian system of inspecting schools is considerably less intrusive than those in many other countries. In England, for example, inspectors from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), “carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England and publish the results online.” In contrast, in Estonia there is no separate inspectorate, and no complex, full-scale inspection is conducted.  Instead, the Ministry of Education and Research carries out individual school inspections primarily for licensure applications or in case of complaints. As a former leader in the office of school inspections in Estonia explained it to me, “the system of evaluating schools in Estonia is not very strong, and that is one of the best parts of our system.” When I asked him to describe how he knew if there were schools that were having problems, he responded that “someone would call me.”  In turn, he reported that the best approach to fix the problem was usually to call someone he knew who also knew the head of the school with the problem.  It’s a kind of management by “phoning around” (akin to “management by walking around” made famous by the founders of Hewlett Packard in the US) that reflects the small size of Estonia and the powerful social networks that connect almost everyone.  As one of my hosts explained, Estonians believe that everyone in the country is only two phone calls away.

Although many countries provide some support for early childhood education, I was surprised to find that Estonia assures a right to municipally funded early childhood education for each child beginning at the age of one and a half.  As a consequence, almost 90% of children between the ages of 3 and 7 (when children begin first grade) are enrolled. As one member of the Ministry commented, this is not “glorified babysitting,” these early education centers have a national curriculum that emphasizes seven aspects of development including the arts, music, movement, language, and mathematics. In the preschool I visited, the students participate in two lessons a day in small groups for guided instruction. Children who speak another language at home also start to learn Estonian as a second language at the age of three; and all those who complete the curriculum receive a school readiness card that documents each child’s development. What’s more, early childhood teachers in Estonia are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, a substantially higher standard than in many other countries, including “high-scorers” like Singapore.

In another surprise, state and municipal support for education extends afterschool as well. Estonia has a whole system of hobby schools and youth work (a legacy from the Soviet system) in which children can participate. In fact, students get funding from their municipality to participate in at least one afterschool activity a week. According to the Standard for Hobby Education, goals include to help young people to develop “into members of society with good coping skills” and to “grant joy in engaging in hobbies.”  Hobby schools provide instruction and activities in sports, technology, culture, nature, music or other arts.  Like preschools in Estonia, hobby schools can be privately run or run by schools or other organizations.  In hobby schools, educators, often university students or others with expertise in a particular subject, work with groups of students on a weekly basis. In one hobby school I visited, physicists and astronomers at a nearby university offered a course in which students participated in the development of a satellite that was eventually launched into space.

While I did see examples of technology use (including programming classes in almost every preschool, elementary, secondary, and hobby school I visited), I was also surprised to hear that the Estonians themselves are unsatisfied with the level of tech integration in schools. According to OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) only 29% of Estonian teachers use ICT for students’ projects or class work.  Even more surprising, although Estonia has established itself as a world-leader in e-services – offering online voting and the opportunity to register a business online in a matter of minutes – Estonia doesn’t have much of an edtech sector.  In fact, when I asked to visit a local edtech company, my Estonian colleagues didn’t know where to look; and when I did connect with one local company (who are developing a platform for teachers to share their work), they told me they weren’t sure whether to tell their investors that they were one of the few edtech companies in Estonia or the only edtech company in Estonia.

Of course, every educational system has problems. In Estonia, in addition to the concerns about the teaching profession, there are serious concerns that instruction remains too traditional and that some students are disengaged or over-stressed. Nonetheless, given Estonia’s educational success, it’s also remarkable to see the number of new initiatives underway designed to continue to move the system forward. These include ongoing efforts to attract new teachers, among them an increase in teachers’ salaries of more than 40% over the last 5 years.  The Ministry is also pursuing initiatives to shift the focus of teaching and learning at all levels of education to support the development of eight competences that encompass cognitive and social skills, creativity and entrepreneurship; to create an in-service system for teachers and school leaders to support that focus; and to use digital technologies more effectively and efficiently in the process. The Ministry is also sponsoring efforts to develop assessments for some of these competences that could increase the likelihood that the schools and teachers incorporate them into their curriculum. In fact, five years ago, Estonia changed their high school exit requirements for all students across the country. Now, instead of taking three compulsory exams (Mother Tongue – Estonian or Russian; Foreign Language, and mathematics) and two other subjects of their choosing, all students are required to complete a research project or a “practical project” in order to graduate.  Research projects involve conventional studies and research methods such as conducting an experiment in physics or surveying a group of students.  Practical projects include organizing a local Olympics or developing a collection of insects for a museum.  Both projects are  designed to encourage interdisciplinary work as well as promote the development of the eight competencies.

At the end of the day, the story of Estonia’s high and equitable educational performance on international tests may not be that much of a mystery.  All students have guaranteed access to elementary and secondary education and to publicly supported early childhood education and afterschool activities.  All those learning opportunities are aligned to national curriculum frameworks that emphasize skills in language, mathematics, and science, but support other aspects of development as well. Schools, school leaders, and teachers in Estonia have considerable autonomy, but they also have a relatively small set of aligned textbooks, curriculum materials, national sampling assessments and high-stakes exit exams that help to keep the system focused and on track. The teaching population is aging and instruction may be traditional, but Estonian teachers report less time spent on administrative tasks and on “keeping order” and more time on teaching and learning than those in many other countries. All of this takes place in a small country, where everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s also a country with a population known for hard work and a methodical approach that some of my colleagues here described as a form of “German exactness.” In education, that methodical approach is being applied to goals that are tightly linked to the kinds of activities and outcomes expected on international assessments. (As a former Education Minister in Estonia put it “the exercises used in international surveys that have been made public in the course of previous surveys have been the examples followed by our test and examination writers.”)

In short, the Estonians have developed a coherent and aligned education system that begins in early childhood and extends beyond the regular school day, and they have done it in a place where, less than 30 years ago, basic goods were rationed and it was a luxury to have a telephone. Those of us in the US can’t expect to improve our education system by doing exactly what the Estonians have done with theirs. Policies that work in a country of 1.3 million can’t be simply transferred to 50 states or to large cities in the US. Nonetheless, there are many different ways to create a coherent, focused, and well-supported education system.  Policymakers in the US need to understand that enabling widely inequitable educational experiences across communities isn’t one of them.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 3)

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on recent visits to a number of educational organizations in South Africa including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust.  The first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; the second post describes the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; this final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward.

Opportunities from challenges

While the programs I visited, like those in other developing countries, confront both the enormous needs and the limited resources and capacity of the education system, the challenges may also come with opportunities.  The difficulties of finding and training teachers means these programs have to take advantage of the possibilities that come with working with parents, other volunteers, and peers.  However, as both Madondo at KYP and Patrick Mashanda at IkamvaYouth suggested, working with volunteers and peers means that the students themselves may have more opportunities to take charge of their own learning and develop a sense of agency.  As Madondo recounted, “the issue we’ve picked up is that when you work with teachers they are used to the teaching system of standing in front of the class, and even when it’s time to do a one-on-one mentoring with the students, the teachers often struggle.” Unable to rely on a ready pool of teachers, these programs are developing and demonstrating ways that educational support can be provided when it is simply not possible to ensure that there is a “qualified teacher for every child” – the focus of many policies in the US.

These difficult conditions also make it very hard for programs like these to expand and “scale-up” across communities and into different regions.  “If we provide a lot of training for volunteers,” Mignon Hardie of Fundza explains, “that’s not scalable.  At the same time, if you’re looking at online and training videos for going into rural areas, that’s not practical either.” Nonetheless, along with the pressure to make their programs as cost-effective as possible, the tremendous need also creates a demand for successful programs that can help them to attract funders and investments that can enable them to scale.  For example Fundza, IkamvaYouth, and Olico, have all been invited to expand their programs as part of the Western Cape government’s Year Beyond initiative.  In the process, they are all experimenting with “light” versions of their programs to determine the most efficient approaches in a context of extremely limited resources. The Dell Foundation, for its part, is also testing a version of their scholars program that does not hire their own counselors, but instead refers scholars to counselors and other forms of support available in the local universities.

Many of those I talked to also cannot get reliable data from government schools about student learning outcomes.  With inconsistent grading and spotty implementation of government assessment initiatives in schools, most programs have not yet been able to gauge their impact on the kinds of standardized test outcomes that are used to measure year-to-year performance of programs in the US and other developed education systems.  Although many programs are working to establish their own data systems, in the meantime, they have had to rely on basic data like attendance rates, numbers of students, teachers, and schools served, and high school and university graduation rates. In many cases, that data demonstrates the growing reach and considerable potential of these programs, and these conditions also provide an opportunity for these programs to develop and mature before they have to demonstrate impact on the kinds of performance indicators that even those working in developed systems have struggled to achieve.

While my research focused primarily on those programs that are aimed specifically and supporting students’ academic development, there is widespread recognition of a tremendous need to support children’s physical, social and emotional development as well.  For example, programs like Waves for Change (offering what they refer to as “surf therapy”) are demonstrating effective ways to work with youth who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.  Just like academic programs, these programs are searching for appropriate and meaningful ways to measure their impact.  In the US, too often these programs are still judged on whether or not, and how much, they contribute to academic gains, and efforts to develop a broader set of indicators (though efforts are underway) have never taken off.  Conceivably, the recognition in South Africa that academic development cannot also take place without social, emotional, and human development and the lack of reliable academic indicators creates a context where real innovations in individual assessment and program evaluation are possible.

Thomas Hatch

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