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 – 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) – 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 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

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.


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.


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.


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

“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

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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

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 2)

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; this 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; the final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward. . These reflections build on earlier posts about visits to Singapore and Malaysia, and are all part of an ongoing study of improvement and innovation inside and outside schools in developed and developing education systems.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 2)

A demand for basic materials

While the programs I learned about all take somewhat different approaches, as I talked to the leaders of programs like Wordworks, FunDza, and Olico, I noted a heavy emphasis on developing and sharing materials for literacy and maths. Wordworks, for example, has developed a series of materials and resources, many of which are offered for free.  Those materials can be used by anyone – including parents as well as teachers – to help young children learn to read and write. FunDza also seeks to support literacy development and a love of reading, but for those in high school and beyond.  Their work began in 2010 when Dorothy Dyer, a high school teacher sought to find and create books and other reading material that reflected the lives of her students, who primarily lived in one of Cape Town’s Black townships.  Dyer’s students were so enthusiastic about the initial drafts of a novel that she and a friend started to write for them that she and colleagues including Mignon Hardie started a small publishing company, Cover2Cover. Cover2Cover published works geared for young adults growing up in South Africa. Those works have included a series focused on a group of teenagers at a fictional township high school and another series set in a youth soccer club.  Many of their books also focus on social issues including xenophobia, homophobia, and teenage pregnancy.  In addition to Cover2Cover, which remains a for-profit publisher, they also established the FunDza Literacy Trust. FunDza provides these books and other reading materials in print and through a mobile app to schools, libraries, youth development groups, and other reading groups.  To meet the constant demand for texts that connect directly to the lives of youth South Africans, FunDza has also gone on to create a program to support the development of young writers and is currently piloting an online reading curriculum using their materials as well.

Olico grew out of Andrew Barrett’s initial work establishing a branch of IkamvaYouth outside of Johannesburg. After he left IkamvaYouth, he wanted to explore how to use technology to help ease the intense demand for the tutors that programs like IkamvaYouth and the Kliptown Youth Program rely on. Barrett’s work with Olico began by using the videos of Salman Khan and Khan Academy to help eighth grade students in an afterschool program in one South African township to learn math.  But from their work in that one Township, Barrett and colleagues like Lynn Bowie have now created a whole series of math videos and support materials that students from South Africa (and anyone else with an internet connection) can freely access online; partners like IkamvaYouth and the Kliptown Youth Program are now using those materials to enhance their own tutoring programs.

These three programs are just a sample, however, as the development and distribution of educational materials has taken off.  In 2002, for example, Siyavula, started with a group of students who developed free online texts in high school chemistry, maths, and physics. Syavula’s work has now expanded into a technology company that produces open source textbooks  at both the primary and high school level as well as tools and technologies to support personalized learning.  The government as well has gotten into the act, with provinces like Guateng producing scripted materials that primary school teachers can use to teach reading and maths.

All of these programs have developed in a system where there are still large swaths of schools, concentrated in the poorest townships and rural areas, where students and teachers have virtually no materials or a small set of books and resources they have to share.  Furthermore, the delivery of these materials – increasingly through online sources – can reach many more people and places at substantially lower costs than most training workshops and programs. In contrast, in the United States, textbooks and curriculum materials do not seem to get as much attention as many other reform strategies even though there is some evidence that they can make a difference in student outcomes (see “Big bang for just a few bucks” for example). A few programs that focus on content and materials development have found a niche (and Khan Academy and programs like Jump Math are good examples), but providers may feel that the market is already flooded with materials from major publishers and by those produced by states and districts themselves.

Limited teaching a capacity and a reliance on peer and volunteers

Even good materials, however, cannot teach themselves.  Effective use of materials depends on capable people and usually at least some training and targeted support.  In South Africa, the demand for training and support are evident from the low-level of preparation and limited content knowledge of some of South Africa’s teachers.  As Nic Spaull has pointed out, large percentages of teachers lack the content knowledge they need to pass the mathematics tests their students are expected to pass. In fact, in some of the poorest and most rural provinces communities, more than 70% of teachers can’t pass these tests.  To illustrate the depth of the problem, Spaull provides the example that on an international test, only 33% of South African Grade 6 maths teachers could correctly answer one of the items aimed at a sixth grade level. “This is only marginally above what teachers would get,” Spaull notes “if they just guessed the answer, since they would get it right 25 per cent of the time on a four-choice test item.”  Even the materials designed to support teachers show the inadequacies of current teacher preparation.  As stated in the introduction to a government sponsored booklet intended to help Intermediate Phase (middle school) teachers implement a literacy curriculum “as Intermediate Phase teachers, it is unlikely that you know how to teach learners to read, or how to remediate their reading.”

These findings have contributed to calls for substantial improvements in teacher preparation and professional development in South Africa, but those improvements are likely to take a generation at least and at a tremendously high cost.  In the meantime, O’Carroll of Wordworks, laments, “years go by and kids are lost.” As a consequence, Wordworks’ approach relies on both an extensive set of materials to teach reading as well as short workshops to equip volunteers, primarily parents, to use those materials effectively. While Wordworks uses approaches to teaching reading reflected in programs in the US like Reading Recovery, South African schools don’t not have the capacity to provide the intensive daily support required in Reading Recovery programs in other countries.  As O’Carroll explains “the very high level training of the tutors was not an option here. So it was going to have to be a program that could be delivered by parents or community workers rather than  a trained teacher and with minimal training and with minimal ongoing support.  It had to be done in a sustainable way by people who aren’t necessarily going to be paid, and who aren’t going to be getting ongoing coaching support.”

Finding capable volunteers and the “right” amount of training and support, however, is far from simple.  For example, even though Olico began by experimenting with the possibilities for students to use Khan’s self-paced videos on their own, Barrett, Bowie and their colleagues quickly realized that their students needed some support and their tutors also needed some relevant math expertise to provide appropriate guidance. For one thing, some aspects of the Khan videos – made originally by Salman Khan for his relatives in the US – were confusing to students in South Africa and needed to be explained. Even something as simple as the fact that in the US (and in the Khan videos) decimal points are represented by periods while in South Africa a comma is used could confuse the students.  Similarly, as Lynn Bowie explained, “if you write a 1000 in South Africa you write 1 space 000 (1 000), but in the US you write 1 comma 000 (1,000) now for us that would mean 1 point 000 not one thousand.”  Beyond these “translation problems”, however, Bowie pointed out that Olico’s students also struggled with the extent of metacognitive work the videos required in order to monitor and pace their own learning.  While the Khan videos at that time allowed students to go almost anywhere, Olico’s students didn’t have “a sense of when they weren’t learning.” Bowie added, “we’d find kids either spending endless amounts of time on inappropriate questions or alternatively finding the easiest sections and staying on that because it was giving them lots of lovely validation.”  In order to address these challenges, they have ended up creating their own videos that are geared specifically to students in South Africa and they have developed support materials for the students and the tutors that allow a balance between student self-direction and tutor-direction.

The challenges of finding skilled teachers are also among the factors that have encouraged many of these programs to embrace peer tutoring.  Peer tutoring can take many different forms, but it has been used in a number of approaches that have experienced considerable success at significant scale in countries like Mexico and Columbia.  In South Africa, the versions I saw generally involved small groups of students (roughly four or five) who work together on their schoolwork.  At the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), for example, they group high school students according to whether they are in vocational or academic “stream”, then by school, and then by the subject they are working on.  Then the tutors let the students decide what to focus on, but encourage different students to take the lead.  For Thulani Madondo, Executive Director and one of the founders of KYP, adopting a peer learning approach has had a number of benefits including distinguishing their afterschool activities from “regular” school and enabling the program to meet students needs more effectively and efficiently.  “In the past,” Madondo explained, “we used to do it like ‘kids this is our lesson plan, and as we were doing that, we were chasing a lot of kids away because they had homework already and we were giving them new lessons and lessons that weren’t always aligned to what they were doing in school.”  The peer tutoring arrangements I learned about at IkamvaYouth and KYP were also strikingly similar to those I learned about in Malaysia.  All of these programs are also exploring ways to provide educational support while combatting the high cost, intensive time for training and preparation, and the challenges of staffing that come with approaches that rely on teachers.

But in the end even volunteers are a scarce resource, and finding enough, from Madondo’s perspective “is the big issue many non-profits face.”  As Olivier from IkamvaYouth points out, that means that the programs need to take into account the fact that they are likely to find it easier to get volunteers, if they are located near a university.  Furthermore, the programs have to find ways to defray the costs that volunteers often incur in transportation, mobile phone usage, and printing of materials and activities.  If they can’t offset these costs, Olivier worries, they may lose the help of many of those who have little if any source of income while they are in university but are committed to giving back to their communities.



Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 1)

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on my visit to South Africa in February.  This first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; the second will describe the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; the final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward. These reflections build on earlier posts about visits to Singapore and Malaysia, and are all part of an ongoing study of improvement and innovation inside and outside schools in developed and developing education systems.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 1)

When I left for South Africa at the beginning of February, I was interested in seeing to what extent the educational improvement efforts I found there might be similar or different from those I’ve studied in other countries.  Conceivably, the significant challenges of the education system (described recently as “the worst in the world” in the Economist) might give rise to different strategies and initiatives both inside and outside of school than those I’ve encountered in more developed systems like Finland, Singapore and the US.  To explore this possibility, I visited government schools as well as private schools and talked with the leaders of a number of organizations including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust, all known for creating programs to support students from some of the most disadvantaged townships near Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In these conversations, I heard about concerns with some of the same issues I’ve seen in more developed systems, particularly the need for better preparation and professional development for teachers and leaders. I also heard concerns about the number of improvement efforts (almost 8000 according to a recent report) and the ways in which those programs might conflict with each other, (something I wrote about in the US almost twenty years ago in When improvement programs collide). But over the course of my visit, the extent of disadvantage that many poor students and many black students face in South African schools became more and more apparent.  Further, I heard again and again about the widespread need for books, textbooks curricula, and other basic materials and about the need to rely on volunteers, parents, community members and students themselves because well-trained teachers were not available.  But along with these significant demands, I was struck as well by the tremendous opportunities for growth and the positive outcomes that many of these programs are already achieving.

Overwhelming need coupled with real possibilities for growth

During my visit, it was impossible not to be inspired by the many stories of students from poor townships and rural areas who manage to succeed despite an almost complete lack of access to the materials, people, and opportunities they need to succeed.  As researchers like Brahm Fleisch have reported these students can spend years in school, exposed to only a smattering of content in no sensible sequence.  As a consequence, while most children do attend primary schools in South Africa, 27% of students who have attended school for six years cannot read; while the percentage of students who can’t do basic math has decreased substantially in recent years, 34% of 9th grad students still can’t do basic computations and have not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs.

Despite the accomplishments of those who have managed to succeed despite this system, a host of minor issues can throw even the most resilient students off track. As Dean Villet at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation described it, “People assume that, wow, these children have come through the worst school system in the world, or close to it, and they’ve somehow managed to get into university and therefore, they must be super resilient and super tough, but that’s not the case. Our learning is that the smallest thing that goes wrong really knocks these kids down. They’re very fragile. As much as yes, they have come through this system you can’t underestimate the trauma and the toll that it’s taken.”

The flipside, or as Villet says “the corollary” is that it doesn’t take a lot to eliminate some of those stumbling blocks and get and help many of those students stay on a successful path. Villet offers the example of the Dell Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, which provides scholarships to help 500 students to succeed in college. In the early years, program staff found that some of their students weren’t going to class.  When asked why, Villet reported, “the typical answers were ‘I’m too hungry or I’m too embarrassed’ because of personal hygiene issues, and they didn’t have the money to solve either of those two problems.” In response, the Foundation developed a “swipe card” that provides a relatively small amount of funding (about $200 a year) and enables students to buy items for food and hygiene.  Along with other changes including requiring universities to find on-campus housing for the scholars (and thereby eliminating long commutes and other transportation problems), success rates for the students rocketed from about 30% to over 90%.

“You just need a few things that give the students a sense of security and a sense of belonging in this really challenging and different environment from what they’re used to,” Villet related, “and success rates jump.”

Shelley O’Carroll made a similar point, but about the much younger students she works with through Wordworks. O’Carroll founded Wordworks in a few schools in Cape Town over ten years ago.  Since then, she and her colleagues have developed several different programs that help teachers, parents, caregivers, home visitors and volunteers to support the early language and literacy development of children during early childhood and primary school.  O’Carroll explained that these programs work with students who are often way behind their advantaged peers. When Wordworks began, O’Carroll found that a few of the first graders she worked with “knew a few letters and the rest knew hardly any.” It was also clear that their language was significantly less well developed than would be expected for their age. At the same time, while the challenges from lack of exposure were profound, it was, as O’Carroll put it “pure disadvantage” and “a complete lack of exposure to anything like books or letters and limited language learning opportunities” rather than learning difficulties or second language issues.  In turn, by targeting their programs to compensate for that disadvantage, O’Carroll points to their research and argues, “with a weekly lesson for an hour you can make good gains.”

When Joy Olivier described the origins of IkamvaYouth, she also emphasized the extent of the problems that she and her co-founder, Makhosi Gogwana, uncovered. Olivier explained that she and Gogwana were working together on a research project in 2002-2003 to try to identify where the next generation of scientists in South Africa might come from. That project led them to review the results that Black students had achieved on the science and math portions of South Africa’s twelfth grade matriculation exams.  As Olivier explained, “back then in 2002-2003, the education crisis and the massive inequalities between races just wasn’t as widely known.  For some weird reason, education just didn’t feature, it was all rainbow nation, rah, rah, without the nuts and bolts of what was perpetuating the inequalities.” So when Olivier and Gogwana looked at the results, they were so shocked by what they found that they thought there was something wrong with the data: “the number of Black students in the entire Western Cape Province with scores eligible to go into studying maths or engineering or anything that requires a decent math result,” Olivier lamented, “the number that came out of a whole province, was what should have come out of about five schools.” When Olivier and Gogwana compared their own school experiences, the results were even more striking. “Makhosi and I had gone to extremely opposite types of schools,” Olivier said. “I went to a school where everybody went on to university, and Makhosi didn’t know anyone else in his school who went university. And after he got into university he experienced this weird situation where he got a scholarship to study, but no one had told him what a Bachelor’s of Arts was, and he was trying to navigate the use of the scholarship and to access tertiary education but without any help and totally in the dark. And because he was tenacious and didn’t let it go, he managed to get into what he thought was a Fine Arts Degree program even though his specialty was geography and environmental sciences.” Together Olivier and Gogwana concluded that the missing ingredients for the students at his school were “information, support and the expectation that they will go on to study further.” With that as their inspiration, Gogwana called up the principal of his old school and told the principal that they wanted to come to tutor kids on Saturdays; he and Olivier gathered a bunch of friends, started going to the school every week, and worked with whoever showed up.

While Olivier doesn’t discount the amount of work they put into IkamvaYouth and developing the program, she was also amazed at the results they got even though as she put it, in the early days it was “just Saturdays, just one site, everybody volunteering, with absolutely zero money.” The initial afterschool model they developed focused primarily on helping students with their school work and consisted largely of students working together on homework in small groups of five with a tutor.  However, they quickly established a mentoring program that matched tutors with 12 grade students who were getting ready to take the matriculation exam at the end of 12 grade.  “Our first cohort (who matriculated in 2005) got some amazing results,” Olivier marveled. “100% matriculation pass rate (for 60 students who took the exams), 60% got into university, which we weren’t really expecting. It was radical. We got some kids into top programs at top institutions.”  All at a school that only a few years before had only one student out of the entire student body who went on to University.

Reflections on Larry Cuban’s “continuum” of personalization

Larry Cuban and his work have had a formative influence on me and my own engagement with educational reform. I still remember the first time he welcomed me into his office hours even though I was neither a student of his nor a student at Stanford (though, full disclosure, my wife was).  I came to talk to him because I was having difficulty with an article I was trying to write about some of the problems of a well-known but challenging educational reform effort in which I was involved.  Larry listened patiently, asked a key question here or there, and, then, after politely reminding me that there were others waiting, simply asked something along the lines of “Why don’t you just go and write it?” So I did, and it was published a short time later. I have been citing and drawing on his work and ideas ever since.  These days I particularly appreciate the opportunity to follow Larry’s observations and most recent research on his blog – Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.   The post below began as a comment to a post of his on personalization, but it grew so long I decided post it here.

Dear Larry – Your blog posts are always enlightening!  Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted). It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”  Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and wrubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you so eloquently put it:

…wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.


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