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…
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 6–15 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.