Developing a clear picture of school choice in Colombia

In “Colombian Charter School Management,” a new report shared by the National Center for the Study of the Privatization in Education (NCSPE), Dr. Brent Edwards Jr. and Stephanie M. Hall explore teacher management and resource acquisition in traditional and charter schools in Colombia. The authors build upon research from a 2015 NCSPE working paper by Dr. Edwards and Hilary Hartley focused on the authorization and evaluation of charter schools in Bogotá.

One of the stand-out findings from this study is that teachers in Colombia’s charter schools must be more credentialed that their TPS counterparts, yet they work longer hours, earn less money, and have no job security. As Samuel Abrams, Director of the NCSPE, shares, “Coupled with the 2015 NCSPE working paper by Edwards and Hartley, this analysis by Edwards and Hall provides at once a clear picture of school choice in Colombia and an alternative paradigm for comparative assessment.”

To read more about current educational issues in Colombia, see the following:

Colombia reaches deal to end 37-day teachers’ strike (Reuters, June 16, 2017)

Colombia’s 37-Day Teachers Strike Ends in Victory for Educators (teleSUR, June 16, 2017)

Lead the Change interview with Trond Eiliv Hauge

Trond Eiliv Hauge

Trond Eiliv Hauge is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Oslo, Department of Teacher Education and School Research, Norway. His publications include numerous books, chapters, and journal articles in the fields of learning and new technologies, teacher education, school leadership and improvement. For many years he was working in the Norwegian Ministry of Education as a curriculum consultant. Since 1991 his main professional work has been in teacher education and in-service training of teachers and school leaders. He was the director of the National Centre of Excellence in Teacher Education until 2013.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Hauge shares what excites him about the educational change field today:

Today, digital competency is one of the most important requirements to participate in education and work, as well as to be an active member of society….However, the use of ICT in education is still in its infancy or awaiting acceptance and legitimation as a tool for learning and a way of education. A variety of contradictions between old and new designs of teaching and learning hinder people from taking advantage of the potential of ICT in schools. For example, the test and exam system has a tremendous impact on the manner of learning and assessment of student competencies, and adjusting them to fit new digital practices is difficult. At the same time, ICT in education requires further research and development on a critical basis of what schools are designed for or ought to be.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

Teacher and teaching quality in the world’s top-performing education systems

The National Center on Education and the Economy’s (NCEE) Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB) has recently published Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World—an international comparative study of teacher and teaching quality in the world’s top-performing education systems. To explore and share the findings of this research, the NCEE held a conference featuring presentations and panel conversations with several of the authors of the study, including Linda Darling-Hammond, A. Lin Goodwin, Karen Hammerness, Misty Sato, Dion Burns, and Ann McIntyre.

Marc Tucker, president and CEO of NCEE moderated the event, and Andreas Schleicher from OECD and policymakers and educators from the US also provided their perspective. The conference was also streamed live and can be viewed online.

Linda Darling-Hammond launched this three-year study from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) at Stanford University with a team of education researchers from several different parts of the world. The study focused on the policies related to teachers and teaching quality in seven jurisdictions across four continents including Shanghai, Finland, Singapore, and Australia.  According to the study, these seven jurisdictions that have demonstrated higher achievement and greater equity than the U.S. have focused on building effective systems, rather than on narrow solutions and have made a commitment to professionalizing teaching as an occupation.

During the conference, researchers expanded on how these countries have achieved their success.  While each jurisdiction takes a somewhat different approach, the conversation highlighted that:

  • Recruitment and selection processes help to identify teacher candidates who are both talented academically and have a passion for teaching
  • Teacher education takes place in research universities, combining rigorous coursework and substantial practical experience in schools
  • Standards support professional development and career ladders create new options for expert teachers

Notably, in most of these countries teacher education is free and new teachers start their jobs with no burden of student loans.

When asked about the potential of and challenges for the U.S., Andreas Schleicher remarked that the U.S. has invested heavily in education, but that teacher pay, professional development and career structures have not received as much financial support as other issues like class size. Schleicher also argued that in higher performing countries it’s not just about giving teachers a higher salary; it’s about making teaching an intellectual profession, accompanied by a sense of agency and autonomy, that offers opportunities for learning and growth over time.

In subsequent conversations, questions were raised about the ability of states to take the same systemic approach and make the same significant investment that these jurisdictions have made in teacher education and teaching.  In response, panelists pointed to examples of states like Connecticut and Massachusetts that have invested heavily in teacher preparation and professional development and have high levels of student achievement.  Ryan Wise, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, also described how Iowa has already set aside 50 million a year for planning grants for schools and districts to develop teacher learning and leadership opportunities.

Beyond the event itself, discussions took place on Twitter (#empowerededucators) and Checker Finn, President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has already published a critique of the study, with Marc Tucker posting a response on his EdWeek blog.

Leading Futures – Unions: The Last Bastions of Progressive School Improvement

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Dean Fink argues that unions play an important role in maintaining and enhancing the professionalism of teachers and principals and as a result improve the quality of education. Fink is an international educational development consultant.  He is a former superintendent and principal with the Halton Board of Education in Ontario Canada. Fink has published numerous book chapters and articles on topics related to organizational effectiveness, leadership and change.

Recently, with considerable help from colleagues from seven nations, Australia, Canada, Finland, Lithuania, Sweden, the United Kingdom (England) and the United States, I wrote and edited a book that examined the relationship between institutional, relational and self-trust among the professional staff in schools and student achievement. What motivated the book was an interesting correlation between national measures of trust, and student achievement as measured by PISA (Program for International School Achievement).  For example, the World Values Survey  asked people in many countries around the world the following question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” Possible answers included (a) most people can be trusted, and (b) you can never be too careful when dealing with others.

The first question reflected people’s trusting nature and the second their cautious or distrusting nature.  Of the seven nations in our study, Finland and Sweden scored highest on the trust measures, Canada and Australia followed closely, and the United States next in that order, then England, and well behind, the post-Soviet nation of Lithuania.  A second trust measure The Corruption Perception Index measured the perceived trustworthiness of a nation’s public sector on a scale from 0 to 100. The pattern was similar to the World Values Survey – Finland and Sweden scored at 89 %, Canada and Australia at 81%, the United Kingdom at 76%, the United States at 73% and Lithuania at 53%.

These rankings correlate closely with the 2009 and 2012 PISA scores. These results have now become the ‘gold standard’ by which politicians, academics and educational officials rate school systems. When one averages the reading, mathematics and science scores from the 2012 PISA as one measure of quality, the results follow a familiar order – Finland (529), Canada (522), Australia, (512), the United Kingdom (502), the United States, (492), Lithuania (484).  Sweden is an anomaly (482) when compared to its high trust scores. While scores in general for western countries are down from the 2009 PISA, with Lithuania as a significant exception, the rankings in 2012 were similar.

This suggests that there is a clear pattern, on admittedly flawed measures, that suggests that high trust countries produce higher student achievement. To prove this conclusively was beyond our resources but we were sufficiently intrigued to try in each of our countries to understand the trust dynamic and how it affected student and teacher performance at a much deeper level. To do this each member of our team surveyed samples of principals and teachers using the same 30 item five scale survey developed jointly and translated for non-English speaking nations. With these results, each country’s researcher(s) conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers and principals using a few generic questions on trust and distrust and then more specific questions arising from their survey results with specific reference to their trust in institutions like government and unions, relational trust among individuals in and outside of schools, and individuals’ trust in themselves in the current political climate.


Context Counts

The first and most obvious conclusion from our study is that each nation’s educational system is unique and levels of trust in each are dependent on local conditions. For example, Australia, Canada and the United States have federal systems of government with potentially three levels of government having involvement in education, national, provincial or state, and local. The national governments in Australia and the United States play an increasingly activist role in education, whereas the Canadian federal government has very limited involvement. The other four nations in our study have unitary systems of government that usually involve only a national and local government in education. While local governments are deeply involved in education in Finland, Sweden and Lithuania, the national government in England has severely undermined the involvement in education of local authorities. As a generalization, levels of trust among policy makers and policy implementers are directly related to their proximity to each other.  A teacher for example would have more trust in a local school board or local authority member than she might have in a member of the national government.  Conversely national politicians seem to have less trust in educational professionals than more local policy makers who actually meet teachers and principals in their daily activities and can learn from personal experience how their policies play out in practice. Recognizing the uniqueness of each education system and its patterns of trust well known Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg offer this caution:

…politicians and policy makers should be careful when borrowing ideas from other countries, be they Singapore, Canada, or Finland. What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Policy makers should also be aware of the myths about these systems and what made them successful.


Unions and School Improvement

A second and somewhat unanticipated revelation of our study related to teacher unions and levels of trust.  If one accepts the widely-held view that the most significant factor in the educational achievement of students is the quality of their teachers, then it follows that trust in institutions that impact positively on the lives and efficacy of teachers are vital ingredients of school improvement.  While a highly debated concept, especially in the United States, our data suggests that strong teacher unions contribute to better student results.  Unions appear to enhance the status and well-being of teachers in nations like Canada and Finland by providing professional push back against the forces of privatization and New Public Management, and by demanding reasonable wages and working conditions for teachers which in turn make the profession more attractive to younger people.  Both of these ‘high trust’ nations attract high quality university graduates into the profession and neither nation has had to resort to ‘quick recruitment fixes’ like Teach for America in the United States or Teach First in England.  Conversely underachieving nations, such as the United States, have undermined unions’ efficacy through right to work legislation which bans mandatory union membership (closed shop) and the payment of union dues which allows individual teachers to avoid financial obligations while still receiving the collective bargaining benefits of unions. In this way, governments have sought to erode the financial support for unions and weaken their ability to provide a counter narrative to the privatization agenda of many governments and to bargain for increased wages and improved working conditions.

A major motivating factor for such legislation is the widely-held belief that unions distort the natural process of labour markets by protecting inferior teachers and artificially driving up salaries for incompetents. In fact, the opposite happens.  For example, in the United States where unions are under extreme pressure, teachers experience 17% lower wage levels when compared to comparable workers. Unionized teachers have a 6% less wage gap when compared to nonunionized teachers but still below comparable workers.  Is it any wonder that most American states have teacher recruitment problems?

Dr. Eunice Han’s exhaustive study on the relationship between unions and teacher efficacy provides further evidence that unionization is in fact good for teachers and students alike and does indeed improve students’ performance. Han says that highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.  She argues that by demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them.  In 2010-2011, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin changed their laws to dramatically restrict the collective bargaining power of public school teachers. Han compared these states to States where no change had occurred.  If teachers’ unions protect bad teachers, then teacher quality should have risen in the ‘reforming’ states, instead she found that the opposite happened. The new laws restricting bargaining rights in those four states reduced teacher salaries by about 9%. With lower salaries, school districts had less motivation to dismiss underperforming teachers which resulted in the ‘right to work’ states. Lower salaries also encouraged high-quality teachers to leave the teaching sector, which contributed to a decrease of teacher quality and a related fall in student’s achievement. Since teacher unions or some kind of teachers’ organizations will continue to play a part in every school jurisdiction it seems to make sense for governments that want to improve schools must work collaboratively with these organizations rather than to constantly confront, demean and ignore.


Principals and unions

A third and not unexpected result of our discussions with principals internationally is that principals find themselves in the crosshairs between big governments and more militant teachers’ associations and unions.  Strong unions complicate life for on-site school leaders.  On one hand Principals are mandated to implement policies that reflect policy makers distrust of teachers’ professionalism such as standardized testing and school inspections, and in which they themselves often have profound doubts as to their educational soundness.  In response teacher unions in some countries have grown more militant as the values of a market driven, production model of educational delivery become more established and ‘right to work’ legislation and other means to curb the power of unions including workplace agreements, becomes more popular among right-leaning politicians. This is especially so in countries such as Canada, where, in some provincesteachers and principals are represented by different associations.

Our survey of principals and teachers included this item – “Unions are an agency for school improvement in school systems and schools” – among the 30 items on our survey.  It is interesting therefore to consider how principals responded to our survey item on trust in unions.   Those principals who were not part of the teachers’ bargaining unit in Canada, such as in Ontario and British Columbia were very negative on the item.  Of our seven nations on the five-point scale, Canada scored lowest at 2.41. This low score probably reflects job (industrial) actions at the time of the survey’s administration in both large provinces as well as the legislated exclusion of principals from the teachers’ unions by production leaning governments that believed that education should be run like a business and principals as managers must be separated from their workers – the teachers.

These political decisions removed the moderating effect on unions of principals who generally see the larger picture and, as a result, unions in British Columbia and Ontario particularly, over the past 20 years, have become more strident and militant. Principals are now in the uncomfortable and often contradictory position of representing their school districts’ and provincial policies while trying to bring about school improvement with a staff that follows the lead of their unions.  Building collaborative cultures is difficult enough for principals without the added burden of negotiating these political waters.   Once again, education politics and policies that are designed to drive a wedge between principals and their staff on industrial matters cannot be seen to be conducive to developing high-trust relationships at the individual school level.  Ironically, Canadian school achievement is among the highest of our seven nations, and as stated previously, in general teachers are well paid and enjoy decent working conditions. There is no shortage of teachers in most Canadian jurisdictions with the exception of more remote and isolated areas. This is not the result of more benevolent political decision makers but rather the strength of teacher unions that are well financed and willing to push back. Principals, caught in the middle on a daily basis and excluded from unions tend to perceive only the short-term challenges presented by unions and not the long-term benefits.

Except for Canada in our seven nation study, there is no discernible pattern concerning principals’ support for and trust in teachers’ unions or their degree of influence on government policies.  Finland which includes principals in the teachers’ bargaining unit scored highest on our five point scale at 3.1.  Australian principals who are part of teachers’ unions in each state and nationally scored 2.68, and do play a high-profile role in influencing government policies.  Sweden scored 2.73 on our five-point scale.  Its secondary principals, who appear to be quite influential in an advisory position to government, operate outside the teachers’ union whereas most of their elementary colleagues are within the teachers’ union.   The two lowest achieving nations on PISA in our sample, the United Kingdom and the United States scored 2.92 on this item.   The United Kingdom’s two major principals’ organizations and three large teachers’ unions appear to have little impact on policy. The United States, that has a mixture of union and non-union States and separate principals’ organizations in most states, has had only modest success holding back the forces of privatization.

Lithuania at 2.59 on our measures, with its four teachers’ unions that include some principals and a rather ineffective principals’ association[i], tend to weaken their influence on policy by competing among themselves.  Where governments face multiple unions and principals’ associations, such as in Lithuania and the United Kingdom, governments often overcome opposition by playing one organization off against another. These large-scale dramas often add to the political challenges of principals in schools. Our study has suggested that, with the directions and destiny of the teaching profession controlled by the political process in each of the jurisdictions, and with principals called upon increasingly to be policy advocates and implementers, not designers, or at best recognized as having a limited voice among many in the policy-making process, it has been teacher unions more than any other group that have had the power to act as a voice on behalf of the teaching profession.


In our book, we portrayed the educational landscape internationally as a contest between two visions of educational change – a production model based on trust in the efficacy of markets, standardized test, privatized schools and invasive verification schemes and a progressive model that places its trust in well qualified, well paid, well treated, well-regulated professional educators. In this paper, I have tried to argue that unions play an important role in maintaining and indeed enhancing the professionalism of teacher and principals, although at times it may not seem like it, and as a result improve the quality of education.

Since unions were only a small and serendipitous part of our study this paper can only talk in terms of correlations not causes. What is needed is rigorous research to examine the relationship of unions and student achievement and to address such questions as:

  • what kind of unions are most effective – single interest unions such as the Ontario Secondary Schools Federation or inclusive teacher unions such as the Alberta Teachers Association;
  • what kind of legislation is needed to protect unionism while caring for the interests of taxpayers and students;
  • what are the most successful union configurations;
  • should principals be considered management and separate from teacher unions or as head teachers and part of a collaborative teaching unit included in Teacher unions?

As the foregoing discussion suggest, the field of unions and school improvement is wide open for bright young scholars to explore deeply.


Low-fee Private Schools in India

In “Low-Fee Private Schools in India: The Emerging Fault Lines,” a new report shared by the National Center for the Study of the Privatization in Education (NCSPE), Tamo Chattopadhay and Maya Roy explore controversial low-fee private schools in India. These schools have generated controversy, with proponents contending that private schools fill a void created by state failure, and critics pointing out that private schools don’t meet the needs of all students.

The authors investigate by focusing on India, where Chattopadhay and Roy see the following challenges before low-fee private schools:

  1. Higher standards for school infrastructure, services, and teacher capacity mandated by the country’s Right to Education Act of 2009, mean that low-fee private schools are hard pressed to meet government metrics and keep tuition affordable;
  2. Low-fee private schools hold instruction in English, though the command of the language by many teachers is weak;
  3. Teachers across the country boost their income by getting parents to enroll their children in after-school tutoring, a practice, the authors posit, that is more widespread at low-fee private schools than elsewhere because of the lower pay of teachers at these schools.


This report provides historical context, relies on government reports, and draws from classroom visits in Kolkata and interviews with teachers in West Bengal. As Samuel Abrams, Director of the NCSPE, shares, “Chattopadhay and Roy provide a concise, textured case study of an issue central to debate about educational governance in the developing world.”

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

This post was written by Thomas Hatch and originally published on

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)

This post was written by Thomas Hatch and originally published on

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.