Supporting school leadership around the world: A conversation with Sameer Sampat about the development of Global School Leaders

In this week’s post, IEN’s Thomas Hatch interviews Sameer Sampat. This conversation (which took place early in 2020,  just before the coronavirus outbreak) builds on a previous interview with Sampat in 2016, when Hatch talked with him about the evolution of the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI), the organization Sampat founded in 2012. Since that time, Sampat, working with his colleague Azad Oommen, has been building on the work at ISLI by establishing a new organization, Global School Leaders (GSL). GSL seeks to develop education programs for school leaders in many different parts of the world. Since 2017, GSL has been  working with partners to establish programs for school leaders in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Kenya. In this  conversation, Sampat discusses how GSL has evolved; how they have tried to adapt their approach in different contexts; what they’re learning along the way; and how their work might develop in the future.

IEN: Can you give us a sense of how your efforts to support school leaders around the world have evolved since we talked in 2016?

Sampat: It was interesting to read that earlier post, and it made me realize that there are really two different tracks to talk about. One track reflects what has happened with our school leadership work in India. In that 2016 post, I laid out three ways possibilities for growth:

  • Working with government schools and trying to scale-up through the government system
  • Expanding in the low-fee private schools where we started our work
  • Developing open-source materials that any school leader in India could access

At that time, we were working with about 300 schools. But by 2019, ISLI was working with about 2,000 schools a year. A reason for that big jump from 300 to 2,000 schools was that ISLI pursued that first path by embedding their training in the government system. Late in 2019, however, ISLI hit bureaucratic road blocks that have forced us to close its programs in India. But a few ex-ISLI staff members have come together to form Alokit and GSL is supporting them to get off the ground. Alokit plans to continue focusing on scaling via partnership with state governments.

In work like this that is focused on government partnerships, the second question that gets asked is “how do you deliver high quality training at scale with the existing human capital resources in the government system?” So, all of that work has happened since I left India. And we have been seeing through third party assessments, that the student outcomes in the ISLI schools seem to be increasing compared to schools who don’t have the program. Now there are lot of caveats: We can’t attribute those improvements directly to ISLI, and there are still validity questions about the outcome scores as well. But we plan to do a randomized evaluation of our work starting in the next academic year.

That’s the first track of work, but the second track is the work on Global School Leaders. In 2017, I left my role as CEO of ISLI and went on to co-found Global School Leaders, and over the last two years, I have been consumed with the question of how countries work on this issue of school leadership. When I listened to the education reform conversations that were happening in international venues, people were talking generally about things like teacher training, improving access to girls’ education, educational technology, and early childhood development. All these things are very important, and I think these things are coming to the forefront because the whole conversation has shifted towards “how do you improve the quality of learning?” And it’s not just how you get access. But in that whole conversation of how you improve quality, it seemed to me that we were missing some key issues including “how do you work with the leadership at the school level?” And “how do you create enabling environment conditions for leadership to thrive?”  So that’s what prompted me to start GSL with my co-founder, Azad Oommen, who was on the board of ISLI when I was running it but also joined me to start GSL. At that point I felt like we could help get people to start thinking about school leadership as a critical part the education system, and I also felt that this would be of value in India as well because it would bring more light to the issue and help show the promise of the work in India. I can’t say that we’ve met either objective yet but I think we’re on the way.

IEN: Why didn’t you just try to expand the India School Leadership Institute? Why create a whole different organization?

Sampat: I think there still needs to be huge expansion in India and we’re by no means saying that we’ve reached where we need to be there. I could spend my whole life working in India and still have work to be done. But we started GSL to address a different need: to get leadership into the international conversation in a way that wouldn’t take away from the ability of our program in India to expand.

Did I leave ISLI at the right time? It is difficult to say. Programmatically, there was a lot of progress in terms of embedding the programming into the government that has been really valuable. Operationally, we’ve had our hurdles. So there wasn’t really a scientific process to that decision, and I don’t know in hindsight if it was the right decision, but what we’re working on in terms of GSL seems like a very important challenge and opportunity.

IEN: What did you take from your experience in India that helped you get started with Global School Leaders?

Sampat: Initially, we started with all these materials that we built in India around how to do this leadership work. We had address questions like “What are the materials used to train principals? How do you do the ongoing coaching? How do you measure if this program is actually making an impact or not?” Although those ISLI materials have been valuable in other countries, I think, the biggest value-add has been having a clear focus on this issue of school leadership. When we just bring this to people in different countries, they resonate with it immediately, but they haven’t thought about it as a critical lever for system improvement. And then it’s not so much about saying, “Oh, we have these materials you can use;” it’s really saying, “Here are some starting points. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we’ll work with you to develop processes for you to create your own materials.”  “Here’s a model, but let’s really think about how to contextualize this for your situation.” Then we look at what’s policy relevant; what’s culturally relevant; what addresses the needs of the specific school leaders that they are working with. So it’s been more of a process of saying “this is how we thought about addressing this in India.”  We help people to develop their mental maps of what a leadership program can look like. That’s very different from what I expected originally, when I thought we would say “Here’s the curriculum we use in India, take the curriculum.” We’ve realized that’s not at all what’s helpful for folks. There is a core curriculum, about 50% of the overall content, that is useful. But then the process of co-creation and customization to fill out the second 50% is where the really valuable work happens.

We help people to develop their mental maps of what a leadership program can look like. That’s very different from what I expected originally, when I thought we would say “Here’s the curriculum we use in India, take the curriculum.” We’ve realized that’s not at all what’s helpful for folks.

IEN: Did you have some experiences that helped bring that lesson home to you? Some places where you tried to share those materials and then you realized, wait, this isn’t working?

Sampat: From the beginning, we were clear that we didn’t want to run GSL as a traditional international NGO. We recognized early on that the key decision makers had to be in country so we’ve structured it so that the programs in each country are independently operated and financed, and they have local boards. A GSL member may have a seat on the boards, but the boards have independent CEO’s. From a strategic perspective, we knew this was going to be a challenge, but even at the curriculum content level, it’s been interesting to see how different countries have contextualized the work. For example, one of the big units in the India program focuses on how school leaders help teachers plan their lessons. We developed that unit because we were finding in India that something like 80% of the teachers that we work with initially didn’t have a plan for the day’s lesson. So, one of our hypotheses was that this was leading to a lot of rote learning in India because teachers were just reading out of a book or copying something from a book onto the board, and then the students would just parrot it back. So the planning unit tries to help leaders work with teachers to get them to think about what activities they want to do before they get into the classroom and then to add activities that are promoting student engagement and critical thinking. But when I was talking to the team in Malaysia, they said that this whole thing about having a lesson plan and motivating it and explaining why it’s important, all that stuff wasn’t relevant because in Malaysia you already have to have a book of lesson plans that you bring to school. Somewhere in their education laws, it even suggests that one of the penalties for not having those plans could be going to jail. So, leaders don’t have to motivate teachers to bring a lesson plan to class. The question is how do you actually improve these plans? How do you make sure they are focused on student learning? So that was a big adjustment. That is just one of the many adjustments we’ve had to make.

IEN: That’s a great example. It reflects the nitty-gritty operational work that can make the difference between a program succeeding or failing. What did you do in that case? If the solution wasn’t to try to help teachers plan, what did you figure out to do instead?

Sampat: For this specific instance, it was recognizing that the teachers all do have plans and trying to take advantage of that. We said to the school leaders we worked with in Malaysia “All your teachers have to make plans, so how do you as a principal support your teachers in making those plans? How do you make sure planning isn’t just a ‘checkbox exercise’?” That’s kind of the tack we took. But more generally, we ask the school leaders to do a needs assessment first. The broader framework from India was helpful for this because that model gives a lot of autonomy to the school principal to decide where they’re going to make their improvements and impact student learning. It’s all about how do the school leaders evaluate their schools? How do we help them make an assessment of where their schools are doing well and not doing well, and then make a plan for improvement? That approach has been really helpful across the different countries because the process is directed by the learners, the school leaders, in each case.

IEN: What are some of the key things that you’ve learned over the past couple of years as you’ve tried to expand globally?

Sampat:  There are a bunch of things, but the first few things that come to mind are actually pushing in slightly opposite directions. One is that I’ve found that there’s a lot of knowledge in a country that is just locked in that country. You can take the US as an example. There’s been a lot of work on leadership in the U.S. and a lot of nonprofits like The Wallace Foundation and others are working on it. There’s also a lot of government agencies that are working on school leadership. So you have this group of people that have spent years and years working on these models, developing them, testing them out, seeing what works, what doesn’t work. But very few of the countries we’ve been working in have been able to access that knowledge in a way that’s meaningful for them. So you might have a country that will fly principals to the U.S. for 10 days and then fly them back. But it’s a one-off thing. It’s difficult to create a system that can build on the best practices from somewhere else. And it’s not just coming from a place like the US. For example, if I look in Indonesia, they have some really interesting policies around principals getting together regularly on their own led by peer principals, and they have a whole system of how that peer learning is filtered down through a principle led cohort. That could be really interesting to think about using in a place like India. So that’s kind of one piece.

I think the piece that’s competing with that that I’ve also learned is how important the depth understanding of a context is: the in’s and out’s of schools; how policies are being felt by school leaders; the specifics of different school districts. As I was saying earlier, those kinds of little tweaks that fit the context are very important. Now we’re trying to figure out how you bring these two things together. On the one hand, there’s this really valuable knowledge about a specific place and its functioning that’s important but on the other hand, there’s this rich global knowledge about school leadership more generally. As an organization, we’re trying to bridge that gap between the two.

On the one hand, there’s this really valuable knowledge about a specific place and its functioning that’s important but on the other hand, there’s this rich global knowledge about school leadership more generally. As an organization, we’re trying to bridge that gap between the two.

IEN: How are you trying to bridge that gap now? 

Sampat: A lot of that is in process, but one of the things we’ve done is work on theories of action. Our program is not the first program focusing on school leadership so we are trying to develop a sense of the different theories of actions of some of these programs. We’ve taken that knowledge to our partners, and there’s been a lot of back and forth so that each partner can develop their own. At least right now, our hypothesis is that it’s just a lot of really intentional conversations that are ongoing. These are not one-time engagements. They repeatedly bring together people with these different sets of expertise, some with a knowledge of the local context, some with an understanding of the best practice across contexts.

IEN: Would you say that before with ISLI, you were the program architects and now with GSL you’re the convener of the program architects within a particular country? You’re trying to bring together the various stakeholders, bring what you’ve learned globally about school leadership and make that part of a process that will then allow your partners within that country to develop their program?

Sampat: That’s definitely the role of GSL. In Malaysia, for example, there’s already a lot of work going on in education, and we worked with our partners there to create an entity that is focused on improving the leadership that can complement some of the other initiatives.  We are helping them to hire their initial staff, and then once that’s done, GSL plays the role of supporting a Malaysian organization to bring the right stakeholders to the table to engage together, to use the resources that GSL has as well as the resources they already have available in-country to do this work.

IEN: Given what you’ve said about looking back at the interview in 2016, if you imagine that it’s three years from now and we’re doing another interview about how things have developed, what do you think you might say? What are the next steps and what are some of the challenges that you’re going to have to navigate?

Sampat: I think there are a few pretty clear pathways that we’re exploring right now.  One thing is how do we think about improving school leadership in a system? We have focused on training as the main way to improve school leadership on a large scale. But if you were to think about all the tools available to anyone running a network of schools, whether it’s a government or a private entity, they would have more than just training available to them to improve school leadership. They could think about:  

  • How do they select their leaders in the first place?
  • How are they encouraging people to go into positions of leadership?
  • How are they selecting those leaders?
  • How are they holding their leaders accountable?
  • How are they rewarding their leaders?
  • How are they showcasing models of excellence around good school leadership?
  • What are the decision-making powers they give to leaders?

I think the reason that we’ve focused on training so far is that it’s the first step that all the key folks support. In the countries where we work, school leaders haven’t had a lot of training themselves, so they recognize the need for training. Government officials also know that, often, they have rules on the books around training principals, but they recognize that they are under capacity to deliver that training. As a result, both see our work as supportive, but some of these other pieces are more problematic. For example, in India, leaders tend to be selected based on seniority. I think that’s starting to change but changing a system like that is going to require a lot of political will. Consequently, at GSL we’re thinking about how we build our capability to support our partners to work on these more difficult issues, particularly political issues. 

Another piece we’re thinking about is how do you use technology to help you scale the leadership training? Even if we look across the work in all four countries where we work, we are only working with about 3000 school leaders a year. And these four countries together must be in the range of a million and a half schools to maybe just under two million schools. So we’re trying to identify the components of our training model that the principals appreciate. They tell us it’s the content that we deliver to them; the way that the coach comes once a month, gives them personal support and provides some “soft” accountability; the peer network and the ability to share ideas and even have a little bit of friendly competition with their peers. How do we enhance some of those things with digital delivery? Can we do some kind of digital coaching? Can we do digital content delivery? Can we do digital peer network, peer sharing with school leaders? These are all things that people have tried in different contexts, but how do you put it all together and can we move towards something that is fully online? I know that we’re a long way away from that, but if we’re having this interview three or four years from now I hope that we have a better sense of the possibilities.

IEN: That’s particularly challenging because you don’t know what the technological developments are going to be, but they’re either going to make your work easier or more difficult, and probably both. It’s certainly a challenge to adapt to that going forward. Any other lessons or things that you are keeping in mind as you are continuing your work?

Sampat:  We’re thinking a lot about partnerships. How do you embed this work into education systems whether government or nonprofit systems? If you look at India and the other three countries, we’re working with organizations that we started ourselves or that are new and usually relatively small. But there is a whole set of organizations that are much bigger who’ve already done some of the hard work of getting to some level of scale. They have a bunch of schools in different contexts, but how can we embed school leadership into that work at scale in a way that has the same sense of urgency that you’ll see in the four countries we’re working in now? I think that’s been one thing.

I think one of the other big challenges for us is around evidence. We’re working with school leaders who are then working with teachers who have an impact on students. We’re a few steps away from direct impact. Of course, working with school leaders will take a little bit of time for them to make the changes that can have a positive impact on students. As a result, when we’re in conversations about investing in school leadership, the big question is often “how do you know that that’s actually going to impact students?”

Revisiting The Power And Paradoxes of Education In Singapore: Lead The Change Interview With Pak Tee Ng

This week’s post features a Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Dr. Pak Tee Ng, Associate Professor, at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University. At the NIE, Dr. Ng previously served as Associate Dean Leadership Learning and Head of the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group. His main work is in educational change, policy and leadership. His latest book is “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes” (Routledge, 2017).

This is the fifth in a series of interviews inviting some of the authors of earlier Lead the Change interviews to review their previous responses and consider how they might modify/ adjust/add to what they wrote based on their experiences and insights since publication.  The fully formatted interview and the original interview  from 2015 can be found on the LtC website of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  

Lead the Change: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?

Pak Tee Ng: My previous interview in Lead the Change Series was published in 2015. Most of the questions then were about the key success factors and developments in the Singapore education system at that time. Since then, in 2017, I published my book called “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes”, which is part of the Routledge Leading Change series edited by Andy Hargreaves and I. In my 2015 interview, as well as my 2017 book, I pointed out a very important philosophy in the Singapore education system: “Education is an investment, not an expenditure.” We invested heavily in our public education system and professional development of our teachers.  We ensured our children would receive good education even during periods of tough economic conditions. Our education system worked to shift its focus from quantity to quality. Instead of obsessing over examination results, we tried to help students appreciate what they were learning, to apply their new knowledge in real life and to experience joy in learning. The education system provided more pathways to nurture different talents and fulfill different aspirations. Those points are still valid today. Singapore’s education system is always a work in progress. There is still much room for improvement.  But let me give readers an update regarding the more recent initiatives in Singapore through a few examples.

First, we changed our national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system. Instead of absolute points, students with scores within a certain range are now awarded the same grade. In doing so, we hoped to reduce the keen competition and high stress levels among students because they would no longer need to chase after every point. We also scrapped some mid-year exams at the lower primary levels.  Teachers can use the time originally reserved for examinations to engage students in activities that develop them holistically. At the secondary level, we introduced subject-based banding in the place of streaming. In streaming, students in a particular stream take all their subjects at a particular pace. In subject-based banding, students can engage in subjects in which they have strengths at a faster pace than some of their peers. We hope to give students more flexibility to take various subjects based on their strengths and learning pace.

Second, we are also promoting a culture of lifelong learning in the country through the SkillsFuture initiative, a movement that encourages Singaporeans to learn and acquire deep skills continuously throughout life. This is a national effort to shift the focus from academic performance as the primary measure of success and towards mastery of deep, practical, skills relevant to industries and the future economy.  For example, many Singaporeans use SkillsFuture credits (essentially financial sponsorship from the government) to learn how to better function in a digital workplace.

LTC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?

PTN: In my book, I explained the importance of a paradox in Singapore, which I called “timely change, timeless constants.” There is change, and there is continuity. Education in Singapore has to change to keep up with the times, but there are certain evergreen principles in education that we do not change. For example, in Singapore, an evergreen principle is that we see education as investment rather than an expenditure1. Keeping evergreen principles, in itself, is an important principle in the field of educational change. We need both change and continuity. To change or not to change, that is a question that needs both courage and wisdom to answer.

“We need both change and continuity. To change or not to change, that is a question that needs both courage and wisdom to answer.”

Education is highly influenced by technological advancement and changes in industries and work. New jobs appear and traditional ones disappear. Everywhere in the world, education has to change to keep itself relevant and to prepare children for the future. But because we must change continuously, we must exercise good judgement on what to change, rather than to jump on the bandwagon of any new reform. Sometimes, when everyone seems to be constantly and mindlessly changing, those who stand firm on solid fundamentals, stand out! For example, why does the release of international test rankings so often move educational systems, that were often previously unwilling to evolve, to change? Why should such tests become wake up calls? We should take education seriously, with or without international comparisons!

In my book, I also mentioned another important principle. Education reform is usually a contested process because every intervention has its benefits and consequences. Different stakeholders have different ideas about change and thus there will be tensions among these groups as they negotiate solutions. And yet, despite these tensions, for half a century, Singapore has been able to reform its education system quite systemically and systematically. These reforms include giving schools more autonomy and moving away from an examination-oriented system. Despite differences in opinions, there is generally coherence in the system and change is implemented with order and method.  Therefore, the main question here is whether reform is shouting slogans superficially or fighting missions meaningfully. Slogans fade away, replaced by new ones in perpetual cycles. Missions rally people to bite the bullet of change to benefit the next generation. So, academics in the field of educational change must take care so advancement in the field does not become ammunition for slogan shouting, but rather becomes the driving force for purposeful change. Real substance, which focuses on really improving learning and teaching, lasts. Fads, which distract us from such improvement efforts, don’t.

LTC: What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going?

PTN: I think that if the field of educational change can succeed in advocating for the importance of formulating far-sighted education policies (rather than knee-jerk reactions), based on sound fundamental principles (such as equity and excellence) and implemented tenaciously over the years, that will be exciting. I have observed some jurisdictions that have flip-flopped too often in their education policies. That is difficult for stakeholders, especially the professionals on the ground, who need stability to create a conducive environment for students to learn. We need change that is meaningful and purposeful, and that is given the necessary time to bloom.

“We need change that is meaningful and purposeful, and that is given the necessary time to bloom.”

An evidence-based approach to change is important. But I am more concerned that evidence-based decision-making is sometimes actually decision-based evidence gathering. Someone has made up his or her mind about something and is just looking for ‘evidence’ to support their case. Therefore, I think other than researching for evidence, or developing more measures of performance or comparisons, it would be exciting to develop a deeper and more philosophical discourse about educational change. Many jurisdictions make changes structurally in response to performance measures and comparisons. Not that many districts currently address fundamental issues such as meaning and joy in learning, or student well-being and character education.

For many of us who work in this field (and indeed in any other field), we have benefitted from more senior academics who advised us or opened doors for us. This is not about the direction of the field per se, but I think it will be exciting if there is a systematic way of paying it forward. One way is what this SIG has done for a few years through its mentoring of students and early career faculty! The SIG provides a platform for mentors and mentees from different parts of the world to come together. I think it is great for growth, understanding, and continuity in the field. As an example, I served as a mentor last year and I had a mentee from the United States. It was great as I had an opportunity to understand her work and I brought her in contact to some others working in the same field. I hope to see such mentoring expand its scope and influence.  

LTC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?

PTN: Do not change for the sake of change! Do not charge forward blindly just because the fast-pace change in the world seems to mandate change at a fast pace in education. I am not suggesting that schools and systems should look for excuses not to change, or to take a “back to basics” approach for everything. However, it is good that we sometimes examine certain fundamentals to either refute, revise, or reaffirm them. So, a discussion about improving access to education and/or student well-being is more inspiring than how one jurisdiction can outdo another in international comparisons, although the latter can appear more pressing due to political pressure or media attention. The way to stay strong under such pressure is to commit ourselves to fundamentals and proceed on a sure footing, even when progress seems slow. The main question is whether one would like to do good or just appear good. Of course, it would be great to be able to do good and appear good at the same time. But when it is a choice between one or the other, one chooses to focus on doing good, rather than appearing good.

Improving education is a long process. Change is seldom, if at all, neat and orderly. We need to be patient and adaptable. The approach to change is also important. We should increasingly draw upon the expertise of the professional teaching community. The professionals in school should feel they are engaged and empowered in the change process. They should not be made to feel that change is done to them. As a result of greater teacher input, the innovations that emerge in schools will be more organic and appropriate to the operating context and gain wider acceptance.

Most importantly, those who are interested in affecting change and improvement should embrace a very positive spirit of education. They should believe passionately that they are not merely doing a job, but they are, as an education fraternity, contributing to the future of the next generation. Education is not just about transferring knowledge and skills. It is about building lives.  

LTC: What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

PTN: During my 2015 Lead the Change interview, I pointed out that while many educational researchers bemoaned policy makers’ failure to pay attention to research, perhaps academics (including myself) also ought to examine the nature of our academic output. I think that point is still valid and perhaps even more pertinent than ever. In the area of nutrition, I am not sure how I should understand the field’s various research reports, each saying different things, for example, about the benefits or perils of consuming egg yolks or red wine. So, what does a person who is more confused than enlightened by all these reports do? Just rely on common sense and eat in moderation! In the same way, I think academics, who would like to advocate change, have to work together on a common message that is easily accessible and understood by all stakeholders. 

Academics can be powerful advocates of positive educational change by highlighting areas that require attention (for example, the needs of the disadvantaged), but they also have to work well with policy makers and other stakeholders so research findings can really hit sweet spots in practice. Moreover, we have to re-examine the meaning of ‘impact’ in educational research.  For tenure considerations, academics aim to publish papers in high-impact journals. That is not wrong. But often the general public does not understand the content in these journals given the esoteric way it is communicated. Therefore, academia becomes an ‘exclusive club’ in which only some have access. We would not want a defense lawyer who was good at collecting evidence to speak in lawyers’ jargon rather than plain language to a jury. In the same way, I hope that educational researchers who do good work can translate that work to a lay audience.  One future research direction is to make research relevant and accessible. This is not the role of just one researcher. It should be the collective quest of all academics.

“One future research direction is to make research relevant and accessible. This is not the role of just one researcher. It should be the collective quest of all academics.”

While doing the final refinements to this interview piece, Covid-19 struck. In many parts of the world, many students learned at home through the use of internet. Over a short span of time, teachers who were not inclined to use information and communications technology (ICT) in teaching were forced to do so. Many picked up skills of using online learning tools because of necessity. Covid-19 also threw into sharp relief the divide between families who were well equipped for home-based leaning, and those who were not. Well-designed research will be critical to understand the experiences of teachers, students, parents, and school leaders as they all adapted to the change. What worked? What did not? What were the challenges? What were the lessons learned? Well-articulated findings will be very helpful to policy formulation: what has changed, what still needs to be changed, and what changes, if they were positive, need consolidation after the pandemic. A point has been made that teachers should not simply replicate their lessons in the virtual medium, but to develop new and more effective ways to help students learn. That is a good point. So, what are these new and more effective ways? Why are they more effective?

The world is shaken up by Covid-19 and policy makers are looking for guidance in making decisions regarding schooling during and after the pandemic. There is a time for quick reaction during the pandemic so that learning could continue in some form, but there is also a time for careful deliberation regarding long term change after the pandemic. Academics should step up as thought leaders. Reflect. Research. Argue. But make the discourse simple. Make it clear.


1. During the 2008-9 global financial crisis, Singapore’s economy was badly affected but the education budget increased from S$8.0 billion before the financial crisis in 2008 to S$8.7 billion during the crisis in 2009, so that Singaporeans would be ready to take up new challenges when the economy picked up [read Ng, P. T. (2017), Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes. New York: Routledge, pp. 50-51].  During the current covid-19 pandemic, the government raised the quantum of various school-related subsidies and bursaries, and topped up SkillsFuture credit for Singaporeans to pick up new skills for better job prospects. For more information about Budget 2020, please read

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change SIG, Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

How to ruin a world-class education system

This week post comes from Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan. Hargreavesis director of CHENINE (Change, Engagement & Innovation in Education) at the University of Ottawa. Fullan OC is professor emeritus at OISE, University of Toronto. The original version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star on September 23, 2020.

Canada’s public schools are the envy of the world. On OECD’s international PISA test results, Canada consistently ranks in the top dozen countries. Apart from Ireland and the city-state of Singapore, it is the highest performer among all English- and French-speaking nations.

But suppose you don’t want a strong public system. Suppose you seek inspiration from fading, imperial England, or the chaotically imperious U.S. Suppose, like them, you see public schools as means to save money, release tax dollars and create market opportunities that will mostly benefit the wealthy.

Politicians love a crisis. The pandemic is a perfect one. If they wish, governments can keep people constantly off-balance, distracted by hokey-pokey, back-to-school strategies that are online, offline, online and offline, back to school, then back home again, in constantly shifting conditions. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never waste a good crisis.” So here’s what to do.

If they wish, governments can keep people constantly off-balance, distracted by hokey-pokey, back-to-school strategies that are online, offline, online and offline, back to school, then back home again, in constantly shifting conditions.

1. Undermine public confidence

Don’t copy most Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Scotland or South Korea, who have mainly had smooth return-to-school strategies that governments and teacher unions introduced together. Instead, like Ontario or Alberta, make last minute announcements, without unions’ involvement. This will provoke a reaction from unions and make them look unreasonable. It will also leave teachers underprepared and apparently incompetent. Public confidence in the teaching profession will sag. Meanwhile, underfund back-to-school arrangements so that classes are large, conditions are unsatisfactory and parents grow increasingly frustrated.

2. Create private alternatives

When people feel trapped, show them an exit route. Allow and encourage pods to be created by economically advantaged parents who are understandably fearful about their children’s health. After the pandemic, make these options permanent. Plant opinion pieces in the media that promote charter schools and private schools as alternatives to “like-it-or-lump-it” government schools. Pass legislation to introduce charter schools or expand their number. Ignore evidence from England, the U.S. and Alberta that charter schools don’t outperform regular public schools. Hide the fact that, elsewhere, charter schools often reap significant profits for their tax-subsidized private owners. And don’t mention Sweden. After it introduced “free” schools, the largest group of owners turned out to be hedge fund companies. Sweden also experienced the biggest decline on PISA results of any country in the world.

3. Misuse technology

Expand technology aggressively after the pandemic. Enrich technology companies by extending the educational market as much as possible. Mandate online learning to reduce the number of teachers and increase profits for Big Tech. Don’t implement technology in a prudent, balanced and evidence-based way to enrich and extend great teaching and learning. Use it to flood schools with devices and replace that teaching.

4. Impose austerity

After the pandemic is over, ignore experts like Heather Boushey, economic adviser to Joe Biden. She says that austerity is not inevitable and that public sector investment actually protects jobs and increases consumer spending. Chrystia Freeland said much the same in her 2012 book, Plutocrats. Impose brutal cutbacks. Pay no attention to what happened when, in 2012, Kansas’s notorious Governor Brownback introduced austerity measures and the largest tax cuts in the state’s history. Literacy and mathematics results plummeted from being above the national average to falling into the bottom 25 per cent.

5. Mortgage the future

Make your decisions on a short horizon. Ignore how our world is falling off its axis. Disregard how strong public education systems improve the future. Implement this plan, and public education will turn a tidy profit for the wealthy. It will amplify private gain. After people wise up, they will vote you out, of course. But don’t worry. You and your plutocratic peers will reap your financial rewards for a long time after.

However, if you see the light, a better future awaits. Invest resources to help vulnerable students catch up and heal after the pandemic. Plan responses collaboratively with teachers and their associations. Learn from the pandemic where technology can add unique value to young people’s education.

Don’t waste one good crisis by creating another. Transform education for public good, not for private profit that rewards the wealthy few.

Narratives of New York City Teachers Going Back to School During COVID

This week, in-person instruction began in New York City for pre-kindergarteners and students with special needs. As with schools throughout the world, the return to school looks wildly different than it has in years past. Here in New York City, heading back to school has held a level of uncertainty beyond the ongoing uncertainty of life during COVID. Just last week, with in-person classes set to begin in a number of days, New York City announced for the second time that it would delay the start of in-person instruction. Struggle, uncertainty, and chaos have become constant themes in the push to re-open New York City schools. Teachers and other school employees have expressed deep concerns and frustration with the city’s reopening plans. Families have shared both a hesitation and need to physically return to schools. Now, New York City schools plan to reopen with a staggered schedule. Elementary school students plan to return next week and middle and high schools on October 4th. Once schools re-open, they plan to continue with a hybrid learning format.

In previous years, IEN has scanned the headlines to explore what the “traditional” return to school looks like around the world. This year we scanned the headlines last week, but this week we take a step back to hear directly from educators directly impacted by and still navigating issues of reopening in New York City. Below,  teachers from across the city reflect on teaching during COVID and the complex problems of returning to school in these challenging times.

-Jordan Corson & Lauren McCoy


High school teacher, Manhattan

Let me tell you: I have missed being in the classroom terribly. I miss the daily interaction with my colleagues and students so much. I want and need some normalcy. This is why, even though I could have pushed for reasonable accommodations, I initially decided to opt for in person teaching. Did I make the right decision? If you asked me today, I would say no. Do I feel excited to be back? For the first time ever in my career, I would say no. Am I scared to step into the building? I am. Do I feel safe? I don’t. But this really isn’t about me. It’s about the students. 

I know that nothing can replace in person learning and I’m all for it. I also know that under the current conditions, my students will not be served and they will not receive the quality, equitable education each and every one deserves. We’ll be too busy preaching and worrying about coming too close or wearing our masks correctly. As an educator, this is what hurts the most. What also hurts is that I don’t feel in control. I won’t be able to reassure my kids that we are safe and that everything is going to be fine. Because I don’t know if it will be. I am not in control because I don’t know if I’m trained and equipped well enough to support my students and help them deal with their trauma when I’m still dealing with my own emotional and mental burden. I’m not ready to answer all their “what ifs” since I don’t have the answers. I feel disoriented and confused as I’m still trying to figure things out myself. I’m not in control.

Today, as I’m getting ready to go back to school, I’m thinking that in theory, I am ready to return to my classroom. I want to. But in reality, I don’t feel ready to cope with all the uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety this comes with. I’m not prepared to wear all these different hats I am asked to wear. In reality, we will be teaching remotely while in person. In reality, I’m scared.




Middle school teacher, Queens

In early March, as we began bracing for widespread infections throughout NYC I began to pay close attention to the safety protocols promised to stop the spread of COVID-19 at my school. I noticed that despite promises of safety as top priority, the soap dispensers in our windowless bathroom remained empty, the cold water from the sink remained frigid.  The promises of “Deep cleaning” sounded meaningless, particularly as the world learned the ways in which COVID actually spreads, but even these meaningless promises remained unfulfilled and my classroom only got cleaned because I cleaned it. Mid-March, I knew NYC was unprepared, unable, or uninterested in protecting its school communities, and this was confirmed last Tuesday.  My classroom remained mostly untouched, open windows remained open due to a broken latch, the closed ones remained stuck closed for the same reason, and mouse feces was scattered across my desk.  Extraordinary resources are necessary to properly educate children, but even more are needed to safely execute this academic year. NYC public schools always “do more with less” but this is completely untenable.  Our voices are scorned or ignored and our bodies are being used for political capital, I am terrified.  


Grade 9 Teacher, Brooklyn 

Our building dates from 1920, of course, many improvements have occurred, but as of now, we have no AC in all classrooms, no HPVAC, and last I was there, on Wednesday, September 9, and there was not one single room in which ALL the windows could be opened. The windows that do open, can only be opened for 4 inches, how is that for ventilation? Besides that, our Special Education Department just learned on Friday, September 11, that the DOE, in an effort to provide an adequate form of services for our students with disabilities, had just released a new plan. This new plan requires my school to add ten additional teachers, on top of the other six the school had requested before. So far, we have not heard when or if the DOE will provide those teachers. I am a special education teacher who normally teaches ELA and Social Studies, and I might have to teach Algebra 2 in the fall. How am I to teach my students a subject I do not understand nor have any passion for? 


ESL High school teacher, Washington Heights

I know this is obvious, but I want to start by saying how much I miss my students and how much I wish we could be going back to our classrooms and doing discussions and groupwork without the fear of spreading COVID. A lot of my students struggled to complete their assignments at home in the spring and I deeply understand how much they need in-person support. That’s especially true for my ELLs (as I’m sure you know!!!!) since they haven’t had the same opportunities to learn and practice English at home as they would have in school. I’m worried that my students lost a lot of their English abilities since March, in particular their speaking skills, and it’s a window of time they aren’t going to get back. 

That being said, I strongly believe the DOE’s plan to open all schools to students on September 21 is unsafe. I wish the DOE had been more creative about staggering students back to in-person learning, either by grade level or perhaps by identifying our most vulnerable student populations and giving them access to in-person resources first. There are creative ways to do this, like collaboration among schools to spread students out into the schools with the safest ventilation/building reports. Instead, the DOE has left it up to each school to figure out how to make this work on our own. At my school we’re preoccupied and overwhelmed about creating new safety policies such as: How many students can be in the bathroom at once? How are we controlling the flow of movement in the hallways? Who is monitoring bathrooms and hallways? Since our water fountains are turned off, how are we providing water for the students? What are our plans for breakfast and lunch in the classroom? How are temperatures going to be checked and who is going to be checking temperatures? Where is the isolation room and what do we do if students or staff demonstrate symptoms? etc etc etc.. Every safety question is a huge headache and we are not public health experts…we’re making these decisions based on our own gut feelings about what is safe and what best reflects CDC guidelines. Since we’re spending so much of our energy on these safety policies, we’ve barely touched instructional planning. Many teachers at my school still don’t know how to use Zoom or Google Meet, even though we’re required to use them for some form of synchronous instruction. We have not received any training on remote teaching all summer. If the DOE committed instead to a fully remote start, we could spend our time focusing on the best way to deliver remote instruction, instead of spending our limited time fine-tuning in-person safety protocols that are never going to be sufficient to stop this virus. 

Finally, I think the biggest problem is that students and staff are not required to get testing before they come to school. We have no idea who will be walking into our buildings with COVID next week and we are not at all prepared for that. I’m so worried that this is going to cause the positive cases to go up across New York City. If our numbers rise again, our most vulnerable populations will be the ones who suffer the most: such as students and families of color, immigrants, and families living in poverty. Even though remote learning is far from ideal, it is going to be much worse for these communities if COVID numbers increase, and traumatic for students in our schools. 

That turned out to be more than I expected to write….and I barely touched on my own anxiety about the idea of being in a room with my students next week…… ______________________________________________________________________________



My school will do remote learning until the end of the month and then switch to hybrid. Like many teachers, I think that remote learning needs to be extended. Although it has been difficult, I have really enjoyed remote learning so far. I miss being in the classroom, and would much rather teach in person, but I think remote learning has a lot of potential. I believe that with time, practice, and the resources that are being created, it could be effective in education even after the pandemic. Continuing to teach remotely would give us opportunities to improve remote learning, and it is one of the only ways to guarantee our safety and health. Given how much New York has recovered I feel less afraid to be around people and go to work, but I’m not confident in the reopening plans. Several schools in NYC have already closed and students are not even attending yet. It’s not worth the additional risk to public health, and it’s not worth the emotional and financial stress from closing and reopening schools due to outbreaks. 

What does it look like to go back to school? It’s different all around the world…

This week, IEN’s Thomas Hatch summarizes some of the reports and stories that describe the many different ways schools are starting the new semester and new school year following the coronavirus closures earlier this year. In many cases, the differences in reopening plans differ as much within countries as across them.

            New years and new semesters have started in schools all around the world over Some openings have included celebrations – like a “dazzling drone show” welcoming students back to school in Nanjing China – but often openings have taken place as coronavirus cases have spiked in countries like Germany, France, and Jordan. Teachers all over are expressing major concerns about schools reopening before conditions are safe, with teachers unions filing labor board complaints in Toronto, and in New York City, threats of a strike delayed the opening of schools at least two weeks.  For those schools continuing with remote learning, concerns about equity and problems equipping all students with devices and internet connections remain even after months of closures.  At the same time, The New York Times reports “China is harnessing the power of its authoritarian system to offer in-person learning for about 195 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade at public schools.”

Among the approaches to reopening schools around the world:

  • In Spain, with the fastest growing infection rate in Europe, requirements for public schools are more stringent:  class sizes are being reduced; students are assigned to “bubbles” with a small number of classmates; desks must be positioned at least 1 ½ meters apart; all schools must improve open-air ventilation, and students must wear masks. Yet some private schools have been able to take advantage of their own resources to create open-air enclosures, increase staff and take other steps to adjust.
  • In Norway, as schools reopened in cities like Oslo, cases rose to a “yellow,” caution level, and if they continue to rise to a “red” level, schools will have to close again. The Norwegian authorities have not mandated the use of face masks in schools, but many schools have dropped the tradition of allowing parents of first graders to shake hands with the principal and follow their children into their classrooms as part of a formal welcome for their very first day of school. (“Corona clouds the first day of
  • In Estonia, some schools are almost “back to normal” but others are making their own adaptions to slow the spread of the virus.  One school is alternating between one week learning in school and the next two weeks learning online from home, while another has reduced class sizes, shortened classes, decreased the length of the school day and included “movement” days where students spend the whole day outside. (“New academic year: Alternating distance and contact
  • Hong Kong schools plan to resume face-to-face classes in stages, on a half-day basis with students from some years, such as those starting primary or secondary schools among the first back
  • In Germany, testing for students and educators has been “fast and free,” with quick contact tracing making it possible to isolate cases and contain spread. As the New York Times reported, after schools were open in Berlin for a few weeks: 49 teachers and students had been infected, but with testing and targeted quarantines, only about 600 students out of some 366,000 have had to stay home on any given day. (“Schools Can Reopen, Germany Finds, but Expect a ‘Roller Coaster’”, New York Times).
  • In the US, opening plans differ drastically depending on location as 65% of rural districts plan to start fully in-person, but only 24% of suburban districts and 9% of urban districts plan to do so; overall, estimates suggest 26% of districts plan to open fully remote, but over 40% of the highest-poverty districts will do so (Getting Back to School: An Update on Plans from Across the Country, Center on Reinventing Public Education). In Los Angeles, although almost all students are still learning from home, the district is trying to put in place a massive testing program to test and screen all 700,000 students and 75,000 employees in order to reopen the schools. (L.A. Schools Begin Testing 775,000 Students and Workers, New York Times).  In New York City, the teachers union continues to express concerns about the plans to open with in-person learning, and at the same time, over 40% of students (approximately 422,000 students) have enrolled in all-remote learning. (55 NYC School Staff Test Positive; Nearly Half of Students Opt for All-Remote, NBCNewYork).

A View Of The Lockdown And School Closures From Chikodi Onyemerela And Branham Anamon In Ghana

In this week’s post, Chikodi Onyemerela and Branham Anamon share their view of the coronavirus outbreak and school closures in  Ghana. Onyemerela is the Director of Programmes and Partnerships and Anamon is Operation Manager, Education and Society both for British Council (Ghana).

This post is the tenth in a series that includes views from ChileJapan the NetherlandsScotlandLiberiaPakistanAustraliaCanada, and China. The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education.

IEN: What’s happening with you and your family?  

Onyemerela: My family members are in Nigeria and I am based in Accra, Ghana. We are doing well. We are using more virtual means to keep in contact daily. There is higher pressure on my wife at home as she has to do a lot on her own with 4 kids… 24/7…without help and it adds up.

Anamon: I am living alone in Kumasi and keeping up with work. I am speaking with friends around the world and watching a lot of Netflix. It feels like time has been running so fast during the lockdown

IEN: What’s happening with education/learning in your community?

Onyemerela & Anamon: As the government in Ghana is grappling with COVID-19 virus, all levels of education are closed introducing a new paradigm into the school system. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Ghana, the national government announced the closure of schools and other social and religious gathering on the 16th of March, 2020. Subsequently, to ensure that learning is taking place during the period of closure, the government has setup Ghana Learning TV and Radio as well as what it has called iCampus to house digital resources for students and teachers. As of mid-June, there has been a partial reopening for students in their final years of junior, senior and university programs to assist them in preparation for exams. Even though the government has made sure all schools are linked to a health centre, there has been a mixed reaction from parents and guardians about PPE for kids and following some cases of COVID -19 recorded in some schools.

At the British Council, we work within the various sectors of education including higher, vocational, secondary and primary education. Our three priorities continue to be working in partnership with the education authorities in Ghana on 1) engagement at policy level 2) capacity building for teachers and school leaders; and, 3) professional partnerships and networks for practitioners. Following the advent of COVID-19, activities in these three areas have been migrated to online platforms often in the form of webinars. Our professional development offer for teachers and school leaders has been on building their capacity to deliver effective teaching and learning and the integration of the six core skills in their teaching methods as contained in Ghana’s National Pre-Tertiary Education Curriculum Framework. During this period of the pandemic, this capacity building programme has been delivered through series of webinars for cohorts of teachers and through short videos on social and traditional media. A series of topical webinars have also been organised for policy makers in respective areas, including Progression in core skills, encouraging instructional leadership, building inclusive education systems and the role of research in creating a curriculum. Similar to many countries of Africa, there has been the challenge of stable internet and reaching teachers and school leaders in low resourced areas. We have developed a series of radio, television and nuggets to support teachers and school leaders through these different access options.

IEN: What do you/your community need help with? 

Onyemerela and Anamon: Following the closure of schools and setting up of alternative learning platforms by the government, community access of these resources is disproportionate across the country depending on accessibility to various infrastructures including internet, television and radio programmes. Mobile penetration and capacity to afford the required internet data for these online resources and smart phones are limited. It is causing what might be termed as the learning divide. Electricity is also a challenge for some rural communities which results in limited access to the Ghana Learning TV and Radio put together by the government. Other challenges include families who need their children to work on their family business or who have to work while trying to support students learning at home.

IEN: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?

Onyemerela: Over the years, the British Council has always had a lot of online resources for the professional development of teachers, school leaders, learners and parents. These resources are now being contextualised and adapted to radio and television broadcast and also mapped to the national curriculum, while other development partners have provided Ghana government with various subject specific content the British Council has uniquely provided resources/content for teachers and School Leaders’ professional development and that has been most useful. There has been a campaign by the government to prevent the psychosocial issue surrounding COVID-19 to protect survivors of the pandemic so they can go to back to school and study effectively. The government is very serious about this.

Anamon: The Connecting Classrooms programme in Ghana is known for its support to basic and secondary education systems and training of teachers and leaders. There are now more online resources for kids and content to support international learning as well. Between April and June 2020, we engaged about 70 students from three regions of Ghana (Greater Accra, Eastern and Ashanti Regions) to learn with their peers (about 500 of them) from other countries of the world. The programme (Christened Global Conversation), which was co-implemented with the Economist Foundation helped these students to learn and share their views virtually on climate change and how it affects communities. The successful execution of this event shows that blended learning is possible in Ghana’s public-school system.

IEN: What are you reading, watching, listening to that you would recommend to others?  

Onyemerela: COVID19 is a phenomenon that everyone is grappling with, to understand how to live and work with it. There are opportunities for learning even if you are stuck in a room all alone. Because digital learning is the new normal and I have a background in Digital Marketing, I have been reading digital resources for enhancing learning and I would recommend the same for teachers to enhance their digital literacy and delivery.

COVID19 is a phenomenon that everyone is grappling with, to understand how to live and work with it. There are opportunities for learning even if you are stuck in a room all alone.

Anamon:  I appreciate knowledge and am curious about how the world operates, so naturally I do love reading books, articles and novels as well as watching drama series, documentaries and docuseries on issues such as political history, global economy, criminology, Religion, Self-help etc.. I have already finished reading four books during lockdown: Becoming by Michelle Obama; Talking to strangers by Malcolm Gladwell; Why nations fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In terms of documentaries/drama series I would recommend Greenleaf, 13th, Immigration Nation, when they see us, Trial by the Media, Breaking Bad, Big Bang Theory etc.  In addition to this I was very excited about the resumption of football especially the English Premier League for which my beloved Manchester United, against all odds, qualified for the UEFA Champions league next season.

IEN: What have you found most inspiring? 

Anamon: COVID19 offers opportunities for introspections and reflections. I am bombarded with learning content. Opportunities to recharge and repackage yourself and explore opportunities. My main focus has been mental health. Hard to keep mental health a priority when you feel bored. I encourage people to call someone. Working remotely – it is hard to believe what we can live with. There are opportunities to reconnect with old friends, check up on other people and offer support.

During the lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement has moved from the house to the street. Companies are talking about it. There has been a reaction from different stakeholders. Having experienced racism in the EU and the US, I do want to fight it. Staying silent won’t help. As the co-lead of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in British Council Ghana, I am leading staff discussions on BLM and racism. It is inspiring to share and listen to experiences of others.

Onyemerela: The Ghana government has done well to provide free education to senior high schools and are doing well to manage the current capacity of primary and secondary schools. I am really interested in learning how effective learning can take place virtually. Work has been generally challenging under the current circumstance. It is encouraging to see how life is going ahead despite the limitations. We are not easily broken.Even though working from home (WFH) is a common practice, it is actually my first time to be WFH. It has its ups and downs. You want to reach out and talk to colleagues, but you are not able to do that. We have the digital tools now to deliver programmes via Microsoft teams. There are so many opportunities to do things differently using digital tools which actually reduces our cost of delivery.

Small steps to big changes in schools

As schools in the US and other parts of the world make difficult decisions about how to reopen this fall, Thomas Hatch looks at some of the concrete steps that, over time, could make schools healthier places and transform the basic parameters of schooling. This post expands on comments made at the Education Disrupted/Education Reimagined convening sponsored by WISE and the Salzburg Global Seminar in April  and summarized in a volume sharing the conference proceedings. This post was published originally on

Have the wide-spread school closures changed schools forever? The history of school reform efforts shows that schools are much more likely to change slowly and incrementally than they are to suddenly transform, even in the face of a deadly virus. Yet we can take advantage of what we know about how students learn and how schools change to address a critical problem with the design of conventional schools:  Schools are a better medium for spreading disease than they are for supporting meaningful learning.

Learning depends on healthy, safe conditions for students, educators, and all those who work in schools; but schools cram too many people into too little space, and the typical lay-out of age-graded classrooms along labyrinthian hallways limits collaboration, exploration, and engagement with the world. We’ve made things worse in the US by leaving buildings in disrepair, and failing to provide adequate ventilation, air conditioning or heating, particularly in low-income communities. Add on a draconian schedule with little time for exercise, lunch, or other healthy activities; and then ramp up stress levels with high stakes tests where students have to sit in rows in silence for hours facing a ticking clock.

But things can change. We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

Focus on learning that matters

         The school closures and the inequities of access to online learning immediately launched a spate of proposals for dealing with “learning loss.” Many of these proposals rely on intensifying work on academic subjects, yet these proposals ignore the mile-wide and inch deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for those left behind to catch-up. Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Although academic needs have to be met, the challenges that students face as they return to school go far beyond academic achievement and a “less is more” approach to academics creates the efficiencies that provide time and space for supporting other critical aspects of children’s development. Back in school, learning will be enhanced by creating educational opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences during the outbreak; to develop coping strategies; to rebuild positive relationships with their peers and teachers; and to get engaged in meaningful and constructive work in areas they care about. When that happens, educators can shift their focus from covering the entire curriculum to addressing the critical needs of every child.

Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Break down the barriers between learning “inside” and “outside” schools

As we remake schools to help stop the spread of the virus, we can stagger schedules to fit students’ sleep patterns and development as they get older. We can make sure that students have regular chances to take the breaks and get the exercise that we know benefits learning and productivity. As we limit the number of people using school facilities at any given time, we can rotate students in and out of schools and expand support for students’ learning far beyond school walls. In addition to online learning, we can take advantage of possibilities for education outside on playgrounds, in the natural world, and in the neighborhood in gyms, museums, libraries, community organizations, and businesses. In the process, we can shift the focus from getting children into schools to enabling them to explore the world.

Expand the power of the education workforce

         To increase the reach and power of teachers who have been limited largely to working with students in classrooms, we can engage a host of people who have the time and the capacity to play a positive role in learning inside and outside schools. Organizations like City Year and Citizen Schools already demonstrate how to mobilize volunteers young and old who can provide targeted academic support as tutors, act as mentors, or guide students’ in projects, apprenticeships, and community service. Numerous proposals could help meet the demand, whether it’s through the kind of education “Marshall Plan” discussed by Robert Slavin or by expanding National Service and Americorps as outlined by David BrooksJohn Bridgeland and Alan Khazei, or bills  being developed in the Senate.

Condense schooling and increase learning

All of these changes are within our reach right now. They do not require new curricula, massive professional development for teachers, or new technologies. Reimagining education depends on re-orienting our priorities, making schools healthy and safe, and focusing first and foremost on students’ needs and interests, particularly those of Black, Latinx, and immigrant students, students from low-income communities and the communities hardest hit by this pandemic. But as we change our priorities and take these initial steps, a more radical possibility emerges: Condense the school day.

Instead of extending the school day and requiring students to spend even more time on basic skills, we can concentrate more efficient academic support in more limited time slots, with educators able to utilize sophisticated materials and coordinate contributions from colleagues with specialized expertise as well as volunteer tutors, mentors, and online and offline guides. In a sense, every day could be a half-day, opening up opportunities for students to have lunch, get outside, and participate in a host of school-based, community-based, or online activities; to get any counseling they need; to pursue their own education interests; and to participate in activities that foster a much wider range of developmental and educational goals. Such an approach rejects the tacit assumption that limits education to schooling and embraces the possibilities for supporting students’ learning and development wherever and whenever it occurs.

— Thomas Hatch

Reflections on the evolution of educational change from South Africa and the Global South: Lead the Change interview with Brahm Fleisch

ENJOY THE BREAK! IEN will be on hiatus until September when we will return with more news and views of schooling and education around the world

This week’s post features a Lead the Change interview with Brahm Fleisch, Professor of Education Policy in the Division of Education Leadership, Policy and Skills at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Fleisch has been a District Director in the Guateng Department of Education and advisor for the national Department of Basic Education in South Africa. His books include: Managing educational change: The state and school reform in South Africa, and The Education Triple Cocktail: System-wide Instructional Reform in South Africa.  His recent work focuses on impact evaluation of large-scale instructional improvement models. 

 This is the fourth in a series of interviews inviting some of the authors of earlier Lead the Change interviews to review their previous responses and consider how they might modify/ adjust/add to what they wrote based on their experiences and insights since publication. The fully formatted interview will be posted on the LtC website of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  

Lead the Change: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?

Brahm Fleisch: Since the publication of our first piece in Lead the Change, our collective knowledge of educational change in the context of the large-scale instructional improvement in the Global South (and South Africa in particular) has been bolstered by seven years of experimental research. This research programme is a response to the challenge currently faced by many resource constrained systems (World Bank, 2019), in which children are enrolled in and attending school, but are, in the majority of cases, also failing to learn to read or to do basic mathematics.  The focus of our research is to identify scalable rigorous and robust change knowledge to address this challenge. The core of what we have learnt is the efficiency of a particular change model, what we have come to call, the “education triple cocktail” (Fleisch, 2018) (a reference to the successful drug treatment for HIV/AIDS).  Drawing on international experience, the model combines (a) prescriptive lesson plans, (b) the provision of quality learning materials and (c) on-site instructional coaching.  Our experimental studies show consistent, positive, and compelling evidence of the model’s effectiveness in multiple settings (Fleisch & Schoer, 2014; Fleisch et al., 2016; Fleisch et al., 2017; Cilliers et al., 2019; Kotze et al., 2019; Fleisch & Dixon, 2019).

We have demonstrated the value of mix-method impact evaluations (MMIE) that include qualitative case studies nested in representative sample cluster randomised control trials. It is our view that MMIE has the potential to contribute to building a more rigorous educational change knowledge base. Examples of the qualitative research include our study (Fleisch & Dixon,2019) that explores lesson plan mechanisms and how they link to the reconstruction of micro and macro teaching time. Alsofrom’s (2019) case studies also show the central role instructional coaches play in addressing teachers’ emotions of change.

At the centre of our contribution is not only findings of ‘what works’ (measured as effect sizes), but an opportunity to understand ‘why’ they work.  For example, case studies show teachers both adopt and adapt lesson plans they are given, and that, contrary to assumptions about de-skilling, most teachers find scripted lesson plans to add to their professional authority and instructional repertoire. The coherence embedded in the education triple cocktail approach helps teachers to shift their thinking about instructional time and space in the classroom. Other case studies point to emotional labour of instructional coaching and thus show the central role coaches play in addressing teachers’ feelings of failure and anxieties about change as well as in building professional accountability.

LtC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?

BF: There is a growing recognition that the change problems that have animated much of the field of educational change in the past three decades were primarily learning, school, and system problems of the Global North, particularly North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. Both the change problems and potential productive approaches to addressing these problems look very different from the perspective of poorer parts of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Successful systems in East Asia again have a unique set of challenges. Scholars are increasingly recognizing that to speak of a single and coherent field of educational change is difficult.  That is not to say that productive dialogues across geopolitical contexts are not possible. Quite the contrary.

There is a growing recognition that the change problems that have animated much of the field of educational change in the past three decades were primarily learning, school, and system problems of the Global North

That said, I think we need to speak of change knowledge that addresses common contextual realities. In much of the Global South, for example, the challenge is defined by the fact that many of their educational systems have only recently succeeded in achieving near-universal school enrollment. The problem they are currently managing is that the vast majority of those enrolled in the early grades are failing to reach minimum proficiency in literacy and numeracy – what the World Bank has termed “learning poverty”.  

LtC: What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going?

BF: I’m excited to see new scholars working in the field. Very powerful ideas are emerging out of the work of Santiago Rincon Gallardo (2016) and his research on bottom-up tutor networks in Mexico, Benjamin Piper and Stephanie Zuilkowski (2015) and their experimental research on structured pedagogic models in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and Rakmini Banerjee et al. (2010) and their work on teaching at the right level in India.   

LtC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?

BF: For me, the most exciting frontier of research on educational change is in the so-called Global South, and particularly in resource-constrained systems. Not only are the change challenges huge and pressing, but I find many policymakers are eager to dialogue around research. It is also a space that allows us to really challenge many taken-for-granted assumptions about system-wide change. Building change knowledge anywhere is difficult and is made that much more challenging in settings with very little financial resources or established capacity to implement effectively.   

The Global South is a space that allows us to really challenge many taken-for-granted assumptions about system-wide change

LtC: What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

BF: Understanding the levers of change and how they work in resource constrained contexts, in places where government ministries and departments, district staff, school leaders and ordinary teachers lack essential education infrastructure and capacity, should be a future research thrust for scholars working in the field of educational change.  It is critical that, as we move forward, we see this knowledge building as a cumulative process with scholars working together adding empirical findings, engaging with case study insights, and taking on substantive critiques. If we work in silos, if we neglect large-scale quantitative research on effects, if we fail to engage with internal and external critics, progress is likely to be slow. 


Alsofrom, K (2019) How and why does coaching work to improve teaching practices in the EGRS2? An examination of causal mechanisms. Paper Presented at the UKFIET meeting, Oxford University.

Banerjee, A. V., Banerji, R., Duflo, E., Glennerster, R., & Khemani, S. (2010). Pitfalls of participatory programs: Evidence from a randomized evaluation in education in India. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy2(1), 1-30.

Cilliers, J., Fleisch, B., Prinsloo, C., & Taylor, S. (2019). How to improve teaching practice? An experimental comparison of centralized training and in-classroom coaching. Journal of Human Resources, 0618-9538R1.

Fleisch, B. (2018). The education triple cocktail: System-wide instructional reform in South Africa. UCT Press/Juta and Company (Pty) Ltd.

Fleisch, B., & Dixon, K. (2019). Identifying mechanisms of change in the Early Grade Reading Study in South Africa. South African Journal of Education39(3).

Fleisch, B., & Schöer, V. (2014). Large-scale instructional reform in the Global South: insights from the mid-point evaluation of the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy. South African Journal of Education34(3).

Fleisch, B., Schöer, V., Roberts, G., & Thornton, A. (2016). System-wide improvement of early-grade mathematics: New evidence from the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy. International Journal of Educational Development49, 157-174.

Fleisch, B., Taylor, S., Schöer, V., & Mabogoane, T. (2017). Failing to catch up in reading in the middle years: The findings of the impact evaluation of the Reading Catch-Up Programme in South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development53, 36-47.

Kotze, J., Fleisch, B., & Taylor, S. (2019). Alternative forms of early grade instructional coaching: Emerging evidence from field experiments in South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development66, 203-213.

Piper, B., & Zuilkowski, S. S. (2015). Teacher coaching in Kenya: Examining instructional support in public and nonformal schools. Teaching and Teacher Education47, 173-183.

Rincón-Gallardo, S. (2016). Large scale pedagogical transformation as widespread cultural change in Mexican public schools. Journal of Educational Change17(4), 411-436.

World Bank (2019) Ending Learning Poverty

Disruption and Rapid Response: A View of School Closures in Uganda From Educate!

This week’s post provides a glimpse of what is happening in Uganda during the school closures. The post begins with short email interviews with two Associate Teachers from Educate! and then includes some examples of how Educate! has adapted their work in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The excerpts are drawn from an article published on Medium by Boris Bulayev, one of Educate!’s Co-founders.

This post is the ninth in a series that includes views from Chile, Japan, the Netherlands, Scotland, Liberia, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, and China. The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education.

In 2009, Educate! launched an experiential model for secondary education focusing on entrepreneurship. The key components of that model include a skills course in the last two years of secondary school, mentoring to help students start enterprises and community initiatives, and a professional development network for course leaders and mentors. Since that time, Educate! has scaled their approach in Uganda, expanded to Rwanda and Kenya and established partnerships with governments to support skills-based education nationally.

With the school closures in Uganda and most of Africa since March, As Boris Bulayev, put it in the article on Medium, “given our business model is rooted in in-person delivery, we were effectively out of business.” Although the Ugandan government is expected to make an announcement about reopening in September, in the meantime, the lockdown has been challenging for teachers as well as students and parents.

Alisio, an Associate Teacher with Educate! in Northern Uganda, and Akello, an Associate Teacher from the Lira District, shared their experiences in an email interview with IEN:

What’s happening with you and your family/friends? 

Alisio: I am fine, doing farming work and family work. Friends are also busy on the farm doing agriculture, but a few in the town have been left with no source of revenue since small- scale businesses have been closed. Life is harder in urban centers than the village.

Akello: Life is a bit difficult due to the lock-down since we cannot move anywhere. But I’m pushing on well.

What’s happening with education/learning in your community? 

Alisio: It’s been hard, lessons going on in the radio station from primary to secondary school. Five radio stations are conducting different lessons but I am uncertain of the education outcomes.

Akello: There is no serious learning taking place, some lessons are happening on Radio, TV but very few students pay attention to it and most parents are not also ensuring that the students get to listen and learn.

What do you/your community need help with?

Alisio: Relief food, agricultural inputs, repair of water sources. For education: financial sponsorship after lock down, both in primary and secondary especially as many parents have lost their source of livelihood.

Akello: It’s hard to determine the specifics, people want the lock down to end, and there are a lot of domestic violence related cases in families and this will affect the children. The help that can be given would be aimed at supporting orphans and designing projects that can respond to domestic violence cases.

What resources/links/supports have you found most useful? 

Alisio: History textbooks.

Akello: Reading the text books and making notes for students in preparation of the school opening.

What are you reading, watching, listening to that you would recommend to others?  

Alisio: Reading books – preparing notes for students, conducting behavioral research on the community.

Akello: Listening to/ watching the lessons on radio and TV respectively. Managing the students who are either watching or listening to the TV or Radio to be attentive. In my free time, I make briquettes.

What have you found most inspiring?

Alisio: I have shifted my mindset to have a positive attitude towards life. I have established other sources of income and now have a piggery project (7 pigs) and I hope to diversify my revenue stream.

Akello: Value everybody irrespective of status, put what you have learnt in practice.

While the schools have been closed and their direct relationships with students have largely had to stop, Educate! has also been trying to adapt. Drawing on resources like the Bain CEO plan for coronavirus and an article from Deloitte on resilient leadership, Bulayev described Educate!’s response as moving quickly into “defense” – ensuring they had the funds to survive for at least a year – and going on “offense” – essentially digitizing key aspects of their services and in-person delivery models.  To carry out that strategy, Educate! created three different teams, each focused on a different product:

  1. A version of their in-person, direct-to-school curriculum that can be delivered over a combination of radio, phone and SMS/text
  2. A government partnership to continue student learning of core subjects by USSD [“Unstructured Supplementary Service Data] and radio
  3. A light-web e-learning platform focused on youth, but open to others, on how to start and run hygienic motorbike delivery businesses during the coronavirus pandemic and stay safe while doing it, with potential to expand into informal retail and other informal sectors.

As Bulayev explains, although these strategies are designed to maintain their core services and impact over the short term, the crisis has also spawned the hope that over the long-term, the “digital will be blended with in-person to ideally achieve greater impact, scale, and sustainability.”

A View of School Closures and Remote Learning From Emma Hua in Shanghai

This week’s post features an e-mail interview that Aidi Bian conducted for IEN with Emma Hua. Hua and Bian are teachers at the HD school, a school with campuses in Shanghai, Ningbo, Beijing and Qingdao. These four schools have close to 3000 enrolled students in total. A fifth campus, in Nanjing, will open in 2021. The school describes itself as a “private experimental school” and each homeroom has one “national teacher” and one “international teacher.” HD school is one of a growing number of bilingual schools in China that have been gaining popularity. Bilingual and international schools in China have been particularly hard hit by the virus because of visa restrictions that have made it hard to find teachers from outside China.

Across China, schools were closed for some time, but most cities reopened schools in April, with schools in heavily affected areas like Beijing and Wuhan opening later. After a small outbreak in Beijing in late June, Beijing’s schools were closed throughout the spring semester. Nationwide, the annual “Gaokao” exam was postponed until July 7, one month later than a normal year. Current regulations in Shanghai require every school to track the temperatures and health status of their students every day and report to the district government.

This post is the ninth in a series that includes views from Chile, from Japan, from the Netherlands, Scotland, Liberia, Pakistan, Australia, and Canada. The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education.

IEN: What’s happening with you and your family/friends? 

Emma Hua: I was originally from Wuhan, Hubei, where Covid19 firstly broke out. I went back to Wuhan for Spring Festival during the winter break and stayed at home since Wuhan was locked down in late January. Things were not too bad after we got used to the situation. Our community in general was in good order: volunteers helped with information collection, people ordered food and things online and got delivery in time. I worked at home from early February to middle April, and then successfully returned back to Shanghai, after I was tested negative for the coronavirus in Wuhan.

IEN: What’s happening with education/learning in your community? 

EH: Our school started remote classes since February. For primary school, most of the courses were recorded as 10 or 15-minute videos and uploaded to an online platform where students can download and watch every day at their convenience. This is a deliberate design since it would be hard for young kids to stay focused for a long time in an online live class, and many parents have concerns with their children in front of screens for too long. All the materials and resources were uploaded online, and students took picture of their homework and sent them to teachers. We suggested a timetable for the students, which they could adjust, and many students gradually developed a more regular and feasible timetable for themselves with the help from parents. At the end of each day around 4 or 5 pm, each class would have a Q&A live session where teachers talked about common mistakes in the homework and got updates from students.

We suggested a timetable for the students, which they could adjust, and many students gradually developed a more regular and feasible timetable for themselves with the help from parents.

The online class lasted until April when the situation in Shanghai was basically in control. An interesting discovery was that after students got back to school, some students made better progress than expected as they studied more online at home than at school. We hypothesized this happened because some of them could better individualize the pace of their learning as they watched the videos at home.

IEN: What do you/your community need help with?

EH: At first, many teachers were not familiar with teaching online or making slides and videos, so the school organized some trainings to help teachers with making powerpoints and video editing. Courses and materials were prepared within a grade, where every teacher was responsible for several sessions of the whole week, to separate the tasks among the grade group. Some traditional teachers especially needed help with technology support from younger teachers. There were also struggles and pains when the internet of some teachers or students was not stable. In particular, when kids were young, they did not know how to deal with the technical problems. Teachers were tired, too, because the working time could be extended when communication with parents wasn’t smooth.

Courses and materials were prepared within a grade, where every teacher was responsible for several sessions of the whole week, to separate the tasks among the grade group.

IEN: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful? 

EH: We used DingTalk as the main online platform for our second grade. After students selected their school and class, they could do a lot of things such as check in, download lessons and materials, submit homework, get feedback from teachers, etc. A good thing about this platform is that it did evolve and developed many good features that fit educational uses. For example, at first, students could see one another’s homework without any restriction, which could lead to copying. Later the new version changed the rule so that only students who had submitted their homework could access others’ work. Also, the platform allowed teachers to rate and exhibite the best work to the whole class.

IEN: What have you found most inspiring?

EH:  I am appreciative that our school principals were very helpful and supportive to teachers. We have both foreign and Chinese principals, and they were responsible for the international teacher and Chinese teacher team respectively. I belong to the Chinese team, and the principal would participate in curriculum design and preparation and gave us support and suggestions. The school also has small gifts for teachers on national holidays. Another inspiration in the latter stage of remote learning was that we were trying to add more elements and activities to the online routine, such as weekly guided reading, which gave students a more diverse and similar-to-school experience even when studying online.