Category Archives: About K-12 International Education News

Expanding to Say “Yes”: The Ongoing Work of The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan (Part 1 of 2)

This week, we share part 1 of a 2-part post on the organization, TCF.


An “Over-Ambitious Goal”

In the early 1990’s, Karachi, Pakistan faced many problems. These issues included high levels of political violence and instability. Aiming to identify and combat these problems, six friends from Karachi joined together and asked “what can we as citizens do to make things better?” They were engineers, architects, and business people who felt frustrated and wanted to discuss systemic answers to Pakistan’s largest struggles. In these discussions, they made lists of a wide-range of problems. Ultimately, though, they determined that education sat at the root of every issue they identified. Schools in Pakistan faced their own issues, ranging from ghost schools to out of school children or routinely absent teachers. Changing schools, and working to change Pakistan on a large scale would be a monumental task, but, from the start, the founders wanted to set an “impossible target.” “If the goal is large enough and big enough,” they said, “that’s really something that people should take seriously.”


With that sentiment, the six friends launched The Citizens Foundation (TCF) in 1995 and immediately set a goal of building 1000 schools in Pakistan. Despite what one described as this “over-ambitious” objective, TCF began methodically, opening five schools. Communities met the schools warmly and attendance and test schools demonstrated early success, which led to recognition and additional funding that enabled TCF to expand across Pakistan. In more than 20 years, TCF has expanded to over 1,500 schools. They have also developed new approaches to developing educational opportunities and moved from a privately funded organization to, in 2016, co-funding and operating government schools at scale in Pakistan.


Early Years

TCF opened its first 5 schools in 1996, which the 6 founders funded with their own money. In building these schools, TCF directly aimed to serve out-of-school children. Out-of-school youth have been and remain one of the largest issues for Pakistan’s education system, with the country still facing the second largest population of out-of-school children in the world. Over decades, the Pakistani government has expanded one- and two-room schools to reach these students, but those schools struggle to deliver quality education. Rather than compete with these government schools, TCF chose to build spacious, purpose-built schools in neighborhoods where no other schooling options existed.

TCF identified areas in Karachi with a large number of out-of-school children and constructed school buildings directly in those neighborhoods. Though many of these neighborhoods had limited electricity, water, and sanitation, TCF did not want to build “poor schools for poor children.” Building on the background and expertise of one of the founders who was an architect, the organization had the ambition to build schools that would become recognizable landmarks in the community. Nadia Naviwala, an advisor to TCF today, describes these designs as taking into account “what a child feels like when they walk into a space. The architects wanted the children to feel that the schools were made for them.” Early buildings were designed to encourage families to enroll their children in school and to support their continued attendance. The choice to build schools in these neighborhoods, for instance, was later corroborated by research from Harvard LEAPS studies that found children, especially girls, are more likely to attend school if it is walking distance from home. Similarly, TCF found early on that a number of factors, including an all-female staff, can increase girls enrollment in schools. These early lessons also led to figuring ways of recruiting and retaining an all-female staff. For instance, TCF provided transportation to teachers.  TCF still employs an entirely female staff in their schools today. Though their schools are co-educational, the female-only staff has helped increase the number of girls in TCF schools and many of their schools have achieved gender parity. In contrast, by 6th grade, nearly 60% of girls are out of school in Pakistan. Crucially, according to Naviwala, the cost per pupil hovers around $12 per month, with parents making nominal, pay-as-you-can-afford contributions of $1 per month on average and as little as 10 cents for all children in the family.

Soon after opening the initial 5 schools, word spread. People from neighboring areas of Karachi began approaching the founders and asking them to build schools in new areas. Through private funding from individuals, TCF expanded, into neighboring areas in Karachi, and, by 1998, to Punjab as well. Around this time, TCF also opened their first secondary school. These new schools followed the same design principles as the first TCF schools, serving as landmarks in their community, keeping class size small, and holding down costs.

Part of the organization’s expansion in the 1990’s included a greater focus on securing funding internationally. They began by establishing fund-raising chapters in the United Arab Emirates and the UK and have since expanded to a number of other countries including Switzerland and Australia. These chapters helped raise funds for the organization, funds that allowed for constructing new schools and supporting students in multiple provinces in Pakistan. The vision of 1000 no longer seemed overly ambitious.


Expanding Focus

As TCF continued their growth, the organization emerged as a recognizable presence in Pakistan and within the development world. In 2003, the first cohort of students from TCF schools, what TCF calls “Agents of Positive Change,” graduated. TCF also continued expanding, opening in new areas of the country such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Taliban has attacked girls’ schools and gunmen shot Malala Yusufzai. These schools followed the initial model TCF developed, including schools built in communities, a focus on out-of-school children, and gender parity. But TCF also began to place even more emphasis on providing pre-service and in-service education for teachers. Simultaneously, TCF developed new programs, including summer camp programs and an adult literacy program for women. These developments reflected the organization’s growth and observed needs within schools and communities.

Then, in 2009, TCF made central leadership changes. The new CEO, Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, a longtime supporter of TCF’s work, previously worked for Shell. Though initially only wanting to give money to the organization, he ended up taking on the leadership role and inheriting over 500 schools. As the new CEO took over, reaching the initial goal of 1000 schools was certainly on the horizon, but he noticed that not much was known about each school. From these observations a new question emerged. How would TCF scale their work while ensuring quality education in each school? “It was a daunting challenge to take up but we decided to not compromise on the quality of education. We were committed to our core values to reach out to more remote locations in an effort to make education accessible to more out of school children,” said Asaad.


Animated by this concern, TCF made a renewed commitment to focusing on quality as well as quantity. After an external evaluation from the Aga Khan Foundation, they developed a series of year-to-year exams to assess school quality and set goals for each school. Over time this became a Whole School Index that analyzes and grades every school in the TCF system. The grade is a composite of four interrelated aspects. First, TCF developed a new method for assessing teachers. Teachers take yearly content-based tests in the subject they teach. It is worth noting that in the last four years TCF has seen teacher competency rise by over 20%. Second and relatedly, they developed an assessment for principals in which a member of the head office conducts in-school visits and rates the principal on a rubric based on her leadership abilities (focusing specifically on capacity, achievement, relationships, and passion). Both the school leader assessment and teacher evaluations are linked to salary bonuses. Third, TCF began focusing on student outcomes using an external evaluation (they use an internal exam as well, but it does not contribute to the index). Fourth and finally, they started tracking enrollment more systematically, considering the percentage of available seats in a school that are filled. Again, the composite of these factors, each weighted differently, leads to each school’s grade and contributes to goal setting.

Beyond assessment, TCF developed its own curriculum and provided teachers with structured lesson plans. Over time, though, teachers have developed more freedom and flexibility. Additionally, the organization shifted its in-service professional development to leveraging digital tools in teacher training. Rather than traveling to visit other schools, teachers now gather in a room with training videos focused on areas where tests and observation identify they are struggling. School principals lead the trainings. This move to digitization was complicated by most TCF schools not having electricity. They circumvented the problem by installing an LCD television backed up with battery power and with preloaded videos on a USB. The investment in approaching professional development in this way allowed TCF to centrally create resources and share them more readily than if facilitators had to travel to each school site. Developments like these became possible as the head office grew and developed the capacity to create and develop and disseminate products across schools. Recognizing that women in rural areas increasingly have smartphones, TCF has set up a service on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and SMS so that teachers can simply send text messages with questions or issues with their content area and receive a video in response automatically. “Training our teachers is critical in providing quality education at TCF schools. For the first time, TCF has leveraged technology to conduct more effective training,” said Riaz Kamlani, VP Outcomes.

The growing capacity of TCF also enabled them to develop their own textbooks. Naviwala sees this development as crucial to figuring out a language policy that in turn was central to improving school quality. With their own textbooks developed by content area specialists, TCF no longer had to rely on a mix of government textbooks in Urdu supplemented by Oxford University books in English. Furthermore, they could make Urdu their central medium of instruction in Urdu. TCF is now moving to mother tongue, with an in-house research team, led by an Acumen Fellow, that is exploring how to develop a curriculum that moves a child from her mother tongue (Dhatki) to the regional language (Sindhi) to the national language (Urdu) and finally to English.

Along with these shifts, TCF continued expanding, even opening its first “college” for the equivalent of 11th and 12th grades, aimed at increasing the numbers of TCF graduates who make it into top-tier universities. TCF became even more recognizable on the international stage with recognition from the Clinton Global Initiative, Skoll Foundation, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, UN Girls Education Initiative, and UNESCO. Throughout their work, TCF maintained a general focus on the same issues and the same broad approach to the problem: private funding and expanding its model. They kept expanding, but said ‘no’ many times along the way as they continued on the same trajectory. That is, even as they expanded, they were routinely approached by government and private donors with related opportunities to expand in new directions. Hoping to stay focused on their initial objectives, they initially maintained a policy of saying no to these opportunities.


The organization also wishes to share a call to action: You can help change a life by educating the less privileged children in Pakistan and give them a chance to become moderate, enlightened and productive members of the society. Please follow this link to donate:

Rounding Up CIES 2019: Education for Sustainability

Edu4Sustain_v-138x300 As we did a few weeks ago with AERA, this week we share a round-up of some compelling sessions and papers from last week’s Comparative and International Education Society conference in San Francisco. This year’s CIES conference focused on education for sustainability:

During its “Development Decade” of the 1960s, the UN advocated education as a driver of economic growth. But, over the past fifty years, questions have been asked with increasing urgency about what kind of development is promulgated through literacy, skills training, and formal schooling. What is the longer term cost of an education that promises – and sometimes delivers – productivity, industrialization, modernity and consumption? Who pays this price? What are the larger costs? And with what ultimate consequence for the planet?


Friend of IEN, Kristin Kew, shared her emerging research, Crossing the border for school: an ethnographic observation of a daily practice on the border of Mexico and the United States as part of a session on school, identities, and subjectivities.

In a panel on migration and marginalized communities, Gabrielle Oliveira shared research on Everyday Border Crossings: Citizenship, Migration and Education in American Schools.

Transnational Migration, Refugees, and Education: Case Studies from Across the Globe

A symposium featuring scholars such as Monisha Bajaj addressed issues of transnational migration.

The purpose of this symposium is to critically examine the dominant educational discourses and practices that often shape the schooling experiences of immigrant and refugee youth in public schools and educational spaces across the globe. While discourses like ‘diversity,’ ‘belonging,’ and ‘inclusion’ are often deployed in various social contexts to frame immigrant and refugee education, this panel considers the limitations of such discourses when they potentially inform policies and practices that produce deficit narratives about immigrant and refugee children. Consequently, these ostensibly affirming discursive framings potentially contribute to further marginalizing young people in their particular contexts.

The symposium considers the ways in which school actors trouble some of the normative assumptions that often define present educational programs, including those intended for their empowerment and inclusion. By examining issues regarding localized experiences, power, and larger structural inequalities among participants, these papers not only uncover the ways in which such discourses manifest, but also explore how they are re-negotiated, re-made and re-interpreted, to present both the possibilities and challenges facing public educational reform.

Environmental and Sustainability Education

A number of sessions directly focused on the conference theme of sustainability

Eco-pedagogy, place, & permaculture in the age of post-truth: how do we midwife a biophilic society?

Our panel seeks to explore some of the intersections of ecopedagogies, place-based education, eco-literacies, and critical theory. Liz Jackson will share with us some of her research and ideas about how critical-pedagogy and place-based learning can be used to re-negotiate the learning that had often privileged previously settler and colonial perspectives. While the norm is still that such systems promote a vision of globalization that produce a homogenization of cultures and identities and risks subjugating people for the sake of a global economy, Liz points to other possibilities. Eco-pedagogy is the extension of this work to unpack the often hidden links between these socioeconomic elements and their dynamic impact upon the environment. Environmental degradation begets social degradation. By using place-based education we can re-center the environment in our pedagogy and thereby also reclaim place for indigenous knowledge and culture within the dynamics of determining the power struggles of curriculum over whose knowledge, development, and relationships matter. It is not to advocate that indigenous knowledge or place is pure or uncontested as Liz points out, but it is rather to reopen and explore the need to critically examine what has for far too long remained largely uncontested and silenced spaces within our school systems. 

Thinking global, educating local: sustainability education in New York City

The Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 recognize the impact of urban spaces on sustainability (e.g., Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities). Indeed, more than half of all humanity now lives in urban areas (UN, 2018). Research on sustainability education in urban spaces, however, is still limited. One possible explanation for this gap is the tendency of environmental and sustainability education scholarship to focus on the relationship between humans and the natural environment (i.e., other living things such as forests, animals, ecosystems). The intersection of policy and sustainability education in urban spaces is even less explored.

Similar to other global cities, New York City (NYC) has initiated a groundbreaking effort to address the City’s long-term challenge of climate change. Under this initiative all City agencies must make progress on 29 sustainability indicators by 2030, including recycling, waste diversion, greenhouse emissions, water conservation, and energy efficiency. The initiative affected schools in various ways, specifically through the publication of Chancellor’s Regulation A-850 on sustainability in 2009. The Chancellor’s Regulation established the Office of Sustainability within the Division of School Facilities. The Regulation also required all schools to appoint Sustainability Coordinators.

The ecological footprint of NYC Department of Education (DOE) is substantial. The largest school district in the United States, there are 1.1 million students and 75,000 teachers in the NYC school system. The system includes 1,843 schools, including 227 charter schools. These figures make the NYC case important for the study of sustainability education.

This panel brings together policy makers from the NYC DOE Office of Sustainability and researchers to critically examine the development and implementation of Chancellor’s Regulation A-850 – a policy intended to promote sustainability in K-12 schools. The first paper, by Meredith McDermott, Director of the NYC DOE Office of Sustainability, describes the policy context for sustainability and education in the City (i.e., Chancellor’s regulation A-850). The second paper, by Carine Verschueren, doctoral student at Teachers College, analyzes the factors that facilitated the unique policy in New York City. The third paper, by Thaddeus T. Copeland, Deputy Director of the NYC DOE Office of Sustainability, describes the strategic plan and programing that were developed to implement the policy. The fourth and final paper, by Oren Pizmony-Levy, Assistant Professor at Teachers College, explores the extent to which schools’ engagement with sustainability vary by different organizational characteristics. Together, the papers provide a holistic perspective on the ways in which a large education system engages with the global script of sustainability.

Globalization and Education

Finally, we share a diverse selection of sessions that focused on the theme of globalization.

Studying the Global Education Reform Movement through the lenses of a Policy Instruments Approach

In the last decades, most countries in the world have faced major pressures to reform their educational systems. The emerging demand for global skills in increasingly inter-dependent economies, the challenges generated by technological innovation, and the comparisons of educational systems promoted by international large-scale assessments have contributed to the expansion of the so-called Global Education Reform movement (GERM). The GERM is an education reform approach that broadly follows the tenets of New Public Management and, accordingly, is structured around a common set of policy ideas including standards-based management, performance evaluation, and accountability. The GERM has disseminated widely due to its promise to modernize education systems and strengthen their performance. However, the GERM phenomenon has been more profoundly studied in Anglo-Saxon countries, where it did emerge, and it is not clear to what extent this reform movement has contributed to alter the governance of educational systems globally. 
The two most emblematic policy instruments through which the GERM disseminates globally are national large-scale assessments and test-based accountability. The presentations in this panel analyze the complex, path-dependent and contingent processes of policy change through which the GERM goes in different contexts (Northern Europe, South America and Mediterranean countries). The panel shows that the GERM follows variegated policy trajectories that are markedly conditioned by the politico-administrative regimes that prevail in these different regions. The paper also shows that the education policy change that the policy instruments of the GERM involve has an additive nature, and goes through recurrent back-and-forth dynamics and lock-in effects, often triggered by the new economic and political subjectivities that the GERM itself generates. All the papers have in common that have analysed the GERM phenomenon through the lenses a political sociology approach to policy of instruments, which in many occasions has been combined with elements of historical institutionalism.

The OECD’s Defining Role in Education: Its Historical Rise, Global Impact and Comparative Perspectives

This panel session proposal arises from the research project ‘The Global History of the OECD in Education’ ( hosted at Aalborg University, Denmark. The project organises and facilitates a network of international scholars working with different angles and takes for understanding the role and significance of the OECD in education from historical and comparative perspectives. The project has created a database of archival data collected in the OECD archive and in the national archives of selected case countries (Australia, Brazil, China, Denmark and USA) enabling researchers to trace the exchanges between the OECD headquarters in Paris and the ministries of education in the case countries.

LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Lee Elliot Major

Lee Elliot Major is Britain’s first Professor of Social Mobility. Appointed by the University of Exeter to be a global leader in the field, his work is dedicated to improving the prospects of disadvantaged young people. As a Professor of Practice he is focused on the impact and dissemination of research, working closely with schools, universities, employers and policy makers. His Penguin book Social Mobility and Its Enemies has attracted attention across the world. His forthcoming Bloomsbury book What Works? offers best bets to teachers for improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. He commissioned and co-authored the first Sutton Trust-EEF toolkit, a guide used by 100,000s of school leaders. Lee is a founding trustee of the Education Endowment Foundation and chairs its evaluation advisory group. He is Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics International Inequalities Institute, and an Honorary Professor at the UCL Institute of Education. He was formerly Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust. Lee regularly appears in national broadcast and print media, commenting on education and social mobility issues. He has served on several Government advisory bodies and presented several times to the House of Commons Education Select Committee. He has a PhD in theoretical physics and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sheffield for services to education. He was an education journalist working for the Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement. He is a Governor at William Ellis School. He is the first in his family to attend university.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Major talks about his diverse professional background and common themes in his research. As he puts it:

People often ask me about the common thread running through my career. I’ve been a Ph.D. theoretical physicist, an education journalist, a charity CEO, and now a Professor. The constant across all these roles is my work at the boundaries of research and communication. No matter my position, I continually ask, “What does the evidence tell us? “How can we present it so a wide range of people can understand and act on it?” These same questions lie at the heart of this year’s AERA conference. For me it’s perfect timing.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Thomas Hatch.

Leveraging Education Research in a Post-Truth Era: Rounding Up AERA 2019

Working through conference season, this week we reflect on and offer a roundup of some of the compelling work coming out of this year’s AERA conference. There conference theme, “Leveraging Education Research in a Post-Truth Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratize Evidence,” led to a diversity of presentations on educational change, international education, and many other areas. Below, we highlight just a few of these sessions.



A number of panels featured examinations of immigration and education issues, focusing on education policy and transnational identity.

How Immigration and Education Policy Collide in a “Post-Truth” Era

This panel featured scholars such as Rebecca Lownhaupt and Ariana Mangual-Figueroa discussing a large-scale project investigating education policy since Trump’s election.

Although immigration and education policies intersect in many ways, policy discourses generally focus on each as separate spheres of influence on the educational experiences of immigrant youth. This symposium brings these two spheres into conversation. Particularly at this moment in time, when immigration policies are rapidly changing and have widespread implications for immigrant communities in the United States and beyond, this symposium will provide an opportunity to explore how an anti-immigrant policy agenda intersects with education policies as they unfold in schools, communities, and institutes of higher education.

Immigration and Immigrants in the Trump Era

In a similar vein, a number of papers focusing on critical education and social justice explored everything from attitudes toward immigrant students to analysing child protection cases.

Examining Truths About Immigrant Student Success: Studying the Internationals Network for Public Schools

Another panel looked at the work of the Internationals Network.

The objective of this session is to better understand practices in place within the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a national network of public secondary schools designed to serve the needs of recently arrived immigrant youth. Immigrant youth face many challenges when arriving in the United States (language acquisition, acculturation, and maintaining ties with their family members abroad) which contribute to making immigrant youth vulnerable to school failure (Olneck, 2006; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Internationals schools have been uniquely successful in educating recently immigrated youth. Presentations within the symposium describe the accomplishments of the Internationals Network as well as some of the key practices and mechanisms underlying their success with recently immigrated youth.


Educational Change

Changing the Grammar of Schooling? An Examination of Reform

Our own work was featured in a symposium that revisited the concept of the grammar of schooling. Our paper took up an international lens to look at efforts to change in New York City and Singapore.

Various educational reform efforts attempt to shift us away from the century old grammar of schooling, as described by Tyack and Cuban (1995). These include personalized learning, blended schools, deeper learning schools, and more. These efforts have been written up favorably by proponents, and conversely decried by ideological opponents who see them as the harbinger of privatization and neo-liberalism. This session provide a dispassionate, research-based, analysis of the forces that inhibit and promote changing the grammar of schooling. Four empirical papers will consider changes to pedagogy and classroom practice, as well as school-level factors and the broader political ecology. Two commentaries will be provided by leaders in the field of school change.

Leveraging Research to Advance Educational Justice in Latin America

Another symposium featured work from Santiago Rincon-GallardoSantiago Rincon-Gallardo and Michael Fullan.

This symposium will discuss how educational justice is being advanced in educational systems in Latin America, and the role that research is playing and can play to advance educational justice across the region. It will feature examples of efforts to transform pedagogy, leadership practice, and school-community relationships across schools in historically marginalized communities in Argentina, Chile Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay. Presenters will discuss the role their research is playing and could play in advancing educational justice, a role that ranges from documenting and bringing visibility to the voices of subaltern actors (students, teachers, communities), to engaging in participatory action research to work alongside educators and communities to advance more and better educational opportunities with and for historically marginalized groups.

International Studies SIG

Other papers took up international education issues broadly. The International Studies Special Interest Group showcased work on the “exchange of information among educators involved in research, planning, development, implementation, and evaluation of international studies.”

Scholars Disrupting Higher Education Research Status Quo in Indonesia, Myanmar, Rwanda, and the United Kingdom

This symposium deals with a major challenge for education internationally: how researchers can elucidate the problems of structural racism and exclusion in ways that “talk back” to contemporary right-wing populism and scientism to advance social equity in education. It addresses this challenge by bringing together an international group of scholars trained in the USA, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the UK and drawing on different data sets to compare different theoretical and methodological approaches to social equity research internationally, including quantitative intersectional research, visual methods, case studies, narrative and critical quantitative methods, to advance social justice in education.

External Support for Schools in Historical and International Perspective

            My recent commentary in Education Week (“Who will improve the school improvement industry?”) and a longer version (“How can “outside” help support work inside schools?”) suggest some strategies that might help increase the collective impact of external support in schools. Those suggestions build on the recognition that schools in the US need much more support to improve learning for all students and that external support providers can offer access to resources, expertise, and services that many school districts cannot develop on their own. As “intermediaries” these organizations also facilitate sharing of information and coordination among schools and those working in different parts of the education system.

However, it is worth highlighting that the need for this kind of external support is exacerbated by the highly-decentralized nature of the US system. This reliance on external support in the US education system seems unimaginable in countries as diverse as Singapore and Finland that have invested in making sure all schools have access to adequate facilities, resources, and expertise. In addition, in Singapore, the education system reflects a “centralized-decentralized” approach that both constrains and supports all educational enterprises including those engaged in fostering students’ learning and development outside of schools. In Finland, education stakeholders at the national, local and school level engage in a coherence-building curriculum renewal process roughly every ten years that guides the work of all those involved in education.

Further, although we have learned a lot in recent years about the challenges and possibilities for using external support effectively, many policies seem to ignore that evidence. In particular, national initiatives and federal policies in the US continues to assume that there is a steady supply of effective programs. For example, in 1983, A Nation At Risk declared, “It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.” Since that time a series of federal in initiatives have built on the idea that there is an established knowledge-base and effective support providers and, in turn, have increased the pressure on states and schools to use those external resources.

These policies have contributed to the development of a small number of school models that have demonstrated effectiveness (for example Success for AllExpeditionary Learning, and Diplomas Now).  Nonetheless, overall results have been mixed at best. For example, in 2002, RAND’s evaluation overview concluded NASDC’sinitial hypothesis–that a school could improve its performance by adopting a whole-school design–was largely unsupported.” (Full disclosure, I worked on the NASDC-funded ATLAS Project and chronicled the challenges in designknowledge-use, and scale-up.) The 2008 CSRD evaluation reported only one-third of the schools awarded funds chose reform approaches with “recognized scientific research bases.” Most recently a summary of 67 different evaluations conducted on programs supported by the i3 grants found that only nine evaluations (13%) found evidence of both adequate fidelity and positive impacts on student academic outcomes.  A recent Carnegie Corporation report pointed out the continuing challenge that schools are often overwhelmed by multiple support providers who work in an uncoordinated fashion that may hinder rather than help improvement efforts; a finding consistent with my own work from twenty years ago (“When improvement programs collide”) echoed in another Rand report (“Challenges of conflicting school reforms”) on the implementation of New American Schools’ designs in one district).

We can keep these challenges of using external support in mind and learn from previous efforts. In the end, all of us who are involved in education are responsible for taking best advantage of the real contributions external providers can make and for taking seriously the problems and issues that we know make it difficult to use that support effectively.

  • Thomas Hatch

How can “outside” help support work inside schools?

This post provides an expanded version of the commentary “Who should improve the school improvement industry” published last week in Education Week. It also appeared on The commentary is by Thomas Hatch, IEN Founder and Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST).  The commentary and post report on a study of “The Role of External Support Providers in Improving K-3 Reading Outcomes in New York” funded by the Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education in The New York Community Trust. Hatch also discussed the study in a podcast for CPRE’s Research Minutes.

Schools and districts depend on a host of “outsiders” to help them create powerful learning experiences for all their students.  This loose collection of curriculum providers, tutoring programs, staff developers, management consultants, and school designers forms what Brian Rowan calls the “school improvement industry.” Almost thirty years of federal policies and philanthropic initiatives have fueled both the demand for these kinds of organizations and the supply (see CSRD, NCLB, and SIG, the Annenberg Challenge and the Gates Foundation’s small schools initiative among others). Illustrating that growth, this year, a survey of 13 state websites identified 151 of these organizations, but in 2001, I only found 63 listed in the Catalog of School Reform Models, with only 15 in existence before 1980.

The development of this “industry” builds on two key ideas:

  • On their own, many schools do not have the capacity they need to make sufficient improvements in students’ learning
  • There are “external support providers” that do have the capacity – the resources, expertise, and connections – that can help large numbers of schools make those improvements

A lack of adequate progress towards many educational outcomes supports the first proposition, but even with evidence that some providers such as Success for All and Expeditionary Learning can be effective, the limited number of “proven” providers casts doubt on the second. Reviews that demonstrate effectiveness of some improvement programs, curricula and professional development services also show how rare it is to find those approaches employed in practice on a widespread scale. Illustrating the problems when outside experts try to influence what happens inside schools, only a handful of the largest districts in the US consistently use highly-rated curricula. Many curricula and textbooks that claim to be aligned to the Common Core actually are not; and a recent study on the research behind apps for 3-5 year olds spawned the headline “few preschool apps are developmentally appropriate.”

Why is it so difficult to produce and use “proven” programs and practices?

Numerous factors contribute to this state of affairs including the difficulty of carrying out complex evaluations, the limitations of conventional methods and outcome measures, and the need to adapt to different contexts.  All of which stoke debates about what counts as “proven” (as illustrated by the controversy over American Public Radio’s claim that many educators don’t know the science related to how children read). But with thousands of schools that need to make improvements, why is it a surprise they turn to thousands of materials, practices, and programs that are not “proven” and may not even be aligned with standards or what’s considered appropriate practice?

When we periodically stop to recognize this reality, too often, the response is to blame someone:  Blame the researchers for not doing the “right” kind of research; blame the schools and educators for choosing the “wrong” programs; blame the policymakers and funders for aiding and abetting the whole endeavor. But the growth of the “school improvement industry” and the difficulties in using external assistance and “research-tested” programs are not accidents. These issues are produced by a decentralized education system and a society that relies on the creativity of individuals and not-for-profit and for-profit enterprises to address many social, economic, and educational issues.

An illustration: External support for improving reading in New York City

As one example of the possibilities and challenges for taking advantage of the work of external support providers, my colleagues and I explored the nature and variety of external assistance available in just one subject (reading) at one level (elementary schools) in one large school district (New York City). Our report and research brief from that study shows over 100 programs working directly with students or teachers to improve reading outcomes in New York City public elementary schools. A review of a representative sample of programs revealed that those programs focus on a wide range of different goals – some on more specific skills like comprehension, while others focused on the standards of the Common Core or on “grade level reading.” The programs drew from a range of approaches, including tutoring for students and instructional coaching for teachers that have some evidence of effectiveness, but only 19% of the sample programs had publicly available evaluations reporting on their outcomes.

The sample programs demonstrated substantial reach, however, suggesting they could serve as a valuable lever for system-wide improvement. In fact, just 26 programs reported working with 161 different schools comprising 16% of all elementary schools in NYC (including 28% of the elementary schools in the Bronx and 26% of the elementary schools in Manhattan). We also found some basis for collective impact as just over half of the sample programs reported working in partnership or collaboration with at least one other sample program. At the same time, the sample programs get support and information from a wide range of sources of funding and expertise that are themselves likely to be only loosely related. The sample programs reported receiving grants from 57 different funders and identified 75 different sources for literacy expertise with little overlap. The sources of expertise encompassed individual consultants, the conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Huffington Post.

What would it take to increase the collective impact of external support?

Moving forward requires both long-term and short-term strategies. Long-term strategies can build on efforts at the national level to develop “evidence-proven” programs, to support research use, and to foster networked improvement communities focused on reading.

At the same time, local and regional efforts can launch short-term strategies to promote greater coordination, coherence and collective impact right now:

  • Share information and build awareness by regularly “mapping” which programs are providing support in key aspects of schooling – Carried out systematically every five years in areas like reading, math and school improvement (or on an as needed basis as priorities and initiatives develop in other areas), this scan of the educational environment could make visible the extent and nature of the outside support available; reveal areas of overlap; and expose underserved areas where more support might be needed.
  • Support coordination, common understanding, and coherence – Local hub organizations can bring together stakeholders from inside and outside schools to jointly reflect on the information from these periodic scans and other research. These hubs could then identify common needs, discuss relevant research and effective practices, and develop agreements on standards and expectations.
  • Build broader coalitions for collective impact – Strategic alliances and collaborations could bring together strategic partners to take on emerging needs in local neighborhoods (as in East New York Reads) or broader regions (like the Early Literacy Task Force in Michigan).

Strategies like these begin with the recognition that investments need to be made in building the capacity of both external support providers and schools; but they also establish a middle way between adding more bureaucratic requirements and letting “1000 flowers bloom.”                                                                      



Before sharing this month’s Lead the Change, we want to share that the Educational Change SIG has also recently begun a new series, the Doctoral Corner, featuring interviews with current doctoral students. This month’s issue features Alexandra Lamb. We will occasionally feature the Doctoral Corner here on International Ed News.

Scott McLeod


An Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Colorado
Denver, Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading
experts on P-12 school technology leadership issues. He is the Founding Director of the
UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE),
the only university center in the U.S. dedicated to the technology needs of school
administrators, and is the co-creator of the wildly popular video series, Did You Know?
(Shift Happens). He also is the co-creator of the 4 Shifts Protocol for lesson/unit redesign
and the founder of both the annual Iowa 1:1 Institute and EdCampIowa, one of the largest EdCamp events in the United States. Dr. McLeod has worked with hundreds of schools, districts, universities, and other organizations and has received numerous awards for his technology leadership work, including the 2016 Award for Outstanding Leadership from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). In 2015, he was one of three finalists to be the next Director of the Iowa Department of Education. In 2011, he was a Visiting Faculty Fellow at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Dr. McLeod was one of the pivotal figures in Iowa’s grass roots 1:1 computing movement, which has resulted in over 220 school districts providing their students with powerful learning devices. Dr. McLeod blogs regularly about technology leadership issues at Dangerously Irrelevant and is a frequent keynote speaker and workshop facilitator at regional, state, national, and international conferences. He has written or edited 3 books and 170 articles and other publications, and is one of the most visible education professors in the United States.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. McLeod talks about technology and educational leadership. As he puts it:

We also need more research about how these schools and their leaders create cultures of innovation. If you visit these communities, everyone at all levels of the system tends to discuss how it is focused on innovation rather than being captive to glacially-slow rates of change. These leaders create virtuous cycles of innovation that feed on themselves and instill pride in both their internal and external stakeholder groups. It’s awesome to visit a school community in which educators, students, and parents proudly proclaim, “Here, in this school, we are innovative. We try things and take risks and it’s very exciting.” Ultimately, of course, we need experts in educational change to not only analyze these new models of schooling but also figure out how to translate them and transport them into more traditional school contexts. How do we take the exciting work happening in these innovative schools and ‘infect’ others to do the same? That’s the ultimate question for us in this field because – in a technology-suffused, global world rife with rapid changes and new challenges – innovation work is equity work these days.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Thomas Hatch.