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

This post was written by Thomas Hatch and originally published on

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

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

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

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

Overwhelming need coupled with real possibilities for growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headlines around the world: PISA (2015) Well-Being Report

This week, we provide a quick scan of headlines related to the release of OECD’s first global study on the well-being of students,  OECD’s analysis of PISA 2015 results focuses for the first time on students’ motivation to perform well in school, their relationships with peers and teachers, their home life, and how they spend their time outside of school. As the OECD shares on its website, “the findings are based on a survey of 540,000 students in 72 participating countries and economies who also completed the main OECD PISA 2015 test on science, mathematics and reading.”

The results show that many students are very anxious about school work and tests and the analysis reveals this is related with how supportive they feel their teachers and schools to be. On average, 59% of students reported worrying that taking a test will be difficult and 66% reported feeling stressed about poor grades. As reported on the OECD website:

Teachers play a big role in creating the conditions for students’ well-being at school and governments should not define the role of teachers solely through the number of instruction hours. Happier students tend to report positive relations with their teachers. Students in schools where life satisfaction is above the national average reported a higher level of support from their teacher than students in schools where life satisfaction is below average.

To read the full report, go to


PISA (2015) Well-Being Report headlines::

Competitiveness at school may not yield the best exam results, The Economist


The three measures by which Australian students are ahead of Finnish ones, The Sydney Morning Herland

Teacher flaws stifle students, The Australian


PISA study: Finnish youth – especially boys – content with life,


Pisa-Studie zum Wohlbefinden: Wie ein Abendessen am Familientisch die Leistung der Schüler verbessern kann. Spiegel Online

Mobbing – ein großes Problem an deutschen Schulen,

Neue Pisa-Auswertung: Sportliche Schüler sind glücklicher,


UK Teens ‘Among The Most Miserable In The World,’ Huffpost

New Pisa happiness table: see where UK pupils rank,


Report reveals how Irish teenagers feel and perform as compared to peers across the world, Irish Examiner


It May Surprise You To Learn Where The World’s Happiest Students Live, Forbes


Japan’s 15-year-olds struggle with life satisfaction, OECD survey finds, The Japan Times


Kiwi students report second-highest rate of bullying in international study,


More than one in six schoolkids get bullied in Sweden: study, The Local


Korean Teenagers Study Hard But Feel Unhappy,


OECD PISA 2015 ‘Student Welfare’ report: First time in misery, Hurriyet


Italian schoolkids make friends easily but suffer high anxiety, The Local


Lux. teens report low levels of study anxiety, Delano


Most Mexican Students Say They’re Happy, But Harassment Is Alarming Problem, Latin American Herald Tribune

Deirdre Faughey

School success in the Netherlands

This month, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) is focusing on the Dutch education system. In one post, Jennifer Craw shares statistics that show the Dutch system is one of the top performing education systems worldwide. For example, Dutch 15-year-olds are a full year ahead of their U.S. counterparts in mathematics. In a recent blog post, Marc Tucker points to the country’s powerful math curriculum called Realistic Mathematics.


Tucker shares his reflections on a recent conversation he had with Sander Dekker, the Netherlands’ State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science. In this and another post, written by David Loewenberg, both authors highlight  aspects of the Dutch system that might contribute to the country’s success. According to Loewenberg, the success of the Dutch system can be attributed to the country’s commitment to building a coherent system that:

  1. supports children and families from a very young age;
  2. allocates extra resources for disadvantaged students;
  3. continually strives to improve the quality of its teachers;
  4. maintains a system of school accountability; and
  5. includes a robust system of career and technical education.

Here at IEN, we published a Leading Futures post focusing on the Dutch education system last May. Written by Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians, the authors argue that in addition to identifying structural features of successful education systems, it is also important to understand that education systems are complex and often there are multiple reasons for improved outcomes that interact and intersect. In this post, the authors argue that “the Dutch system provides an example of ‘principled educational performance,’ combining a focus on democratic values with an approach to policymaking that relies on both collaboration and autonomy.”

A quick scan of recent education news from the Netherlands found the following articles, which provide additional context. 

Teachers strike could shut Dutch primary schools for days

Dutch Members of Parliament Want to Mandate ‘Inclusiveness’ Education

Dutch Kids Aren’t Stressed Out: What Americans Can Learn From How the Netherlands Raises Children

PISA study: Finnish youth – especially boys – content with life

Working together is a key part of the Dutch psyche –

Leading Futures: Making Change Make a Difference, Scotland

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, George Gilchrist applies some of the ideas presented in Andrea Stringer’s post, which focused on Australia, to the Scottish context. Gilchrist is Headteacher of two primary schools in the Scottish Borders, where he has lived for the last 25 years. In 2015 he became a Fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. He has spoken regularly on leadership and learning at events within Scotland, and further afield. He has his own blog entitled ‘School Leadership – A Scottish Perspective‘ and uses this for thought pieces and collaboration with educators across different systems.

Making Change Make A difference, Scotland

The issues around educational change and reform faced by educationalists in Australia, Scotland, and across other systems are all too familiar and often the same. Pasi Sahlberg, has pointed out characteristics and issues with what he termed the General Educational Reform Movement (GERM) for a number of years now. Sahlberg cautioned against GERM and its negative impacts for pupil learning, but it would seem that many Governments have still decided that ‘they know best’ and have determined to still introduce such ‘reforms.’ The fact that there is little evidential basis as to their efficacy, but a lot of evidence and research shows that they have the opposite effects to those envisioned, seems to count for little in the face of strong political will and ideology.

In Scotland we have been taking a different approach to curriculum design within education for many years now. Our Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) came out of a national discourse around education completed in 2002. From this emerged a new curriculum (CfE) in our Primary (Elementary) schools, and early years of Secondary education.  This envisioned a learning experience that was broadly based, and which placed value on skills development, as well as the development of positive attitudes and aptitudes for learning, not just knowledge acquisition. Four key capacities were to underpin learning. These were for our learners to be: Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals. The original vision and principles for CfE were contained on a few sheets of A4 paper and there was much to be admired about the approach. That is not to say it was without its critics or faults, what system is? Perhaps the two biggest failings at the outset were firstly, in not carrying out any sort of meaningful baseline assessment to see where we really were, and which would allow us to demonstrate improvement in performance. The second, was to not pay enough attention from the outset to the exam structure, and changes, that would be required in secondary education. Both of these failings, combined with others, have caused lots of problems for teachers and schools trying to implement CfE and to demonstrate its impact to various audiences. You could read more of the work of Mark Priestley and Walter Humes to explore this further.

Like Andrea identifies, there are numerous ‘voices’ that need to be heard in any discourse around education, but unfortunately the one that is still heard loudest is political. So much so, that others are drowned out and often not heard at all. The Scottish government have stated their aim to deliver an educational experience that is based on ‘Equity and Excellence’ for all. They want to raise attainment and reduce the gaps for those from our most disadvantaged backgrounds. This is all encapsulated in the latest policy documents, the National Improvement Framework (NIF) and ‘Getting It Right For every Child’ (GIRFEC). There is no one within the Scottish system that would argue much with the laudable aims and vision found in these two documents. Where we get most divergence is in how we go about achieving this vision for Scotland and its children. The NIF promotes a ’top-down’ high-stakes accountability and standardised agenda with all the attendant issues.

Andrea asks ‘Whose voice represents Australia’s education?’ A question we should ask of our own systems. Hopefully, our conclusions will be the same, that this should be a collective ‘voice’, authentic and with agency for all. Speaking as a practitioner, I could make the case that the true authentic voice of the profession is rarely heard or listened to in the Scottish system. There is a plethora of ‘consultation’, but this is often blighted by the timings of when this occurs, but more so by the fact that decisions have clearly already been made. Faux consultation is no consultation at all. The listening skill that Andrea refers to is crucial. Do we listen to understand and empathise, or do we listen to reply?

Andrea suggests some possible solutions to the issues facing education in Australia and to ask some pertinent questions of all the stakeholders in the system. All of these could be quite easily transposed into the Scottish system, where they should be easier to answer and implement, as Scotland is smaller than Australia. We need only look across the sea to Finland to see what smaller systems can achieve with collective and cultural agreement, augmented by high degrees of trust. Change is a constant in all schools and systems, and hopefully in all classrooms. But change for change sake makes little difference that is meaningful and sustainable. Change needs to be managed, informed by evidence and research, adapted to context, and should produce positive impacts for learning. The following are my suggestions to help us make the right changes, for the right reasons and to make a difference for every learner in our schools.

  • Invest time and support into our Early Years programmes. We need to get the base right. This does not mean starting formal learning earlier, but it does mean working with families and children before they arrive in our schools. Research by Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2014 showed that equity gaps are established before children reach our schools. We need to have more play-based learning in early years and to work with parents to help them develop their children’s learning, creativity and problem solving.
  • Andrea identifies ‘Collective Networks’ in order to encourage collaborative and problem solving at all levels. This is System Leadership, wherein all see their role as bigger than just the one in their own classroom, school or cluster. We have a responsibility to consider how we impact positively for all learners in our schools, area and system. We do this by sharing expertise, coaching, mentoring and supporting everyone to develop practice and their ‘voice’. This is a collective responsibility.
  • Linked to this, is the development and support of true teacher agency. Our best teachers are trained, professional and reflective practitioners; they are not mere ‘deliverers’. They have adaptive expertise and know their learners well. Individually and collectively, ‘teachers are not the problem, they are the solution,’ as Alma Harris commented on Twitter last year. We spend a lot of money and time preparing and training teachers, we should trust them more and support them in what they do.
  • From my own experience and research, I would recommend the adoption of practitioner enquiry, or other enquiry approaches, so that we situate professional development in our daily practice and our context. Career-long professional development, focused on impacts for learners, needs to be a disposition for all educators, and seen as something done by you, not to you. The aspect of school systems that has the greatest impact on attainment is teacher expertise, we all need to commit to keep improving and supporting the development of this. ‘Not because we are not good, but because we can be better,’ as Dylan Wiliam would say.

I believe the time is right for another ‘conversation’ around what we understand by education and curriculum in Scotland. When we have explored those issues again, we would be in a better position to identify a way forward, instead of repeating the mistakes of others. We still spend too much time on systems and structures and not enough on improving learning and teaching.

I remain optimistic for education in Scotland and elsewhere. But practitioners and researchers need to be working closer together to support each other and to fight the neo-liberal driven agendas that many of us face across our systems. We owe it to all our learners, and our profession.


Leading Futures: The Collective Network, Australia

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Andrea Stringer shares her thoughts on building a collective network. She argues that a collective network promotes collaborative leadership and collective efficacy by including all stakeholders in education. Andrea Stringer is a teacher in Sydney, Australia, who has received the The Keith Tronc Award for the most outstanding teacher from the Australian Council for Educational Leaders.

“Not cut out for teaching leave & do what you love. Students suffer as much as you do for staying.”  (Oct 3, 2016)

Posted by an education consultant on Twitter, this comment reflects little understanding of the passion and frustration most teachers have for their profession. Many teachers report that they are not motivated by monetary or personal gain, but by their desire to support students, contribute to society and make a difference. What contributes to and affects the motivational level of educators over time? Globally, early career teachers are exiting the classroom at an alarming rate . In Australia, researchers are estimating around 30-50% of teachers will leave in the first five years. With the amount of time and money invested in our early career teachers, the expectations are high. Defining the problem is simpler than being part of the solution.

Dinham (2013) calls for educators to find their voice and four years on, I question if they have found or utilized their voices effectively. Listening is the prerequisite for voices to be heard. In education, do we actively listen to each other? As a coach, I recognize that active listening is a crucial component of coaching and to support each other within our schools and beyond, this essential skill is acquired and developed with practice. My postgraduate research involves listening and learning from early career teachers’ and their experience of coaching. Fullan and Hargreaves maintain that if you ‘attract, select and develop teachers with high levels of human capital in terms of knowledge, skill, and talent’, you will receive a good return on your investment. They suggest we need to continuously challenge and support all educators as professionals through structured experiences and feedback. This teacher and teaching investment must be long-term and well supported.

Coaching is about supporting the growth of others, while respecting their self-determined learning and professional needs. Supported by the research I have recently read, the top-down, mandated accountability and compliance approach, which currently dominates the Australian context, does not generate the most passionate, effective educators. Coaching is not about telling teachers they need to improve or how to improve. Instead, it is the process of having one-to-one conversation that focus on developing the educator’s learning through increasing self-awareness (van Nieuwerburgh). A coach has a belief and faith in another’s ability and their capacity for growth. A principal once inquired where I’d like to be in five years and then asked how she could help make this happen. With her sincere support and genuine interest, we established a collective long-term vision of improving student achievement. This is vastly different to the more common evaluation and accountability model.

A parent recently asked my view of Australia’s ‘dismal’ PISA results because according to the newspaper and social media, Australian education is getting left behind. Very few practitioners were quoted in any of the media reporting or political discourse that follows such statements. My intention is not to discuss our students’ ability or inability, but to simply ask a question. Whose voice represents Australia’s education? Is it a soloist or we all part of a choir? Politicians, academics, government agencies, education organisations, school leaders, teachers, parents and various associations are all stakeholders. All perspectives are important and significant and we need to engage and listen to each other, especially our students. They are our focus and the product of our education system.

The main feature of any education system is the curriculum and to assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st century, the Australian Curriculum includes general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, and personal and social capability. Teachers are required to include these in various subject areas, but are all the education stakeholders modeling these skills, attitudes and behaviours?  DeWitt defines collaborative leaders as those who ‘find a balance between leading initiatives and fostering cooperative learning between adults with diverse ideas’. According to Donohoo, we can strengthen ‘collective efficacy’ in schools by doing three things:

  1. Create structures and processes for teachers to engage in meaningful collaboration
  2. Promote teacher leadership and extend teachers’ decision-making power
  3. Build awareness that collective efficacy exists and that it is the number one factor that influences student achievement

A ‘Collective Network’ would incorporate collaborative leaders and collective efficacy and expand to include all those stakeholders in education. This concept prompts some questions.

  • When academics and universities work with schools and classroom teachers, is the process straightforward and transparent?
  • How many politicians personally seek the ideas and expertise of general classroom teachers?
  • How could agencies, such as AITSL, seek teacher voice through genuine connections, not surveys or apps?
  • Before implementing any learning resources or strategies, could schools seek knowledge and research data from academics?
  • How many members of the New South Wales Education Standards Authority (formerly BOSTES) represent the classroom teachers or parents?
  • How do educational consultants who provide professional development and resources commercially, connect personally with classroom teachers?
  • Could practitioners share their practice by writing more journal articles?
  • How are other agencies, policy makers and stakeholders held accountable for their impact and effects on the profession?
  • What is the balance between individual agency and impact versus collective impact & responsibility?

For expertise in the classroom and in leadership, colleagues, my professional learning network, professional reading and discourse support me. I also tap into the expertise of academics I have connected with via Twitter. With that broad depth of expertise, I learn, explore, implement and reflect. It is about connecting, building relationships, increasing awareness and developing empathy. Social media has provided a platform for this to happen, although some sectors have restrictions. Social media decreases the traditional hierarchy within education and allows more stakeholders the opportunity to connect.

Scotland has the International Council of Education Advisers to provide a broader insight into bettering their education. Australia first needs to effectively connect and utilize the knowledge and expertise within our country. Here is my ‘call to action’ Australia. To develop insight, understanding and build empathy, academics could connect and speak with teachers and teachers reach out more to academics. All accreditation agencies converse with classroom teachers to promote professional growth, as well as compliance. Focus beyond the mandated professional hours and more towards personalized learning. Hold companies providing professional development more accountable using transparent feedback. Educational journals could invite more practitioners to share their practice. Instead of independent hierarchal structures, we should create the collective network to ensure all stakeholders have a voice and all students are supported.

The Collective Network

Lead the Change interview with Susan Moore Johnson

Dr. Susan Moore Johnson

Susan Moore Johnson is the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she served as academic dean 1993-1999. A former high school teacher and administrator, Johnson has an ongoing research interest in the work of teachers and the reform of schools and school systems. Johnson has written three books about teachers and their work: Teacher Unions in Schools (1984), focuses on the role of teachers unions in the day-to-day work of schools. Teachers at Work examines the school as a workplace for teachers. Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (2006), written with colleagues at The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, centers on the experiences of new teachers. Subsequent research at the Project focuses on teachers’ careers, alternative preparation, the role of unions, hiring, induction, performance-based pay, teacher teams, and teacher evaluation. Between 2007 and 2014, Johnson served as co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), where she and her colleagues wrote Achieving Coherence in District Improvement (2015), which examines the management relationship between the central office and schools in five large urban school districts. Johnson is a member of the National Academy of Education.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Johnson shares her thoughts on the most important issues in education change today:

At this time, public education is being seriously challenged in the US by citizens and politicians who do not believe that our society should invest the resources necessary to educate all students. Educational change is not being designed to provide greater opportunity for all students, but instead, to increase options for some students. Although I think that market-based strategies and de-regulated schools can contribute to a richer, more robust system of schools, relying on those mechanisms alone will not lead to a well-informed, prosperous society. Although this current direction of reform concerns me greatly, I continue to be encouraged by the work of certain states, districts, and schools that reap benefits from their sustained commitment to both equity and excellence.

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


The potential, promise and pitfalls of blended learning in India

This story was written by Liz Willen and originally published on The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Photo: Kim Palmer

JAISALMER, India – In a rural desert school, students from this corner of Northwest India sit on the floor, squirming and awaiting instruction They have few desks and supplies and not a single computer. The setting seems highly unlikely for an innovation like blended learning to take root.

Yet throughout India, a number of digital initiatives are underway aimed at improving education in areas that lack sufficient trained and experienced teachers. The Hechinger Report visited schools in India recently and talked to experts about blended learning – which includes an element of online learning with in-class instruction – and the potential it has for helping both teachers and students in the world’s second-most populous country.

Progress is desperately needed: The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that India, where half of the 1.2 billion population is under 25, will need some three million new primary school teachers by 2030. India’s education system has long lagged behind others, despite the country’s enactment of the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) ACT, which was supposed to give every child in the country the right to a full-time elementary education “of satisfactory and equitable quality.”

India has also had long had a problem with keeping girls in school. And many of the public, government-run schools – where 70 percent of all children study – have no computers or tablets.

So why is there so much optimism about blended learning as a solution? Many believe it has to do with both the huge population of India, the country’s many education needs and its chronic shortage of qualified teachers. If done well, blended learning can help all kinds of students – including slow learners – get up to speed, while boosting the ability of those who learn more quickly to master competencies and move ahead.

“I think blended learning has the potential to have a huge impact on education in India,” said Aarushi Prabhakar, an education specialist at Mindspark (also known as IACApplications), a company that that promotes a personalized interactive approach to math and language instruction catering to each child’s pace and style of learning.

Prabhakar acknowledged the lack of computers and connectivity in many Indian public schools, but said plenty of efforts are afoot to build offline solutions or add basic internet connectivity. In addition, the private sector operates 25 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million schools; those schools tend to have better facilities and more up-to-date technical equipment.

She and others are heartened by a public push from senior education officials in India on the potential of technology-aided solutions, and by the “e-India,” strategy led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tulsi Parida, a director of growth for English learning apps at Zaya Learning Labs in India, said Zaya largely works in schools that have their own digital equipment, or finds ways to persuade outside entities to get computers donated or loaned to the schools. The education nonprofit, which provides after-school programs, designed its own blended learning model and apps to work anywhere in the world. We first heard about Zaya via the  Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank that has been out front in studying blended learning and student-centered design around the world.

Zaya’s team “trains the teachers throughout the year, with school visits at least once a month, to share best practices on blended learning,” Parida said, adding that the insights teachers gain from the school visits inform their training, as well. School “implementation managers” visit schools regularly to make sure teachers are trained in blended learning techniques and synchronize the data to double-check progress.

“We are trying to make it more intuitive for teachers in the coming year,” Parida said in an email.

It wasn’t possible to see Mindspark in action, so we asked the company a question many who follow blended learning want to ask: how can we be sure blended learning is working? Prabhakar told us about a randomized trial of the product that showed a large improvement in learning after only four months of a child’s exposure to the program, some of which is outlined in this video.  (Keep in mind this comes from the company itself, so we couldn’t independently verify the results.)

A more nuanced view of how blended learning is working in India can be seen in a 2015 report done by the membership and advocacy group CoSN. A senior delegation including a number of American educators visited the country, and also wondered how blended learning “could be implemented in the absence of electricity and internet access.”

It’s a question worth following, and reading more about in the report.

The new digital efforts come at a time of deep concern over the decline of education standards in India, both in government and private schools. They also come as India’s government is pushing to increase digital literacy in the country and add more projectors, speakers, whiteboards and interactive learning opportunities – and could have fascinating implications for countries struggling to catch up with technology and new ways of reaching students.