Tag Archives: School Improvement

Brahm Fleisch on South African education during the pandemic

What predictable problems and unexpected surprises have emerged in schools in South Africa during the pandemic? This week IEN interviews Brahm Fleisch to gain his perspective on the school closures that began in March of 2020 and the resumption of in-person schooling, for some students, in August. Fleisch is a professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the School of Education, University of Witwatersrand. Fleisch has written extensively about the challenges and opportunities for improving schooling in South Africa. That work includes the development of the Early Grade Reading Study and examinations of what it may take to establish a New Infrastructure for Learning that strengthens foundational learning and the instructional core.   

IEN: What has been happening in schools in South Africa since the pandemic began? 

Brahm Fleisch: One of the standout characteristics of South African education is the extreme inequality. The pandemic has exacerbated it. Elite private and middle-class schools in the public sector (about 10-15%) rapidly moved online. And while there were concerns about the quality of teaching and learning taking place online, most middle-class children were able to return to some form of schooling routine. This was not the case for most working-class and rural children, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black. Given the high cost of data, and the limited digital infrastructure in schools serving the majority of children, the evidence suggests that most of these children had very little schooling in 2020. This has continued into 2021. Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling. The majority of schoolchildren have experienced substantial learning loss. 

Even when schools serving poor and working-class children started reopened in August last year, many attended less than half the number of days they would have had had there been “normal” schooling.

IEN: What has worked?  

BF: South Africa has a national curriculum, most often referred to as the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). The government strategy last year was to “streamline” the curriculum, that is, cut the number of topics or themes to be covered in each of the respective subjects, assuming that the curriculum content that was missed would be covered in later grades. The problems with the curriculum streamlining approach is that it assumes that children have acquired the core basic knowledge and skills. At least for the early grades, the evidence suggests that the proportion of children able to read fluently in either their home language and/or in English (the language of schooling for the majority from Grade 4 onward) has dropped dramatically.  If majority of children haven’t learnt to read or lost the skill of reading, streamlining is not going to help. While there is clearly a serious problem with government strategy, two important developments need to be highlighted.  First, the national education department facilitated the development of a dedicated TV channel to make lessons in the high-stakes subjects available for all secondary school learners.  Unlike using the internet, which has serious financial limitations, nearly all parts of South Africa have access to public broadcasting and is a relatively low-cost way to reach poor and rural communities. Second, after the first major period of lockdown, the schools were required (by a court interdict) to provide school feeding even when the schools were formally closed.  Without doubt, ensuring that children received a daily meal benefited the majority of South African children.

IEN: What has surprised you?

BF: No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community.  Much of the work of university researchers had been focused on documenting the major inadequacies of schools. In particular, the research had focused on both the overall low levels of learning taking place and the gap between children at the top and bottom of the income distribution.  What was never fully appreciated is that despite the major weaknesses of the school system, children and their parents really missed the routines, rhythms and rituals of schooling.  And while some school types did emerge such as the pod schools (small private classes of between 5 and 10 children of different ages mostly working online in a common space), it is hard to say if the new model will endure beyond the pandemic.  These ‘schools’ fitted somewhere between home schooling and small private schools.  While pod schools emerged in an ad hoc fashion to address the needs of children and parents, given the choice most children and their parents appear to be shifting back to more traditional school models.

IEN: What have you learned? 

 BF: As suggested above, there have been two clear learnings from the pandemic. First, absence from face-to-face schooling for a prolonged period disproportionately negatively impacts poor and working-class children. Although schools tend to reproduce inequality, the absence of schooling in conventional school buildings accentuated this inequality. The second insight suggest the deep cultural resonance of the archaic 19th century institutional form. All the talk about 21st Century skills and personalized learning appeared to signal a potential revolution in how we organize education.  If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model. 

No one could have predicted how popular the institution of the school actually is with the vast majority of children, their parents and the wider community…If anything, Covid-19 has surfaced the enduring popularity of the standard structure of the egg-crate/factory school model. 

IEN: What’s next — what are you working on now?

BF: In the Global South, in systems such as those of South Asia (and South Africa), the challenge is to shift focus from curriculum compliance towards teaching at the right level. For these education systems that placed an emphasis on the syllabus or schemes of work, rethinking what teachers do in classroom with children who may be years behind curriculum expectations is going to be very challenging. For example, middle school teachers are going to be forced to confront a growing majority of children who cannot read for meaning or do basic mathematics. Simply doing the same, or even a slimmed down version of the national curriculum is likely to make things worse rather than better. Real thinking needs to go into teaching basic skills further and further up the system. 

Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide. 

IEN: What’s your hope for the future?

BF: Rather than a catalyst of radical reform of the institution called the school, the hope for the future must focus on better teaching system-wide.  We need greater effort on how we can mobilize the resources of the state better, unleash the creative energy of teachers as an organized profession, excite parents and students in diverse communities towards the task of incremental but sustainable improvement of teaching and learning.  

A Conversation about School Improvement Networks and Collaborative Inquiry in Chile

This week, Mauricio Pino-Yancovic and Alvaro González talk with IEN about their new book on the Chilean Ministry of Education’s recent improvement strategy relying on school networks. Written with Luis Ahumada and Chris ChapmanSchool Improvement Networks and Collaborative Inquiry: Fostering Systematic Change in Challenging Contexts describes the processes and challenges of implementing collaborative practices between schools.

Why this book, why now?

The School Improvement Strategy was put in place at a moment when the Chilean school system was going through a period of significant structural reforms to improve the quality and equity of public education. A basic principle of this reform effort was to produce a cultural change from competition to collaboration as a way to produce the necessary conditions for systemic improvement. The School Improvement Networks (SINs) were instrumental to making that change. The Networks were mandated by the Chilean Ministry of Education to bring together between 5 and 15 schools, each represented by their principal and curriculum coordinator, a representative of the municipal department of education, and one or two Ministry supervisors. Through LIDERES EDUCATIVOS, a Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, we were commissioned by the Ministry to produce a yearly monitoring report of networks across the country based on questionnaire data. In addition, in 2016 we did a qualitative study of 15 networks in different regions to deeply understand how networks had been formed and were initially developing.

This book was born out of the necessity to open a dialogue with scholars around the world investigating networking and collaboration. We have learned very much from US and Canadian as well as European scholars. In fact, the opportunity to publish our manuscript came from an invitation by Chris Brown at the University of Durham and Cindy Poortman at the University of Twente to write for a series on Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) they edit with Emerald. Also, we have collaborated in this book with Chris Chapman from the University of Glasgow who has been a key supporter and friend in our projects. Finally, we were driven by the conviction that we had something meaningful to contribute from the Global South regarding collaboration and networking. Although the book is focused in Chile, we are aware that the challenge of developing a culture of collaboration in a context of privatization, competition and isolation, resonates with many countries.

What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?

From our experience studying and working with networks, we realized that it is much more powerful to think about the challenge of improvement from a systemic perspective rather than an individual one. Networks facilitate developing such a systemic approach, but we were first hand witnesses of how difficult it was to enact such change in practice, especially in a competitive environment such as the Chilean one.

By pulling together the evidence from several studies about networking, we produced a clearer picture of what networking among schools looks like in practice. This picture shows us that there are three key elements that need to be in place to ensure the sustainability of networks:

  • Building professional capital among network actors which would allow them to increase their capacity for collective change and improvement
  • Developing network leadership capacities for leading upwards, leading laterally, and leading downwards, which mobilizes influence and power relations within and outside networks, which is crucial in a challenging context
  • Establishing an appropriate system infrastructure to support and legitimize changing cultural patterns beyond the remit of networks themselves.

What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?

In October 2019, Chileans took to the streets demanding social reforms aimed at tackling inequality and changes to a constitution that dates back to the 1980s, during the dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet. It has been four months of massive protests and harsh police repression, which have mobilized the country to hold political actors to account on several topics. Education has been a central issue in these past months, as social and economic inequality is reproduced and reinforced in our neoliberal-inspired school system. Teachers and school leaders have had to deal with the consequences of this social discontent in schools and, in some cases, networks have been a key support in helping them to decide how to approach the situation. School networks seems to be an appropriate path to continue supporting a cultural change.

Unfortunately, the current government had decided earlier in 2019 to partially withdraw support to the School Improvement Networks strategy, although they have not phased it out altogether. Ministry supervisors were redeployed to focus on providing support and intervention directly to underperforming schools. Nonetheless, in most cases, networks have continued their work as school leaders value the opportunities to share and exchange experiences among schools in the same geographical area. In addition, we have been invited to support several school networks project at district levels. The findings described in this book are also being used by those who are pushing forward strategies based on meaningful collaboration for school improvement.

What’s next — what are you working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?

The agreement between the Ministry of Education and the LIDERES EDUCATIVOS Center ended in December 2019 but a renewal application was submitted, and we are awaiting a response. In the meantime, everyone in our team has gone to work elsewhere although still linked to the issue of networking and collaboration for school improvement. For instance, Mauricio is now a researcher of the Center for Advanced Research in Education (CIAE), Institute of Education at Universidad de Chile, working on projects to develop and support school networks using Collaborative Inquiry, and working closely with districts on the systemic improvement of the territory. Álvaro has gone to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Universidad de O’Higgins and he is starting a three-year study about the support provided to underperforming schools in Chile, where interorganizational collaboration and learning play a key role. Luis Ahumada has returned to his position as Professor at the School of Psychology at PUCV, still involved in educational leadership. Also, we hope to continue our collaboration with Chris Chapman, Chris Brown, Cindy Poortman and many other scholars that we had the chance to know through the ICSEI PLN network and elsewhere.

What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?

Many educational systems have opted for the strategy of networking to support improvement not only for schools in difficulty but also entire systems. This movement builds on the empirical evidence showing how difficult it is for a school to improve on its own. Our book shows that in marketized school systems, such as the Chilean one, it is possible to overcome the logic of individual accountability, promoting collaboration and co-responsibility between all levels of the system. We hope that our book will inspire decision- and policy-makers to promote networking at different levels of the system and to create spaces where collective support and democratization allow for the development of a different bond among schools and the communities they serve.