This week, IEN’s Correne Reyes takes a look at how education policies and initiatives have evolved post-COVID in two relatively “high-performing” education systems — Finland and New Zealand — and in a developing education system — South Africa.
Around the world, COVID school closures led to enrollment drops and concerns about health and safety that education systems like South Africa continue to confront. Meanwhile, systems like Finland and New Zealand appear to have dealt with those initial issues and are now tackling challenges like the emotional toll resulting from the pandemic.
According toThe Conversation, in South Africa “Although improving, the achievement outcomes are still low, fragile and susceptible to shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt the education system a major blow, especially for poor and vulnerable learners.” As one example, South Africa reported a 30,000 student enrollment deficit in Grades R and Grade 1 due to the lockdown. With extended school shutdowns in July 2020 and January 2021, 9 million students faced hunger and malnutrition since they rely on school meals for their daily nutrition. Furthermore, only 22% of households have a computer and 10% have an internet connection, limiting remote options. Inequitable internet access means that is primarily students from wealthier communities with better resourced schools who have been able to continue their learning during the school closures. Despite these challenges, the South African government announced a plan to reduce the education budget over the next three years with a cut of over 4% for this financial year, which is likely to lead to further inequity.
“Although improving, the achievement outcomes are still low, fragile and susceptible to shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealth the education system a major blow, especially for poor and vulnerable learners.”
Although Finland and New Zealand continued to experience some school closures, they have been able to turn their focus in policymaking to the health and wellbeing of their students and to rebuilding their foreign student numbers.
In terms of health and emotional support, New Zealand announced an investment of $75.8 million in their newest education wellbeing package to tackle the mental health that have arisen due to COVID-19. For the first time, primary and secondary schools will have “greater access to guidance counselors and counseling support services.” Additionally, Finland’s recent government proposal requested that “both comprehensive and upper secondary schools must have at least one social worker per 670 pupils / students and one school psychologist per 780 pupils / students.” This ratio would ensure more equal access and quality of health services in different parts of Finland. Finland suggests this would “promote the extension of compulsory education, improve opportunities to tackle bullying and also help to fill learning and well-being gaps caused by the corona.”
“New Zealand announced an investment of $75.8 million in their newest education wellbeing package to tackle the mental health and wellbeing issues that have arisen due to COVID-19.”
In both New Zealand and Finland, pandemic-related concerns have also shifted to address the loss of international students. Before the pandemic, international education in New Zealand was the fifth largest export industry, amounting to about $5 billion dollars a year. However, with the pandemic, and a 62% drop in related income from the decline in international students, experts predict it may take 10 years for the industry to recover. Education New Zealand chair, Steve Maharey, recognized that New Zealand was too dependent on China and India for students and the industry needed to diversify. To address the same issue, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has prepared the D visa, a bill that would allow third-country researchers, students and their family members the possibility to obtain a Finnish long-term visa, in hopes to promote education and work based migration.
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.
ENJOY THE BREAK! IEN will be on hiatus until September when we will return with more news and views of schooling and education around the world
This week’s post features a Lead the Change interview with Brahm Fleisch, Professor of Education Policy in the Division of Education Leadership, Policy and Skills at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Fleisch has been a District Director in the Guateng Department of Education and advisor for the national Department of Basic Education in South Africa. His books include: Managing educational change: The state and school reform in South Africa, and The Education Triple Cocktail: System-wide Instructional Reform in South Africa. His recent work focuses on impact evaluation of large-scale instructional improvement models.
Lead the Change: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?
Brahm Fleisch: Since the publication of our first piece in Lead the Change, our collective knowledge of educational change in the context of the large-scale instructional improvement in the Global South (and South Africa in particular) has been bolstered by seven years of experimental research. This research programme is a response to the challenge currently faced by many resource constrained systems (World Bank, 2019), in which children are enrolled in and attending school, but are, in the majority of cases, also failing to learn to read or to do basic mathematics. The focus of our research is to identify scalable rigorous and robust change knowledge to address this challenge. The core of what we have learnt is the efficiency of a particular change model, what we have come to call, the “education triple cocktail” (Fleisch, 2018) (a reference to the successful drug treatment for HIV/AIDS). Drawing on international experience, the model combines (a) prescriptive lesson plans, (b) the provision of quality learning materials and (c) on-site instructional coaching. Our experimental studies show consistent, positive, and compelling evidence of the model’s effectiveness in multiple settings (Fleisch & Schoer, 2014; Fleisch et al., 2016; Fleisch et al., 2017; Cilliers et al., 2019; Kotze et al., 2019; Fleisch & Dixon, 2019).
We have demonstrated the value of mix-method impact evaluations (MMIE) that include qualitative case studies nested in representative sample cluster randomised control trials. It is our view that MMIE has the potential to contribute to building a more rigorous educational change knowledge base. Examples of the qualitative research include our study (Fleisch & Dixon,2019) that explores lesson plan mechanisms and how they link to the reconstruction of micro and macro teaching time. Alsofrom’s (2019) case studies also show the central role instructional coaches play in addressing teachers’ emotions of change.
At the centre of our contribution is not only findings of ‘what works’ (measured as effect sizes), but an opportunity to understand ‘why’ they work. For example, case studies show teachers both adopt and adapt lesson plans they are given, and that, contrary to assumptions about de-skilling, most teachers find scripted lesson plans to add to their professional authority and instructional repertoire. The coherence embedded in the education triple cocktail approach helps teachers to shift their thinking about instructional time and space in the classroom. Other case studies point to emotional labour of instructional coaching and thus show the central role coaches play in addressing teachers’ feelings of failure and anxieties about change as well as in building professional accountability.
LtC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?
BF: There is a growing recognition that the change problems that have animated much of the field of educational change in the past three decades were primarily learning, school, and system problems of the Global North, particularly North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. Both the change problems and potential productive approaches to addressing these problems look very different from the perspective of poorer parts of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Successful systems in East Asia again have a unique set of challenges. Scholars are increasingly recognizing that to speak of a single and coherent field of educational change is difficult. That is not to say that productive dialogues across geopolitical contexts are not possible. Quite the contrary.
There is a growing recognition that the change problems that have animated much of the field of educational change in the past three decades were primarily learning, school, and system problems of the Global North
That said, I think we need to speak of change knowledge that addresses common contextual realities. In much of the Global South, for example, the challenge is defined by the fact that many of their educational systems have only recently succeeded in achieving near-universal school enrollment. The problem they are currently managing is that the vast majority of those enrolled in the early grades are failing to reach minimum proficiency in literacy and numeracy – what the World Bank has termed “learning poverty”.
LtC: What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going?
BF: I’m excited to see new scholars working in the field. Very powerful ideas are emerging out of the work of Santiago Rincon Gallardo (2016) and his research on bottom-up tutor networks in Mexico, Benjamin Piper and Stephanie Zuilkowski (2015) and their experimental research on structured pedagogic models in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and Rakmini Banerjee et al. (2010) and their work on teaching at the right level in India.
LtC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?
BF: For me, the most exciting frontier of research on educational change is in the so-called Global South, and particularly in resource-constrained systems. Not only are the change challenges huge and pressing, but I find many policymakers are eager to dialogue around research. It is also a space that allows us to really challenge many taken-for-granted assumptions about system-wide change. Building change knowledge anywhere is difficult and is made that much more challenging in settings with very little financial resources or established capacity to implement effectively.
The Global South is a space that allows us to really challenge many taken-for-granted assumptions about system-wide change
LtC:What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?
BF: Understanding the levers of change and how they work in resource constrained contexts, in places where government ministries and departments, district staff, school leaders and ordinary teachers lack essential education infrastructure and capacity, should be a future research thrust for scholars working in the field of educational change. It is critical that, as we move forward, we see this knowledge building as a cumulative process with scholars working together adding empirical findings, engaging with case study insights, and taking on substantive critiques. If we work in silos, if we neglect large-scale quantitative research on effects, if we fail to engage with internal and external critics, progress is likely to be slow.
Alsofrom, K (2019) How and why does coaching work to improve teaching practices in the EGRS2? An examination of causal mechanisms. Paper Presented at the UKFIET meeting, Oxford University.
Banerjee, A. V., Banerji, R., Duflo, E., Glennerster, R., & Khemani, S. (2010). Pitfalls of participatory programs: Evidence from a randomized evaluation in education in India. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 2(1), 1-30.
Cilliers, J., Fleisch, B., Prinsloo, C., & Taylor, S. (2019). How to improve teaching practice? An experimental comparison of centralized training and in-classroom coaching. Journal of Human Resources, 0618-9538R1.
Fleisch, B. (2018). The education triple cocktail: System-wide instructional reform in South Africa. UCT Press/Juta and Company (Pty) Ltd.
Fleisch, B., & Dixon, K. (2019). Identifying mechanisms of change in the Early Grade Reading Study in South Africa. South African Journal of Education, 39(3).
Fleisch, B., & Schöer, V. (2014). Large-scale instructional reform in the Global South: insights from the mid-point evaluation of the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy. South African Journal of Education, 34(3).
Fleisch, B., Schöer, V., Roberts, G., & Thornton, A. (2016). System-wide improvement of early-grade mathematics: New evidence from the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy. International Journal of Educational Development, 49, 157-174.
Fleisch, B., Taylor, S., Schöer, V., & Mabogoane, T. (2017). Failing to catch up in reading in the middle years: The findings of the impact evaluation of the Reading Catch-Up Programme in South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 53, 36-47.
Kotze, J., Fleisch, B., & Taylor, S. (2019). Alternative forms of early grade instructional coaching: Emerging evidence from field experiments in South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 66, 203-213.
Piper, B., & Zuilkowski, S. S. (2015). Teacher coaching in Kenya: Examining instructional support in public and nonformal schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 47, 173-183.
Rincón-Gallardo, S. (2016). Large scale pedagogical transformation as widespread cultural change in Mexican public schools. Journal of Educational Change, 17(4), 411-436.
This week, we conducted a scan of education news published in the past month from countries in Africa. These articles highlight efforts to increase access and quality of education through the implementation of national curricula and assessments and through initiatives focused on teacher recruitment, salaries, and training.
South Sudan recently launched its first national curriculum. Gurtong.net quoted Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Country Representative, as saying…
“For now the curriculum is complete, textbooks must be designed and published, teachers need to be trained to implement this curriculum, and school managers, inspectors and supervisors require training to provide the required management and oversight….”
Reports from South Africa (recently ranked “almost dead last in math and science” on this year’s World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness report, as News24 noted) show that even with curriculum and assessments in place, educators need to see their worth in order for them to be useful for instruction. The Daily Maverick recently reported that both the teachers’ union and the Department of Basic Education agree that the current national assessments are not effective, and some teachers’ unions have already promised to “opt-out” of administering the current assessments.
Tensions between teachers and the national government in Kenya also reflect something of a “Catch-22.” In a recent World Bank report, concern was expressed that the quality of education in the country was alarmingly inadequate. On the one hand, many critics of the government, including many teachers, argue that the reasons include the government’s failure to comply with a court order to increase teacher salaries by 50-60%. In response, teachers are engaged in a formal, long-term strike to protest inadequate salary, which they would like to see rise to the levels of other professions. On the other hand, supporters of the government suggest that the teacher strikes are contributing to the problems because they result in irregular access to classrooms for most students. In a stalemate, the Education Ministry ordered schools to close as of September 21st.
According to All Africa, Cameroon’s Education Ministry is taking steps to try to “professionalize” teaching by bringing in Dutch consultants to help refine teacher training, as well as curriculum. According to Roeland Monasch, the CEO of the Dutch NGO Aflatoun, the solution is simple: “He assured that once teachers are well trained, students will do well in class.”