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A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

Phillip is a young man with a broad smile. He’s not a teacher, but the school where we’re sitting wouldn’t exist without him. He enjoys talking about how it all started; how he and the village chief met a British expat, named Kevin, and approached him about financing a school, “And then we needed bricks, and we could either buy bricks or we could make bricks. And since buying was too expensive, we decided to make the bricks.” He talks about how they built the ovens for the bricks, and how he contracted with bricklayers to make the buildings. And then there were issues with the government, who said they couldn’t open a school with only one building. So, they had to secure funding for a second building and make the bricks and create that building as well. Desks were built and latrines had to be dug. Phillip speaks with a smile on his face and a tone of kind-hearted ambition. When he finishes, I ask him something I ask of nearly everyone, “What are you most proud of?” He straightens his posture and smiles even more broadly, “I’m very proud because, before there was no school, and now we have a school. Now we have education.”

At first, I was enchanted by the story of the school. But as I visited classrooms and talked with students, that enchantment began to sour. I saw very little evidence that ‘education’ was taking place.

making bricks in malawi

Bricks must be stacked and burnt before they can be used in construction

I visited four classrooms. All of the rooms had students but only one had a teacher, and she was a visiting teacher from Belgium. The rest of the teachers were in the administration building, chatting and watching a Nigerian soap opera while students were left to socialize. In one classroom, I asked students to tell me something they had learned in class this week. After a bit of silence they began to stand, one at a time, “I am studying English.” “I am studying physics.” “I am studying math.” I thanked them and asked if they could tell me something more specific. After a brief silence, Mr. Bamda, the head-teacher escorting me, explained that their English wasn’t strong enough to answer that question. This struck me as problematic, since all of their national exams will be in English.

This school, about a 40min uphill walk along a dirt road from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, has a lot of advantages. There are several shelves of donated books and a room with computers (though no electricity). The school charges fees that limit class size. (It’s common at public schools for classes to expand to fifty or even ninety students per teacher, but here the largest class I saw was around twenty students.) The faculty all have college degrees and the students are so committed that, many of them travel for hours each morning to reach the school.

school resources education in malawi

The computer and resource room

Later on, I met with the teacher from Belgium who had been enthusiastically leading her class through a text. I asked what surprised her the most about education in Malawi, and she said it was the attitude of the teachers, “They will just write on the board and leave the room. They’ll give students an activity and then go watch a DVD. There is not the idea that, they have a role to play when students are working.” She was also frustrated with the prescribed English curriculum, which focuses almost entirely on grammar, identifying parts of speech in sentences disconnected from any larger context. “And they never practice speaking [English] because there is no speaking on the exam. But I don’t know how you can learn a language if you never speak it.”

I asked about student participation and she said that they’re not used to it, “You ask them what they think and they don’t know what to do, because no one ever asks them that. It’s all just listening or repeating what the teacher says.” Still she hasn’t given up, and a couple months in she has one class where students are getting more comfortable with the idea of sharing their ideas.

head-teacher school in malawi

Mr. Bamda

When I spoke with Mr. Bamda, he talked inspiringly about the need for education and the school’s goal of producing quality students who can contribute to the development of Malawi. He talked of the need for leaders in Malawi’s villages and the importance of listening to other people’s opinions. He spoke about how people need to understand that education is not just for white collar jobs but that, it can help everyone. A farmer with an education will be a better farmer than one without an education.

But it was also clear that, he hadn’t given much thought to what must be true in the day-to-day life of the school for these goals to become reality. He explained calmly that they do not choose what to teach but follow the government curriculum. When I asked what makes a good teacher, he talked mostly about a teacher’s dress. When I asked what he meant by a ‘quality’ student he described someone who has good behavior. When describing his challenges and priorities, he focused entirely on infrastructure projects like building a new administration building, houses for the teachers, a new class block, and a girls dorm*. Ideas like helping teachers to improve or creating opportunities for students, didn’t come up. At one point, he even said that he didn’t need to worry about the teachers.

When I think back to this school, my first feeling is still one of admiration. I didn’t expect to find a ‘model of excellence’ in a rural village of one of the world’s most undeveloped countries. In many ways the visit surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to imagine many communities in the US organizing to build a school from mud, water, and cement. But there is an unavoidable sadness around my reflections as well. I think about parents around the community struggling to save for school fees, and the students who walk for hours each day as an investment in their education, and I wonder what, if anything, the sacrifices will bring.

The school exists, and people seem to be content with that fact. The resources inside are confused for the learning they’re meant to facilitate. Students show up, and there is an assumption that they must then be receiving an education. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. It actually takes a lot of focused effort to turn a school building into a place where education happens.

Will

*The school does seem to be fairly progressive in its commitment to girls’ education. Phillip explained that the motivation for this came from the international community. He also explained that while it’s OK for boys to commute, girls should live at the school because, if they live at home, they end up being tasked with all of the labors around the house and can’t get away to attend school.

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*

I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.

James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.

Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.

Dee Moodley

Dee Moodley

When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)

One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.

Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.

At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.

  • Will

This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.

*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

We sat down with Hillary and Jody over lunch to talk about the Social Club they organize for students at the middle school in their community. We left quite impressed. Hillary is an alum of the program but neither of them have any kind of formal education training. They haven’t read a lot of youth development literature. They didn’t use the phrase ‘social-emotional learning.’ But they grew up in this community and they know that the children here need more than the content knowledge they get in school. They need a place, “to talk about their lives and the issues in their community.” What’s the goal of Social Club? Hillary hesitates and then raises her hands from the table, “I want them to change their idea about what is possible in the world.”

To arrive at the school, we had to drive through nearly the entire community. The streets are unmarked and the road is crumbling at the edges. There are many wooden shacks, but nearly as many larger brick homes, and an occasional two story house. Children walk and play in the street and adults cluster at the corners. In America we would describe the people here as black, but most of them identify as ‘colored’ – what Americans would call ‘light-skinned’ or ‘mixed.’ This was a distinction codified by apartheid and is still very real in South Africa. The first language in Kurland is afrikaans.

kurland south africa

Hillary asked us if we’d like to run Social Club for a day, and we happily agreed. The room the Social Club meets in has a number of posters that were clearly created by their previous activities.

We showed up to find a dozen children already circled up, about to play a round of ‘two truths and a lie.’ They laughed as we went around and Elizabeth and I were again reminded that children are pretty much the same wherever you go.

social-emotional learning

social-emotional learning

We planned a theater based activity inspired from my time with The Possibility Project. We would ask the students to identify some challenges/issues effecting their community and then talk about what was good in their community. After we had the lists the children would form groups and create ‘mini-plays’ inspired from their lives to perform for each other. I was nervous about the activity for several reasons. These kids were younger than the teens I normally did this with. Also, they didn’t know us and I was afraid they’d be too shy. How much experience did they have with acting? Creating, casting, and rehearsing a narrative arc in 30 minutes is a lot. What if they weren’t able to pull it off?

It turns out these fears were entirely unfounded. The all had experience with acting at some point and they were not shy about listing the issues effecting their community: drugs, violence, robbery, HIV. On the positive side they put: church, school, Social Club, friends and family. We got silly with some wiggle warm-ups and then they jumped into the scene creation with unbridled enthusiasm. We had stressed that these mini-plays were entirely theirs to create and they took this license very seriously. Several times, I approached a group to offer support and was shooed away because they were in the midst of a focused discussion or rehearsal. They got very creative very fast.

social-emotional learning

The first scene was about a boy who turned his younger brother on to drugs. They were visited by a friend who talked about how much they could achieve in life and that doing drugs would get them nowhere. They ended up at church giving their hearts to Jesus. Afterward, Hillary said that this exact thing had happened to someone at her church.

The next group performed a scene where a child was sent by her father to buy beer. On the way, she ran into a friend who said her father shouldn’t be drinking, he should be visiting his mother who was dying of TB. The seen ended with her father asking his mother’s forgiveness for forgetting her and wasting his life with beer. Hillary was especially struck by this scene because sick people in the community are often ignored. Apparently the children have noticed this and don’t think it’s OK.

The final scene was the most dramatic. A sister poisoned her brother out of jealousy, realized the error of her ways, and then prayed for forgiveness. Forgiveness appeared to be a theme throughout.

social-emotional learning

In our last education post I wrote about how poverty is not the fundamental issue with education, like many make it out to be. But I also mentioned that the effects of poverty are real and can’t be ignored. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience trauma than their more privileged peers. Too often these traumas are responded to with a sense of pity and lowered expectations, ‘He can’t be expected to do this, do you know what he’s been through?’ But Social Club takes a different route. Social Club gives the children a place to share and process these traumas peer-to-peer while holding steadfast to the idea that they can achieve great things in the world. Hillary and Jody don’t think of it like this though. They just know it’s what their children need.

  • Will

For more on the importance and power of social-emotional programs check out our piece on The Possibility Project here. Or peruse our in-depth interview with that program’s founder, Paul Griffin. He’s really sharp.

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 2)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 2)

“Lesson study is the way change has been able to come to elementary,” explained Shannon Watt. “We plan our lessons as a team. And we’ve done it, so if it doesn’t work it’s the team’s responsibility, not just one teacher. Lesson Study is what’s enabled us to open our minds, make mind shifts, to leave the traditional.”

As she spoke, Ms. Watt began to pull books on Lesson Study from the shelves in her office and slide them towards me over the desk. Lesson Study is a Japanese methodology where teachers plan and analyze their lessons together.

“And the best thing is that lesson study makes them open their classrooms, so now we have middle school teachers who go to see elementary teachers. Which is great because now they feel empowered. Observers come, and they are impressed and then they adapt what they see for older students. There’s more sharing ideas.”

But Lesson Study is a difficult system to get going in a school. In the West, teachers are famously attached to their autonomy. In a system that makes them feel embattled on all fronts, it’s often all they have to cling to. Even in a more affluent school like Southern Cross, teachers often invest a tremendous amount of personal pride in their particular way of doing things. Getting teachers to plan and evaluate lessons together, to get them innovating, is often a tremendous challenge. The “Team Time” in my first school back in 2006 often devolved into a round robin airing of grievances. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with over the past few years have shared similar experiences.

Lesson Study - International education

When Shannon Watt first introduced Lesson Study, she knew that she had to be delicate. She first started with a team she thought would be more amenable. Only after they shared how much they liked it, did she encourage the more skeptical teachers to try it out. There were problems at first. It’s only now, in the third year, that she feels Lesson Study is working as it truly should. All of the teachers are engaged and invested. They see how Lesson Study helps them. The issues with group work, which resulted in the slow but enthusiastic adoption of Kagan strategies, were originally surfaced in Lesson Study meetings.

Spending a day with Ms. Watt at Southern Cross, and talking with her teachers, was extremely illuminating. She seems to have created the kind of professional culture that many schools in the States aspire to with a kind of wistful idealism, an unstated recognition that the barriers are actually too great.*

More and more, people are beginning to realize that teaching needs to be a more collaborative profession. Just the night before, I was at a talk with a Chilean Education Professor who discussed how teachers’ tendency to view their classrooms as independent fiefdoms was one of the major barriers to reform. More collaborative faculties not only give people more opportunities to collaborate and share ideas. It also helps with morale.

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Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is much more thoughtful. It’s characterized by a patient perseverance that is far too rare in most schools.[/pullquote]

In the last post, I mentioned that the Harvard Business Review has found that having opportunities for professional growth and feeling trusted by one’s supervisor are two of the most important factors for job satisfaction. A third factor highly important factor is having close collaborative relationships with one’s colleagues.

The importance of collaboration is something many schools in the U.S. seem to know without understanding how to make it a reality. Too often the strategy is to block off time on a calendar without any context or guidance. Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is much more thoughtful. It’s characterized by a patient perseverance that is far too rare in most schools. And it’s an approach that’s created results.

As an 18 year veteran teacher I met at Southern Cross told me, “I’ve worked at a lot of schools. And what I’ve learned is that the role of the instructional coordinator is really very important.”

– Will

*There is a very real barrier in many U.S. schools though. Mainly the amount of time teachers are expected to be with students. At Southern Cross, the teachers told me they spent 27.5 hours a week with students. In many U.S. elementary schools that number is closer to 34 hours. Those extra 6 hours a week for things like Lesson Study can make a big difference.

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

The teachers Shannon Watt works with talk about her in tones of grateful reverence. If you’ve spent much time in teachers’ lounges, you may appreciate how unusual this tone of voice is. Especially when the topic of conversation is school administration.

“She trusts us. She gives us freedom,” began one, 18-year veteran, teacher.

“But its freedom with responsibility,” added another.

“Exactly.”

We got to this point after I asked them why they think the culture at Southern Cross (one of the best private schools in Chile) is so strong. First, they spoke about the strong relationships between students and teachers. They said teachers aren’t seen as a ‘big authority,’ and that it’s important to help students understand that behavior corrections are meant to help them become better people. But they quickly switched to talking about their own development.

“And the teachers here are always studying.”

“It’s tough, but nice. Like Kagan… It was difficult at first but now I love it.”

By ‘Kagan’ the teacher meant a set of cooperative learning strategies that are quickly gaining popularity in the United Sates as well.

“Cooperative learning started because the teachers wanted it,” explained Shannon Watt. “They saw that kids didn’t know how to work in groups. They made group work and it didn’t work. The kids had to learn how to work in groups.” Ms. Watt is also a trainer for Singapore math and, interestingly, it was a teacher from Singapore who recommended Kagan. So Ms. Watt bought the book, travelled to the States for training and then returned to try the strategies out with her own class.

“So, I tried it. The first weeks I thought, ‘this is terrible, this book was phony.’ Everything was ‘Ahhh!’ I didn’t know if it was going to work. And then the third week kids started engaging and it went well. I saw them working. And then I invited other teachers to come see my classes. They liked what they saw and that was the way we put it in.”

Shannon Watt
Shannon Watt

I think there’s a lot to learn about effective administration from this account.

  1. The teachers identified group work as a priority. The reform wasn’t coming down from out of the blue.
  2. Shannon did exhaustive preparation on her own and then piloted the strategies in her own classroom. In this way, she was in a position to truly empathize with the challenges her teachers faced later.
  3. She stuck with it for three weeks before it started to work. For me, this emphasizes the unwavering expectations she holds her students to. I’ve seen many teachers from working-class schools attempt and then abandon Kagan strategies after a few days. They say the initial disaster is proof that these strategies won’t work in ‘their environment’ or for ‘their students.’ It’s worth noting that a veteran teacher at a prestigious school encountered the same difficulties, she just reacted to them differently.
  4. Before pulling teachers into trainings, she invited them to her room and allowed a ‘buzz’ to build around the techniques. When the training finally started it was something they were eager to learn.

It’s not hard to see why her teachers love working with her.

The Harvard Business Review has done a number of studies about why people do or don’t like their jobs. Two of the most powerful factors for job satisfaction they’ve found are:

  1. Feeling trusted by your supervisor.
  2. Opportunities to develop professionally in a meaningful way.

Too often in the United States administrators limit their communications with teachers to discussing evaluations and obligations. This approach fairly quickly chips away at the trust most teachers initially feel toward their administration. And it’s a cliché by now for teachers to be bombarded by new waves of ‘teacher proof’ classroom strategies every few years; strategies devised without their input, and without any concern for the specific dynamics of their classroom. Teachers end up feeling that the school or district doesn’t understand them and doesn’t care to. The idea the district ‘trusts’ them is often almost laughable.

Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is clearly different. Her teachers love working with her because they feel trusted. And the way their development is set up makes them excited to grow in their craft. It’s amazing the differences happy teachers make.

But before Shannon Watt helped her teachers create a collaborative environment for her students, she first had to work on creating a collaborative culture amongst her teachers. Shannon is quick to point out that the above story never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Lesson Study. For more on that story, check out tomorrow’s post.

  • Will
Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

I arrived at Liceo Domingo Santa Maria unannounced and was greeted with a sort of excited confusion. After explaining myself to several administrators around the enormous Pre-K–12 campus, I ended up in a high school English classroom. The room was noisy. Most of the 30+ students chatted casually with unmarked worksheets in front of them. Occasionally the teacher would step out from behind his desk, pace impatiently, and then speak over the chatter to remind the students that this work was important, and they should be taking it seriously.

I spent most of my time talking with a group of boys by the windows who were wearing straight brimmed baseball caps. They asked me about music and said that they liked American rap music, especially Wiz Khalifa. When I said I was more interested in Chilean music, they smiled and made me a list of bands to listen to. I asked them if students at the school were always like ‘this’ and gestured to the chatter around us. They laughed and explained that students pay more attention in classes that they like but that no one likes English. I turned the conversation to their blank worksheets (they were supposed to be describing pictures of people’s faces) and I discovered that they all had several pages worth of English vocabulary copied into their notebooks. I realized, at some point, this class must have been quietly and diligently copying these notes from the board. Having students silently copy notes is a favorite management strategy of teachers in working-class schools. It brings order, but unfortunately, not much thinking.

International Education School Facilities

Liceo Domingo Santa Maria is a large school with nice facilities

Around the room, a handful of students seemed torn between the noise around them and the confusion of their worksheets. They ended up staring blankly forward, pillars of stoicism in a loudly social scene.

When class ended I walked up to the teacher, Javier, who was obviously embarrassed by his class. The first thing he said to me was, “These kids, you wouldn’t believe the problems they deal with at home. Drugs, violence, hunger…”

International Education enrollment sign

An advertisement for the school’s special program for students with speech problems

Javier got me a sandwich and a coffee from the school cafeteria, and we talked for the better part of an hour. He’s a 10-year veteran teacher and he explained that he enjoys it because it makes him be creative and keeps him sharp. When I asked about obstacles, he mentioned the focus on standardized tests and the amount of time it takes to design lessons, “There’s no time to create activities and so you have to do it at home and then you spend this time working at home but the students don’t care. Neither the students nor the bosses care about the teacher’s well-being. It’s run like a business. It’s all about results.”

Javier told me that the test scores in Arica are the lowest in the country and hypothesized that part of the reason could be that a large percentage of the population has been exposed to unhealthy levels of lead. He lamented how frustrating it is when students don’t pay attention and again connected it to their home lives, which he described as ‘heart-breaking.’

Education - Teacher with paperwork

Javier working on paperwork. Paperwork is so onerous, the school offers bonuses for having it completed.

During our conversation three things became very clear to me:

1) Javier works very hard over long hours,

2) He is emotionally invested in his students, and

3) He is not a very effective teacher.

And this is an important point to realize about education: many ineffective teachers’ work and care just as much as effective teachers. A teachers’ effectiveness is less a function of how much they work or care and more a function of what they believe their students are capable of achieving. Javier expressed what in the U.S. we would call a ‘deficit-based mindset.’ For him, the barriers his students face outside of school predicts a negative attitude toward school. The difficulties in their lives eclipse any more ambitious vision of what they could be capable of. As Lisa Delpit (amongst others) has pointed out, this kind of mindset is attractive because it frees the teacher of responsibility for their students’ learning.

Of course, the stresses Javier faces are severely exacerbated by the fact that he has more work to do than hours to do it in. Remember, Chile and the U.S. require teachers to spend more time in front of students than any other country in the world. And at least in the U.S. we have computers to help with paperwork.

After our conversation, I walked around the campus glancing into windows. I saw a wide variety of student engagement. A room of nearly 40 students was transfixed on a teacher who paced and smiled while tossing an apple into the air. Another class quietly copied notes from a PowerPoint.

Students in math class - international education

Students in math class

I ended up in a math classroom. There was no lesson, students were to get straight to work on their packet. I stepped into a familiar role, floating and trying to help students with math. But, while my Spanish is good, I often had difficulty decoding what the questions were looking for. After a short spurt of effort, I would give up and suggest we work on a problem that was more pure algebra. It gave me an experiential glimpse into what it’s like to struggle with text heavy problems.

In this class, students were more attentive to their worksheets, but there was still a lot of confusion, and they worked very slowly. After about 20 minutes, I realized I should be going.

One of my guiding principles for this trip is to avoid comparison: to let each place be what it is. But I can’t shake the similarities between Liceo Domingo Santa Maria and many large working-class schools I’ve been to in the United States. In the absence of a strong school culture, teachers end up creating unique cultures within the walls of their classrooms. The quality of these cultures nearly always a product of the disparate expectations they have of their students. The result is a wide, wide difference in how students behave and engage each hour of their day.

It’s interesting… I didn’t know what to expect from schools in Latin America. Still, I guess I assumed that there would be some clear difference in quality compared to working-class schools in the United States. But so far, that’s not what I’m finding at all.

Will

A Day with Ensena Peru

A Day with Ensena Peru

The Pamer school in Lima isn’t like most schools in Peru, but its classrooms would fit in at almost any charter school in the United States. Each classroom has the school’s vision and mission posted on a board. The most effective teacher we saw made use of call and response attention getters, “Yo-Yo,” she says, “Hey, Hey” responds the class. When it was time to focus, she called them to a learning posture similar to SLANT or SPARK but with the interesting addition of smiles. “I’m going to call on the student with the biggest smile,” she said. And there they sat, a class of just under 30 students, all sitting up straight, with beautifully authentic smiles on their faces.

As we drove to the school, Jose Revilla, the Executive Director of Ensena Peru, apologized for not being able to take us to a public school – they were on vacation. He explained that Pamer is a middle-income school that focuses almost entirely on preparing students for college entrance exams. He lamented that this narrow focus confined teachers to focusing mostly on the memorization of facts and rules, at the expense of more general education competencies. It was a frustration that was echoed by the teachers we talked with.

“What stood out to me the most is how confining the school is. The students don’t have time to express themselves or explain what they think*,” said Fiorella a first year upper elementary teacher with Ensena Peru. She compared the school to her own education where her exams were more like interviews, and she had many more opportunities to develop skills that are more important in life. When I asked what skills she thought were most important she answered, “The ability to argue and explain their thinking. The ability to work in teams.”

DSC_0474

Diana, another teacher explained, “It’s like all they are used to is to say, A, B, C, or D. When you ask them to explain ‘why’ it’s like ‘what do you mean why?’ Even working in pairs is unusual. They are only used to teachers telling them what to do.” Diana has had some success pushing students to explain themselves more, but it’s been a lonely battle and still in the context of explaining answers on multiple choice tests. Liz, a former lawyer turned fourth grade teacher, was disappointed the students didn’t have more opportunities for arts and music since the tests focused mostly on math and grammar. Even the most effective teacher we saw, Fernanda (not an Ensena Peru teacher) was still engaging students at a fairly low level of thinking – preparing them to answer basic questions about grammar.

Talking with these teachers, it was also surprising how similar their presence and demeanor was to the Teach For America teachers we’ve worked with the past few years. They are tired, frustrated, and deeply committed to being a positive force in the lives of the children they work with. As Liz put it, “I love the work that I do. When you help someone, you gain more than them. It’s a world that’s yours, and I’m so happy in my class.”

DSC_0463

From left to right; Jose, Will, Fiorella, Diana, Liz, Elizabeth

In fact, happiness was the prevailing emotion in the school. There was a palpable sense of joy amongst the students, and I don’t think it was just because we were visiting. Students laughed, supported each other, and smiled. Always with the smiles. Remember, Peru has some of the happiest students in the world. As Jose explained, public school teachers may not know their content very well, and the country may not have very high academic standards, but the teachers are very committed to building students self-worth and often believe that caring for their students is more important than the content they have to teach. Indeed, PISA’s international survey of teachers shows that Peruvian teachers prioritize developing a student’s personality more than teachers in almost every other country.

Jose went on to explain that, maybe that would be Peru’s saving grace. “Because,” he explained, “When you look at the most successful people in the world, they are not the people who know the most. They’re the people who are able to work well with others.”

Our day at Pamer has been one of the major highlights of the trip so far, and we hope to visit a few more schools before we cross the Chilean border.

Questions and comments are always welcome.

Cheers,

Will

A special thanks to Miluska and Jose for arranging this visit. It was awesome.

*A note on language. Some of the interviews in this post were in English and some were in Spanish. Where I felt uncomfortable doing a verbatim translation I paraphrased the main ideas of what was said.

 

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

Over the past year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into how education works in other countries. I’ve learned a lot that’s forced me to think critically about some of the most fundamental aspects of our American education system. These five realities stand out to me as the most consequential.

Reality #1 – U.S. Students Don’t Like School and Aren’t Very Good At It

Where+are+the+happiest+school+kids

This chart was created with the OECD’s PISA test data by Jake Levy, a data analyst at Buzzfeed. The scores are an average of math, science and reading. The x-axis is how students respond to the question, ’Are you happy in school?’ The PISA  is an excellent test given every three years. It requires critical thinking (not multiple choice), and focuses more on ‘what students can do with what they know.’ Economists have found a direct link between PISA scores and GDP growth and PISA scores have also proven a more accurate predictor of whether or not students will go to college than report cards. (Source: Amanda Ripley’s reporting in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way)

As you can see, the United States falls into the ‘sad and stupid’ quadrant. Not only does our system fail to educate our children, but in the process, it turns them away from the idea that learning can be fun. Great. Why aren’t people talking about this? Are we, as a nation, resigned to ironic acceptance of our educational inferiority?

Maybe more interesting than what this chart tells us directly, are the questions it can spur. Like, ‘What’s the difference between Korea and Singapore?” They both score in the top 5 for performance but Korea has the least happy students in the world while Singapore’s students are some of the happiest. What’s the point of doing well if you suffer along the way? What’s the secret to the more pleasant paths to success?

Reality #2 – U.S. Teachers Spend More Hours a Year in ‘Performance Mode’ Than Teachers in Any Other Country

OK, so that’s not completely true. For elementary school teachers, we’re #1. For secondary school teachers we’re #2, behind Chile. But still…

We know what teachers need to be more effective. They need time to plan interesting and rigorous lessons, time to give meaningful feedback to students (multiple choice tests are most tempting when you don’t have time to grade), time for collaborating with other teachers, quality professional development, direct coaching from mentor teachers for people new to the profession, etc… All of those things teachers in more effective countries make priorities.

The thing is, teachers in better performing countries actually have substantial time in the day dedicated to all those things. A High School teacher in the U.S. averages 1,051 hours in front of students per year. Compare that with the average of 656 hours for OECD countries. That’s almost 400 extra hours per year for all that good stuff I was just talking about! And that already takes into account the fact that we’re in school two weeks less per year than the OECD average!

Let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great.

There literally aren’t enough hours in the day for U.S. teachers to do all of the things that correlate with better instruction. Teachers in the U.S. often complain about mandated collaboration but not because they don’t want it. It’s because they’d rather be planning or grading, and they don’t have time for all three. It’s also common for U.S. teachers to give up the limited planning time they do have, to do individual tutoring, which is noble, but it shouldn’t be necessary. That reality plays into a ‘teacher as altruist’ expectation that we would never hold to other professions. Who assumes a lawyer gets into the profession for their love of ‘the rule of law?’ I hope that most doctors get into the profession to help people, but as a society, we don’t expect them to stay after hours to consult the uninsured.

There’s a very dangerous sense in this country that teachers aren’t ‘really working’ unless they’re standing in front of a group of students. How would you feel if I told you, you had to give 30 separate one hour presentations next week, and not only did you have to deliver them, but you had to execute them so well that each of the 100+ people in the audience would be able to recall over 80% of the details at the end of the week, and by the way, they’re teenagers. How much time would you like to prepare for something like that? How much individualized management would you need to do to make sure people were track? How much stress would you feel?

Reality #3 – Our Most Privileged Students Aren’t that Great

Education reformers in the United States tend to focus almost exclusively on the ‘Achievement Gap’ – the fact that poor and minority students in the U.S. perform tragically worse than their more privileged peers. A built in assumption to this focus, is the idea that our most privileged students are being educated just fine. The problem in the U.S. isn’t with the fundamentals of our education system, it’s with the consequences of poverty.

But, what if we just look at the most privileged groups in each country, including those who attend private school? How do our most privileged do against the most privileged of other countries? It turns out, not so well. When we look at just top quartiles in the PISA’s socio-economic breakdown we come in 25th out of 39 countries in math. And remember, our most privileged are even better off than most of their counterparts in other countries.

We should certainly be working to close the gap in performance between demographic groups, but let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great. If we’re truly going to maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly global economy we’ll have to rethink how our best schools operate too.

  Top Socio-Economic Quartile Only Bottom Socio-Economic Quartile Only
Ranking in Math Scores Country Socio-Economic Index Score* (How advantaged are the most privileged) Country Socio-Economic Index Score (How disadvantaged are the least privileged)
1 Hong Kong-China 0.50 Hong Kong-China -2.00
2 Korea 0.92 Macao-China -1.91
3 Switzerland 1.29 Korea -0.97
4 Japan 0.85 Japan -0.99
5 Belgium 1.27 Liechtenstein -0.89
6 Poland 1.08 Switzerland -1.00
7 Germany 1.42 Finland -0.68
8 Netherlands 1.15 Canada -0.75
9 Liechtenstein 1.42 Netherlands -0.82
10 France 0.95 Poland -1.22
11 New Zealand 1.04 Germany -0.99
12 Macao-China 0.28 Iceland -0.34
13 Canada 1.44 Australia -0.84
14 Finland 1.28 Ireland -0.97
15 Czech Republic 0.93 Denmark -0.70
16 Austria 1.19 Belgium -1.05
17 Australia 1.18 Norway -0.56
18 Portugal 1.21 Austria -0.97
19 Luxembourg 1.41 Latvia -1.39
20 Ireland 1.20 Czech Republic -0.98
21 Slovak Republic 1.06 Italy -1.29
22 Denmark 1.44 Russian Federation -1.10
23 Hungary 1.01 New Zealand -1.05
24 Spain 1.16 Sweden -0.82
25 United States 1.35 Spain -1.50
26 Latvia 0.90 France -1.10
27 Iceland 1.71 United States -1.14
28 Italy 1.24 Portugal -1.85
29 Norway 1.35 Luxembourg -1.42
30 Russian Federation 0.82 Hungary -1.46
31 Sweden 1.25 Slovak Republic -1.25
32 Greece 1.22 Greece -1.34
33 Turkey 0.07 Turkey -2.74
34 Uruguay 0.69 Thailand -2.72
35 Thailand 0.27 Mexico -2.66
36 Mexico 0.61 Uruguay -2.23
37 Brazil 0.39 Tunisia -2.86
38 Tunisia 0.42 Brazil -2.64
39 Indonesia -0.28 Indonesia -3.09

* Since income and poverty measurements don’t compare well across countries the OECD and PISA use what they call an “Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status” It takes into consideration things like the highest level of parents education, the types of jobs parents have, if there’s a quiet place to do school work at home, if the family owns art, and other questions that allow for a more normalized comparison of privilege across countries.

Reality #4 – A Country’s Education System Matters More Than Wealth or Demographics

Let’s look at Finland and Norway. They’re both Scandinavian countries with fairly homogenous populations and low child poverty rates. But Finland’s students consistently score as some of the most capable in the world and Norway’s students perform even worse than the United States. What’s up with that?

Let’s look at Poland and the United States. Both countries have similar levels of childhood poverty, and on the whole, U.S. students participating in the PISA have considerably more affluent home environments than their Polish peers. But Polish students achieve at much higher levels than U.S. students. Even more interesting is the fact that that, 20 years ago the U.S. outperformed Poland on international tests.

The least advantaged students in Hong Kong are worse off than the same group in the U.S. but they score just as well in math as America’s most privileged students.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve.

Finland, Singapore, Poland, and China have all dramatically improved their education systems in the past decades while the U.S. has remained remarkably consistent in its subpar performance. Each country is unique, but all of their reform strategies had two things in common. 1) They increased the rigor of their standards. 2) They prioritized teacher preparation and professional development.

In the U.S., we’ve also tried to improve our education system in recent decades, but we’ve taken a different approach. We’ve tried to incentivize and manage improvement through a rigorous system of testing and accountability. Turns out, that hasn’t worked as well.

Reality #5 – U.S. Teacher Morale is Going in the Wrong Direction

The 2012 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” showed that teacher morale in the U.S. is at a 25 year low. In 2008, 62% of teachers reported feeling very satisfied with their job. In 2012 that number was down to 39%. Over half of teachers reported feeling great stress several days a week. I believe that this dynamic is today’s single greatest threat to our nation’s long-term economic security. The causes of this dissatisfaction are complex but ultimately less relevant than its consequences. The simple fact is that, it’s hard for students to learn from people who are constantly stressed out by their jobs.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve. But across the country applications to teachers colleges are on the decline and fewer and fewer people are applying to alternative certification programs like Teach For America as well. Why would intelligent/capable people want to pursue a profession where over half the people are stressed? It doesn’t even pay very well.

__________

Maybe this sort of lackluster education system was OK in the second half of the 20th century. Getting out of WWII with our infrastructure intact certainly gave us a good head start. For a few decades there, we were graduating a higher percentage of our people from college than any other country. But that percentage has flat lined at around 25% since the 1970s and the rest of the world is passing us by.

The solutions we come up with need to be uniquely American, but we’d be foolish not to learn from the rest of the world. This school year we’re traveling  the world to see what these other systems look like up close. I hope you’ll follow along. We need to act and act big. Education isn’t going to fix itself.

Excited to learn,

Will

For the research for this post, I’m indebted to Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” and Dana Goldstein’s “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” as well as to several articles by Linda Darling-Hammond, and to whoever compiled the myriad of spreadsheets found on the OECD’s website. Some of the analysis is my own. It’s a skill set I developed during my two years as a policy analyst for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

A special thanks to Caitlin Jordan for creating the featured political cartoon at the top of this post with very little notice.

 

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education

We were over a year into planning and saving for this trip when Elizabeth turned to me on the couch. “Why don’t we try to visit schools as we go?” she asked. The idea struck as a bolt of epiphany. It really made a lot of sense. Professionally, this would make the trip less of a hiatus and more of a self-funded sabbatical. It would give me a chance to indulge in something like the journalism career I passed over to pursue education. And most interestingly, it would give us an excuse to talk with locals about something they cared about. In the midst of this excitement, the questions began to pile on top of themselves: What questions would we ask? How would we get connected to schools? What would we do about language barriers? What tone should we take when we write? Which schools would we focus on? What could we hope to better understand by the end?

As we’ve sought to answer these questions, we’ve learned a lot about the differences between American education and the rest of the world Many of the foundations of our education system, from the time commitment we expect of our teachers (much more), to the training we offer them (much less), are dealt with significantly differently in other countries. Other factors, like our staggeringly high childhood poverty rate and complicated (to say the least) history with race and systemic oppression, further add to the uniqueness of the American education landscape. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll go into more detail about what we’ve learned in our preliminary research in a later post. For now, I want to focus on what we aim to achieve with this aspect of our trip.

Dos and Don’ts

What we certainly don’t want to do is suggest that we have a clear grasp of what education is like in a certain country just because we’ve spoken to some people and visited a few schools. We also don’t want to give the impression that we’re searching for best practices to be sent back for implementation in the United States. We’re not looking to pass judgement or discover solutions. (Over the years, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the ‘reformer as Dr. Frankenstein’ approach to leadership) Instead, we want to focus on the ideas and experiences of individuals. Curiosity will be our driving force. We’ll ask students, teachers, and administrators what they think the goals of education should be and how they seek to meet those goals. We’ll ask about the obstacles they face as well as the programs and ideas they are most excited about. As the months pass by, we look forward to seeing how the voices of the people we talk with reinforce and contradict one another. We hope that these conversations will stir us to ask more interesting questions and spur us to think more creatively about what education can look like in the United States.

We don’t know what we’ll find, but we hope to add something useful to the dialogue around education here at home. At the very least, we look forward to broadening our own understandings of what is possible.

We hope you’ll stick around for the ride. And of course, your voice has a place in this conversation as well so feel free to comment and share.

Cheers,

Will & Elizabeth