The charter school movement, examined on my last blog, reflects a growing realisation in the USA that the education “problem” is really a human capital issue. In South Africa’s private sector, as in the US, the free market determines where the best and the brightest end up, but our education sector lacks the essential flexibility and incentive structure to ensure that the best end up where they are most needed.
This increased focus on human capital in the States has resulted in a bloom of innovative approaches to improving the teacher and school leader “pipelines”. Boston Teacher Residency uses the medical residency model (“see one, do one, teach one”) to allow new teachers to learn how to teach effectively by apprenticing to veteran teachers. New Leaders for New Schools prepares school leaders using an internship model that emphasizes on-the-job skills. Teach for America (TFA) takes graduates from the nation’s most prestigious colleges, trains them during a 5-week summer program, and places them in some of the worst schools in the country.
The flurry of activity in the education sector has been part of a more general trend – made even more popular with President Obama’s support – toward citizen service. Top college graduates compete for slots at organizations like TFA, where they earn the privilege of serving in the nation’s poorest communities. School leaders and charter organizations race against each other for the best results in the worst neighborhoods. Quality graduate students at prestigious US universities display a zeal for public life more commonly seen in recent generations of students entering a career in investment banking. Public service is now “cool”.
My experience of education in South Africa was quite the opposite, with a migration of teaching talent to former Model-C or private schools or, even worse, leaving our shores for good. Understandably, perhaps, given our history, many of our best graduates choose more lucrative careers in business, but we need to open more doors to make public service an attractive option for them. Where, after all, is the sense of ambition in the top graduates of today to use their talent for our nation’s long-term benefit, in education or elsewhere? It does not need to be for a lifetime: many TFA alumni work for only a few years in education, but their experience there shapes their perspectives and involvement as they move on to careers in finance, law or politics.
Aside from growing the quality and quantity of educators, what else can be done to transform a challenging education environment facing imminent teacher shortages? About fourteen years ago, the Florida Department of Education began designing online learning software in order to meet the demand for advanced placement courses in rural areas and schools that were not large enough to provide the variety of courses their students required. These courses are now widely used across the country, demonstrating remarkable student success.
Online learning is not new, of course, but it does represent an increasingly affordable way to provide high-level content (such as high school science and mathematics) without depending on the qualifications and experience of the classroom teacher. Technology does not replace the teacher, but it does change the kinds of skills and knowledge needed, as the role of teachers shift away from technical knowledge toward facilitation and mentoring. In order to make this feasible for our rural classrooms, affordable, robust technology is a prerequisite, but the amount of research going on in this area suggests that a technical solution is not far away.
The challenge forSouth Africa lies in taking the technology and producing a viable economic and educational solution that can be widely scaled. The waters here are uncharted, but imagine effectively tapping into the vast well of engineering and financial talent that currently lies dormant for want of quality maths and science teaching! Our nation can be proud of being on the cutting edge in advancing technological innovations throughout the continent – why should we not take the technology lead in a new model of education as well?
As different as South Africa and the US are, we share a common hope in the potential of education to reduce inequity and transform society. The past twenty years of experimentation in US education should yield some powerful hints for us as we navigate our own course: hints about how to create new, better schools that stay open longer and have more control over their resources; hints about the kind of educators needed to run these schools and how to ensure there are incentives and systems that spread them fairly across all communities. And, as technology continues to evolve at an unprecedented rate, hints as to how to harness it in a way that enables more children to have access to quality educational opportunities.