Educational innovation II: Solving the human capital problem

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.

Perspectives on Eastern Cape education

Over the past six weeks we’ve supported four University of Cape Town education students as they’ve completed their teaching prac’s at two local schools. Their experiences have been interesting… to say the least! Here Louis Pienaar and Josh Bassett reflect on their time in Zithulele:

“Being two UCT Education students having chosen to come to the Transkei to do our teaching practice, we knew we were about to face some serious challenges, both of a personal and logistical kind. Both were expected in this area infamous for service delivery issues – especially in the sectors of education and health care. We imagined single classroom schools, taking lessons under trees to find shelter from the sun and using a sticks in the sand as a blackboard. As we came here fresh and up for the experiences and challenges that came with being out here, we were excited about such challenges.

 To our surprise many of the areas were absent, being replaced with problems arguably worse. The school building, while it could do with maintenance, keeps the rain out, the classrooms have blackboards, and the staff area has electricity. There is a storeroom which is bursting at the seams with government-sponsored textbooks. Even a photocopier and some computers!

Yet, this storeroom is used as a kitchen. The books remain untouched, some still packaged as they arrived. The teachers, who for the most part are more than capable of their jobs, do not spend a lot of time teaching the 100-odd students in each class. And when they do, most of the tuition takes place in the students’ home language, which is not the language they are to be assessed in. The biggest, most unforeseen problem we faced was a language barrier almost impenetrable. It took every resource we could muster to be able to cross this divide. The problems, however, are deeply structural – we have realised that accusations are complex, just as the chaos of education in the Transkei is complex.

 Yet, despite the chaos, the students polish their shoes and walk 10km-plus to be at school, ready to learn in their only set of school uniform, washed daily. To see how far some of them come in spite of all the challenges that face them here, some even giving up their weekends to work with Axium, a dedicated local educational NGO, is just an indication of how much potential there is. There are bright minds, hopes and dreams yearning to be fulfilled. Unfortunately, the finger-pointing, political rhetoric and loud criticism from teachers to the media results in the losers being these students, the ones not pointing any fingers.

 Zithulele Hospital has shown how service delivery issues in the health care sector can be overcome  by inspired individuals who are more concerned with action than rhetoric – the education sector could do with the same.”

Soccer – The “BT Way”

One of our staff associates, Batandwa Ntsebeza, shares his thoughts after a week coaching soccer on the July Boot Camp.

“For my mid-year holidays, I ventured out to my homeland – Transkei – to share my coaching expertise that I have acquired over the last 18 months. I was called up upon by my high school mentor, Craig Paxton, to assist in the Axium Bootcamp where, for one week, me along with 10 other peers did a maths and science holiday school programme. This is followed each day by a sporting clinic, involving soccer, touch rugby and netball training. I ran the soccer clinic for a group of senior secondary school learners, where I taught them soccer the “BT Way”!

 What is the “BT Way”? Soccer is not only played on the field, but off it too. What you learn on the soccer field can later be applied to other aspects of daily life; for example, discipline. One point I emphasised was punctuality; arriving on time (14h30) for training was a practice which I drilled into my team because the habit of being punctual for training is important to apply to other activities in life, such as arriving on time for meetings. I also emphasised that sport and school work hand-in-hand; you cannot aspire to be a professional soccer player and work hard on the field without putting in the same effort in your books. I also made it clear that alcohol and sports do NOT mix. There is much more to the “BT Way”, and each day after the session all of these points were covered; helping to drill the message home.

 On the first day of the clinic, the players didn’t really know me so they took most of what I said with a pinch of salt. By the end of the second day, however, I managed to win them over which made it easier for them to take in what I was teaching them. The most rewarding part of this week for me was that before I came to coach, the players had a very specific – and quite raw – style of playing soccer but I was able to shape their natural skills and by the end of the week, the players were playing a style of soccer which is more internationally recognised. Hopefully this will encourage these players to reach for the stars with soccer. My goal this week was to leave a mark/ legacy, which could continue to live on even when I am gone, and after chatting to my players at our final briefing and last session, they assured me that they would carry on playing the “BT Way”.”

Bootcamp #6

We ran our 6th Bootcamp during the June/July school holidays. Here’s what Manyanani Mawisa, one of our superstar learning “facilitators” had to say about the experience…

“It’s always great being invited to attend a boot camp and this time was no different. As this was to be my third boot camp it was even more exciting because I knew what a joy it was being in Zithulele and working with the learners. It is worth mentioning that when we first went to Zithulele there were only 3 of us and we drove (well Craig drove, while Mfundo and I offered “moral support” albeit with our eyes closed) in terrible weather conditions, muddy and pot-holed roads and all of this in a 1.4 VW Polo Playa which would explain why we got stuck up a hill for an a hour. It was a welcome surprise this time around to come back to Zithulele and drive on fully tarred roads.

 My “job description” was to help with translating in the classroom and I was also dubbed as “Master of Sweat”, whatever that’s supposed to be. Well at a boot camp one has to be VERY flexible (scratches throat after coughing).

 The first day is generally filled with a bit of uncertainty and sort of feeling your way around because the learners are still trying to get used to you and you to them. We started the week off with an ice breaker with the general theme being teamwork while also making sure to get them thinking ‘out of the box’.

 The more time I spent with the learners, the more comfortable they became and the more questions they started to ask. While Michelle was teaching I sat on the side observing for any blank expressions to which I would then step in and do some translating and extra examples to help them with understanding, but for the most part I was busy with the learners on a one-on-one basis.

 The aim for the week with the Grade 11s was to work through Transformations and Financial Maths but as the days went on we could see that we were being rather ambitious as completing two sections would be quite a stretch. We also ran Life skills classes where we offered career advice and educated them about community service (oh and I must mention that I was put in charge of handling the Life skills where I was told to “Just wing it”, I did mention flexibility earlier).

 A very successful after school sports programme was run by Mfundo (touch rugby), Batandwa aka Arsene Wenger (soccer), Zizipho and Charloty (netball). I hope to one day play alongside Craig and the Zithulele kids in an IPT (Inter-Provincial Touch Rugby Tournament), we may not win a gold medal just yet but I’m certain that we will become a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

 Special thanks to the Paxtons for the invitation and for all they have done and continue to do, Kristi Khuthala Jooste for all the time and effort she put into this boot camp including the driving and having to put up with the “crazy bunch” which is no small feat I tell you, the Axium family and indeed we have become a family, the learners for all their hard work and continued efforts through adversity, and last but definitely not least our sponsors for without them none of this would be possible, your support means the world to all of us and most especially the kids.”