Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dispatch: Can We Fix South Africa's Schools?

Happy 2014!

After two years of work – and several dispatches about the journey -  my book and video series How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work has finally been published. I can’t take all the credit, it was co-authored by a university chancellor Jonathan Jansen.

As some of you may know, I visited 19 schools, some with 2221 students others with 600. Whether urban or rural, big or small, the one thing that these schools have in common is that they serve disadvantaged communities and have achieved academic success. These schools are doing well despite hunger, crowded classrooms, lack of toilets and other resources, and sometimes, unresponsive provincial governments.

In addition to telling the stories of these individuals and communities, I tried to understand why some schools just work. It is something that people all over the world are trying to understand. It is what many of you on this dispatch list work to understand every day.

So what are the key strategies? Can these models be replicated? How do we teach principals to be better and more inspirational leaders, make teachers stronger, and urge students to look to the future? One goal of the book is to try to answer these questions. The title of the book is ambitious, but we have to start somewhere.

“There is no recipe for success,” one principal in Soweto told me. It can be simple – good leaders who hold teachers accountable.

I saw a series of factors -- good teaching, extra classes, continuous assessment, and engaging parents. Check, check, check, check.  But it was the essence of the schools, their individual stories that told me more.

And I found that what is revolutionary is sometimes obvious. One principal told me that the main reason her school works is because students are in class on time, teachers are in class on time and they are teaching. The question we should ask is why is this not the norm.

On paper we have policies and we build education systems. Sometimes they work, often they don’t. We use statistics to assess schools, examine progress. We debate about public vs. private vs. charter vs. community schools; about who should be in the classroom and so many other questions, too many to count. But in this whole dialogue, we don’t often hear the voices of those who are in the schools.

And the voices I heard told me stories of schools that shift the paradigm.

I met determined and resilient young people who arrive at school at 7:00 am for mandatory study – and at one school, they arrive at 6:00 am for mandatory class in Romeo & Juliet taught by the principal!

I met teachers who implement concrete strategies and get students to perform calculus with the same energy and love as Shakespeare’s sonnets.

And I talked to committed principals who lead with a philosophy and vision that is felt throughout the school. These men and women fight and sacrifice for their students because they know what’s at stake.

I know we would like all teachers and principals to be like this and all students to be so engaged. We have to remind ourselves that at any great school and at any struggling schools, regardless of how wealthy or poor it may be, there are students who work hard and others who don’t care so much.

At the schools that I visited, principals recognize the obstacles in front of them, but say they just work hard with what they have. Despite bumps in the road and overwhelming challenges, leaders find a way to move forward. Some do this by empowering teachers to be agents of change, others use a combination of love and discipline to make school feel like home, others regularly adapt strategies in order to help students achieve.

In South Africa, all grade 12 students are required to take a series of exams, called matric, in order to pass school. The schools I visited have high total pass rates on these exams – sometimes up to 95  to 100% of students pass. But the question remains, are these students getting good enough results to study further? These principals know that a basic pass won’t take their students very far. Especially when the bar is set so low. You only have to get 35% to pass the matric exams in South Africa. Most universities require an exemption pass -- at least 50-60%.

So all of these principals are aiming for the real prize -- 100% quality passes that ensure further education, better jobs and more hopeful futures for their students. Last year, at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo province, 325 students qualified for university. This year there are 2,283 students at the school in grades 8 to 12.

The principal’s expectations flow down to students. They have been witness to the transformation in South Africa and 20 years after democracy, they are eager to contribute to it. It is not just the leaders, principals or teachers; it is the investment and the strength of these students who push one another.

All the students told me that education is the key to the future. They told me that they want to go to university, they want to be doctors and engineers and lawyers and teachers, but almost everyone also wants to provide for their family and plow back into their community in attempts to change the circumstances.

Their teachers hope to get them there.

So two thoughts:

Just imagine what could happen if we could harness the energy of these schools and spread it across South Africa? How could we replicate the success of these schools to transform other schools in disadvantaged communities that also have limited resources, not only here but also elsewhere? What could that look like if we did the same thing in the U.S.? I know some schools already are.

And perhaps a more exciting idea, given the current success of these schools that work with only a few resources, just imagine what they could do if they were given access to all the resources that are available. Imagine if every student at those schools had all doors open to them. What it would it look like to level the playing field?

I have seen diverse school communities, each with their own stories, but all moving towards the same goal. Teachers who understand how to nurture student potential, and who extend themselves as counselors and parents, as well as educators. Principals who work tirelessly to maintain effective institutions so that teaching and learning can run the way they are supposed to, all with a single focus that their students find a place in the outside world. Finally students with goals, who want to be active members of the new South Africa and transform their community and country.

They know what matters. But I think it is when we all decide that this should matter that the real change begins.


How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools That Work is now available. The book includes all 19 videos. You can learn more  read about the book and watch a few of the videos at my new website www.dispatchfilms.com. My TedX talk, which some of you may have seen, is also there.

On Amazon: The digital version of the book is now available on Amazon. The book will not be in stock on Amazon for a few months.

How to Purchase the Actual Book:
If you would like to purchase the book, send me an email and I can work out a bulk order and send you one from South Africa.  Costs would be payable via check or PayPal.

Thanks to you all for reading these dispatches and going on this journey with me. I am now trying to get this book out into the world through screenings, reaching out to interested universities and organizations, and writing blogs and articles. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

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