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Puzzles for Practitioners in the Developing World

This month, Rick is out working on a new project exploring the lessons of Bush-Obama school reform. In his stead, we've got a terrific lineup of guest bloggers. Taking over this week is Mike Goldstein. Mike is the founder and former CEO of Match Education in Boston, and former Chief Academic Officer of Bridge International Academies.

This week's Economist has a great story on how technology is driving change in Africa. One featured organization is Bridge International Academies, a chain of 580 elementary schools in five countries. (Full disclosure: For almost four years, I worked for Bridge as it opened over 400 new schools. I still volunteer as an advisor, cheerleader, and a "host family" to a few alumni who now attend American prep schools.)

Bridge is controversial. Nicholas Kristof has captured both the critique of Bridge and his response. PBS has offered a mixed take. For Hess readers, I suspect your view would closely mirror whatever you think of, say, Boston charter schools, with randomized evaluations showing large gains. Neerav Kingsland has also posed some related thoughts on Bridge. (Note that Bridge's gains in Liberia were more than double those of the New York Times-lauded charter schools.) And just last week, the UK government spoke about the importance of a decent education for Nigeria's young people—one of the countries Bridge is currently working in.

Let me bypass the politics, and instead pose a three "practitioner" questions. I'm not trying to persuade you of any particular answer. Let me also state clearly: I am in no way an expert here—just a guy who encountered some interesting puzzles that I'd like to share.

1. Americans often debate "what parents want" when choosing schools.

In Kenya, a common response to this is, "I want my children to pass KCPE." Since November marks the end of their school year, that 8th-grade exam just happened.

Consider this: There is no American test I can think of that matters as much as KCPE does for Kenyans. It's much higher stakes than high-stakes tests in our context. A kid's KCPE score (and that score alone) typically determines high school admission--not just where you go, but if you go. There is no GPA component, no teacher recommendations, no essay component of the admissions process—just the KCPE score.

If you were a standardized test skeptic, but the fate of students was inexorably linked to the test, would you teach to the test?

2. There are vexing issues involved when Western ideas are brought elsewhere.

Here is one tension we discovered in schools: Many parents and teachers in the developing world support corporal punishment. Their approving phrase is often "beating the children." Bridge's founders forbid corporal punishment and would fire teachers who do it, but this rejects the cultural claim.

What would you do if you ran a school?

3. Everyone pretty much agrees that classrooms in the developing world are often very "rote."

Often there's a national syllabus that includes a long lists of facts and few synthesis-type questions, combined with a pedagogical tradition of long lecture, lots of "copy off the board," and call-and-response. Kids typically don't get many minutes to read, solve problems, or discuss things in small groups.

USAID, DFID, and various philanthropists have tried to change this, often through $50 million here or there on nationwide professional development. However, studies seem to show that these training-only approaches don't raise achievement, and the new teaching styles don't "stick." (Number of Rick Hess readers surprised: exactly zero).

The estimable Ben Piper and others have gone farther, creating detailed lesson plans that specifically try to nudge teachers to give students large chunks of time to work on problems alone or in small groups (and then pair that with teacher coaching). Randomized studies validate that approach (which Bridge uses in their schools).

Per my column earlier this week about teacher choice, Bridge operates like a charter network, giving prospective teachers choice on the front end about the type of teaching expected from them (plus the required use of learning data, and the impermissibility of corporal punishment), thereby freeing teacher candidates to decide whether to apply or not. But for government ministries and aid agencies seeking to improve teaching in traditional public schools, they face the same challenge as superintendents here: A particular approach may have research showing large gains for students, but incumbent teachers did not sign up expecting to teach this way. Conflict ensues.

If you were advising an education minister in Mexico or India or Nigeria on whether to impose a particular (pick the one you think most helps kids) approach to an incumbent cadre of teachers, would you recommend it? Or leave things as is, knowing that the default would remain overwhelmingly rote, but perhaps with the medical ethic of "first, do no harm"?

One final thought. In the US, there are collaborations between district and charter schools, even as the political battles remain full steam. I remember the early days of the Boston Schoolchildren's Consortium, drinking tea next to the superintendent, worrying that she didn't like me as a charter guy—and then finding common ground after a few meetings. I remember productive conversations and relationships from a Chicago convening of top union leaders with charter leaders, though admittedly this was many moons ago.

My sense is those collaborations are equally possible in the developing world, but even less common. It's possible—not easy of course—to argue about school choice while still working together on common goals like safety, raising teacher pay, internet and electricity access, access to pleasure-reading books; and technical challenges around literacy, math, critical thinking, and data and measurement. There just needs to be an extraordinary convener to bring people together.

--Mike Goldstein

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