How are the children? All the children are well.
– Masai Greeting
Across global education systems all is not well for the children. How much your parents earn overwhelmingly dictates how you’ll do in school. It’s why Enseña Chile started in 2009 and why it’s now grown into a national movement of thousands of students, teachers, principals, entrepreneurs and policy-makers. It’s why the Teach For All network was founded, and why it’s grown in the same period from six to more than 30 partners. And it’s why we’ve gathered in Santiago this week – me, sixty educationalists from across the globe, and some of the most controversial (but successful) figures in US education reform. And it’s why we know we still have much more to do. Outlier schools and classrooms across the world are beating the usual odds, but the gap at the systemic level is widening. Worse, elites are beginning to lose interest. So what do we do to close that gap at the system level? And what is the role of Teach For All?
Doing What Matters
The New Teacher Project (TNTP) works across the US to build teaching capacity throughout the education system. They select, train and accredit teachers via a demanding preparation programme, then ensure those teachers end up in the classrooms where they’re needed most. They’re adding teaching capacity to the system, just as Teach For All’s network partners are aiming to achieve change through building leadership capacity. TNTP’s president is Tim Daly, who taught in Baltimore in 1999 with Teach For America. As a teacher, Tim was guided by a question that he has continued to apply to his work as a system leader: Am I doing what matters? It’s a question that should guide us all—one that challenges us to reconsider what we know (or think we know), and what we’re already doing as a network.
We know that teacher quality matters. If you’re a student in the classroom of a top-performing teacher, your background is no longer a factor in your learning. With an average teacher, poorer kids fall further and further behind their richer peers, even if they start out ahead. This is the foundational equation of all Teach For All partners. And we’re gaining some insights about how to build teacher capacity. Each of our programs is adding capacity to the system through recruiting and training great teachers and leaders. And alumni leaders are increasingly doing the same at different scales. The New Teacher Project is proving the value of having great teachers in the classrooms where they’re needed most in the US, while in India TFI alum Chaitra Muralidhar is working for the Thermax Social Initiative to partner with the government of the state of Maharastra to bring the best practices of Teach For India’s training to teachers across the system.
We also know that school leadership matters. Eric Hanushek published a study last year showing that top-quartile principals have a significant impact on the progress of all the kids in their school, and that this impact increases for underserved kids. In Chile we heard from Mike Feinberg that across the 141 schools in the KIPP network more than 60% of kids from low-income backgrounds go to college, compared to 8% in schools nationally. And we’re seeing schools emerging across the network that prove the importance of leadership, like Zakumuiza School in Latvia, led by Ispejama Misija alumnus Igors Grigorjevs, and CREE: Cerro Navia, soon to be launched by Ensena Chile alumni Juan Paulo Sanchez and Max Ortuzar in Santiago. By working with these leaders, we can gain valuable insights about the leadership qualities, skills and experiences that accelerate those on a path to school leadership.
And we’re increasingly seeing that student leadership and community engagement matter. Zeke Cohen of The Intersection in Baltimore told the story of a group of black students who had begun a successful political campaign to support the rights of Latino immigrants in the city to receive an education. Veronica Palmer introduced us to RISE, a parent and community advocacy organization that she leads in Aurora Colorado. These examples reminded us that the politics of reform aren’t enacted only by policy-makers, and that leadership is not the preserve of teachers and principals. Tom Friedman’s insight that no successful reform movement has ever been achieved without its beneficiaries also being its advocates reminds us that we must do more to understand how our network can facilitate the leadership of students, parents and communities.
Being Better Together
Whether we think of change as coming from the top down and bottom up, we were reminded that a commitment to openness, connectedness, and collaboration is integral to achieving it. Enseña Chile’s CEO, Tomás Recart, began the conference with a call for our participants, alumni, students, parents and supporters to to work together to achieve systemic change, whilst Mike Feinberg shared that KIPP is for everyone, and ‘does not believe in intellectual property’.
The importance of openness and collaboration was confirmed by Teach For America graduate and Chancellor of Washington, DC Public Schools, Kaya Henderson. Over the past four years, Kaya has overseen a revolution in the quality of learning that students in the district receive. In her presentation on system change, she promoted the absolute importance of facilitating an open dialogue between all public education stakeholders about what is right for the children (what matters) and how best that should be achieved (doing it). She explained that she’d learned the hard way that being open, involving the community, and learning together, are crucial to this work—first through failing to do so when school closures prompted mutiny from parents and unions in 2008, and then through getting in right by consulting parents, communities and unions in the process of closing schools and moving on teachers in 2014.
Kaya’s insight is one we should remember when we reflect on our work as a network. Although across the world the examples of how we might achieve large scale systemic change are still few, the increasing numbers of individual examples are helping us to believe that it will be possible. Exposing people to new practices and collaborating on solutions to shared problems will only strengthen this belief, and the likelihood that the belief will catalyse action. There are lots of unresolved questions – What matters most in system change? Is top down or bottom up better? How different is this work across diverse contexts? Are we tinkering with systems or building social movements? – but our time in Chile showed us is that we will be much more powerful if we learn to tackle them collectively. We need to know what matters, then do more of it. In this endeavour, as Tomás phrased it, ‘we’re better together’.