South African education—inspiration & tragedy

Inspiration and tragedy. Those are the two words I wrestled with over the Atlantic Ocean this past weekend as I flew home to the US from South Africa.  Taking the negative first—so we can end on the positive :)—my visit to South Africa was tragic as I learned about the current reality:  just one percent of black children get all the way through the South African education pipeline and graduate from a university.

And I didn’t just learn about it; I saw it.  I saw teachers’ work rooms in schools in townships where the teachers were beaten-yet-present at best, and asleep at worst.

What was the most tragic was that the beaten feelings, or lack of belief and action among teachers, was not matched by what I saw among students:  I met children HUNGRY to learn, HUNGRY to do well on the matric to be able to study in universities, and HUNGRY to provide their families and themselves with a better life in the future.

And that’s where the inspiration began.  The children.  Wow!  The children have fire in their bellies and songs in their hearts.  Children have proven to us over the past 19 years of KIPP just how resilient they are, and this US lesson has the potential to play out the same way in South Africa.

At a crossroads: The South African dream of equal opportunity

There is a dream that is alive and well in South Africa. From the rural village boy who walked to the nearest town that had internet to learn about universities and is now studying at University of Cape Town (UCT) to the kids from Khayelitsha who dream of becoming astronauts, accountants, doctors and lawyers to the UCT girl from Alexandra Township who goes hungry because she sends her meal subsidy home to help her family eat, I could see it.

It is this dream of equal opportunity for happy futures for ALL South African children that apartheid-era reformers told me was the source of their conviction and belief during those trying years, and it is this dream that is now at a crossroads: If only the adults can find ways to help children achieve their aspirations, then the sky is the limit for South Africa!

Schools as a hub for impact

Schools are the natural focal point for such direct action with children – particularly the public education system, which is supposed to exist to benefit children.  It’s hard to find people who argue with that point. But if we truly look at the laws, rules, regulations and policies that are in place in South Africa, it is too easy to wonder if the system is truly set up to benefit the children, or if it has turned into a jobs program for adults.

This is not to say caring, skilled adults aren’t critically important in the school system; children do not reach their educational potential without helpful adults. The larger question, however, is whether the system itself sets up learners, teachers and principals for success—or whether it makes failure the norm and success the exception.

The challenge for government

The challenges in South Africa post-apartheid are vast, so it is unreasonable to imagine a government-mandated, top-down approach to education where only one magical way for the provinces to deliver education to every community is THE answer for ALL children.

But government—by definition a top-down structure—is ultimately responsible and accountable for the South African education system.  Which brings us to a riddle: How can a top-down entity provide the flexibility and quality to allow for different (and better) solutions in different schools for different children, all focused on one extraordinary  outcome—helping learners achieve the dream?

There is no single correct answer to this riddle, but there is definitely one wrong answer:  Doing the same thing and expecting different results. That, as is so often said, is the definition of insanity.

A way forward for South African education leaders: Freedom to change + accountability for quality

One different approach that has shown promise in other education systems is for government to give freedom to extraordinary educators and other qualified operators to implement their own ideas about what their learners need to improve outcomes and reach new levels of excellence.  The South African department of education could allow nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to compete for the privilege and honor of operating their own government schools, but release the teachers and principals to do what they know needs to be done.  After all, it is the country’s great teachers and principals who are closest to the challenges and therefore in the best position to think of solutions. And if the government allows these bottom-up solutions to flourish, then government will be in a position to harvest the innovative and successful ideas to help replicate them throughout government schools nationwide.

The key to managing this transition would be ensuring that all schools were held to high standards of quality. The government would have to set and maintain such accountability standards; schools who meet them would earn the freedom to innovate to meet their learners’ needs. Does this model have a precedent? Yes, there are several around the globe. The one closest to my heart is public chartering in the US. The experience of US charters, particularly those that have scaled and provided quality across multiple schools in multiple states, has valuable lessons to share with South Africa’s education leaders as they seek to improve the quality of education for all of the nation’s kids.

Last Thursday night, I listened to Professor Jonathan Jansen on a panel about models for quality education in South Africa. He closed the session with a belief that we share at KIPP:  promises to children are sacred.  All of us, whether in South Africa, the US or any other country, have made an implicit promise to our children to help them have better lives than we who came before. In the case of schools, and all who care about or work in them, this promise should be explicit. Children are our greatest resource.  Children are our greatest hope.  Children are our dream.  It’s time to wake up and help our dream become reality.

Mike Feinberg is the co-founder of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program)the largest charter school network in the USA. He recently toured South Africa and met with leading advocates of education reform including Jonathan Jansen and John Gilmour , as well as with education leaders working in some of South Africa’s leading impact schools.