‘No excuses’: What can South African impact schools learn from KIPP?

When it comes to the state of South African education, Jonathan Jansen accepts no excuses.

Consider the matric standard, with its official passing score of 30 percent. “Thirty per cent does not offer dignity,” he writes. “It offers a dead-end street to the children of the poor  – no job, no further education, no skills.”

That assessment is hard to refute: The matric sets the bar for passing undeniably low. Increasing the percentage of children who step over that low bar is progress of a sort, but it is far from what our country and our children need. While students who pass should be lauded for their efforts, we must all recognize that, as a society, we can and must do – and expect – much better.

The good news is that, in addition to a handful of homegrown, high-impact schools in South Africa, there are existing models around the world that we can look to and learn from as a starting point.  One example: In the United States, KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program) has grown from its start in a single fifth grade classroom in 1994 to 125 schools today. It is now the largest – and arguably the most respected – charter school network in the US.

KIPP: Frustration spurs change (and a lot of hard work)

A former 5th grade teacher, Mike Feinberg cofounded KIPP with Dave Levin (also a teacher) in 1994. “One night we just sat down all night long after being inspired by one of our mentor teachers, Rafe Esquith,” Feinburg told one interviewer.  “We put U2 ‘Achtung Baby’ on repeat play. By about five o’clock in the morning, our response to feelings of failure and frustration was on the computer screen and that was the ‘Knowledge is Power Program,’ with the premise that … that there are no shortcuts, no quick, easy magical solutions to making that kind of impact. It was about rolling up your sleeves and working very hard at it.”

The failure and frustration that drove KIPP’s founders stemmed from a combination of the lack of opportunity facing children in poor neighborhoods, and from the apparent acceptance of the fact that low-performance was to be expected. So many people, “still have a mindset that because of a zip code you’re born in or the color of your skin or something like that, that there’s limitations to what [you] can achieve in this world,” he has said. Frustration was what drove Feinberg through that marathon session with Levin. Frustration was what drove them to envision what have become known, across the US and internationally, as “no excuses” schools. And frustration is what drove them to create a breakthrough model that has helped some a student and alumni population of nearly 50,000 learners, 87 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunches, produce significant and substantial gains in reading and math scores.

The path hasn’t always been easy. Feinberg struggled in early days to gain credibility with the school district that had to approve his first efforts. He and others have since struggled to understand how to better support students in translating success at KIPP schools to success in higher education. Students and educators at KIPP commit to long days and weekend hours on campus every week. But over the years, Feinberg has become a master in channeling his frustration into academic success for underprivileged children – and in training committed school leaders to do the same.

No excuses in South Africa: Expanding impact schools throughout the country

This month, Feinberg will tour South Africa to interview potential South African candidates for the Fisher Fellows program. He’ll also be touring a handful of high impact schools South African schools – including the LEAP Science and Maths Schools, the Western Cape’s Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT) and Sekolo sa Borogka  – as well as a handful of government schools that routinely help students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve extraordinary results.

Feinberg’s goal is not to export KIPP to South Africa. Instead, he’s seeking to gain insights into how these high impact schools work, to share his own experiences and expertise, and to help leaders of local South African impact schools brainstorm strategies and steps needed to grow a thriving network of high quality schools in underserved communities throughout South Africa.

Feinberg will find a rich set of collaborators to work with. In the most recent matric examinations, members of the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition outperformed the national average by a significant margin. The average matric pass rate amongst coalition schools was 97 percent as compared to the national average of 74 percent. More importantly, 71 percent of learners at coalition schools obtained a bachelors pass, which makes them eligible for university entrance. The national average for the bachelors pass was only 26 percent. Two of coalition schools, the Inanda Seminary and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, obtained 100 percent pass rates for both the matric and the bachelors pass.

Open collaboration among high-performing players is critical to achieving the scale of change required: A South African child today has a five percent chance of graduating university. A 2006 study by the South African Institute for Justice and Reconciliation called close to 80 percent of schools “essentially dysfunctional.”

Jansen is right to be frustrated with the state of our education system. For too long we’ve accepted this status quo. For too long, we’ve lowered expectations for our children.

Now is the time for all South Africans to turn our collective frustration into action. Now is the time for us to partner across sectors, across states, and across communities to change our children’s educational future. Now is the time to stop accepting excuses and to create new models of education which can truly transform education across South Africa.

Professor Jansen will host a conversation on “no excuses” schools, and additional models for quality education in South Africa with Mike Feinberg and John Gilmour, founder and executive director of the LEAP Science and Math School network, on February 7.

Follow the event on Twitter at  #ImpactEd2013 . Join an ongoing conversation about systemic improvement  of South Africa’s schools by following #ImpactSchools.