Cross-cultural adaptation: What the South African education sector can learn from US lessons in data driven education and the charter movement

Are the best new ideas drawn on blank slates, or are many of the most innovative solutions in the world actually careful adaptations of past breakthroughs?

We began our work in South Africa in 2009, with the same bottom-up approach we have taken in each geography in which we work—building a local team, going deep in understanding the lessons of history and the elements of context, and carefully structuring grants to test hypotheses of how to achieve the greatest local impact. We were entirely surprised, two years on, when we found that the foundation’s hard-earned expertise in data-driven education and charter schools in the US would prove to be so uniquely relevant in the South African education landscape.

Data dashboards in the context of South African education needs

While the foundation had helped build district-level education data systems for major metropolitan areas in the United States over the last decade, it was not immediately obvious to us that this experience would prove so directly relevant in South Africa. However, with the advent of new standardized annual national student assessments and increased government focus on districts, the foundation’s expertise in developing performance management systems in districts across the US was suddenly of central interest to the South African government. In early 2012, we entered a formal partnership with the country’s Department of Basic Education to develop basic information dashboards. These dashboards will put useful data directly in teachers’ hands, where it can be used to more effectively pinpoint and address learners’ needs. At the same time, it will also provide district directors with more accurate insight into which schools are struggling and which are under-resourced, in order to more effectively allocate scarce outside funds. To ensure we design dashboards that address the range of stakeholder needs in both urban and rural South African school districts, we have invested in nationwide research into user habits, as well as in stakeholder engagement.

But by adapting existing ideas to our unique landscape of opportunities and constraints, we believe we have the opportunity to more rapidly reach the educational goals we all share.

A new school sector

While our approach to this work is informed by all of our past experience, the solution we deliver will be uniquely South African. The same pattern holds for our efforts, which gained steam throughout 2011 and 2012, to support the development of a new school sector in South Africa. The work is spurred by the educational stasis in South Africa, as well as by a set of factors that, 20 years ago, spurred the development of the US charter school sector—recognition of the limited effect of other reform efforts, belief in the power of innovative school leaders to unlock dramatically better education quality for our underserved children, and recognition of the need to hold school leaders accountable for results. It’s also spurred by the recognition that South Africa has a handful of high-performing, high-impact schools whose experience can be combined with some of the lessons learned from the US charter sector to shape a uniquely South African model of schools.

In many ways, South Africa is uniquely suited to the development of such a sector. For instance, the existing legal framework for the South African education system is flexible enough to accommodate the launch of pilot schools without change. Moreover, the nation’s educational leaders have thus far been clear that, in launching a new sector, quality student outcomes are the central tenet that will drive all other actions. This need to focus on quality of outcomes, and a recognition of the rigor that will have to be put into balancing school-level freedom to innovate alongside a governance model that enforces accountability for results, is reinforced tenfold by the experiences of our US education team, which has spent considerable time helping to expand the access to high-quality charter schools in cities across the US.

Cross-cultural exchange

South African challenges demand South African remedies. But by adapting existing ideas to our unique landscape of opportunities and constraints, we believe we have the opportunity to more rapidly reach the educational goals we all share.

This letter is adapted from our latest giving report. for more insight into our work to transform the lives of children living in urban India, South Africa and the United States through improved access to high quality education and health supports, read on.