Improving learner outcomes: In search of a working model for South African students

Over the past few years, South Africa has made tremendous economic and infrastructural progress. A forward-looking country with huge untapped potential, South Africa’s education spend as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, at six percent, is among the highest in the world. South Africa now boasts of near-universal access to elementary school education and a dramatic increase in access to secondary schooling over the past two decades. However, it is the quality of that education within poor communities that remains a concern. According to recent reports, South African learners’ results, particularly those from low-income households, are persistently poor, driven by enduring unequal access to quality tuition and schooling. 

Clearly, simply throwing money at the problem doesn’t work. What the country needs are smart, collaborative interventions that disrupt current inefficient and ineffective ways of doing things within the education sector. In our bid to transform the lives of children in South Africa through improved basic education, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s focus has been on identifying and working with partners capable of doing exactly that.

This first in a four-part blog series focuses on our partnership with JumpStart, a technology-driven, education-focused, not-for-profit startup currently making waves in the South African schooling system.

JumpStarting quality education

The key to improving the quality of education is to ensure that schools are equipped with requisite resources, whether it is skilled teachers, training aids, supporting infrastructure or assessment tools to identify gaps and measure student performance. This is where JumpStart comes in.

JumpStart is an education organization focused on improving mathematics and numeracy results in South African elementary schools, particularly those in poorer communities. The organization employs teacher training programs, in-class tutoring and practical digital solutions to achieve this end.

JumpStart is currently working with 14,000 learners, 300 teachers and 25 schools across the Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Free State provinces.

The challenges

Though well-intentioned, projects of this nature are usually hampered by poor execution. The main obstacle is an overreliance on existing educational infrastructure – be it the school facilities and resources themselves, or the time, talent and diligence of teachers.  Some of the common hurdles faced are teacher absenteeism, the unavailability of workbooks, inadequate class time, inadequate personal attention for learners with specific needs, ineffective teaching methods and various operational issues.

Successful educational interventions require the robustness to absorb such shortcomings and deliver nonetheless.

Many initiatives, educational and otherwise, take for granted that talent-heavy models will magically locate and secure the external talent required for their efforts to succeed. This assumption often proves false. Any successful model must be able to succeed on the basis of an existing talent base.

By engaging with districts, schools, school governing bodies and teachers, the organization works with all relevant stakeholders to bridge the numeracy gaps in education. The difference is that JumpStart is not completely reliant on this formal infrastructure.

Working with and without the system

JumpStart follows this methodology effectively. By engaging with districts, schools, school governing bodies and teachers, the organization works with all relevant stakeholders to bridge the numeracy gaps in education. The difference is that JumpStart is not completely reliant on this formal infrastructure.

The organization trains and deploys young interns as on-the-ground facilitators in schools to work with teachers and learners. These facilitators, known as Technical Teacher Assistants (TTAs), ensure that students complete their exercises – if not during class then in after-school sessions – and that the work is graded.

Crucially, JumpStart’s TTA model depends on an abundant resource – local knowledge. JumpStart works with tech-savvy, highly energetic, socially-minded youth (without tertiary qualifications) from the communities in which the schools are situated, and rapidly trains them to support teachers and learners.

That JumpStart sources its TTAs locally is important because community schools do not always welcome outsiders, and teachers, and especially the learners themselves, are far more open to working with locals. This ensures the program is not only easier to implement but also more effective.

The numbers game: Evaluating Jumpstart’s numeracy program

While developing our partnership with JumpStart and deciding on its viability, the foundation employed the principles of the Lean Startup model.

Essentially, this model involves testing every iteration of an idea – starting with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the most basic form of an idea that one can quickly get into the hands of one’s customers/target audience – followed by the measurement of the idea’s success and feasibility at each stage.

Of course, when you’re deploying a solution that requires validation in stages, each stage requires quality assurance. In JumpStart’s case, the first layer was a low-tech, paper-based intervention. If we couldn’t prove that this basic iteration of the program improved learning outcomes, then testing the digital, tablet-based version, whether it failed or succeeded, would have yielded inconclusive findings. If it failed we wouldn’t have known whether it was because of the content, TTAs, or the technology; likewise, if it succeeded. Which is why the viability of the MVP, the version that employed paper workbooks with the same content and pedagogy planned for the tablet-based intervention, had to be established before we could move forward.

JumpStart’s pilot with the foundation started in January 2016, beginning with five schools, and most encouragingly, the performance results from the paper-based solution have exceeded expectations. It was heartening to note that, after just four months of engagement, numeracy levels improved by 7 percent relative to comparable learners. We have since expanded the partnership to reach a further five schools.

The next step is clear: we know it works, but will it work with a tablet computer?

Next in this blog series: Our collaboration with another innovative education company, focused on increasing literacy levels of South Africans.