Education Interfering with Instruction?
I was in Cape Town, South Africa to attend the 6th iNET (International Networking for Educational Transformation) conference last week. The conference theme this year is Equity and Excellence for All, a topic that has global appeal because every society is struggling to provide an excellent education for all students. South Africa is a particularly fitting place for this discussion as it works hard to bridge the huge gap between the few advantaged excellent schools with the many disadvantaged schools. The history of South Africa, specifically the Apartheid, has resulted in massive inequalities and injustice in educational opportunities along racial lines.
Over 100 educators from six countries (Australia, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, UK (England and Wales), and the US) participated in the conference. As usual, part of the iNET gatherings is to have international delegates interact with educators and students in the host country. But this became quite difficult at this conference. First, the new Western Cape Province government made a policy that no educator can leave the school when it is session for professional development, conferences, or any other reasons, which drastically reduced the number of local participants. Second, the Superintendent-General in her speech to the conference in no uncertain terms made it clear that partnerships and school visits are not encouraged because they may interfere with learning. In the end, a small number of South Africa school leaders and teachers defied the policy and came to the conference and the school visits were cut short, though still went on.
Upon hearing this, I was quite surprised, to say the least. Why are partnerships with schools from other countries a bad thing? And why cannot school leaders participate in PD and conferences? As I understand it, one consequence of poverty is isolation from the outside world. I remember the excitement I had when I heard my teacher coming back from visiting the township school and when I and my classmates got to go visit the township school (which is only 2 miles away from my village school) when I was attending a village school.
So I did some research. I went on the web and talked with the few South African educators who attended the conference. I found out that apparently the intention of the policy and discouraging message about partnerships and school visits is to ensure a razor-sharp focus on numeracy and literacy. It also seems that absenteeism is a big issue. Earlier at the conference, the Premier and Minister of Education of Western Cape spoke at the conference and talked about the dire situation of education in Western Cape and how the government is working on improving it. The core policy strategy is to make sure schools have five Ts:
- Time on task
- Teacher preparedness and knowledge
The actions taken by the Western Cape mimic those taken by many governments—an excusive focus on the basics (3Rs). That is unless children can read, write and calculate, they do not deserve to do anything else. Likewise, unless a school has made sure that all their students mastered the basics, it cannot provide any other activities. Coincidentally I received an email from a teacher from Des Moines, Iowa informing me of the district’s decision to cut arts, music, and P.E. to preserve core classes.
Such policy is apparently well intentioned. But the negative consequences may be much worse than the intended outcomes. First, the basic skills do not have to come at the cost of other education opportunities and participating in other educational activities interferes with the development of basic skills. Second, an exclusive focus on only the basic skills may not actually result in improvement in these skills. The low achievement of students in impoverished schools and communities is the result of a multitude of factors and need a much more comprehensive solution than simply cutting out educational activities. Third, one-size-fits-all policies across an educational system seldom work as different schools, students, and communities face different challenges. What is needed instead is support and autonomy for local innovations and local solutions. Finally, for many children who live in poverty and educators who teach in disadvantaged schools, a sense of hope is essential and that hope can easily be driven out by outside impositions and doubts. Policies like this can do exactly that.
A highlight of the conference for me is learning about “the Chicken Project,” which shows how international partnerships between schools can be tremendously valuable. The project is the result of a partnership between The Cherwell School in Oxford, England and Gcato School in the Eastern Cape area, South Africa. Students of Gcato School mostly come from three local very poor villages. In addition to having Cherwell students, their family, and school staff teaching classes in Gcato and donations of needed resources such as computers and materials, the partnership led to a very innovative project. Students from Cherwell and Gcato have developed a business plan and started action to build a chicken enterprise in Gcato. They plan to raise chickens and sell the eggs to the local community in the beginning and gradually expand to a large chicken farm. Funds will be used for food to feed hungry students and improve the school. They have already convinced some local residents to donate the land and raised funds in Cherwell to get the project started. Three students from Cherwell (Charlie, Sam, and Verity) presented their plan at the conference. I found their plan so attractive that I put down some investment and they made me their honorary president. I have also invited them to write a blog post about this project.