How to Fix Schools for Everyone

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It is exciting to see OLE’s Theory of Change, being implemented around the world, also working well in New Jersey. David Kirp, in the New York Times, Highlights the effectiveness of change in the Union City school system, compared with the different approach taken in Newark. OLE’s most recent implementation is the Tiger Girls program for adolescent Syrian girls in UNHCR’s refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan.

Newark, with an infusion of $100 million from Facebook’s Mark Zukerberg, brought in experts for a top-to-bottom “disruptive” improvement. Union City took small steps in a grassroots “continuous improvement” model of change, achieving greater improvement with less money.

OLE’s democratic process of improving schools in the developing world aligns beautifully with Kirp’s analysis of why Union City has done so well. Both identify these eight keys to successful school improvement:

  • Listen to the likes, dislikes, and desires of students, parents and community members. Let those learnings drive the content and methods of their schools.
  • Begin schooling in the learner’s first language, introducing other languages later.
  • Provide “word soaked” environments for reading and writing – skills that are fundamental to virtually all learning.   Open libraries loaded with materials aligned with the curriculum, plus rich multi-media materials that stimulate the natural curiosity and expand each learner’s world.
  • Emphasize coaching of individuals and groups more than classroom lectures.
  • Organize small teams of learners, with students climbing their own individual learning ladders, assisted by each other.
  • Help student teams design, implement and evaluate the results of projects that address meaningfully specific problems in their community.
  • Introduce small, incremental changes, yielding repeated “wins” for all involved, that move upward on a path lined with perpetual improvements.
  • Engage the total learning system, from classrooms to the State House, in an open, democratic process. All those affected by the processes and outcomes of education participate in and become champions of the community’s standards for learning and support the investments and continuous improvements that enable those standards to be achieved.

It is easy to think of education as just another issue in a long list of challenges.  In fact, education provides the foundation of society, without which it is impossible to solve any of the critical social and economic challenges facing our increasingly interdependent world. As we know, real solutions are both locally grounded and globally supported. Top down approaches that support just a few will no longer work.   In the future, any society that leaves without a quality basic education the billions we now abandon will not survive.

To be viable we must create a society that ensures that not just a few of us, but all of us, enjoy the sense of agency, meaning and connection in our lives that a good education facilitates. The structure we will create to ensure universal quality education has not been developed. But we do know the characteristics required for such learning. We have evidence of what works and we have no time to lose.