Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What can we learn from Malawi's teachers and schools?

Esnart is a teacher from Malawai
Here is my first contribution to UNESCO's #TeacherTuesday. You can find all of my posts for #Teacher Tuesday here.

Esnart is a teacher in Malawai, Africa. She has taught for 21 years. As I read Esnart's story, I was struck by a couple of key points:

  • Class sizes in Malawai are enormous. Some classrooms have more than 200 students and only 1 teacher. Esnart has taught a class of 230 children under a tree because there was no classroom. This is despite a Government target of 60 pupils per classroom.
  • Some rural schools have less than 4 teachers in a school of about 1000 children.
  • Teacher shortage is a major problem.
Esnart's story is an important one. 

Here are 4 BIG IDEAS that I take away from Esnart and Malawai.

1. Class size matters. I wish we didn't need to debate class size. I wish it was a universal understanding that we should try and keep class sizes as low as we can -- but alas, some people have been lured by "research" that shows if you reduce education to chasing high testsandgrades then you can justify stuffing 30, 40 or 50 (or 230) kids in a classroom (or under a tree); however, if you care less about teachers raising scores and more about teachers raising children, then it makes little sense to suggest that class size doesn't matter. It's wrong for children in Malawai to have classes of 200 and it's wrong for children in Canada to have classes of 30 and 40. In Alberta, Canada, we have 11,000 more children in our public schools this year and yet the provincial government has cut 14.5 million from school board's budgets, so urban areas in Alberta like Edmonton and Calgary have schools that are busting at the seems. In Canada, the Alberta Teachers' Association works hard to keep class sizes low. Class size doesn't matter unless you are one of too many students or the only teacher, and when people say class size doesn't matter, they are talking about other people's children. Esnart's working conditions are her students' learning conditions.

2. The problem is poverty. Whether we are talking about Malawai or Canada, the number one problem plaguing public education is poverty. The inconvenient truth about standardized testing is that socio-economic status is responsible for an overwhelming proportion (50 to 70 percent) of the variance in test scores. The strongest predictor of student performance on achievement tests is socio-economic status, which is why it is a mistake to believe that the scores tell us about school quality when really they are reflecting affluence or poverty. If we are not careful, we risk misinterpreting the scores, and instead of waging war on poverty and inequity, we end up waging war on teachers like Esnart and their schools. Teachers like Esnart can do a lot of cool things but overcoming poverty is not one of them -- teachers require the support of an equitable society.

3. Quality Education is complex. There is likely no one way of defining a quality education system, and yet I think Unite for a Quality Education are on to something when they identify three main criteria: (a) quality teachers (b) quality tools (c) quality environments. It's like a three-legged chair -- all three legs require our limited time, effort and resources. Focus on anyone of the three too much and we risk neglecting the others -- which leads to a broken chair. In North America, some people want to focus with laser-like proficiency on teacher quality. Don't get me wrong, teacher quality is incredibly important, and I blog about how teachers can change and improve their craft. Inside the classroom, the teacher is the most important influence on student learning; however, even a teacher like Esnart's influence is dwarfed by factors outside of the classroom. A teaching profession full of Esnarts is necessary but not sufficient in creating a quality education system in Malawai. 

4. Strong, sustainable schools have home grown teachers. It might be tempting for well intentioned but inexperienced people from a first-world country to try and help Malawai by showing up and saying "we're here to help". Such an idea is not that different from programs such as Teach for Canada where well intentioned but inexperienced people show up in Aboriginal communities that have a hard time attracting and keeping teachers. While this may be tempting, it rarely leads to sustainable improvements. The best schools have a stable and well-educated teaching profession, not a revolving door of graduates who see teaching as a bullet on their resume before they move on to bigger and better things. Esnart might be an excellent teacher for all kinds of cool reasons, and one of those reasons is that she calls Malawai home.

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