One of President Obama’s biggest political victories has been his 2009 education initiative, called Race To The Top (RTTT). The issue in the USA was that many national education regulations are “top down”.
Educators in Washington DC dictate education policy in Tennessee, with little consideration of the particular circumstances of that state, city, or community.
Many State education ministries, as well as parents, teachers, and students, often find the regulations well-intentioned but imprecise or counterproductive. RTTT set up a competition instead. None of the 50 states was told what to do. Instead, Obama’s team laid out four goals. Each state was free to compete by writing an application on how to achieve the four goals.
Forty states applied. Thirteen won large awards (up to $700 million — Sh70 billion) and five won small awards. The funds went to the state education ministry. They, in turn, spent the money to execute their reform plans.
Most importantly, the race worked. The money benefits 22 million students and 1.5 million teachers in more than 40,000 schools, for an investment that represents less than 1 per cent of education spending. The funding has created programmes such as a college and career ready diploma in Hawaii to tackle the issue of transitioning from high school to college or careers.
When Kenya welcomes President Obama later this month, education will no doubt be high on the agenda. One thing the two presidents can discuss is how Kenya can consider its own “Race To The Top”.
The Ministry of Education could invite all 47 county education leaders to compete to write the best plans to improve education. The Education Cabinet secretary would then get to drive improvement “from the bottom up.”
Instead of decrees, he would activate Kenyan innovation and experimentation by many people. After a few years, the secretary would see which ideas worked best with Kenyan children. And then he could try to scale those ideas to all of Kenya.
What were the four key ideas? First, more school choices for parents and more freedom for teachers. In the US context, that meant more “charter schools” and new “turnaround schools”. In Kenya, this could mean public-private partnerships, relaxed regulations for low-cost private schools, and county-led efforts to “turn around” the worst government schools.
Second was great teachers. Two key aspects were: evaluating teachers based on performance and “alternate pathways to teaching” — creating certification programmes that bypassed normal university programmes. In the US, a number of new programmes have sprung up, called teacher residencies — where novices learn from skilled schoolteachers rather than university professors.
At Bridge International Academies in Kenya, where I work, our new teacher evaluations helped us to notice some spectacular teachers. They were not necessarily the most charismatic. Instead, we found they did “lots of little things”, which taken together, got children to study unusually hard and learn more than our typical teachers.
Third was a more rigorous (voluntary) national curriculum, called Common Core. Evidently, the Education Ministry in Kenya is already analysing the 8-4-4 system for possible changes.
Fourth was better data systems. Schools, teachers, and parents need information about student progress — that is, test score gains rather than just “absolute test scores.” If you teach in a very poor school and your pupils move from “low” to “average” — that is a big success!
And if you teach at a school serving wealthy pupils and your pupils arrive high and stay high, you are not necessarily doing a great a job. To do this, Kenya would need more national exams.
Overall, a Kenyan “Race To The Top” could be win-win-win. The Education Cabinet secretary would get to activate many of the 47 county teams to dream big and experiment, more innovation, more ideas tried at small scale to see what works.
Teachers — particularly in poor areas — would be noticed for helping students to make improvements (instead of blamed for their mediocre scores). And parents would get more school options.
Mr Goldstein is the chief academic officer of Bridge International Academies.