Thinking and Acting Strategically to Improve Teacher-Parent Relations

Tony Townsend, Professor of Educational Leadership, Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Brisbane Australia, describes an exciting and innovative project that resulted from a professional learning program.

The importance of maximizing learning outcomes, for all students in all schools across an educational system in a rapidly changing, increasingly diverse society, one that is trending towards a knowledge-led economy, is obvious. To do this we need to think about school autonomy (decentralising some of the decisions about education to the school), school effectiveness (improving the achievement of students), and school leadership (for the two previous factors to work, the quality of school leadership has been shown to be critical).

Governments around the world continue to search for the silver bullet that provides a solution, at both the system level and the school level. Since 2013, over 250 Australian public schools have been made Independent Public Schools (IPS) by the Queensland Government based on the argument that doing so “recognises the best decision-making often occurs at a local level through direct response to local community needs and aspiration”, one that stemmed from an identified commitment to “providing state schools with greater autonomy in decision-making and increased capacity to work in new ways to maximise learning outcomes”… to enable them to “have greater freedom to find their own strategic direction and make decisions which will directly benefit their students” [1].

This blog considers the impact of a professional learning program called the Principals as Strategic Leaders (PASL) on the ways in which principals lead their schools in innovative ways. The four-module program, conducted over nine months, focused on developing strategic thinking, strategic execution and entrepreneurial leadership. Principals from 26 schools, sometimes with the support of others in their leadership team, making a total of 45 people in the cohort, undertook the program. The program contained four modules, commenced in August 2016 and was completed in February 2017. Research was conducted in conjunction with the program and the subsequent implementation of the strategic plans drawn up by the schools and a series of case studies were conducted over the course of 2017 to gain a deeper understanding of how school leaders actually used strategic leadership to guide their schools in innovative ways. Data was collected through interviews, document analysis and focus group discussions.

In one primary school about an hour west of Brisbane the chosen innovation was to improve teacher and parent understanding of the role played by each in the development of highly successful students and to further develop the relationships between home and school in ways that would support improved student engagement, learning, and achievement. The principal outlined how the school had changed in recent times:

…we have more than doubled in size within sort of a two-year period … new families have come in, a lot of movement from other schools coming through as well … this school’s reputation in particular has picked up and bringing in a lot of the private schools in particular this year as well … it was a very strong apostolic stronghold, with the church down here being the biggest apostolic in the southern hemisphere. So, they considered this school to be theirs. You’ve now got Catholics coming into the place as well …a clientele in terms of their parents’ employment, university lecturers, scientists, all that sort of stuff, as well as businesses from you know, going to Brisbane, so it’s changed from that whole rural school to where it is quite a complex mix of parents that are coming into it…

The change in the school’s demography brought about some new problems. Whereas some parents were really committed to their child’s education and wanted to participate, other parents were not so active and the school’s attendance rates suffered.

We’ve got a whole lot of parents who understand that they’ve got a big part to play and are confident that they can support their children’s education. And we’ve got a core of people who don’t realise the importance and don’t think that they have the capabilities to support their children’s education.

Having some parents wanting to be more involved seemed to be a threat to some of the teachers:

It was a complex mix of parents in the play, but it was also alternating to the mindset of teachers to enter those questions of the parents, who are starting to become more and more on their doorstep, asking you know, what’s going on … all of a sudden, teachers are seeing themselves as fishbowls, in terms of that. And changing perceptions of what parents now expect of them as well, so trying to meet in the middle and gain some ground on what’s going to work best for our school.

To overcome the twin issues of attendance and the need to build better relations between teachers and parents, two strategic decisions were made. The first decision was called the Latte Lounge and the second, the Performance Pact. The two were connected by a clear understanding that if parents were interested enough to come into the school (through the Latte Lounge) then it was important for these meetings to have meaning and significance. The relationship between the two was developed through the use of a school slogan, CLEAR – for Celebrate, Learning, Excellence, Attitude, and Respect – which allowed students to, in the principal’s words, “Dream, Believe, Strive, Succeed, which I think is very powerful. And that’s really it in a nutshell, dream, believe, strive, succeed…

The Latte Lounge brought people into the school in an informal way but allowed the school to keep them abreast of what the school was trying to do.

The purpose of the Latte Lounge was to share information with parents that might not normally come to the school for formal parent-teacher meetings but would be prepared to come to a more informal conversation over coffee.

It encouraged parents that were not on formal committees in the school to become more involved.

… the one thing we noticed was there were a group of parents who are involved in the P and C, and we wanted to get different groups involved in the school, not just that group who had the time and the knowledge and the confidence to come and do tuckshop and fundraising and that kind of thing.

But as parents’ confidence grew, it was also possible to provide parents with much more specific information about ways to support their children and to develop a shared understanding of what the school was trying to do.

One of the things we also did, because we started doing a literacy program called SSP. And so, one of the Latte Lounges focused on that and so I was able to give background for that, and what we were doing in class. So, all parents across the school could come …

Our discussions have been around, okay, how can we help you get your child to that place that we need them to be. So, there’s been a lot of those conversations through the Latte Lounge.

Parents interviewed at the school were very positive about the Latte Lounge.

And it’s not like a meeting setting, it’s just an informal chat … an informal chat, get together, have a coffee, something to eat … very relaxed environment.

The Latte Lounge assisted parents to have a better understanding of how to support their child:

I go to the Latte Lounges and quite often people go “I don’t understand the Performance Pacts, I don’t understand the way they rate it and that”. So, [principal] will actually get it all up on the screen … and go, right, this is how you read it, this is how you work it, this is where your child’s at, sort of thing.

The second strategic decision was the introduction of the Performance Pact. The Performance Pact is a contract between the school and the parents, one that indicates that if the parents commit to ensuring that their child attends school, that the school will commit to do everything it can to ensure that the child progresses at an appropriate rate.

To be on the Performance Pact, they’ve got to maintain a 95% attendance rate throughout the whole year, and we monitor that. So, if they don’t achieve it in a five-week cycle, I send a warning letter home to parents. If, in the next five-week cycle, they still don’t improve the 95 % … I send a letter home to parents stating that their Performance Pact is on hold and they don’t get the additional support that we’re offering … until they get their percentage back up again.

The Performance Pact not only placed expectations on parents to ensure that students attended classes for at least 95% of the time, but the school also had to live up to their side of the bargain as well. School leaders spend two evenings a week and two mornings a week working with students to enable them to have the best chance of success.

We offer after school tutoring…. Twice a week, after school…. That’s for students that we’ve identified through our data that haven’t made enough progress towards their goals, we give that additional support to them until they achieve that goal…. The parents of those children are very supportive … they are prepared to wait and pick their children up later, or just simply wait at school until their children are finished…

…we’ve got before school homework support [twice a week] for students, basically who, for some reason or another, don’t have the parent support at home to complete the homework, or the parent lives are very busy. Those sorts of things. So, we’re offering two days a week, in the mornings, where we take the kids from eight to half past eight, to get that homework completed for those kids.

A parent interviewed at the school expressed her appreciation for this concerted approach to support her child’s learning.

…my son, he’s on the Performance Pact but he was sort of still working towards his goals so they offered him the tutoring after school. And so, they’re wanting to help and see your child achieve those goals no matter where they are.

The Performance Pact has generated positive outcomes, including a more focused approach to identifying specific student learning needs and also to have wider, more general conversations about academic standards.

…there’s been a lot of those conversations, both with teachers and parents, about what, you know, performance looks like. What do academic standards look like?

The Performance Pact has also streamlined the reporting system in the school. With the Performance Pact providing parents with regular information about their children and with the Latte Lounge providing opportunities for parents to learn about what is happening in the school and to be able to ask questions about issues they see as important, then detailed reports in the middle and at the end of the year are not necessary.

… with report cards, [we are] very much making it just one very simple comment. Because the parents are getting so much information throughout the year, there is no need to have that very detailed report card now, because a report card, at the end of the day, is just another piece of information to these parents now, because it really doesn’t tell them anything more.

Both the Latte Lounge and the Performance Pact have made a difference to the culture of the school as can been seen by one comment by a teacher about the celebration to which all students on the Performance Pact are invited and a comment from the parent about the extra work done by people in the school to support the students.

The Latte Lounge is one way and having the display at the end of the term to celebrate learning was a way to get other people in and I was sceptical at first because the first time we had it was the last day of term one just before Easter. I thought no one’s going to turn up there. It was massive … there were a lot of parents who were there that I’d never seen before … I had a lot, I had probably I think ten, a dozen parents come in and we had the kids’ bookwork open and they came in and they chatted and looked at what the kids were doing.

The best thing that’s happened to the school is introducing the homework clubs and the after-school tutoring. I think that’s just great. It’s an expense that the parents don’t have because it is offered to them free if your child meets the certain requirements. So, if they’re struggling at school, if you get them here every day on time, and they’re here 95% of the time, they actually get offered that free tutoring … if you can’t get your kids there or if they have so many days off you don’t get offered that free tutoring because the kids aren’t here to learn.

Perhaps the most significant outcome for the school in this project is the way parents talk about and support the school.

I recommended it to her [the other parent] … I drive the extra 10 minutes to come out here rather than the five-minute one where we’re at. A lot of parents, they bypass their closest school to come here. There’s probably three or four closer schools that I could send my child to, or could have sent my girls to, but I drove past them to come here.

I’ve gone past three [schools] just to get here, probably four, yeah.

The Homework Room, where the extra sessions are held

In summary, this school is an excellent example of both strategic thinking and strategic leadership. Strategic thinking started from the data related to a changing demography with changing expectations, and the leadership team identified the need to enhance the relationship between teachers and parents in ways that created a partnership approach to improving student outcomes. Other data told the school leaders that attendance was a problem and that this contributed to some students not achieving. Two major entrepreneurial initiatives were undertaken, the Performance Pact and the Latte Lounge: the former to address, specifically, attendance issues and student achievement, and the latter as a means of communicating what the school was trying to do with parents. Strategic execution of these two main avenues towards higher levels of student achievement involved the elements associated with strategic leadership (Pisapia, 2009[2]): transformation (the culture of the school changed), management (expectations were identified and enforced), bridging (connecting teachers and parents in different ways), and bartering (higher levels of teacher-parent interactions during the year meant that annual student reports could be simplified). The leadership team recognised that bonding, especially reaching out to teachers to support them through this ongoing process, was an issue that needed additional work. Overall, however, school leaders, teachers, and parents alike were positive about the steps that the school had taken and were confident that what had been accomplished in 2017 can be further built on in years to come.

What the PaSL program and the case study has shown is that principals, if given the right tools and the authority to make change, are able to think and act strategically in ways that supports the development of their school community. The issue of context is important as is the issue of equity and, given the opportunities and skills, principals may be able to identify, plan and implement innovative approaches to improving student learning in ways that provide local solutions to what might be perceived as global problems.

The school slogan – outside the classrooms and in the newsletter


[1]   Independent Public Schools, Department of Education and Training website, downloaded 14/09/2015

[2] Pisapia, J. (2009). The strategic leader: New tactics for a globalizing world. Charlotte: Information Age Publishers

Meet Dr. Townsend 

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Clean water & toilets: Foundations for learning in low-income countries


The other day my husband stated in an exasperated voice: “So, you got an advanced degree and you work in schools in sub-Saharan Africa and South America yet all you talk about are toilets. Isn’t that a waste of your education? Shouldn’t you be spending your time figuring out how to improve student achievement?”

Well, it jolted me for a few seconds and then I responded—but that’s what I am doing! It’s taken me years to understand that, yes—high quality teaching and strong school leadership will lead to improved student learning outcomes—but the school’s physical learning environment—the conditions for learning come first. Sanitation and nutrition are the foundation for learning and that’s why I have taken hundreds of photos of bathrooms and kitchens in schools around the world– so I can focus on student learning. Maybe my understanding of the importance of good sanitation and healthy children –washrooms and kitchens– is a key reason I did get degrees in education.

Over the last few years of working in mostly low-fee private schools in low and middle-income nations, I’ve come to understand that you can’t have a school with students successfully learning, without having a school with clean toilets. Of course, the corollary is not necessarily true, clean toilets do not equal improved learning. But, I am sure that each child and adult in a school having access to toilets that are clean, and in sufficient number for enrollment, is a basic condition for improving student learning. And by clean, at a minimum I mean– they don’t smell, there isn’t exposed dirty paper and there are no flies.

Age appropriate sinks with soap in an Ethiopian school.

According to UNICEF In 60 countries in the developing world, more than half of primary schools have no adequate water facilities and nearly two thirds lack adequate sanitation. Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and lack of hygiene not only affect the health, safety, and quality of life of children; they also claim the lives of an estimated 1.5 million children under the age of five who die each year from diarrhea.

The research is clear. Schools with better sanitation facilities report higher attendance and overall better health for children. We know that providing better water, sanitation and hygiene services in schools reduces hygiene-related diseases and can help curb absenteeism due to missing school because of diarrhea. We also know that girls are reluctant to continue their schooling when toilets and washing facilities are either unavailable or are not private, safe, and clean.

According to the United Nations and UNICEF, one in five girls of primary-school age are not in school, compared to one in six boys. One factor accounting for this difference is the lack of sanitation facilities for girls reaching puberty. The installation of toilets and latrines may enable school children, especially menstruating girls, to further their education by remaining in school (see our March 2018 blog). If girls at puberty do not feel safe by having access to a private toilet area and if we do not provide access for students with disabilities, then absenteeism increases.

I’ve visited many schools that are oases for children. In far too many cases schools

Ghana: New sink with soap and handwashing instructions added to school after training

are surrounded by extreme poverty, thus all types of services such as good roads, adequate drainage, easily available clean

drinking water, etc. are missing. Schools and the adults working in them are role models for youth and sanitation is key because poor sanitary conditions can lead to disease and minimal learning.

So, what can school leaders do to ensure that children and adults in schools are learning and teaching in sanitary conditions?

Here are some of the strategies we discussed with school leaders and trainers during a recent workshop:

  • Make the School Leadership Team (Head Teachers, Directors, Coordinators, Proprietors, and others) aware of the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene in schools. They have an important role to play through their work with teachers and other staff, schoolchildren, and families. Provide guidance and support so that they can promote the development and maintenance of a healthy school environment.
  • Find out if your country has school facility standards (E.g., Ghana, Peru, and Rwanda have guidelines while Burkina Faso and Liberia do not.). Usually the standards are posted on the Ministry of Education’s website or ask your local district supervisor. If standards do not exist here is a great resource: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Standards for Schools in Low-cost Settings
  • Create a School Improvement Plan that includes setting targets for water, sanitation and hygiene. If you can’t make all the changes immediately, prioritize the improvements and phase them in so that the most urgent problems are targeted immediately, and other changes can subsequently be phased in.
  • Provide sanitation and hygiene training and supervision to all adults. Staff training is crucial and the goal is a healthy school environment. Since teachers and other staff are role models for students, be sure to give these topics a central place in in-service teacher training.
  • Develop and enforce school sanitation rules and procedures. Once the washrooms and toilets are ready for use create a maintenance plan and be sure to regularly monitor the facilities. Assign someone (or a group) to be responsible for daily cleaning; include who is responsible when the sink or toilet are not working or if there are problems with the water.
  • Support the provision of consumables, such as soap.
  • Encourage parents to support these efforts. Work with the Parent-Teacher Association and provide parent education programs on hygiene, nutrition and sanitation.
  • Partner with community groups or NGOs to build water and toilet facilities for the students and the surrounding community to use.
Burkina Faso
Separate toilets for boys and girls

Every child—and teacher— has a right to a school with clean water and sanitary toilets!


Ghana: Toilets for adults

Once the basic conditions for learning are ensured, then we can focus on why we are at school—to optimize learning.

Meet Dr. Cordeiro



The Best Kept Secret in Developing Latino(a) Community College Executive Leadership

This blog reminds me of the Akilah Institute  that I recently visited in Rwanda. Akilah is a remarkable two-year college for women who will be future Rwandan leaders.  This blog describes an initiative that also is playing a key role in creating a pipeline for future leaders, but in this case NCCHC is identifying and supporting Latino(a) leadership.

“Preparing strong leaders for the future is the primary purpose of the National Community College Hispanic Council’s Leadership Fellows Program,” said NCCHC President, and Chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges-Tempe, Arizona, Maria Harper Marinick. She further states “A demographic shift is occurring in the United States and we are preparing new leaders who can model the way for the growing Hispanic population our community colleges serve. Through this program, Fellows gain the necessary knowledge and skills they need to lead higher education into the future and positively impact the economic and civic success of their respective communities.”

Here we’d like to share with you a unique community college leadership development program targeting future Latino/a leaders and solicit your nominations for the next cohort!

A bit of historical background

NCCHC is an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges, a national organization that has provided leadership to the community college movement for the past half-century. The Council, which was established 30 years ago, works to promote the educational interests and success of the Hispanic community and emphasizes access, equity and excellence for students and staff in community colleges. One of the first ventures was to offer a leadership development program, with support from the Ford Foundation. Of the original 72 Fellows, more than 15 became community college presidents and many others have moved to positions of increased responsibility as executive level administrators. Since the program’s inception, more than 250 community college administrators have participated as Leadership Fellows.

Today, twelve of the 65 Latino community college CEOs nationwide are former NCCHC Fellows, and the program’s national impact on the leadership pipeline continues to grow. During a recent 16-month program, at least 42 former Fellows were promoted, including three vice chancellors; eight presidents; seven vice presidents; 12 deans and 12 directors. Additionally, two former Fellows now serve as vice chancellors at four-year institutions.

2017 NCCHC Latina Fellows at the NCCHC National Conference in Miami, FL along with NCCHC President, and Chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges-Tempe, Arizona, Maria Harper Marinick

From 2003-2009 NCCHC was housed at North Carolina State University under the supervision of Dr. Leila Gonzalez-Sullivan, retired President of Community College of Baltimore County-Essex Campus. Then, from 2010-2013 NCCHC moved to California State University, Long Beach under the leadership of Dr. Bill Vega, retired Chancellor of the Coast Community College District.   Since 2014, the NCCHC Fellows Program has been housed at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences under our direction: Ted Martinez, a retired Superintendent/President of Rio Hondo College is NCCHC’s Director, and Reyes Quezada, NCCHC’s Associate Director, is a USD Professor.

Annually the program Identifies 20-25 potential community college presidential aspirants and provides year-long learning opportunities. The 2018 cohort is comprised of 24 Fellows (11 males and 13 females) all have a master’s degree and ten hold doctorates. They include community college vice-presidents, executive directors, deans, and directors from nine different states: AZ (5), CA (4), FL (2), IL (1), NJ (1), CO, (1), TX (8), NY (1), and WA (1).

The Program

Fellows participate in two residential learning seminars that meet for four days in early June and another four days in early October. The October meeting links with the annual NCCHC conference and many of the Fellows present at the conference. NCCHC participants develop an individual plan of action since the program includes a one-year mentoring experience with a seasoned community college

Dr. Ted Martinez Leading a Session on Mentoring NCCHC Leadership Fellows (2016)

leader and helps Fellows build professional networks that advance their career aspirations. There are various online activities in between the two residential seminars.

The curriculum is learner-centered and based on the AACC Competencies for Community College Leaders. Various sessions are presented by community college Latina(o) chancellors, presidents and other high-level administrators or community college board members. Some of the topics include: organizational strategy, institutional effectiveness, communication, collaboration and the change process, crisis and conflict management, cultural proficiency and diversity, strategic planning, finances and facilities, as well as professionalism. Individual sessions and the overall program are evaluated annually and the results are presented to the NCCHC Board of Directors.

We all know that ’the proof is in the pudding.’ NCCHC participant testimonials include hundreds of statements and stories of how the program made a difference in their professional as well as their personal journeys. Participants express their excitement in becoming leaders who represent the Latino community for the betterment of all community college students.

Creating a Latino(a) Leadership Pipeline

 There is a great need to have strong leadership programs to prepare community college leaders for the 21st century since many current administrators will be retiring. According to some estimates, 50%-75% of community college presidents will retire by 2020. A 2015 AACC report indicates that out of the 961 community college presidents nationwide, the number of Hispanic CEOs was only 4%; 53% were White, 9% African-American, and 2% Asian. Thus, it is imperative that leadership development programs be created to increase the pipeline of Latina(o) leaders in higher education. So how do we do this?

First, we need to design and identify effective recruitment strategies. This can be done by:Developing strategies to increase the number of Hispanic executive administrators and presidents in community colleges.

  • Creating mechanisms to increase the visibility of Hispanic administrators and CEOs in order to attract greater number of Hispanic students to these institutions.
  • Creating mechanisms and programs (such as the NCCHC Fellows Program) to develop a cadre of Hispanic leaders that can serve as role models and decision-makers.

Why is it crucial to have such a pipeline program for Latino(a) Community College leaders?

First, demographics show that Latinos were the second largest racial/ethnic group in the U.S. in 2012; 17% of the total U.S. population compared to Whites at 63% (NCES, Digest of Education Status, 2013). By 2060, the Latino population is projected to increase to 31%, while Whites will represent 43% (U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division). In 2011, Hispanics represented 24% of K-12 education enrollment and are projected to represent 30% by 2030 (NCES, Digest of Education Statistics, 2011).

In Fall 2012, Hispanics were the second highest group enrolled in community colleges at 20%; Whites represented 54%, African-American 15%, Asians 6% (NCES Digest of Education Statistics, 2013), and in 2012, almost half (46%) of Latino students in higher education were enrolled in public institutions and 3% in private two-year institutions; compared to African-Americans (34%), Asians (32%), and Whites (31%) (NCES, Digest of Education Statistics, 2013).

Second, the Latino managerial and administrative staff in all colleges and universities are not proportional to the presence of this group in the general population. In 2018 a report by the Los Angeles-based Campaign for College Opportunity found that 44% of the students in California’s community colleges are Hispanic while the faculty is 15% Hispanic. California has 114 community college presidents and/or chancellors, only 17 are Hispanic.

A Call to Action! Help Us Recruit New Fellows


NCCHC Leadership Fellow Pins Awarded for Completion of Program

Each year, we mail information letters to all Community College Presidents informing them of the program so they can identify and sponsor an eligible Fellow. The eligibility criteria include currently holding an administrative position and aspiring to become a community college president; a Master’s degree is required and a doctorate preferred.

Please help us Identify potential community college leaders at your institutions. You can begin by establishing a mentoring program at your college. Mentor one potential leader whose goal is the presidency. Make a special effort to identify diverse candidates. Provide financial support for internships, travel, seminars, etc. Promote and collaborate with area leadership graduate programs and support the NCCHC Fellows Program and other similar programs.

Valuing diversity means understanding that everyone does not experience the world in the same way, and that the richness of these differing experiences will improve the quality of life for all… Valuing diversity means getting over the issue of race and gender, and focusing on the best interests of the institution and the community when selecting a college president. (The Community College Presidency at the Millennium, George Vaughn)


 meet Dr. Quezada

meet Dr. Martinez




Understanding Learning Disability and Dyslexia in the Indian Educational Context

Distinguished Fellow Professor Maya Kalyanpur, a learning disability researcher, shares the background literature to a study she is conducting in India.  A key focus of school leaders is equity and understanding the needs of students with disabilities so that school staff can ensure a supportive learning environment for all children.

In the last ten years, the number of children who are labeled as learning disabled (LD) or dyslexic in India has increased exponentially (Karande, Sholapurwala & Kulkarni, 2011) — currently, about 10% or 30 million children are estimated to have a learning disability (“10% of kids”, 2012) with a corresponding upsurge in the provision of fee-based remedial classes and special schools to respond to their needs (Dyslexia Association of India, 2011). There is no research to explain this trend.

The label of learning disability is itself new to India. It was officially recognized in 2009 when the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act of 1995 was amended to include the category of Specific Learning Disabilities (Unni, 2012). Earlier in 2007, the Bollywood movie, Taare Zameen Par, about a young boy struggling to learn in school, brought the term “dyslexia” into the mainstream, seeking to raise awareness, clarify some misconceptions, and reduce the stigma associated with it (“Pain of Dyslexia”, 2008).

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally:

In post-colonial India, more children than ever before are accessing an education, facilitated by the Indian government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (or Education for All) program launched in 2001, and the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) Act. However, recognizing English as the language of opportunity and social mobility (“Goddess of English”, 2014; Motha, 2014; Varma, 2007), parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to English-medium private schools rather than government schools where the medium of instruction is in the regional or national language, regardless of whether English is spoken at home (Kalia & Reese, 2009); as a result private school enrollment in most states is increasing (Annual Status of Education Report [ASER], 2015). With the commensurate increase in competiveness to get into and do well in school, students who experience academic difficulties are often perceived as “hopeless or badly behaved” and labeled LD (“Pain of Dyslexia”, 2008). While the main benefit of labeling is that students will get remedial help, it can also be problematic: One, there is a stigma associated with disability (Center for Equity Studies [CES], 2014). Two, sometimes children from non-English speaking homes, many of whom may also be poor or Dalit (oppressed caste community), may get labeled because they perform at a lower level than students who come to school knowing English, not because they have a disability (Mukhopadhyay & Sriprakash, 2011). Three, many schools do not offer remedial services, and most remedial schools charge high fees making them unaffordable to most children; so students get labeled but no support (CES, 2014).

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally:

There are no equivalent local words for terms like LD or dyslexia (Gabel, 2004), suggesting that the lens by which these children are being identified is imported from the US. For instance, the definition for the term in the PWD Act is almost the same as that in the US Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Unni, 2012). However, there are problems associated with importing LD. One, scholars in the US assert that the LD category is more a social construction than a condition with a biological basis (Duhaney, 2014; Harry, 2014; Sleeter, 1986). In the 1950s, many American students who were struggling academically were labeled LD and segregated in separate classrooms because of the competition from the US-USSR space race, rather than on the basis of medically-evidenced cognitive difficulties (Sleeter, 1986). Studies show that low-income students and students for whom English is not a first language are more likely to be labeled LD than students not similarly disadvantaged, suggesting that the identification of students is often dependent on teachers’ subjective perceptions of students’ academic difficulties (Duhaney, 2014; Harry, 2014). In India, Mukhopadhyay & Sriprakash (2011) found that when government schools failed to meet standards of school effectiveness, teachers began assessing increasing proportions of students from marginalized groups as “failing”. Another study found that the RTE Act mandate to reserve 25 percent seats in private schools for children from economically and socially marginalized communities to ensure access of education resulted in many children being subjected to overt discrimination by teachers who viewed them as ‘slow learners’, ‘weak’ or ‘unteachable’, and becoming reluctant to seek clarifications because they were “scared that teachers would scold, beat or insult them, or that peers would make fun of them for what they did not know” (CES, 2015, p. 56). This suggests that, as in the US, disadvantaged students are more likely to be identified as LD.

Two, programs and practices for LD students in the US emerge from a resource-rich model of service provision that is often incompatible with the Indian realities. For

instance, schools in India are expected to provide certain modifications required by law, but the process for procuring these services can be complicated and discouraging for most families, especially those from low-income backgrounds (Ghai, 2006). The shortage of LD specialists means that most schools do not provide on-site remedial services, and many remedial schools charge high fees for the specialized services, making them unaffordable to low-income students (CES, 2012). Further, the number of

officially recognized languages in India makes creating a standardized assessment measure for the specific detection and educational intervention of children with LD problematic (Narayan, et al., 2003; Unni, 2012). Till recently, the American publishing company, Pearson, now based in India, was marketing diagnostic tools normed on the 2000 US Census “as a toolkit for assessing dyslexic students in Indian schools” (“Now, a toolkit,” 2012), suggesting that Indian children were being assessed and diagnosed as LD because they failed a test normed on US standards.

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally:

Three, the importation of the US model tends to overlook the possibility of alternative frameworks for how disability is perceived and responded to (Breidlid, 2013; Grech, 2011). Grech (2011) recommends the need for eliciting local perceptions and understandings by adopting an assets lens. For instance, in one government Education For All program in India, many teachers and community members, recognizing that ability grouping was tantamount to discrimination and led to social conflicts, resisted the idea of labelling the children and separating them on that basis (Gandhe, 2004).

I have received a Fulbright research grant to conduct a study on this phenomenon. Using qualitative research techniques of open-ended interviews and classroom observations, I will seek to understand the meaning and effects of the label of learning disability in India by learning the perspectives of teachers on school failure and the factors necessitating labeling as well as the perspectives of students labeled LD and their families. The study will focus on two private, low-fee English-medium schools that currently identifies students as LD, since low-fee schools will be more likely to have students from low-income or non-English speaking home environments. I am hoping to use this forum to present my findings and preliminary analyses. Stay tuned for more!

Meet Dr. Kalyanpur


“10% of kids in India have learning disability: Experts say” (January 27, 2012) Times of India. Retrieved from:

Annual State of Education Report (ASER). (2015). Annual status of education report, 2014. New Delhi: Pratham.

Breidlid, A. (2013). Education, indigenous knowledges and development in the global South: Contesting knowledges for a sustainable future. New York: Routledge.

Center for Equity Studies (CES) (2014) India exclusion report, 2013-14. Bangalore: Books for Change.

Duhaney, L.M.G. (2014). Disproportionate representation in special education: A persistent stain on the field. In F. E. Obiakor & A. F. Rotatori (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives in special education: Multicultural education for learners with special needs in the 21st century (pp. 15-40). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Dyslexia Association of India (2011). Home page. Retrieved from:

Gabel, S. (2004). South Asian Indian cultural orientations towards mental retardation. Mental Retardation, 42(1), 12-25.

Gandhe, S. K. (2004). External evaluation of Janshala programme: Synthesised report. Pune: Indian Institute of Education.

Ghai, A. (2002). Disability in the Indian context: Post-colonial perspectives. In M. Corker & T. Shakespeare, (Eds.) Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying disability theory. (pp. 88-100). Continuum: London.

“A ‘Goddess of English’ for India’s down-trodden” (February 15, 2011). BBC News. Retrieved from:

Grech, S. (2011). Recolonising debates or perpetuated coloniality? Decentring the spaces of disability, development and community in the global south. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 15(1), 87–100.

Harry, B. (2014). The disproportionate placement of ethnic minorities in special education. In L. Florian (Ed.). The SAGE Handbook of special education, vol. 1, 2nd Ed. (pp. 73-95). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kalia, V & Reese, E. (2009). Relations between Indian children’s home literacy environment and their English oral language and literacy skills. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(2), 122–145. DOI: 10.1080/10888430902769517

Karande, S., Sholapurwala R. & Kulkarni, M. (2011). Managing Specific Learning Disability in schools in India. Indian Pediatrics, 48, 517-520.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York: Teachers College.

Mukhopadhyay, R. & Sriprakash, A. (2011). Global frameworks, local contingencies: policy translations and education development in India. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 41(3), 311 — 326.

Narayan, J., Thressiakutty, A.T., Haripriya, C., Reddy, K.G., Sen, N. (2003). Educating children with learning problems in primary schools: Resource book for teachers. Secunderabad: National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped.

“Now, a toolkit for dyslexic students in Indian schools” (July 25, 2012) The Times of India. Retrieved from:

“The Pain of Dyslexia, as Told by Bollywood” (June 4, 2008). Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Sleeter, C. E (1986) Learning disabilities: The social construction of a special education category. Exceptional Children, 53(1), 46-54.

Unni, J.C. (2012). Specific learning disability and the amended “Persons with Disability Act”. Indian Pediatrics, 49, 445-447. Retrieved from:

Varma, P. (2007). We need to go back to the drawing board. In A. Kaushik (Ed.) Shiksha: The challenge of Indian education (pp. 41-50). New Delhi: Tehelka.



Classroom and school communication: insights from the profession

Distinguished Fellow Maureen Robinson from Stellenbosch University in South Africa shares insights from school principals and deputy principals about how to build a school environment that supports student learning. Paula

In May 2018 I invited six school principals and deputy principals from local primary and high schools to address two classes of final year Education students at Stellenbosch University on the topic Classroom communication: insights from the profession. The aim of the session was to share with student teachers real stories of how the speakers facilitate processes of communication at their schools – aimed at building a healthy environment that supports learning.

Aimèe Beerwinkel, student teacher, busy with microteaching at the university. The lesson was about the water crisis in Cape Town and was integrated into a Life Orientation lesson on the rights and responsibilities of children.

As I put it to the students: “We want you to hear the voices from the profession so that you can understand the challenges, structures and processes with regards to facilitating communication at all levels at school. We are looking for stories of challenges as well as possibilities; what teachers do to establish positive communication between learners, professional communication between teachers, and productive communication with the broader environment.”

The speakers were asked to address the following guiding questions:

  • How important is teacher-teacher and learner-teacher communication in building a healthy environment for learning at the school?
  • How does your school encourage professional communication between teachers?
  • How does your school encourage positive communication with learners?
  • What are some of the challenges you face in building trust and communication at your school? How do you deal with these?
  • Have you drawn on any professional development or academic programmes to shape your understanding of these issues? If so, which, and how have they shaped your understanding?

South Africa is one of the most inequitable societies in the world, and this plays itself out in the combination of wealth and poverty within a small radius around the university. The invited speakers represented a range of socioeconomic conditions surrounding the town of Stellenbosch – including well-resourced schools serving an affluent community, poorly-resourced schools serving a poverty-stricken community, and those serving a more mixed population.

Students hung on every word, as the speakers spoke with passion, and showed evidence of their commitment and dedication to their learners, often in difficult circumstances.

Here is some of the advice these principals and deputy principals shared with the prospective teachers:

School 1:

Trust people. Connect to children, but there must also be boundaries. Know and use the structures of the school. Use a buddy system where older children help the younger ones. This teaches them responsibility and leadership. Remember that you cannot grow a plant by dipping it into the dirt once a year, it takes an ongoing connection to build root system. You have the power to build a positive environment. Don’t display negative thinking and negative outlooks, or you will sound like a victim of someone else’s actions.

School 2:

One of the things that I’ve picked up in schools is that instead of working in collaboration, we work in isolation. We say “Oh, we’ve got the best practices in our school” but we never look beyond our institution. One of the good things is to communicate with fellow colleagues: “How do you do this, how do you approach this?” This is not necessarily related to your subject. I might ask a colleague of mine, “How do you deal with these huge classes?” “How do you deal with that difficult child?” Beyond that, “How do you deal with that difficult child who has a difficult parent?” When you open that communication you find that you are not in isolation.

School 3:

Just the way a teacher carries him or herself when coming into the class communicates to the learners in the class. Yesterday I realised again that those learners are psychologists. They analyse you. They look at you, the amount of enthusiasm you portray. They look at you and based on that they respond to the type of learning that is happening in class.

One of the challenges that has an impact on communication is the amount of stress that we are subjected to. I’ve had teachers start the day and greet me, and the next morning, the teacher is absent – they’re not coming back. This shows us the kind of challenges we face.

As a principal, I try and be as transparent as possible so that teachers know exactly where they stand with me, and I show them where I stand with them. An important aspect that I encourage at my school is that we must agree to disagree, and we must embrace each other’s’ differences, and in that way we can move forward.

School 4:

When a girl is young she may dream of her future husband, she has ideas about what she wants the husband to be like, he must be like this or like that. But then, she gets married and she gets the actual husband, not the one she has been dreaming of. It is the same with schools. When you are in university, you are told that this is what is happening in schools, and you expect certain things, but then experience the reality in schools. It can sometimes derail you.

It is very important to go into class prepared, because as soon as you open your mouth to start teaching, those learners will know if you are unprepared. But when you go to class prepared, those learners copy from you and come to class prepared. If they come to class prepared, it encourages you to prepare more to face the questions that you learn to expect.

A classroom of a South African school

The first thing that we need to inculcate to parents is that they need to own the school because if they don’t own the school, they will not look after the school. That comes from the fact that people come to my school from different areas, and don’t feel a committed sense of belonging.

School 5:

You’re going in to teaching to make a difference, and in making that difference you will have to communicate. There is the verbal communication – what you say – but also the non-verbal communication – how you say it. If you’re sitting in a desk lying back in your chair, what does that say to the learners who already don’t want to be there? Do you eat your lunch while you are teaching? You can’t expect your children to read if you are sitting watching TV. If you want your kids to work hard, you have to work hard. All these things are communication, and they say a lot about who you are and what type of behaviour you expect back.

I love social media and technology. Nuclear reactions can do two things: they can cure cancer, or make an atom bomb. It’s not the science or technology that is bad, it is how we use it. WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, e-mail, Google Classroom: you must use all of those. Google Classroom is the best thing, if you don’t know how to use it, learn how.

School 6:

You are all here because someone touched your lives. That is what we do as teachers and why we are in the profession. Yes we have to get through some content and there are exams at the end, but your job is to connect with people.

As a teacher, the most beneficial communication tool is to listen. You have to actively listen to your students if you want to know what makes them tick and what their cries for help are, but because you are so busy, it has to be an active listening if you want to really know your kids.

Try to understand the generation gap, because more experienced teachers next year will not understand you. You have a huge amount to give to them, but they will need the time and space and understanding that they have been there.

The children in your class will not remember what you said, but how you made them feel. You’re here because of a teacher who made a difference, and you probably can’t remember a single thing they taught you, but you remember how they made you feel.

Mkululu Nompumza, student teacher. He was teaching an English comprehension lesson in a school in Stellenbosch. He specifically chose a text that integrated English and History, focusing his discussion on agency in leading change.

Questions from the floor

A vibrant discussion followed, based on questions from the floor. Here are three examples of the questions that the student teachers asked:

  • With technology playing such an important role especially with the younger generation, cyberbullying is a huge issue. Have you seen it happen within the schools, or trickling into schools with kids being bullied in schools because cyberbullying that happened outside of school? And how do the teachers or the principal or structures in the school handle that?
  • When kids feel that they don’t want to be in school, what can teachers do to change that?
  • Most of us (students) are really young, and most teachers in schools are old – how do we bridge that generational gap?

My own observations as the lecturer

As the lecturer, I felt that the session certainly fulfilled its purpose. We crossed the bridge between university learning and school experience, as students were taken in meaningful ways into the lifeworld of these teachers. In an environment where teachers are often blamed for poor academic results or social ills, each one of these teachers modelled resilience and agency, thus building a positive picture of teachers as agents of change, even under trying circumstances. The presentations showed the wide spectrum of what it means to be a teacher: knowledge of one’s subject was emphasised, but there was also full recognition of the emotional lives of teachers as well as of their young learners. For the teachers too, this was a cathartic experience, as they gave expression to their own hopes and actions and were listened to by others. And finally, it was an opportunity to cross social barriers, as teachers from different socioeconomic circumstances could hear and respect one another’s unique and common circumstances. We will definitely do this again next year.


I would like to thank the following principals and deputy principals for sharing their insights: Ms Wendy Horn, Dr Ben Aucamp, Ms Victoria Hani, Mr Jeff King, Mr Gary Skeeles and Mr Deon Wertheim. Thanks also to Bernard Rhodes and Cailee Pistorius for technical support.

Meet Dr. Robinson



School Leaders: Beware the Traveling Medicine Doctor …and some website, book and blog suggestions

IMG_0493              ¡Saludos desde Perú!

I’m working with some highly talented colleagues from an NGO who want to make schools better places for children. Work doesn’t get any better than this!

Since we created this website last March with its weekly blog, many colleagues around the world have asked me to share some of my observations and favorite websites, blogs, books, etc. related to school leadership in underserved communities.

Here are a few ideas for you to consider. I will end the blog on a positive note, but first let me begin with something that I find far too common and troubling….

Perhaps you’ve seen movies or heard about the traveling medicine shows of the nineteenth century in the US. These ‘doctors’ (usually a man posing as a doctor) promoted miracle cures for whatever aliments where popular at the time. They told people who attended their ‘shows’ that these medicines could cure baldness or a disease, remove wrinkles, prolong lives or get rid of that nagging cough. They authoritatively said that these medicines were patented (not!) in order to make them sound official.

Well today, as I work in low and middle-income countries I am meeting the 21st century version of the traveling medicine doctor! They claim that if you follow what they are selling (their consulting services), learning in your school will improve. In most cases they are hired to do one workshop, but more and more frequently these slick, well-dressed consultants are selling the notion that you need them throughout the school year. When you remind them you are a school struggling financially, they say they will give you a ‘special rate’ for their services since schools and children are so important to them.

First, they may tell you they have an advanced university degree (it seems to impress people more if it’s from the US, UK or any ‘western’ nation) and many list their names as Drs. So & So. Far too often they either started taking courses in a doctoral program and never finished, or they bought their degree(s) from a ‘university’ selling degrees or they may have an honorary doctorate. Beware the honorary doctorates since they are often given by a ‘Theological University’ or ‘Bible College’ that also is likely to be a college their cousin created after starting his own church. And, the worst part is, many of them want you to call them Doctor. It is not acceptable for a person who has an honorary doctoral degree from an accredited university to call themselves ‘doctor’; yet, people uncritically accept these titles.

These traveling medicine doctors tend to have attractive PowerPoint presentations filled with animations, quotes from well-known scholars in education or leadership and they tell you what they are promoting is ‘evidence-based’ (i.e. comparable to ‘patented’ like our 19th century traveling show doctors!).

Sooner or later these Medicine Doctor Consultants will fade away like the US traveling Medicine Doctors, but how much money will be wasted before that happens? How many teachers will be taught to use strategies that have no evidence behind them?

I’m thrilled to see some changes taking place. Some staff in Ministries of Education are asking tough questions and wanting to see the evidence behind an intervention. And, many donors are asking for more evidence on the impact of interventions.

So, friends let’s do our best to uncover the snake oil doctors and destroy the idea of miracle elixirs! Education is hard, messy work—it’s not about calling in an expert “doctor.” There are no magic tricks to improve learning in your school.   It takes instructional leadership…so…follow the evidence!

Now for a few websites, blogs, articles and books for you to consider.

Three especially good education websites:

One of the best websites for evidence about programs is Robert Slavin’s– Best Evidence Encyclopedia   Using rigorous standards they identify ‘proven’ programs and topics at all levels of education.


The Hechinger Report

Here’s a book for you to consider: Urban Myths about Learning and Education (2015) by Dutch authors Pedro De Bruyckyere, Paul Kirschner, & Casper Hulshof.  The book debunks many of the (“Medicine Doctor’s”) claims, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of frequently cited educational research.

If you have a general interest in the African continent you may want to subscribe to Jeffrey Paller’s newsletter: This Week in Africa. It contains dozens of timely links to events and topics on the continent. And, if you are interested in development in general take a look at Duncan Green’s Oxfam blogs: Poverty to Power. Both sometimes have articles/links to topics of importance for those of us with an interest in school leadership.

There’s a newspaper that often has articles on education topics from around the world. It’s the Guardian and it’s free—but, if you find yourself reading more than more or two articles, please make a regular donation!

If you have an interest in Early Childhood education there’s an interesting audio recording (and transcript) from National Public Radio (May 30, 2018). It’s short and definitely worth listening to! Preschools in Ghana’s Capital Challenge Call-And-Response System

If you ever plan to write about Africa then this is the article for you: Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write About Africa.

Finally, if you haven’t yet signed up to receive our weekly blogs delivered directly to your mailbox, here’s the link to Global Ed Leadership. Under the heading “Resources” we include lots of books, websites, blogs on different topics in education, learning and leadership about different regions around the world.

Time to stop and get ready for a leadership and learning training I’m doing tomorrow. Saludos!




Brain Date* on Learning Transfer: Using Mobile Technology to Enhance Learning Transfer


Guest Blogger Corinne Brion talks about our work with using mobile phones as a professional development tool to improve learning transfer.

The purpose of the WhatsApp group was to examine the extent to which mobile technology played a role in enhancing learning transfer for school leaders in Ghana and Burkina Faso. The WhatsApp platform was used as a Professional Leaning Community (PLC) for everyone who participated in the three-day leadership training, provided that they were present on the last day of the training and had a Smart phone with the WhatsApp application. Everyone received the same message at the same time and was able to respond. WhatsApp allows anyone with access to a Smart phone and Wi-Fi to send individual and group messages anywhere in the world. It also allows sending and receiving photos, videos, recordings, and Word documents. I sent text messages via group texting.WHATS APP

On the last day of the training, the participants confirmed their contact information, provided the phone number they used for WhatsApp and agreed to be part of the PLC. A total of 23 participants were invited to join the WhatsApp group. The local NGO staff member in charge of education, as well as the two Ghanaian facilitators who conducted the leadership training, and the site director were also invited to the group as silent observers. The role of the silent observers was defined and explained to them before the intervention started. Later, I was able to ask the silent observers to read my findings, serving as member checkers. As the moderator and administrator of the WhatsApp group, my role was to send the text messages twice a week, monitor the answers, provide some written or oral feedback and encouragement, and answer questions. I also ensured that the norms were respected and that the purpose of the PLC remained intact. Norms for the group were discussed prior of the start of the intervention. Norms included: (1) the group was created to enhance and promote leadership conversations only as to help enhance networking among participants; (2) the group should not be used for personal or other purposes; and (3) everyone was encouraged to participate in the discussions/reflections. I sent a first text message to the cohort inviting the participants to join the WhatsApp group five days after the end of the training. Text messages were sent to the proprietors and head teachers for nine weeks starting two weeks after the school leadership training. The two-week grace period allowed participants to return to their school sites, share with colleagues, and reflect on the knowledge they had gained during the training. The intervention lasted nine weeks because four leadership modules were covered during the leadership training and I wanted to ask 2 follow up questions per module. On the last week of the intervention (week 9), I sought to receive the participants’ perspectives on the use of WhatsApp as a follow up method.

On Mondays the participants received a yes/no question and an open-ended question followed on Fridays of the same week. Participants could answer one question and not the other if they wished. There was a total of seven yes/no questions and nine open ended questions. The questions were all related to the content of the four modules taught during the three-day leadership training. This format was chosen to: (1) understand what kind of question triggered more participation; and (2) provide the participant a structure in which they could expect a yes/no question on Monday that gave them time to reflect in order to answer the open-ended question on Friday or over the following days. I asked questions directly related to the content of the four modules. An example of a yes/no question would be “Do you think your school is more inviting now as a result of the Edify leadership training you attended in July? Please respond YES or NO. Open ended questions included questions such as “Have you made your school more inviting this week? If you made any changes add any photos and/or videos of what you have changed.

The study participants unanimously stated that the WhatsApp intervention was helpful to transfer new knowledge after the training for several reasons. They commented that it allowed them to learn from each other, and it reminded them of the training, its content, and the School Improvement Plans. The intervention also encouraged and motivated the participants to put into action what they had learned during the training. One participant stated: “We were expecting your messages, so we knew we did not have time to seat down and relax, your follow up helped us to remember what we had seen in the training.” Even those who did not know how to type stated that it was “brilliant and very helpful.” One school leader shared: “WhatsApp helped me because I could read and see what my colleagues were doing in their schools. I took some ideas and also got motivated by what some did.”

Network and Peer Learning

The use of WhatsApp allowed the workshop participants to share information and “encouraged those who were not responding to questions to sit up.” A woman leader added: “Comments from my colleagues always draw my attention back to what was learned at the workshop. The answers given were helpful and made us conscious of what others were doing. We got ideas and copied some ideas.” Most participants shared that they were happy to hear from colleagues after the training, keeping “the good atmosphere beyond the training.” Finally, one leader spoke of the fact that he learned vicariously and said “despite the fact that I never wrote anything on the platform I was reading all the messages and learned a lot from the others that way.”

            Reminder, Peer Pressure, Motivation and Encouragement

All leaders suggested that being active on the WhatsApp platform was motivating because of the peer pressure. When leaders saw pictures on the phone of what colleagues improved in their schools, they would be inclined to do the same and share their progress on the platform. A leader shared: “When I see other schools making so many changes, I must make some too! I liked what some of my colleagues did and I must now try to do the same at my school. If they can do it, why can’t I, I must at least try and show them.” Another participant stated, “I do not go to the others’ schools but I see pictures they send and it helps me to change too.” Two other persons commented: “Usually after training, people feel reluctant to use what was learned but this gave us pressure and motivation and it always reminded us to do what we set to do.” Participants also commented on the encouragement they would receive from other participants and from the group moderator when new learning was transferred: “We felt encouraged because you [the researcher] wrote to us and asked us more questions when you did not understand or wanted us to share more.”

            Norms and Structure

All participants appreciated that the rules were clear and given before the intervention started. One leader referred to the norms as: “nothing to waste.” According to him the norms promoted learning by staying on task. Two leaders stated that people who did not respect the rules were “detractors” and they appreciated when I intervened and restated the rules immediately. He stated it in this way “Let us stick to the reason for what the group was created. Not everyone is a fan on what others are posting.”

All participants shared that they enjoyed the structure of the questioning and the quality of the questions. They enjoyed receiving a yes/no question on Mondays when it was busy and the open-ended questions on Fridays when they had the weekend to read, think and respond. “I was always eager to see what message you [the researcher] sent even if I could not look at work. I would go home and look at what you sent because I knew to expect a message on certain days and I knew I had time to think about the question before responding.”

            WhatsApp Beyond the Training

After this intervention, all participants stated that WhatsApp should be used for all trainings. Two participants indicated that they would like to use WhatsApp in their own work and with their teachers, using the application to ask the teachers a few questions prior to their weekly teachers’ meeting. “I thank you because now I will use this with my teachers and this will force them to prepare effectively before a meeting.”

Participants also shared that since the training content was helpful and relevant to their context, they were willing to engage in the WhatsApp. One school leader claimed: “You see often times you go to training, but the materials is not appropriate for us and we do not learn anything. Here we learned because of new research you presented but also because you made is relevant to our needs and schools. That is why we wanted to continue the learning and sharing on WhatsApp.”

The data indicated that participants perceived WhatsApp as being a useful tool to enhance the transfer of learning because it enabled them to learn from each other, reminded them of the workshop and of their school improvement plans and encouraged them in general. They shared that the pictures other leaders posted on the platform encouraged them to transfer learning to their schools, referring to it as peer pressure. According to the participants, WhatsApp appeared to be an efficient way to follow up with workshop participants post training. It helped participants remember the goals they had set for themselves and reminded them of the content of the training. WhatsApp was also appreciated because it is a platform the participants knew how to use, and it is readily accessible and available. One head teacher exclaimed “WhatsApp was a great idea to follow up with us because we use it already, we just never thought of using it among us educators and after a training”.

“WhatsApp was brilliant, you should use it after each training and in fact I am now planning to use it with my teachers.”

These two pictures were posted on the WhatsApp platform after the training. Brion Blog no. 2They exemplify how school leaders took the content of the training module on nutrition, made a poster of the food pyramid and invited parents to a PTA meeting on nutrition. A video of the meeting was also posted on the platform for everyone to see.


*The term brain date is used as a way to foster conversations and reflections among like-minded educators and educational leaders.

Meet Dr. Brion

A Model for Leadership Training in Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPSs) in Sub-Saharan Nations


Over the last five or so years a team comprised of faculty, graduate students and practitioners from the University of San Diego has been conducting trainings and research as well as coaching school leaders in six sub-Saharan nations and three countries in Central/South America. Our work has been predominantly with two international NGOs that provide capital to local micro-finance institutions for loans to schools. These schools are referred to as Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPSs)[1] and most are small family-run businesses. It’s estimated that there are over 1 million LFPSs in emerging nations (Economist, Kwan).

This will be my first blog about our work and it may be of interest if you are working in the same countries and/or for those of you who are part of the conversation (debate!) about the role of private schooling in low and middle-income nations. It’s a contentious topic and we’ll explore it in a future blog.

But first, I’ll begin with the genesis of our projects and what we have done in Ghana where the work began. It started with a donor who supported two NGOs (Opportunity International and Edify) who asked us to explore whether or not receiving school loans impact student learning. For financial and research-related reasons (e.g., insufficient funding to conduct a Randomized Control Trial) we haven’t quite answered this particular question; however, we have explored whether the training that accompanies a school loan is correlated with school improvement (Brion & Cordeiro, 2017). In this blog, I describe our work with one of the NGOs.

Morning Assembly at a low-cost private school

In 2012, while I was still dean at the University of San Diego, Chris Crane, the founder of Edify, a faith-based NGO, visited my office and asked if I would send a team to Ghana and the Dominican Republic to explore a possible partnership between Edify and the University. He wanted to know what trainings Edify might offer their education clients.   The research on micro-lending discusses the importance of offering lending clients training as well as capital (Lyby 2006). Edify provides capital to local micro-lenders who in turn provide small loans to the LFPSs. Usually the trainings that accompany a loan are about fiscal sustainability; however, Chris beleived that the trainings offered should go beyond budgeting and include education-related topics.

During the initial visits to Ghana, we interviewed numerous school leaders, teachers and parents. Edify told us they assumed we would recommend teacher training; however, it became clear after the interviews that the focus should be on school proprietors and their leadership teams. We discovered that teacher turnover was particularly high (40-50%) and yet many school leaders didn’t realize the extent of the problem nor had given much thought as to how to lessen teacher turnover. Ghana has a nationwide shortage of qualified teachers. Although the school proprietors requested teacher trainings, they also told us they themselves needed to learn more about operating an educational organization since no or few trainings of any kind were offered locally. Thus, we recommended that building the capacity of the school leadership team should be the priority for any trainings, since leadership is key to improving student learning (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004).

We then considered the issue of what the training should be comprised of, especially since after conducting a thorough literature review, we found little literature about private schooling in these countries and most local universities offered no specialized training or professional development appropriate for a private school context. As Barnett discussed in his April 11, 2018 blog on this website, there are three types of national educational systems and Ghana’s falls into the loosely regulated system category because preparation programs and professional learning experiences for school leaders are sparse or non-existent.

After numerous conversations with officials at the Ghanaian Education Service, school leaders, university faculty and Edify staff, we developed the following model:

Our Model for Building the Capacity of School Leaders

Theory of Action: Strengthen the Capacity of the School Leadership Team in order to Improve Student Learning Outcomes

Based on the data collected while in country, a review of the literature and topics requested by school leaders, three school leadership, evidence-based modules were created: Improving the Conditions for Learning (3 days); Leading for Learning (2 days); and Creating and Developing Early Childhood Programs (2 days). Topics include nutrition, ensuring a safe and adequate school facility, creating an inviting school culture, what it means to be an instructional leader and the key role that early learning plays, among many more.

A train-the-trainer (TOT) model is used and each country has a minimum of 3-5 trainers with numerous additional ones in the pipeline. Since training is only as good as the trainers, we’ve found the TOT approach to be a key part of our strategy.

Another essential ingredient is the pedagogy used in all parts of the model.  The training curriculum uses active learning strategies such as role playing, case studies, and problem-based projects, to name but a few.  The trainers themselves must be comfortable using these teaching strategies and this has been challenging for many trainers since in their own education they were typically not exposed to active pedagogies.

School Leaders participating in the training modules, “Leading for Learning” prioritizing what they believe are important dispositions for teachers.

Once the modules are delivered, a trained Education Specialist visits the school and coaches the leadership team in carrying out the School Development Plan that was created during the trainings.   We’ve also developed an instrument referred to as the School Self-Assessment Instrument (SSAI); there are three different versions depending on the school level. It’s used by the leadership team and explores various aspects of the school, including personnel, facilities and the curriculum. We beta-tested the SSAI in numerous schools over a two-year period and it’s now used by any school wishing to engage in deep reflection about their school’s growth. Another component of the model is using mobile technology (we use the WhatsApp platform) to share questions and post photos that are tied to the content of the modules.


Additionally, we have an annual leadership conference. The local team, with assistance from a Planning Committee comprised of school leaders, designs and delivers a one-day conference for all leaders who have participated in the trainings.

The final key aspect of the model is the incubation of networks in order to create Communities of Practice. These networks are for school leaders as well as teachers. Local staff have created numerous special interest groups (e.g., early Childhood educators; IT teachers, leaders interested in construction and facilities, etc.). Sometimes they meet electronically and other times in person. They might decide to visit schools with certain programs or simply create a study group. Edify staff assist school leaders by connecting them with schools that have strong programs in areas that the proprietors and Head Teachers are interested. Some of these professional learning networks are ongoing, while others cease when they have accomplished their goals.

IMG_4056 (1)
Dr. Mike Amakyi, a trainer and Professor from the University of Cape Coast, awards a certificate to a school principal.

One network that we hadn’t planned was the request by the school leaders that we make available the option of taking the trainings for Continuing Education Credit. Since the vast majority of these school leaders have never participated in any formal school leader preparation or professional learning activity, they were eager to earn a certificate. We now have a cadre receiving a USD certificate in “Independent School Leadership.”

Rosemary Ohene-Bredu, proprietor of Ahenemba International School



We have contextualized the training modules for Ghana and we are launching an implementation in all eleven countries Edify works in.  The contextualization includes using local knowledge, organizations, policies and language. The trainings and modules are in a variety of languages including English, French, Spanish, Amharic (for Ethiopia) and Kinyarwanda (for Rwanda).

One could argue that this is a boutique program and that policy levers are far more important, and I would agree. Policy is key! However, I also believe much can be learned from NGOs working deeply and thoughtfully in this space. Edify is one of those NGOs. If you would like access to the modules or the SSAI, just shoot me an email.

[1] The literature uses several terms interchangeably—Affordable Private Schools (APSs), Budget Private Schools (BPS), Low-Cost Private Schools (LCPSs) and Low-Fee Private Schools (LFPSs). The latter term is used here since it is frequently cited in the literature.

Student Exhibitions as a Lever to Support School Change

Heather Lattimer provides insights for school leaders about improving school-wide changes around instruction and assessment. Dr. Lattimer offers examples from schools in the US and Kenya.

“I just don’t know how to get more buy-in,” a school principal who was trying to move her school to adopt a Deeper Learning approach told me recently. “I’ve taken teachers to conferences, had workshops here on campus, formed books clubs, and done demonstration lessons in classrooms myself, but most teachers seem to be only half-hearted in their efforts to use approaches that support Deeper Learning. They make an effort when they know that I’m going to visit but they revert right back to the traditional norm after I leave. I know that they want to be successful but they’ve been so ingrained with instructional practices geared toward standardized test preparation that it is very difficult to encourage a different approach, even if they know that it is what their kids need for long term success.”

Daraja Academy Nanyuki Kenya

This lament is all-too-common. Changing school culture around instructional practice and norms is challenging. This is especially true when the teaching and learning environment have been dominated by high-stakes tests that determine the futures of both our students and our educators. Whether we like it or not, the elements that are assessed are the elements that get prioritized. If national standardized end-of-year or end-of-school tests are the norm – particularly if the results of those tests are public, then the instruction will necessarily focus on preparing students for those tests.

If assessments are designed well and if they reflect the learning outcomes that we want for our students, then “teaching to the test” can be a real positive. The challenge is that most standardized tests are only able to assess a relatively narrow slice of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that our students need to be successful in the 21st century. Standardized tests can do a great job of assessing factual recall in particular subject areas but are not great instruments for assessing students’ abilities to grapple with real world challenges, synthesize information and ideas across disciplines, and present and defend their ideas to authentic audiences. To teach and assess students’ abilities to engage in this type of problem solving and critical thinking – skills which surveys of employers repeatedly indicate are critically important for career success – we must move beyond standardized tests and explore new ways to teach and demonstrate students’ learning.

Daraja Academy exhibition

One approach that has worked successfully to support school-wide changes in practice around instruction and assessment involves student exhibitions. Exhibitions make students’ learning visible by showcasing their work through public displays of student writing, projects, performances, presentations, or other artifacts. Unlike the typical awards or presentations that involve only the “best” students, exhibitions involve all students across a class, grade level, or throughout the school. They engage the larger community by inviting other students, parents, educators, and community stakeholders to come view the work and provide feedback. This public, transparent, and inclusive approach can help to strengthen student achievement, build a strong sense of school community and pride, and encourage equitable teaching practices and learning outcomes.

Meet Dr. Lattimer

Educate Girls Globally Recruiting Partners for Breakthrough   Empowerment of Girls in Government Schools

Guest bloggers A. Lawrence Chickering and Anjula Tyagi share the story of Educate Girls Globally (EGG) a non-profit that assists government ministries of education to reform schools by empowering girls to learn and to lead. 

From the beginning of our first operations in India nearly twenty years ago, we knew we were going for it all. ‘Going for it all’ meant two things. First, for scale, it Photo for blog Lawry & Anjulameant working in government schools, which most NGOs avoid. Second, to weaken the influence of traditional culture and help girls, it meant empowering communities (including girls) to advance beyond traditional, passive roles and to become active, entrepreneurial changemakers.  Our aim was to develop for ministries of education a model and ‘tool kit’ for reforming government schools.

We developed our reform model from a number of sources: from the researches of the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostom and Robert Hawkins, from a study we did for the InterAmerican Development Bank on four Latin American countries, and from the experiences of NGOs in Upper Egypt, the Indian State of Karnataka, and other countries.  We began operations in northern India, state of Uttarakhand, in 2002.

Across the world education reform generates opposition and conflict, paralyzing reform and producing no action. Our model was (is) very simple, working from the grass roots up and solving the political challenges, generating no opposition. Departments of Education accepted the program, which ‘mobilizes community support for schools’.

Governments loved the program from the beginning. Our purpose was to transfer the model to governments and other entitles that would help us scale, and we knew we would start on the path to full transfer when a government requested us to expand to all schools in a jurisdiction. That moment arrived recently when a district government in Uttarakhand (Udhamsinghnagar) requested us to expand from 50 secondary schools (25,000 kids, two-thirds girls) to all 1,116 schools in the district, serving about 330,000 children.

The government made clear its intention to expand the model throughout the state and to other states by providing for EGG training of government officials in other places. They and we wanted the agreement and project to be a model for all of India.  Our hope was that the federal Ministry of Education in New Delhi would endorse the model for every school in the country.

The challenge of culture and demand-side reform

Most education reform focuses on the supply side of schools—teacher training, curricula, infrastructure—and ignores the demand side, which is primarily about students’ motivation. Many parents believe that motivation is the most important factor in learning. They know that a motivated child will learn anywhere, while an unmotivated child will not learn anywhere.

Motivation is influenced by family and community support for education.Traditional societies in fact tend to demotivate everyone, but especially girls, whom tradition assigns to low-status, passive roles that limit individual aspiration, which is essential for learning. Thus, empowering people to advance beyond traditional to self-determined selves is a primal EGG objective.

We were determined from the beginning to show that traditional people, especially girls, are not ‘victims’ who need to be rescued from ‘oppressors’ (either powerful groups or culture) but can be empowered to play active roles in promoting change.

IMG_5762EGG addresses this issue head-on especially in relation to girls by empowering them to become leaders, learners, and role models. The program weakens the influence of traditional culture by empowering  traditional communities and girls to advance from passive, tradition-directed selves to active, self-directed selves.  People living by traditional roles are passive objects.  As objects, they can play no role in promoting change. When self-directed, they become active subjects and powerful changemakers. 

Although this truth is the key to development in all forms, most development ventures ignore it.  Understanding that development depends on the crucial resource of people as subjects—and seeing it operationally—is evident to anyone who sees EGG’s program first-hand.  

OWNERSHIP is a core concept that promotes empowerment and runs through all aspects of the program. The first community meeting addresses it with this initial question: Who owns the school? It is only when people understand that the school can never be any better than they themselves make it that they understand that they are the real owners, not the government.

The Girls’ Parliaments play a crucial role in girls’ empowerment, promoting them as leaders and role models in co-educational schools—separate from boys. They play an important role in empowering girls to advance from objects to subjects. Two empowerment moments are especially important:

Girls’ Parliament
  • When dropout girls stand in early public meetings and ask to return to school for ‘a chance in life’; and
  • When Girls Parliaments say they want to admit boys.  How many?  Their answer is 50-50—no advantage in numbers.  Even traditional girls become ready to go toe-to-toe with boys.  This is the moment when girls become genuinely equal to boys.

Neuroscience explains why the men respond empathically and embrace the girls. They move from indifference to educating girls one minute to active support for it the next minute.

Action Projects also reflect and stimulate empowerment. Led by the SchoolManagement Committees, communities establish priorities for improving schools—PLLA1332primarily building or repairing infrastructure (clean water, toilets, and maintenance). Ownership and self-governance mean the communities decide about what the schools most need, and they act on them. They do it without any subsidy from EGG. Empowering people to help themselves (deciding what they want to do and doing it) is very different from the common practice of experts telling people ‘what they need’.

The action projects recall a famous statement from T.E. Lawrence, writing in 1917 about the Arabs: ‘Do not try to do too much with your own hands,’ Lawrence wrote. ‘Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. . . [T]he work . . . may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better.’

This insight first suggests the importance of ownership, which is reflected both from what people do and from deciding what to do. Focusing on ownership rather than the form of help (a well) focuses on the psychology of people helped rather than on theIMG_8278 substance of the help. The help (a well) is about the present; the psychology of the recipient is about the future. Empowerment through ownership is crucial for sustainability. Unfortunately, it often conflicts with a primal mantra of philanthropy, which is results. Despite nearly-universal agreement about ownership, people tend quickly to forget it when making and implementing plans, which are about tangible objectives and measurable results.

Ownership is about sustainability and the future. The idea is that how something is done is more important than what is done—process over substance. This captures the essence of empowerment, which occurs when people do things for themselves—when they own what they do. This requires accepting an imperfect present for a powerfully sustaining future.

Our breakthrough moment   

We chose to work in government schools to reach the poorest kids and to achieve the scale and sustainability that only governments control. Our breakthrough moment IMG_1349occurred when a district in Uttarakhand (‘District One’) requested us to expand to all 1,116 schools in the district—primary, middle, and secondary. The government offered to share the cost.

Showing potential government demand for the model, the district next door (District Two), mostly Muslim and of a similar size, soon informed us that they wanted a similar agreement to expand to every school in that district as well. Without any effort to market the model to them, their interest was generated entirely word-of-mouth.

We believe our model will scale most quickly by recruiting partners who want to try it. We have thus made a decision to transfer the model to any potential partner (NGO or government) willing to implement it as we designed it. We will provide training, monitoring, and evaluation. Organizations interested in joining EGG’s network of partners are encouraged to write to us at, attention: Lawrence Chickering.

This project has the potential to change the face of India—and indeed of the developing world. We hope we will hear from you soon. You can read more about us on our website (

Meet the Authors