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) 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.
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.
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.”
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.
 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.