Understanding the Context of School Leadership: Kenya, Ghana and South Carolina

Dr. Peter Moyi is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. His work uses sociological theory to understand school leadership practice and its impact on schooling, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. His work also seeks to understand how poverty, conflict, and disability affect school attendance and completion.

My research, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, has focused on answering the question, “why are children not going to or completing school?” While my original inquiry focused on individual and household barriers to schooling, my work has shifted over time towards school leadership more broadly, centering on the question of “how can school leaders ensure quality education for all students?

I have found across my research that household-level factors are incredibly influential in student retention, specifically those related to poverty, conflict, and disability. I discovered that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to have high rates of disabled people (World Health Organization, 2011) due to the harsher living conditions in which children are raised. As a result, I became interested in exploring the impact of physical disability, such as polio, loss of limbs, speech and communication disorders, visual impairment, and hearing loss on educational access and attainment. The countries I researched do not have any disability policies and lack disability infrastructures, such as accessible parking spots or wheelchair ramps. There are no books in Braille, nor accommodations for students who are hearing impaired. In Kenya, despite having a population of 52 million, there are about ten schools for visually impaired students, which is not a sufficient number to accommodate the need. I saw the lack of appropriate accommodations as a considerable barrier for disabled students in accessing education. As such, I have become interested in finding ways to push governments to address disability issues regarding access to schooling.

As I explored school retention further, I noticed that many children were attending school but were not completing their studies. Many African countries offer free education, but what happens is that initially large first-grade cohorts taper off each year due to factors driving children out. I discovered the impact of colonial history on school organization and development in Ghana and Kenya. In each of these countries, English is the medium of instruction. However, research has indicated that learning in a child’s mother tongue improves their understanding, comprehension, and completion rates (Cummings, 2001). 

            In attempting to identify potential change levers to address these challenges, I found myself reflecting on the role of school leaders. I saw the influence school leaders can have on student completion firsthand during a field visit to India in 2013. I was observing an elementary school classroom when I heard a voice outside. Seconds later, an older woman entered the classroom and called out to a girl, who stood up and left. The school leader told me that the older woman was the girl’s grandmother who needed help preparing for unexpected guests. I asked the school leader why she allowed this, to which she replied, “if I am inflexible, I will never see that girl again. It is better if she misses half or the rest of the day to help her grandmother. But then, the following day, her grandmother will let her come to school.” The school leader understood the nuances of her context and created an environment that enabled that girl to continue attending school. 

            Another example of this connection between school leaders and students’ success in “high-needs schools” (Barnett & Woods, 2021) comes from a school I was studying in Columbia, South Carolina. At this particular low-income, urban, inner-city school, the principal identified that children exhibited low self-esteem. There was a negative stigma of the school within the community. To combat these issues, the principal has used social media to broadcast good things students are doing to change the narrative and promote positive depictions of the school. For instance, she publicized photos from when the school cafeteria was remodeled, serving healthy, nutritious food. In talking with parents, they expressed approval of the principal’s efforts. This is just one example of a school leader doing something to encourage students to continue their education.

            With the pandemic, we have seen problems compounding, especially for low-income children who were already struggling with schooling access, performance, and retention. As one superintendent told me, “we cannot go back to normal because normal was not working for everyone.” Instead, we need to create a better system that benefits all children. In a paper I wrote about the Kenya government’s response (Moyi, 2020), I argue that COVID-19 offers a perfect opportunity to re-examine schooling regarding how we teach, what we teach, and the structure of the school day. My focus is now on changing our approach to principal preparation to highlight such examples and help aspiring school leaders to see these nuances and reflect on similar stories. One related example comes from my dissertation on Ghana and Kenya, two countries with similar levels of child labor. The dissertation showed that more children are going to school in Kenya than Ghana because Kenya’s education system was more flexible with students working and studying. School leaders are willing to start the school day later. This flexibility afforded more children the opportunity to complete their chores before leaving for school, ensuring they did not have to choose between their responsibilities or dropping out. While it has been challenging, I believe that now is the perfect time to re-think our school model and imagine a new normal that fits today’s realities.

To learn more about Dr. Moyi and his research please see his institutional profile.

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