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Work toward systemic change

The context of our work in South African education is significantly different from that of our work in the US . Years after the end of apartheid, the South African public system remains highly segregated. But the emergence of a handful of high-quality, high-impact schools and the government’s ongoing commitment to reform present an enormous opportunity for transformation.


According to official estimates, only about 40 percent of young South Africans nationwide obtain any qualification beyond grade nine. As students progress through school, the issue of unequal access becomes glaring: Less than one in 20 black students ends up with a post-high-school qualification or degree, compared to one in two white students.

Turnaround will happen neither easily nor quickly. But we believe systemic change is possible. The South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition (SAESC), a group that the foundation has helped to fund, operates on this principle.

SAESC seeks to foster collaboration among a new wave of low-cost, high-quality, high-impact schools capable of consistently preparing students for higher education and careers. Before coming together, this small group, which includes educators and leaders from 13 public and independent schools, had been grappling in comparative isolation with the question of how to provide high-quality education to disadvantaged students. Each school faced challenges: finding, funding and retaining high-quality teachers; supporting students who come from poverty-stricken township environments, where survival often takes priority over education; and obtaining reliable funding.

But participating schools have shown that they can help students thrive. For instance, students typically enter LEAP Science and Maths Schools with a two- to three-year educational deficit; within four years, some 94 percent pass the matric — the standardized test issued in the final year of South African secondary school — with a score that qualifies them for university. (At the national level in 2011, only 24.3 percent of students who sat for the exam earned a qualifying score.) The Inanda Seminary outside of Durban has likewise achieved outstanding results over the last few years, comparable to the best-performing schools in South Africa. For the past five years its students, all girls, have maintained a 100 percent pass rate on the matric. In that same period, at least 95 percent have earned the bachelor’s qualification that makes them eligible for university entrance. Other SAESC members have achieved equally compelling results.


The coalition’s current focus is on articulating how and what each member does to help students, and then on translating that into a set of best practices and guidelines that will help schools nationwide raise their own quality. Coalition members have also agreed that the final measure of their quality will be their high school graduates’ ability to get through university and find employment. In other words, passing the high school exit exam, even at the level required to gain admittance to institutions of higher education, is no longer enough.

In the coming months and years, the foundation will continue working with the coalition, with individual high-impact schools, and with the government to identify and codify best practices in establishing and maintaining high-quality schools. We’ll work across sectors to devise and model new public-private finance structures to support low-cost, high-quality schools. And we’ll work throughout the government school system to help educators improve their skills to better address student needs.

US Education: Portfolio Districts

Despite years of education reform efforts, urban school systems in the US still struggle to educate all students to a high standard. The concept of portfolio school districts — originated by the Center on Reinventing Public Education —  is one of the most promising strategies for comprehensive improvements that reach all students in a district. Portfolio districts are open to and supportive of a variety of school operators, as long as all meet appropriate quality standards. Successful portfolio districts must undertake seven key actions. They must:

1. Define school quality based on objective measures that ensure accuracy and enable accountability; these measures must be the North Star that guides all decision-making districtwide.
2. Provide good options and choices for all families by ensuring the ongoing development of traditional and alternative school models, and transparent enrollment systems for families and children.
3. Enable school-level autonomy and empower school leaders to make the right decisions for their schools and students.
4. Ensure that funding follows pupils to schools — this lets school leaders use the dollars to pay for resources and staff to support their students’ success.
5. Enable school leaders to obtain support services from a diverse set of providers.
6. Expand talent-seeking strategies, and hire and develop leaders from all sectors.
7. Open a two-way community dialogue about the benefits of alternate school models and the types of schools and choices parents want.

This work has begun in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland and more than 30 other cities. Transformation will depend on active, open dialogue about results and challenges, on the firm commitment of innovative districts and leaders, and on community members’ willingness to consider new approaches to improving educational opportunities for all children, regardless of zip code.

School-Based Health in India: Modeling Change

Childhood malnutrition leaves children in India’s slums stunted, impairs their cognitive abilities and makes them prone to serious illness. It also renders them more likely to drop out of school and to face a lifetime of diminished earnings. But proven interventions exist and can be easily administered in the place where impoverished children are most likely to congregate: government schools. Relatively simple intervention opportunities include distribution of deworming tablets; mid-day meals that are contractually provided to government school children by NGOs and that can easily be fortified with critical nutrients such as iron, folic acid and vitamin B12; and water kiosks in government schools.

In 2012, the foundation helped facilitate the government-run deworming of 19.5 million school children in Delhi and Rajasthan. We’re also working in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan to showcase the implementation of more comprehensive school health models at scale. The hope is that these initial implementations will 1) demonstrate an approach that works, 2) enable the development of a blueprint for successful implementations in other states, and 3) lead to the eventual entrenchment of effective school-based health programs as a routine part of state-run governmental operations.

The strategy has begun to gain momentum. In late 2012, the central Indian ministries of health and education formally partnered to support the development of school-based health programs, including a deworming component, to help address chronic malnutrition among urban school children. This is the first time politicians leading the two key central government ministries involved have publicly announced their intention to actively collaborate on the implementation of school health programs in India.

Founder’s Note

Transformation happens when you try a different approach or apply a new way of thinking to old problems. We really try to inspire the connections between people and organizations that lead to creative thinking. We make it a point to share insights and experience across teams and regions. We try to anticipate potential barriers to change – things that have blocked similar work elsewhere. It’s an approach that fuels some of our biggest efforts – the possible game-changers.

In philanthropy, where each organization is working very hard to drive tangible differences every day, sometimes there doesn’t seem to be time to sit back and look for connections with the work of others. But that is a big opportunity. We can find productive ways to share what works and what hasn’t worked, and apply these lessons from the past to new situations.

– Susan Dell, January 2013


Originally posted on the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation website.

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