INNOVATION: One approach towards improving education is to give freedom to extraordinary educators and other qualified operators to implement their own ideas about what their pupils need to reach new levels of excellence, says the writer. Picture: Cindy Waxa

Inspiration and tragedy. Those are the two words I wrestled with over the Atlantic Ocean this past weekend, flying home to the US. Taking the negative first (so we can end on the positive), my visit to South Africa was tragic as I learned about the current reality: less than 5 percent of black children get all the way through the South African educational pipeline and graduate from a university.

And I didn’t just learn about it; I saw it. I saw teachers’ work rooms in schools in townships where the teachers were beaten-yet-present at best, and asleep at worst. What was the most tragic was that the beaten feelings, or lack of belief and action among teachers, was not matched by what I saw among students: I met children hungry to learn, hungry to do well in matric to be able to study at universities, and hungry to provide their families and themselves with a better life in the future.

And that’s where the inspiration began. The children. Wow! The children have fire in their bellies and songs in their hearts. Children have proven to us over the past 19 years of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) just how resilient they are, and this US lesson has the potential to play out the same way in South Africa.

There is a dream that is alive and well in South Africa. From the rural village boy who walked to the nearest town that had internet to learn about universities and is now studying at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to the kids from Khayelitsha who dream of becoming astronauts, accountants, doctors and lawyers, to the UCT girl from Alexandra Township who goes hungry because she sends home her meal subsidy to help her family eat, I could see it.

It is this dream that apartheid-era reformers told me was the source of their conviction and belief during those trying years, and it is this dream that is now at a crossroads: if only the adults can find ways to help children achieve their aspirations, then the sky is the limit for South Africa.

Schools are the natural focal point for such direct action with children – particularly the public education system, which is supposed to exist to benefit children. It’s hard to find people who argue with that point. But if we truly look at the laws, rules, regulations and policies that are in place in South Africa, it is too easy to wonder if the system is truly set up to benefit the children, or if it has turned into a jobs programme for adults.

This is not to say caring, skilled adults aren’t critically important in the school system; children do not reach their educational potential without helpful adults. The larger question, however, is whether the system itself sets up pupils, teachers and principals for success or whether it makes failure the norm and success the exception.

The challenges in South Africa post-apartheid are vast, so it’s unreasonable to imagine a government-mandated, top-down approach to education where only one magical way for the provinces to deliver education to every community is the answer for all children. But the government – by definition a top-down structure – is ultimately responsible and accountable for the South African education system. Which brings us to a riddle: how can a top-down entity provide the flexibility and quality to allow for different (and better) solutions in different schools for different children, all focused on one extraordinary outcome – helping pupils achieve the dream?

There is no single correct answer to this riddle, but there is definitely one wrong answer: repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results. That, as is so often said, is the definition of insanity.

One different approach that has shown promise in other education systems is for the government to give freedom to extraordinary educators and other qualified operators to implement their own ideas about what their pupils need to improve outcomes and reach new levels of excellence. The South African Department of Education could allow non-governmental organisations to compete for the privilege and honour of operating their own government schools, but release the teachers and principals to do what they know needs to be done. After all, it is the country’s great teachers and principals who are closest to the challenges and therefore in the best position to think of solutions. And if the government allows these bottom-up solutions to flourish, then the government will be in a position to harvest the innovative and successful ideas to help replicate them throughout government schools nationwide.

The key to managing this transition would be ensuring that all schools were held to high standards of quality. The government would have to set and maintain such accountability standards; schools who meet them would earn the freedom to innovate to meet their pupils’ needs. Does this model have a precedent? Yes, there are several around the globe. The one closest to my heart is public chartering in the US. The experience of US charters, particularly those that have scaled and provided quality across multiple schools in multiple states, has valuable lessons to share with South Africa’s education leaders as they seek to improve the quality of education for all of the nation’s kids.

I listened to Professor Jonathan Jansen on a panel about models for quality education in South Africa. He spoke about a belief that we share at KIPP: promises to children are sacred.

l Mike Feinberg is co-founder of KIPP, a network of public charter schools for students from disadvantaged communities and low-income families in the US.