Doing What Matters: Effectively Pursuing System Change

Alex Beard, System Leadership, Teach For All
How are the children? All the children are well.

— Masai Greeting


Across education systems globally, all is not well for the children. How much your parents earn overwhelmingly dictates how you’ll do in school. This is why Enseña Chile started in 2009 and why it’s now grown into a national movement of thousands of students, teachers, principals, entrepreneurs and policy-makers. This is why the Teach For All network was founded, and why it’s grown in the same period from six to more than 30 partners. And this is why we know we still have much more to do. Outlier schools and classrooms across the network are beating these odds, but the gap at the systemic level is widening. How do we close that gap at the system level? And what is the role of Teach For All in that change?

In early April, Teach For All partners from across the network gathered in Santiago to reflect on these questions and join Enseña Chile’s fifth anniversary celebration. The first system change event of its kind for the network, it brought together CEOs, staff, and alumni from multiple sectors—teachers, school leaders, social entrepreneurs, and policy-makers—and with multiple levels of experience. Throughout the week, the insights of each of these attendees advanced our understanding of how to mobilize to change systems through four key levers: school leadership, teacher training and development, student leadership, and community organizing. Amidst all this, two lessons stood out.


Doing What Matters

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) selects, trains and accredits teachers via a demanding preparation programme, then ensures those teachers end up in the classrooms where they’re needed most. The programme adds teaching capacity to the system, just as Teach For All’s network partners are achieving change through building leadership capacity. TNTP’s president, Tim Daly, taught in Baltimore in 1999 with Teach For America. As a teacher, Tim was guided by a question that he continues to apply to his work as a system leader: Am I doing what matters? It’s a question that should guide us all—one that challenges us to reconsider what we know (or think we know), and what we’re already doing as a network.

We know that teacher quality matters. If you’re a student in the classroom of a top-performing teacher, your background is no longer a factor in your learning. With an average teacher, poorer kids fall further and further behind their richer peers, even if they start out ahead. This is the foundational equation of all Teach For All partners. And we’re gaining some insights about how to build teacher capacity. Each of our programs is adding capacity to the system through recruiting and training great teachers and leaders. Our alumni leaders are increasingly doing the same at different scales. Another speaker at the System Change Conference, Teach For India alumna Chaitra Muralidhar, works for the Thermax Social Initiative to partner with the Maharashtra state government to bring the best practices of Teach For India’s training to teachers across the system.

We also know that school leadership matters. Eric Hanushek has shown that top-quartile principals have a significant impact on the progress of all the kids in their school and that this impact increases for underserved kids. Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network in the USA, told conference attendees that, across the 141 schools in the KIPP network, more than 60% of kids from low-income backgrounds go to college compared to 8% in schools nationally. We’re seeing more schools emerging across the network that prove the importance of leadership, like Zakumuiza School near Riga, Latvia, led by Ispejama Misija alumnus Igors Grigorjevs, and CREE: Cerro Navia, soon to be launched by Enseña Chile alumni Juan Paulo Sanchez and Max Ortuzar in Santiago. By working with these leaders, we are gaining valuable insights about the leadership qualities, skills and experiences that maximize the impact those on a path to school leadership.

We’re increasingly seeing that student leadership and community engagement matter. Zeke Cohen of The Intersection in Baltimore told the story of a group of black students who began a successful political campaign to support the education rights of Latino immigrants in the city. Veronica Palmer introduced conference attendees to RISE, a parent and community advocacy organization that she leads in Aurora, Colorado. These examples reminded us that the politics of reform aren’t enacted only by policy-makers, and that leadership is not the preserve of teachers and principals. History indicates that no reform movement has ever been successful without its beneficiaries also being its advocates, and so we must do more to understand how our network can facilitate the leadership of students, parents and communities.


We’re Better Together

Whether we think of change as coming from the top down or the bottom up, the System Change Conference reminded us that a commitment to openness, connectedness, and collaboration is integral to achieving it. Enseña Chile’s CEO, Tomás Recart, began the conference with a call for our participants, alumni, students, parents and supporters to work together to achieve systemic change, whilst Mike Feinberg shared that KIPP is for everyone, and ‘does not believe in intellectual property’.

The importance of openness and collaboration was confirmed by Teach For America alumna and Washington, D.C., Public School Chancellor, Kaya Henderson. Over the past four years, Kaya has overseen a revolution in the quality of learning that students in the district receive. In her presentation on system change, she promoted the absolute importance of facilitating an open dialogue between all public education stakeholders about what is right for the children (what matters) and how best that should be achieved (doing it). She explained that she’d learned the hard way that being open, involving the community and learning together are crucial to this work—first through failing to do so when school closures prompted mutiny from parents and unions in 2008, and then through getting it right by consulting parents, communities and unions in the process of closing schools and removing teachers in 2014.

Kaya’s insight is one we should remember as we reflect on our work as a network. Although across the world the examples of how we might achieve large scale systemic change are still few, the increasing numbers of individual examples are helping us to believe that it will be possible. Exposing people to new practices and collaborating on solutions to shared problems will only strengthen this belief, and the likelihood that the belief will catalyse action. There are lots of unresolved questions—What matters most in system change? Is top down or bottom up better? How different is this work across diverse contexts? Are we tinkering with systems or building social movements?—but our time in Chile showed us is that we will be much more powerful if we learn to tackle them collectively. We need to know what matters, then do more of it. In this endeavor, as Tomás phrased it, ‘we’re better together.’


Visit our conference Vimeo channel to experience the conference online. Individual sessions are linked above.