Question from a Middle School in Niger, Part 2

My Peace Corps peeps, Torin and Julie, thanks for commenting on the previous post. I knew you'd chip in. Julie, please see Mrs. Kombo's point #2 below and check if that squares with your understanding. If it's true that Peace Corps will not serve in private institutions, and therefore cannot help this middle school, I'd totally understand the policy.

(But I would wonder if it's in need of updating! Lots of new research on the rapid international growth of private schools, like this one, serving the very poor. I could see an American policymaker who culturally equates "private school" with "rich people" and not understanding this dramatic movement underway).

Philip, I share your caution. And it could be less of a scam but more of a quasi-sincere fundraising ploy; give us some advice and oh maybe you'll realize you could give us some money.*

But here's another dispatch which may help dry out our collective wet blanket instincts. Mrs. Kombo writes:

Hello Mr Goldstein,

Thank you so much for your prompt response to our email.

1. We would like you to help us turn our school around academically! (Not a very small thing to ask for, we agree!!!) We need a partnership to guide and support us through this process.

2. We do have a very active Peace Corps in Niger who have been helping our country for nearly 50 years now. But as a private institution, we cannot ask for Peace Corps teachers.

3. My husband and I who are in our late fifties bought Hampaté Bâ when its founders and previous owners retired 3 years ago. The conditions of the school at the time of purchase were dismal, and unfortunately, typical for a school of its type. Sixteen years with almost no resources, operating to the very lowest standards, the school suffered from entrenched regressive teaching practices and an apathetic atmosphere.

By regressive, she means, I think, the teachers used to hit the kids. I'm guessing that because the school's website emphasizes that they do not hit the kids.

Naturally, the school also had a poor reputation. The challenge for us was to find a way to turn this situation around.

The decision was made to change the school from within. The adopted strategy was to

(1.) reduce class sizes (from 75 students per class to 45) and pay teachers fairer wages

(2.) encourage a truly respectful school atmosphere through example, and

(3.) raise teaching standards through internal teachers’ “study circles”, a form of teacher training workshops run by teachers for teachers.

My colleague Laura and I were discussing that it is remarkable how much Mrs. Kombo's story aligns with turnaround efforts in USA for the past several years.

Higher teacher wages, smaller class sizes, teacher discussion groups and workshops, and making a nicer school climate (in USA middle schools that means stopping the yelling at the kids, and sometimes more positive/proactive interaction between kids and adults, like "advisory groups".)

The result here is often better school climate but still abysmal academic results. I'd agree with all those changes, but here in Boston, and around the nation, they've been insufficient.

That's why the Obama Administration is pushing a more aggressive form of turnarounds. Here is a Secretary of Education's speech on the subject.

Mrs. Kombo continues:

The result – in a mere two years – has been a strong transformation toward a positive and happy school atmosphere, but the academic outcomes are still extremely low and of course the measures we took did not help us financially (quite on the contrary!).

It is in this context that, for the last two years, I have been searching the Internet for best practices in teaching/learning and that is how I came across MATCH School. Reading the school's website and watching all the video clips was such an inspiration to us. So, we plucked up courage and decided to contact you!

Given the low academic skills and very limited French proficiency of our entering students, they are not supposed to make it far and certainly not to college. We want to change this state of things and to do that we need all the help and guidance we can get.

We have written to others in the USA, such as Clark University and Jobs for the Future, but unfortunately received no response. I suppose it is easier to ignore than to follow up such a huge request coming from such a small school in the world's poorest country (Niger was ranked 182 out of 182 nations by the 2009 UN Human Development Report)!

We hope we have answered your questions and would welcome any other inquiries you might have.

Thank you and best regards,

Homa Kombo

And my response:

Hi Mrs. Kombo,

Well, thank you again for your reply. Merci!

Congratulations on what you've done so far. And I loved the pictures you sent.

I would be happy to think about this with you by email. Perhaps you could tell me more.

You write that the academic outcomes are still extremely low. How do you measure the academic outcomes? Is there a national test? Are the outcomes low in every category, or are there some strengths and some weaknesses?

What about after a typical class, in French or math or history for example? Is there any type of short quiz that would let you know if the children had actually mastered the idea which was taught?

What are some of the theories that you and your husband and staff have right now -- as to why the academic outcomes are not yet changing in the way you would hope? For example, what did teachers discuss in the "teacher study circles?"

Also - your English is terrific - where were you educated? And I am reading your website, it looks great. Who developed that for you? Impressive.

Best, Mike

*My footnote: Top USA nonprofits and universities operate that way: asking for opinions from the rich as a way to ask for money. For example, Children's Hospital, one of the best in the world and possibly the most-admired institution in Boston, with its army of 100+ full-time fundraisers, recently locked into a couple friends of mine, after their kid was treated there.

The couple was invited to a meeting with a top surgeon. They were asked for "advice" on how he might develop a certain technology, and potentially spin it off as a nonprofit. My friends were puzzled: "We're both bankers, what the heck would we know about medical devices, why do they want our opinions?" The answer was just that it was a way to hit 'em up for donations, without ever actually doing so explicitly.

It's one thing to legitimately ask for advice from accomplished people who may actually have insights from their sector for your sector, and to hope they become engaged in the problems you're trying to solve.

To me the line is crossed if you know going in you don't care at all about their advice and have no basis for believing they have insights into your institution's problems.

Anyway, my gut feeling is Mrs. Kombo is sincere in wanting ideas. I've gotten 2 more emails (which I'll share in next couple days) that feel authentic. I'll post #3 tomorrow.