Speed School in Ethiopia and Uganda
Today we talk about accelerated education as an effective way to bring children who dropped out back into school. There have been many attempts at accelerated education. In this episode we focus on Speed School.
Josh Muskin is Senior Director and Education Team Leader at Geneva Global, which has been supporting Speed Schools in Ethiopia and Uganda.
Citation: Muskin, Josh interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 265, podcast audio, December 6, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/muskin/
Will Brehm 1:28
Josh Muskin, welcome FreshEd.
Josh Muskin 1:30
Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
Will Brehm 1:31
So, can you tell me a little bit about this sort of global challenge of out of school children today? What do we know about the numbers etc., of out of school children?
Josh Muskin 1:42
Sure. Pre-pandemic, the numbers of out of school children were around 260 million, as reported by UNICEF. And as you might expect, the problem is especially egregious in Africa. Out of school children result from many factors, including poverty. Not just the direct cost, but the opportunity costs of kids going into the classroom is a calculus that every parent has to do. But I like to say that every parent wants their child to be educated. They need to make the decision whether that child is best educated for her or his most likely future at home or in the classroom. And often, the conclusion is the child is educated best at home. Children are out of school because of conflict. They’re out of school because of a variety of issues, most recently related to health and the pandemic. So, what we’re trying to do is to make sure that children who have missed the opportunity to go to school have that opportunity, using an accelerated education program, and serve not just those children and their families, which serve their communities. And, you know, ultimately, their regions and countries because countries need educated folks to achieve their own development goals,
Will Brehm 3:08
It must be hard for a student who leaves school or drops out of school, and then a few years later, is thinking about going back. I mean, because that student now will be a lot older, but still sort of held back by many grades. And so, might join a class again and be much older than the children and other students in that class. I mean, that must be hard for some students.
Josh Muskin 3:32
Yeah. A lot of children face the stigma of being a 12, 13, 14-year-old sitting in class with six-year old’s. It’s not only with the six-year old’s, but also at desks that are built for six-year old’s.
Will Brehm 3:44
Right! The physical sort of constraints here of older children. So, this accelerated program, tell me a little bit more about how this is supposed to work and how it is supposed to potentially solve this crisis or challenge of out of school children.
Josh Muskin 4:01
What we try to do with the Speed School Program, which is the name that we’ve given to the accelerated program. And actually, we didn’t give it the name, we got the program and the name from the Strømme Foundation, a Norwegian NGO that Geneva Global had originally funded to implement Speed School in West Africa. And they actually still operate Speed School there. We brought it to Ethiopia and to Uganda. The idea is to give kids who have been out of school, or never went to school, the chance to catch up so that they can go to school with their age cohort. So, we take children 9 to 14 -originally was 8 to 14- and we give them the first three years of the official primary curriculum in a 10-month period so that they can enter the fourth-grade level or equivalent of the system in which they are enrolling, and be with kids either their age or much closer to their age and have the academic skills and other skills and knowledge necessary to thrive moving forward in the conventional classroom.
Will Brehm 5:10
So, where does this Speed School take place for a student who dropped out of school? Are they doing this at home? Or are they going to some center? Or are they going back into mainstream schooling but sort of learning in the evenings? Like how does it actually work,
Josh Muskin 5:23
We create classes of 30 children -originally it was 25 children, I think we could also move up to 36 children- and we go to the communities where there are large numbers of out of school children, and say, we want to help you to bring these children back into the classroom, find a place for them. In practice, over 80% of the Speed School classes actually operate within classrooms provided by a local primary school. Others could be a farmer education center, or a mosque, or a church, or some other location. But in over 80% of the cases, the children actually are attending classes on a school campus, and you have anywhere from normally one to three Speed School classes operating at a school.
Will Brehm 6:13
And then what’s the curriculum like? Is it the national curriculum that’s being taught in Uganda and in Ethiopia, where this project is sort of being implemented right now? Or is it sort of a subset of the national curriculum? Or is it an entirely different curriculum that’s sort of teaching certain skills?
Josh Muskin 6:30
It’s THE official government curriculum that we have stripped down to the learning outcomes -to the core learning competencies. And this is an argument that I make often that in all curricula, whether it’s in a accelerated classroom situation, or in a conventional classroom, we need to strip down the curriculum to the core learning competencies so that all of the examples, the illustrations, the exercises that we use to give meaning to these core competencies, such as counting from one to 100, or such as basic reading. In the textbook, the kids in a remote rural area are reading the same text as kids in an urban environment. And the meaning of that text pertains very differently to the kids’ lived experience. So, with reading, with learning to spell words, and in Uganda, they have a thematic curriculum. So, they talk about things like environment, or children’s rights, or animals in our community. If you learned that from a textbook, it’s very abstract. But if you strip down the learning competencies to those core elements, then the teachers have the opportunity to bring meaning to those outcomes by drawing on the local context. So, the curriculum is the government curriculum focused on the outcomes. And we train and support teachers to bring life to those competencies by drawing on the local context.
Will Brehm 8:03
And so that idea of stripping back curriculum to the core competencies and then letting teachers sort of fill in based on the local context in which their students are from, that’s something that I guess would be possible, not only for an accelerated curriculum, but also in a sense, the regular curriculum, right? You could have teachers filling in based on whatever the context is, and still sort of supporting these learning outcomes. So, in this sense, how is the curriculum sped up? How do they actually get through three years of schooling in 10 months?
Josh Muskin 8:33
We divide the curriculum into a phase one, phase two, phase three to correspond to grade one, grade two, grade three. The phase one is about four months and the second two phases are about three months. And we are able to speed it up in a couple ways. One, by not tying the teachers to a textbook that they have to cover all of the content and progress at a rate that basically allows no time for true learner-centered instruction, for meaningful, continuous, formative assessment, for the kids to take the content and connect it to their lives, right, the relevance dimension of it. And then also doesn’t allow teachers to capitalize on the assets that kids are already bringing to the classroom because they’re nine years to 14 years old. So, they may not know how to read or do proper calculations, but they have a lot of knowledge that they’ve gained about their lives. They have the motivation because they know what they can’t do because they don’t know how to read. So, they have that motivation. And in addition, we have, and this is not trivial, we have more hours in the class day. In Ethiopia, kids are in class a full seven and a half hours a day, five and a half days a week. In Uganda, it’s seven and a half, eight hours a day but just five days a week. But their classmates are in the classroom fewer hours. And in addition, the effective learning time because of the management of the large classes, or just general poor management of class time by teachers in a conventional classroom is eliminated in the Speed School classroom because everybody’s got the enthusiasm, the energy to learn, and the kids are learning even when the teacher is not doing conventional classic teaching.
Will Brehm 10:38
In what sense? Because they’re doing work in groups or by themselves?
Josh Muskin 10:41
Yeah. They’re in small groups. We are giving them a lot of projects to work on, we are giving them the opportunity to work on assignments together, to do peer teaching, peer assessment, peer feedback, and remediation. So, we call the teachers facilitators, not teachers. So, the facilitators are walking around the classroom while the kids are learning. And the kids are engaged in their learning because they’re able to focus on where they are in their understanding, they’re able to get help, not just watching the teacher call on the couple students whose hands go up, and then move on because they have three students that they know understand. So, there’s a lot of time to pause. And then the learning is just more fun. I mean, it’s play-based, it’s learner-centered. And then when the kids get distracted, we introduce energizers, so that they get up and “shake shake”, get their sillies out and are able to get back to their tasks.
Will Brehm 11:41
So, in Uganda and in Ethiopia, for the Speed Schools, how many hours in a day is a student attending these classes?
Josh Muskin 11:48
They’re in the classroom over seven hours a day. That doesn’t mean that they’ve got their heads down with pens in their hands all the time -you know, there’s recess and lunch- but they’re also, in addition to the energizers, they’re singing, they’re getting up and counting while skipping rope or hopping on a foot. They’re playing word games. We’ve taught them to play hangman, things like that. So, there’s a lot of learning happening while the kids are engaged physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
Will Brehm 12:23
So, they’re there for the full day at school. 80% are in some sort of mainstream school building and primary school, you said. So, are there students in other classrooms in the sort of mainstream school simultaneously? Like these schools are happening at the same time?
Josh Muskin 12:38
Yeah, they follow the same calendar. It’s interesting, because, you know, we’ve now been doing this for over 10 years in Ethiopia, and six years in Uganda. And there’s a lot of interest by the conventional classroom teachers who hear all this noise. And they see the kids coming out of the Speed School classrooms into their classrooms with enthusiasm, with greater discipline, with the ability and commitment to supporting each other, having greater study habits, attending more regularly and excelling. You know, the top 10 students in grades four, five, and six are often primarily former Speed School students. So, they see this and they say, “What’s happening?” And there’s a lot of transmission happening between the Speed School instructor and the conventional classroom. So, you can go to a school where there’s been a Speed School for a couple of years, and all the classrooms are transformed. Kids working in groups, visual aids and learning materials on what I call all seven surfaces of the classroom, the ceiling, the floor, four walls and all furniture surfaces.
Will Brehm 13:48
Wow. Okay. So, it’s obviously had quite a large impact. And so, of the students who started the Speed Schooling, what’s the percentage of those students that are then making it into the transition of regular school going forward?
Josh Muskin 14:03
For the full experience of Speed School in the two countries, every year, on average, 95% of the kids who start the Speed School year complete the Speed School year. At the end of the year, we give them a placement test, and 95% of the kids who take the placement test continue into the conventional classroom. Of that group, so that’s 90% of the original enrollees -of that group, on average, about 75% go into grade four as scheduled because we complete three years of the curriculum. About 15% go into grade three, and then the rest are divided fairly evenly across grade five, and grade two, and a very few pupils will go into grade one.
Will Brehm 14:52
Wow. Quite an amazing sort of success rate in a way, I guess we could call it that. My last question is sort of just about the dynamics of the actual program. Is there a selection process for who can even join Speed School? Or is it open to anyone that sort of dropped out of school for whatever reason?
Josh Muskin 15:11
We have a set of criteria for enrolling in the Speed School classroom. Originally, we expected every child to have been out of school at least two years and then not have the literacy or numeracy capacity to go into a grade two or grade three. They have to be between the ages of 9 and 14, we recruit with the aspiration of having full gender equality -we don’t quite reach that most years, but we come close. We’ve also in recent years worked hard at bringing in children with disabilities, at least a few into the classroom. We don’t really train the teachers to deal with or provide resources for blind children or deaf children. But we find deaf and blind children succeeding in Speed School classrooms with minimal additional resources to support them. We have moved to -at least in Ethiopia- we’ve moved to enrolling children who have never been in school. One of the problems that we’ve had is that parents of children in conventional classrooms see the results we’re getting in the Speed School classrooms, and they were withdrawing their children from the conventional classroom -you know, a conventional classroom with 60, 70, 80 kids in Ethiopia. And it’s not rare to have a classroom of over 100 kids in Uganda, and to have them learning in a class of 25, 30, maybe 36 kids, and putting them into those classrooms. And we certainly don’t want to be in that situation. So, we’ve worked very hard with school authorities, with parent groups, to be sure that we are not enrolling kids who don’t belong in the Speed School classroom.
Will Brehm 16:57
Yeah. I mean, that would be the worst outcome, would be to increase school dropout because of the Speed School program aimed at reducing school dropout.
Josh Muskin 17:07
Exactly, exactly. So, one of the other ways that we try to manage this is by doing training of teachers in the conventional classrooms where Speed School is operating and encouraging the Speed School facilitators to interact informally through what we refer to as our Education Community of Practice strategy to work with conventional classroom teachers on thinking about how to improve the quality of instruction and therefore quality of learning for all the kids.
Will Brehm 17:35
So, beyond Speed School specifically, have there been other attempts, sort of, around the world at accelerated learning? In a way, are there other models of Speed Schooling that you know of?
Josh Muskin 17:49
There are plenty, and there’s a whole accelerated education working group that operates under the stewardship of UNHCR but includes many other organizations -Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, I think UNICEF is involved in some way, some university partners. So, there’s a whole movement of accelerated education globally. And in Uganda, we actually use a government-created accelerated education program that the National Curriculum Development Center created with technical support of Save the Children, and I think it was the Norwegian Refugee Council, to use primarily in accelerated education classrooms with refugee populations. So, we’re -at least at the beginning- we were the only organization using this curriculum with Ugandan children.
Will Brehm 18:44
Interesting. Okay, so there’s been a lot of different models and programs aimed at accelerated education. Is there anything that’s unique about this particular Speed School model that has been developed in Ethiopia and Uganda over the last 10 years, I guess you said in Ethiopia?
Josh Muskin 19:01
As it’s evolved in the two countries because I don’t want to take credit for developing it. When I first joined Geneva Global about five years ago, I talked about the secret sauce of Speed School as being the student-centered methods, the activity-based learning approach, the regular use of continuous formative assessment, the focus on personal skills development as concrete learning objectives. I later stepped away from identifying those as the secret sauce because everybody does it, or everybody wants to do it. Everybody talks about doing it. It’s what all teachers learn in their teacher training programs. So, as I became more and more familiar with our program, I started focusing more on the way we train and teach teachers and on the importance of the condensed curriculum. The condensed curriculum provides the space and opportunity and also the obligation for teachers to draw on the local context, to focus on the group learning process. So, learner-centered, to have time for meaningful continuous formative assessment with feedback, with remediation, rather than just putting their heads down and sprinting through the curriculum to get to the final page of the text by the end of the year. So, having the condensed curriculum for me is a critical element of a successful accelerated program. The other element of what I now identify as the secret sauce is what I refer to as our holistic training model. So, we do workshop training, and in Ethiopia, we begin the year with about 14-15 days of intensive training, and then have just follow-up training, micro training the rest of the year. In Uganda, we divide the training into three one-week sessions at the start of each phase. The training is conceptual but it’s mostly very practice focused. And let me pause just to say that most of the facilitators have no teaching experience and no official teaching certification. So, they’re coming with either grade 10 equivalent, or grade 12 equivalent leaving certificate or diploma and teaching at a young age with no formal training. And we can talk more about that later, if you want. So, they get the intensive training and start teaching. We have no expectation that they’re going to be excellent at this at the beginning. So, we have regular supervision. And the supervision isn’t your classic commissar police inspector coming and observing for 15 minutes and saying you did this poorly, this poorly, this poorly, this is what you need to do. We make it very dialogue based. So, it doesn’t just rely on what the inspector or the supervisor has observed but they ask “What have you been trying? What’s been working? What’s not been working? What have you been struggling with? What were you trying to accomplish today? Here’s what I saw, what do you think about it? And how do you move forward”. So, it’s very dialogue-based and forward-looking. And then we also put a lot of emphasis on the education community of practice. Even if they’re just two facilitators in the same school who can meet regularly, we want them meeting regularly to talk about how it’s going, what they’re trying, what’s working, what’s not working, how they can improve. And so, these three elements interact so that when an observer of inspector comes to observe a classroom, they can say, “What have you been talking about with your colleagues? What have you been experimenting with? What’s been working, what’s not been working? What can I do to support you”? So, I see those two elements as very critical. And then I’ll just add a third, which is a part that I’ve not spoken about yet, which is the self-help group. So, every mother, or it can be a father occasionally, or some other guardian- every mother of a Speed School child is a member of a self-help group. We train and support the self-help groups around group savings and around income generating activities and social actions that they can take to support their children’s education. And in particular, since we’re working with the poorest of the poor, so that they have the resources necessary the following year, when the children are expected to pay for their materials or buy uniforms, or things like that.
Will Brehm 23:31
There’s a lot there. I want to actually dig a little bit into these facilitators because obviously, many programs that have used “non-teachers” to teach has caused a lot of problems. People have been -you know, teacher unions, for instance, would be very upset about this idea. So, how would you respond? I mean what happens to these facilitators over the years? Do any of them have professional development opportunities? become teachers? Get certified? You know, what does it look like? And how would you respond to that critique that a teacher’s union would most likely make about not relying and supporting a civil service of teachers in a particular country.
Josh Muskin 24:11
It’s not just the unions. And in fact, we’ve never heard from unions, at least not to my knowledge about this. But the ministries and other education authorities are not happy with this arrangement, and at times have pushed us to hire just trained teachers, which we’re happy to do, right. It’s not that we don’t want to train teachers. A couple of years ago, the ministry in Ethiopia and the region said, you can only use our teachers for Speed School. So, we got them to provide us with teachers, we trained the teachers and before the school year even started in most instances, those teachers abandoned Speed School and went to go teach in a conventional classroom. So, we were left with nobody to teach the Speed School classes. So, he had to scramble to go out, redo the training with untrained teachers. In Uganda, it’s a mix. We have both. And a couple of years ago, our research partner in Uganda, the Pincer Group, compared the end of year placement test results for the students of trained teachers versus untrained teachers. The students of the grade 12 untrained teachers far surpass the students of the trained teachers and of the students of university graduates. The university graduates, their students came in second. The trained teachers came in well below both those groups. So, it was a bit embarrassing to go to our partners, and we work very closely with the teacher training college in the north of Uganda -they’ve been vital partners since the very beginning- and say, look at these results. I don’t necessarily know why that happens. I think part of it is that trained teachers think they know what they need to know and do. And they don’t come with the openness to the model that the untrained teachers have, and they suffer as a result. That’s my hypothesis.
Will Brehm 26:15
It’s interesting. I mean, there’s a lot of work on value-added, sort of, measures and looking at teachers and of course, that very measurement can be problematic in many ways. But at the same time, there is something about a professional community of teachers that particularly unions are, it’s all about trying to support the entire body of teachers rather than select few. And so, by fragmenting it, it can be potentially problematic.
Josh Muskin 26:38
We are working in both countries very closely with the teacher training colleges and working both on having them lead on the training of the facilitators and working on how to use the contracting of facilitators and training of them to eventually certify them as formally certified teachers. That’s something that we’re trying very diligently to do.
Will Brehm 27:05
I think what’s so interesting about the Speed School, particularly in Ethiopia is -and in Uganda- it sounds like there’s all these connections with government systems. And so, it’s more than just working in one school, in one classroom with a group of 25 students, it has this sort of web that’s sort of working with all these other institutions that sort of make the system of schooling in these two countries. And I was amazed to find out about Ethiopia that it just started a Speed School unit inside its government. Can you tell, how did that come about?
Josh Muskin 27:37
Yes, in Ethiopia in 2017. So, we started the program in Ethiopia in 2011. In 2017, two of the regional governments said, we want to pay for our own Speed School classes. So, they hired the teachers, bought all the materials, and we trained and supported them, but they implemented. It was a small number, it’s like 35 to 40 classes. This year in Ethiopia, the government is funding and implementing almost 700 Speed School classes. And so, there’s been this progression. And it’s been accompanied by the government taking more and more responsibility for the implementation of the program. So, they started a couple years ago by incorporating Speed School into their 2030 education roadmap and into their education sector development plan number six, at the national level, and at the regional level. Education is very regional in Ethiopia. They have their own curricula, they have their own structures, they fund the classes. So, that began the process. And what I tell my staff is our job now is not to implement speedy school. We’ve proven that it can be done, that it’s effective. Our job now is to accompany the government in making sure it has the capacity to sustain and scale Speed School on its own. And that’s what we’re seeing. In Uganda, we’re taking a different approach because it’s a different political economy. It’s a different structure. So, there, we’re not expecting government to pay for Speed School classes. And actually, in Ethiopia, we didn’t expect it and then we built on that. But in Uganda, we have about two-thirds of the classes that the government is implementing. So, the district education offices have assigned inspectors and cluster coordinating tutors from the teacher training colleges -the primary teacher colleges (PTCs)- to train, supervise and accompany the teachers and we pay the salaries. We pay for the materials and all of those things for the teachers, not for the government agents, but for the teachers. So, we’re going at it from a technical, administrative, or operational perspective in Uganda to start with the idea that eventually, they’ll be able to build it into their budget. In Ethiopia, we’ve begun with the government funding, and now we’re putting much of our effort into supporting them with the institutions and the Speed School Unit at the central ministry. You know, it’s a very exciting start to that process.
Will Brehm 30:16
It’s a really great insight into how development projects work with government when you have, as you said, different political economies. By way of conclusion, I just am curious as to what effect and impact has COVID-19 had on Speed Schooling in Uganda and Ethiopia?
Josh Muskin 30:34
It’s been very different because of a lot of reasons. But the most obvious reason is that COVID hit, in Ethiopia, two-thirds of the way through the school year. In Uganda, COVID hit at the start of the school year because school starts in February in Uganda. So, in Ethiopia, we were very quickly able to go to a home, micro-class strategy, bringing five-six kids together with a teacher for a couple hours a day just to keep the learning going. And also giving the kids the opportunity to do independent study. They were now able to read and do basic calculations so you could support them in that. And then they went back to class the next year. Later, but with the accelerated approach already built into our model, they were able to pick up on that quickly and get through the year better than conventional classes that were still trying to teach the old way, even though they were in a context that required acceleration. In Uganda, we struggled for months to figure out how to get classes, get the kids learning. Because they didn’t even have the ABC yet. So, the idea of giving them materials to learn on their own, we couldn’t do that. The restrictions on movement within the country prevented teachers from doing the micro-classes that we were doing in Ethiopia. So, at a certain point classes opened up again, in Uganda for the transition years. So, we took advantage of that to be able to bring our kids back into class because they were already in small groups and brought them up through the first phase and into the second phase, and then everything shut down again. So, now for about a month and a half, we’ve been doing independent home study. We’ve created a very activity-based learning lesson packets to give to the kids that the facilitators distribute. The kids group in anywhere from two to five or six with a parent who will help supervise. The facilitators go to the different groups for a couple hours every other day or every three days. And we’ve been keeping kids advancing in their learning. And there’s been enormous excitement around this. We’re also talking with the government in Uganda about how they can benefit from the accelerated learning methods. They already have the curricula. So, the accelerated learning strategies that we’ve been using for the return to class for all kids. And we did that last year in Ethiopia, where the government came and put us on their Return to School Committee and said, “Help us bring all kids back to school in an accelerated way”.
Will Brehm 33:26
So, I mean, it’s really quite fascinating to think that some of the learnings of Speed Schooling in these contexts could actually help overcome some of the challenges of COVID-19 going forward. And who knows where we’re going to end up with COVID-19, but it seems like there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from this experience. Josh Muskin, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, it really was a pleasure to talk and best of luck with speed schooling.
Josh Muskin 33:49
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure, Will. Thanks very much.
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