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A Letter to America from Kids Around the World
description description Photo courtesy of Kidogo, Kenya

A Letter to America from Kids Around the World

Global Schools Forum, 12 May 2020
Hi America -

We’re the 1.5 billion kids in 185 countries from around the world who also aren’t in school right now. When social distancing forced our school systems to close overnight, we thought, “Surely American know-how will save the day. What can we learn from our brothers and sisters in the United States?”

But the more we heard about your efforts, the less we felt confident in your ability to provide really big, systemic solutions that could help hundreds of thousands of kids. From what we could tell, it was up to the discretion of small and isolated units like the school or the district to make these decisions. The stories on our social media feeds told us that American kids got instruction in three ways: from the internet, from their parent or guardian, or from pen and paper worksheets. We couldn’t believe it! First off, the internet’s not a solve; 8 million kids — or 14% of the total number of American school-aged kids — don’t even have internet access. We’re not sure how parents and guardians are supposed to be the solution; so many of them don’t have the time. And, it’s not like parents and guardians are trained teachers; what do we expect them to do? And pen and pencil worksheets? I just can’t, America. Wasn’t that how that little girl learned about 150 years ago? The one who lived on the prairie? That can’t be the best you’ve got.

So, after our initial disappointment, we looked around to see how kids in other countries were learning. Sure enough, we found a couple of solutions; one in West Africa and one in Pakistan. And, even better, we think both of these solutions could help lots of American kids to learn, too.

50,000 students in Sierra Leone and Liberia are part of the Rising Academy Network, and they’re learning via the radio. Even better, grown-ups who work in schools around the world can download, edit, adapt and record those lessons to match their local contexts. As a result, kids right now in Zambia, India, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda are able to access these lessons. In Pakistan, The Citizens’ Foundation teaches 220,000 students who do not have access to the internet. TCF students learn via television. Both Rising Academy’s adoption of radio and TCF’s use of TV can be easily implemented in the US. And, just as transferable, are the common-sense principles they apply to their decision-making and implementation of these solutions.

Student engagement in learning is the priority right now. Both Rising Academy and TCF know there is a difference between student engagement and student learning. Their decision to implement their respective approaches is driven by the clear and present threat posed by shelter-in-place: the longer students are not in school, then the higher the risk they are of disengaging from the learning process.

While the caregiver at home plays a critical role to support learning, they are neither asked nor expected to be the primary driver of instruction. Rising Academy and TCF recognize that parent and caregiver involvement will strengthen the instructional content, and that family members are a helpful support to ensure their children listen to or watch the program. Both networks provide accompanying materials –SMS texts and interactive worksheets — which require the support of the adults at home.

Partnerships are essential right now. And, the partners are not the usual suspects. TCF and Rising Academy quickly recognized that the current construct of “school” — a brick and mortar building filled with people helping kids — is an unsuitable vehicle to transmit instruction during COVID-19. They went one step further and recognized they needed partners who could help them deliver instruction in a new way. They reached out and collaborated with governments which, in turn, accessed television and radio stations which had the tools and technology to transmit instruction to lots of students.

Rising Academy and TCF’s respective approaches match their contexts and settings. Both networks have a deep understanding of their regional contexts, and their mediums of instruction are accessible by students living there. In the American context, where 96.1% of American households have a TV, television is an accessible medium for lots of American kids.

America, tens of millions of kids will continue to experience the effects of COVID-19 on their education for the foreseeable future. You’ve got quite an opportunity to learn from your counterparts who possess wisdom and experience about what it takes to educate large numbers of kids in places characterized by inequity and crisis.

We hope you seize the opportunity, America, for our 57 million American school-aged friends.


Kids from around the world

Morty Ballen Programme Director of GSF, he joined the GSF team in August 2019. Prior to this role, Morty was the Founder and CEO of Explore Schools, a network of public charter schools in central Brooklyn, New York. Morty started his career as an English Language Arts teacher, teaching in Louisiana, South Africa and New York City. In 2002, he founded Explore Charter School with the mission of providing its students with the academic skills and critical-thinking abilities they need to succeed in a college-preparatory high school. Morty led Explore Charter’s expansion efforts to establish Explore Schools which today serves 2,000 low-income students in 8 schools. Since Explore’s inception, over 1,000 graduates have matriculated into college-prep high schools.

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