Guest blog post: Erin Raab

erinFor a while now I’ve been meaning to ask a few people who I know if they’d like to do a guest blog post on something they’re interested in. While I was at Stanford earlier this year I met Erin Raab in David Labaree’s course “A History of School Reform in the US” (which is a great course). Erin is currently doing her PhD at Stanford in the Graduate School of Education where she’s trying to answer the following question: “How might we might re-envision, re-design, and transform our schooling system so that it empowers teachers and students as positive changemakers, in their own lives and in their communities?”
Prior to Stanford she worked in international educational development, including five years in Durban where she completed her Master’s in Development Studies (cum laude) as a Rotary Scholar. She also founded the KwaNdengezi Education Centre which serves 8000 learners in 9 schools, and worked with the Department of Basic Education as a Senior Researcher for MIET Africa on SADC’s program Care and Support for Teaching and Learning.
After realising that we both loved James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” (which is an absolute must-read for everyone interested in anything ever) I asked her to make a list of other influential books/articles/videos. This is what she sent :)
**-  Allen Article by Danielle Allen (political philosophy) on disentangling the relationship between equality & education – she really helped clarify links I was struggling with.
**-  Aukerman, Lyle Articles on Dialogic Pedagogy  – I think this way of thinking about understanding learning (combined with socio-cultural ways of thinking about it) is key, really fundamental, somehow
–  Boyce & HertzmanArticle on how our environments affect us at the genetic level attached — This FASCINATES me…I think it’s important to think about how this is all really affecting us…not just psychologically but physiologically….it’s related to Nadine Burke Harris’ talk in a way.
–  GehlbachArticle on why social psychology might be important for educators to consider
Some books that have been influential:

**- Seeing Like a State – Scott – a lens for analyzing the failure of big social engineering schemes of the 20th century & a useful framework for exploring the design and impact of a more varied array of smaller social reforms (or attempts at social reform).  I attached the reaction paper I wrote on it.
**-  KahnemanThinking Fast & Slow – This book blows my mind.  Looks at how the brain works and “the psychological basis for reactions, judgments, recognition, choices, conclusions, and much more”.  I’m halfway through.
**-  Capra & LuisiA Systems View of Life – Another one I’m working on in bits and pieces and am about halfway through because it’s mindblowing.  Starts with an overview of the history of scientific thought and how we’ve gone back and forth between believing we can boil things down to their smallest parts and then understand them, vs. the view that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  I got into it as I started thinking that the answer had to lie in shifting the whole system — which meant considering how systems work and systems theory.
**-  Asch – Social Psychology – he’s one of the fathers of social psychology and, while dense, his book touches on so many core aspects of what humans need to flourish.
*-  Why We Do What We Do (by Deci) – precursor to Daniel Pink’s book Drive — about our three core human psychological needs – essential to considering intrinsic motivation.
* – Foucault – Discipline & Punish – A number of things stick with me, in particular about how we’ve made the punishment for “crime” to be separated from society and invisible.  I also think much of it relates to how we think about schooling & behavior.  Deleuze’s book “Foucault” is also a great accessible interpretation.
* – MarxDas Kapital – I haven’t read the whole thing, but the chapters I have read from the first volume blew my mind. If you haven’t read him at all, it seems important, especially for an economist :)
*-  LS Vygotsky & Education – Moll – — socio-cultural approaches to learning that I think are more representative of how we actually learn than traditional conceptualizations.  Relatively easy introduction to the ideas
*-  Scarcity – Mullanaithan — effects of scarcity mindset on people – — (I think this book and Daring Greatly & Deci & Soul of Money get at some of the core ways we are affected by our culture, but blame it on individuals).
*-  Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Freire – classic, amazing.
*-  Daring Greatly – Brown – I keep thinking about the role of shame in our organizations vs. wholeheartedness (also great for thinking about our own wholeheartedness :) ).
*-  Soul of Money – Twist – Interesting look at interaction b/w cultural & individual relationships with money.
–  Flourish – Seligman – framework from positive psychology about what “flourishing” might mean.
–  Creative Confidence – Kelley – By the originators of design thinking.
–  The Price of Inequality – Stiglitz – looks at the political and social costs of inequality – rooted in the U.S. but perhaps even more applicable in SA.
–  The New Jim Crow – Alexander – unrelated to education, per se, but it really affected me and I’d like to write a similar kind of expose book looking at the system of education. 

Interesting Videos
–  Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk – schools kill creativity

–  Nadine Burke Harris’ Ted Talk – effects of toxic stress

–  Story of Stuff Mini-movie – we should make one like this about ed!

–  Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk – the original why/how/what :)

–  Tony Robbins’ Ted Talk –  framework for thinking about motivation/psychological needs, I think he pulls from Deci a good deal

–  Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk – happiness advantage (basically, I just like this one ;o …and I think he has a good critique of methodologies that focus on the mean)



I’m always fascinated to know about the books/articles/movies/experiences that influence the way people see the world, themselves and each other. If you’d like to share yours please include links in the comments section below :)

My Child Gauge 2015 Chapter (PDF)

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 1.47.20 PM

This week marks the launch of the 2015 Child Gauge with this year’s theme being “Youth and the intergenerational transmission of poverty.’ I wrote the education chapter titled Schooling in South Africa: How low-quality education becomes a poverty trap. The above flow-chart summarises the research in a single poster and shows how an unequal schooling system and an unequal labour-market perpetuate each other in South Africa such that low quality education becomes a poverty trap.

I would also recommend reading the Youth Matters bulletin. An excerpt:

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 1.50.56 PM

Links I liked…


  • I attended the “Thinking Big about Learning” event at Stanford last month. I would strongly recommend watching the talks by Doorley on the future of the university and Wojcicki on student-driven learning using media. If you’ve never heard Carol Dweck before then watch her video, but if you have then skip it – it’s the same flipping thing she’s been saying for 15 years. But the concept of a growth mindset is important enough to give her a free-pass to everything for life! Carl Wieman’s talk was also great.
  • My @Powerfm987 interview on the Child Gauge 2015 where we spoke about education, reading by age 10, school fees and inequality, teacher training, priorities and whether or not government is working with researchers in education (short answer: yes, but probably not enough).
  • Last year Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton gave a lecture at LSE “A Menagerie of Lines: How to Decide Who is Poor?
  • Megan Beckett‘s beautiful concept maps showing how “Life and Living” concepts fit together across the Grade 4-9 science curriculum.
  • Corruption Watch releases report on money mismanagement in South African schools. Sigh.
  • How much inequality is reduced by progressive taxation and government spending in SA?” – useful to get some stats on the table! the gist of it
    • “Through progressive taxation and pro-poor social spending, the SA fiscal system reduces income inequality significantly. The extent of this reduction is larger than in twelve comparable middle-income countries measured similarly. Nevertheless, ‘final’ income (i.e. income after major taxes, government transfers and spending) remains more unequal than in comparator countries. While the fiscal system has an important role to play in reducing inequality, interventions to improve the distribution of wages, salaries and capital income are needed”
  • I came across an important SA company, Advantage Learn which offers teaching videos for Grade 10, 11 and 12 in maths, science and NBTs. I know James and Crispian personally and have some friends that were taught by Trish and rave about her teaching. Looking forward to exploring this further in December…
  • MIT PHD student Dan De Kadt has a new paper on service delivery and voting behaviour, finding the opposite of what one would expect: “Studying southern African democracies, where infrastructural investment in basic services has expanded widely but not universally, we find a surprising answer to this question: Voters who receive services are less likely to support the incumbent.” (It’s a pretty small world in SA – Dan and his team at Glenwood were our main debate rivals in high school!)
  • Some links from Mike Youngblood who taught one of the courses I took at Stanford.

“Here’s a few quick resources for you. Some are coming from more of a design perspective, others from more of an anthropological perspective – but they’re all talking about the intersection between the two.

  • Fulton Suri, Jane. “Poetic Observation: What Designers Make of What They See” in Design Anthropology (Springer, 2011) pages 16-32.
  • Salvador, Tony et al. “Design Ethnography” in Design Management Journal (Fall 1999) pp 35-41.

How #FeesMustFall relates to SA schooling – my Sunday Times article

money ed

[Below is the full and slightly extended text of my Sunday Times article awkwardly titled “While the rich get education, SA’s poor get just ‘schooling’” [8/11/2015]

Looking back on the last 30 days in South Africa you cannot help but conclude that the issue of university exclusion on financial grounds has struck a nerve in the national psyche. There are not many issues in our country where there is universal consensus across issues of race or class, and yet this is one of them.

Deserving students should not be excluded from university because their parents cannot afford the fees. This is unjust, unsustainable and unacceptable as almost everyone now agrees. How we will pay for this is another story – and one that deserves attention – but we all agree that rationing access to limited university positions cannot be based primarily on parental income. Yet, this is exactly what happens in South African schools.

If you can afford to send your child to a former Model-C school or a private school, there is no question about it, you do! I am willing to bet (and AfricaCheck please follow up on this) that there is not a single member of Parliament who sends their child to a no-fee school in our country. Not one. It is an unspoken truth that no-fee schools are for the poor and ‘good’ schools are for the rich. To put this in context, no-fee schools make up the vast majority ranging from 66% to 88%* of schools (depending on if you ask students or principals respectively), and almost all of them are dysfunctional in that they do not impart to students the necessary knowledge, skills and values needed to succeed in life. There are at least 10 different independently conducted nationally-representative surveys attesting to this.

The problem here is two-fold: (1) Most parents cannot afford the fees at these schools since they are frequently as high as university fees (R31,500 per year), and (2) there are very limited places in these schools. Of the 25,741 schools in South Africa only 1,135 are former Model-C schools and 1,681 are independent (private) schools. Put together that accounts for only 11% of total schools. Even if we abolished fees in all these schools – and I’m not sure that is the way to go – you cannot fit 12 million children into 2,816 schools!

I completely agree that a system where access to quality schooling is almost exclusively a function of parental wealth (i.e. our current system) is unjust and must change. But purely from a numbers perspective we simply have to find ways of improving the quality of the 88% of schools that are already no-fee. Thinking about South African schooling as a zero-sum game where there is fixed number of ‘good’ schools will not get us very far.

Why do we have fees?

The reason why we have public schools that charge fees is that policy-makers at the time of the transition were afraid (probably correctly) that if they abolished fees in public schools, all white teachers and white students would go to private schools and we would be stuck with mostly white private schools and exclusively black public schools. Allowing these former white-only schools to charge fees was the trade-off for preventing that outcome. To try and prevent a system that was split entirely on ability to pay, the Constitution declares that no child can be denied admission to a school because his/her parents cannot pay fees.

Yet this is exactly what happens in the majority of cases. How is it that the majority of fee-charging schools manage to maintain a student body drawn primarily from that small subset of the population that can pay fees? Presumably by excluding the ones that can’t pay fees, in formal and informal ways. After speaking to some of the principals of these schools – many of whom are incredibly dedicated and committed to social transformation, I am not under any illusion that there is a simple answer to this or that these are not well-meaning individuals who are trying to maintain a high-quality of education on a very tight budget. Yet the reality remains – . The rich get access to universities and well-paying jobs while the poor get menial jobs, intermittent work or long-term unemployment.

According to the Quarterly Labour-Force Survey of 2014 the South African labour market can be split into four groups with the proportion of the working age population in each group included in brackets:

  • Unemployed (broad definition, 35%),
  • Unskilled (domestic workers and elementary occupations; 18%)
  • Semi-skilled (Clerks, service-workers, shop personnel etc.; 32%)
  • Highly-skilled (Legislators, managers, associated professionals; 15%)

The tragic reality in South Africa is that if your parents are in the ‘top’ part of the labour market (the 15%) then you send your children to the ‘top’ part of the schooling system (which charges fees). That gives your children access to university and to that same ‘top’ part of the labour market that you are currently in. If you are in the ‘bottom’ part of the labour-market (the 85%) then the only schools that you can afford and that are available are the second-tier no-fee schools. However, these schools are of an extremely low quality and the only way to get access to university is in spite of them (with a dedicated teacher or an extremely hard-working student) not because of them. In fact grade 8 students attending fee-charging schools (quintile 5) are two to four times more likely to qualify for university than those attending no-fee schools (quintiles 1-4).

Yes there are exceptions to all of the above. Fee-charging schools do admit some students (perhaps 10-15%) that cannot pay fees, and some that pay partial fees. They also offer scholarships and bursaries. Similarly there are some extremely poor no-fee schools that succeed in spite of the odds – often because of a resilient principal. Yet these are exceptions to the rule or apply only to a small minority.

While the education crisis that South Africa finds itself in has its roots in the apartheid regime of institutionalized inequality, this fact does not absolve the current administration from its responsibility to provide a quality education to every child in South Africa not only the rich. After 21 years of democratic rule most Black children continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm, not the exception. This substandard education does not develop their capabilities or expand their economic opportunities, but instead denies them dignified employment and undermines their own sense of self-worth.

In short, poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their own motivation or ability. Until such a time as the Department of Basic Education and the ruling administration are willing to seriously address the underlying issues in education, at whatever political or economic cost, the existing patterns of underperformance and inequality will remain unabated.

*The 88% figure is calculated using the 2015 Q1 DBE Masterlist and only counting as ‘fee-paying’ those schools that were categorised as “No” for ‘NoFeeSchool’. It is not clear what the fee status is of the schools that are currently listed as “To Be Updated” and “Not Applicable”. For conservative estimates I would go with 66% from the Action Plan (see pg50 here). The figures for the number of ex-Model C schools were also taken from the 2015 Masterlist – see “ExDept”. 


Dr Nic Spaull, from the Research on Socio-Economic Policy group at Stellenbosch University, is a contributor to the South African Child Gauge 2015, which focuses on youth and the intergenerational transmission of poverty. The publication was/will be released this week by the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town and is available on

  • My @Powerfm987 interview on the Child Gauge 2015 where we spoke about education, reading by age 10, school fees and inequality, teacher training, priorities and whether or not government is working with researchers in education (short answer: yes, but probably not enough)

Links I liked :)


  • Nice interview with Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton on Randomized Control Trials and the future of development economics (via Gareth Roberts). Deaton’s book is in my top three list of next books to read. An excerpt from the interview:

TO: Do you think there are promising leads in abolishing world poverty
AD: From RCTs?
TO: From anywhere.
AD: I know what I think which is that we should be thinking much more about politics than about micro-detailed studies. So I’m basically in the same boat as Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson.

  • Great source of “For” and “Against” arguments for the “Top 100 Debates
  • Two new (2015) books published by UNESCO: “Investing against evidence: the global state of early childhood care and education” and “Mobile phones & literacy: empowerment in women’s hands; a cross-case analysis of nine experiences
  • EdNext interview with U-Mich’s David Cohen on “Teaching and its Predicaments” – I was interested to hear that he thinks that charter networks could have a large positive impact, and also discusses the possibility of technology, reaffirming the usual refrain: “Technology is no better than the people that use it
  • Nice list of course outlines/readings for those interested in political communication, propaganda, media etc. See Stanford’s “Political Communication Lab
  • Stanford’s Design-School has quite a cool handout “Interview for Empathy” and “Empathy Map
  • One of the people I’ve met here works at the AltSchool in Palo Alto or san Francisco (I can’t remember). This sounds like a pretty fascinating school that’s rethinking how to ‘do’ school. Check out the videos here. It is also $20,000/year and part of a for-profit company.
  • What looks like a cool Stanford course: “Building Innovative Brands
  • Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson discusses “The Politics of a Post-Jobs Economy” and highlights the case of cash transfers in South Africa. Here’s the bio: “Most of the left’s politics for most of the last century and a half have been framed around the idea that the principle way we get money is that we work: we trade our labor to businesses that need it. But what happens if we re-think the way we distribute money, and it isn’t about work anymore . . . it’s about your rights as a citizen to a share of the value that the economy’s producing? We’ll discuss the places where this is actually happening, and what it means for our economics and our politics”
  • My kind of fashion blog –

Courses and readings at Stanford


While I’m at Stanford I’ve decided to audit a bunch of courses, some related to education and some not at all. There are two main reasons for doing so: (1) I’ve always been fascinated in the topics that they cover (propaganda, school reform, history, experimental evaluation), and (2) I’m interested to see how Stanford professors ‘run’ their courses (What level do they teach at? What methods do they use? How involved are students? What are the expectations of students and faculty?).

When I get a gap and feel inspired to do so I want to blog about some of these experiences. So far my initial impressions are that they prescribe and expect a lot more readings per week than a typical South African course (typically 4-6 readings per course per week). The fact that they have four quarters (instead of two semesters) means that students generally do more courses per year and that they try and cover quite a lot of content in a short space of time.

One of the courses I’m taking is the “History of School Reform in the United States” by Prof David Labaree. So far this has been a fascinating course and I would encourage anyone interested in education to read through the outline here. I want to briefly discuss three of the readings from this course that I’ve read so far.

(1) Elmore, Richard F., & McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1988).  Steady work.  Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

This is a long but interesting article on school reform in the US. They make the useful distinction between Policy, Administration and Practice and talk about the interplay between these different players. They argue that there are only three ways you can reform education: (1) change professionals’ views of effective practice; (2) change administrators’ perceptions of how to manage competing demands; (3) change elected officials’ views of what citizens demand (p10). They also have a fascinating insight that trying to change the social practice of teaching is like trying to change language use:

“In reality, reform is more like the process of introducing changes into a language. Language is independent of our attempts to change it. Some attempts to change usage ‘take’, others don’t. Official language (read policy) is often quite different from actual usage (read administration and practice). Actual usage varies considerably from one area to another, often to the point where people from different regions have difficulties in understanding one another. Over time, though, languages change dramatically, as we see, for example, when we contrast Elizabethan English with modern American English. These changes result not just from explicit reforms (the King James Bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, Fowler’s Modern English Usage), but also from individual, local, regional, and national changes in patterns of speech. We don’t simply wake up one morning and begin speaking a different version of the language because the government of New York Times says we should. We change the way we speak by adapting everyday usage to signals from various sources about what good language is. Similarly, education practice goes on daily in thousands of classrooms and schools without the guidance of policymakers or reformers. Patterns of practice vary among individuals, localities, regions, and whole nations. Occasionally we try to introduce changes in this practice by changing policy and administration. Often, we cause dramatic changes to take place over long periods of time. But at any given time, the effects of specific changes are much like the effects of specific attempts to reform language – diffuse, uncertain, and variable” (p13).

And in a similar vein, quoting March:

“Diffuse systems change generally as a consequence of the spread or contagion of knowledge and beliefs, or of broad systems of incentives, much the way fashions in clothing spread through a population of loosely connected customers” (March) (p7).

(2) Cohen, David K. (1988). Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan

I found this paper absolutely enthralling and felt like a totally new approach to doing educational research. Cohen bridges psychology, sociology and education to try and explain teaching practice in America. He provides the psycho-analytic micro-foundations for what we see in American teaching. He makes the argument that how teachers define knowledge (narrowly) and how they choose to teach (conservatively) are rational risk-reduction strategies in the face of uncertainty and dependence. Cohen further argues that these behaviours are compounded by the fact that the ‘usual’ protections found in similar professions are absent in teaching.

Like every other practice of human improvement, school teaching is an impossible profession. But unlike all the others, the social circumstances of school teaching tend to strip practitioners of the protections that help make practice manageable for most therapists, university professors, organizational consultants, and others” (p72).

David Cohen is currently at the University of Michigan, which looks like it has a great school of education. Here is a course that he co-taught with Deborah-ball (of maths research fame): “Social Foundations of Education

(3) Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

This is an insightful, if tragic, article about how many schools perform ritualistic functions to ensure that they (and others) see their school as a ‘Real School,’ even if this means that actions, programmes, structures etc. are totally inappropriate. I have often wondered how it is that school kids in South Africa can go to school for 5 years and learn next to nothing in mathematics or language (as measured by tests). But if you think of the other functions that schools serve – as socially-mandated places where children go during the day, as socialisation structures, as ‘normal’, etc. it becomes more understandable why there is no mass revolt. Read the paragraph below, and ideally the whole article – it is especially relevant to South Africa!

“As we watched the schools in daily action, and talked with the actors who gave them life, it seemed that the schools were following a common script. The stages were roughly similar, though the scenery varied significantly. The roles were similarly defined and the outline of the plot was supposed to be the same. But the actors took great liberties with the play. They interpreted the motivations and purposes of the characters whose roles they took with striking variation. They changed the entrances and exits. Sometimes, they left before the last act. The outlines of the plot took on changing significance with the actors’ varied interpretation of their roles. Directors had limited control over their actors; only a few were able to get the actors to perform as an ensemble that would enact the director’s conception of the play. Directors often had to make the best of the qualities the actors brought to their roles and to interpret the play consistently with the players’ abilities and intentions.

“Just the same the script was there, and the play was in some sense recognisable as the same play in all the schools. More important, the script was extremely important to some of the actors and some of the audiences. In fact, it was where the production was hardest to coordinate and perhaps least easily recognizable as the same play that was being produced at schools where action meshed more smoothly, that the school’s staffs were the most insistent and that their production followed the script for “The American High School”, varying from others only in details” (p76).

Reading to some purpose


  • If I had to recommend one book that could change the way you view the world, “Seeing Like a State” would be it. Sociology, Political Science, History and Economics all wrapped into one compelling explanation of the world that we see. Taking a month off to digest this would be an excellent use of almost anyone’s time IMHO.
  • Fascinating LRB article reviewing “Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.” Another amazing LRB article shows a breadth of knowledge that is absolutely astounding. From Weber and Durkheim to Israel, Gorbachev and Confucianism. A long but satisfying read!
  • Social Foundations of Education” 2011 University of Michigan course outline by Ball and Cohen. Looks like an incredible course.
  • Word of the week: ‘Nomenklatura‘ “a select list or class of people from which appointees for top-level government positions are drawn, especially from a Communist Party”
  • Important new (2015) research article “Teacher Supply in South Africa: A Focus on Initial Teacher Education Graduate Production” by RESEP’s Hendrik van Broekhuizen. Exhaustive. Meticulous. Important. My take home point is that we win or lose the initial teacher education battle with UNISA!
  • Dr Linda Zuze writes an interesting article “Desperate to be Digital” where she unpacks a demand from COSAS “We must get tablets just like the Chinese students.” Also  see the BBC article “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, say OECD.” I am a little wary of these bivariate scatter-plot type comparisons of countries that do well and also a bunch of other things and then saying that those things cause the good performance, but nevertheless an interesting article.
  • There’s a new book by Hanushek and Woessman (2015) titled “The Knowledge Capital of Nations” – see Lant Pritchett’s review here (thanks Elbie!)
  • “Is our determination to achieve excellence in reading skills in our children killing their love and enjoyment of a good book?” This is the question asked by Ryan Spencer in his article “Reading teaching in schools can kill a love of books” (via Lilli Pretorius). Also see this article by Donalyn Miller titled “Cultivating Wild Readers” (via Sarah Murray)
  • An article from a month ago on DBE-SADTU relations by Leanne Jansen that some might of missed: “Motshekga said Sadtu was “more bullish” in the Eastern Cape because of the “culture of chaos” in that province, and within its education department. “Corruption plays a major role in destabilising the sector. Structures like Sadtu don’t create problems for the sake of creating problems. “It’s about patronage, access to government tenders … It’s deeper than being disruptive for the sake of being disruptive … It is leadership in provincial education departments to a large extent. There is Sadtu in the Western Cape, why is it not behaving the way it is behaving in the Eastern Cape?
  • Corrupting Learning: Evidence from Missing Federal Education Funds in Brazil” -via John Aitchison