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Four Key Elements for

Successful Education Systems Change

How to plot a promising path for philanthropy in education

For centuries, one major way wealthy individuals and corporations have invested in society has been by generously supporting education. The benefits to individual schools, children, neighborhoods, and other narrowly targeted groups globally are hard to deny. Building a new library, establishing and operating high-performing schools, funding a district-wide music and arts program, or paying for the college attendance of children from disadvantaged neighborhoods or supporting them in myriad other ways are clearly all good things to do.

Recently, major philanthropists in the U.S. and internationally have demonstrated an appetite to move beyond such targeted interventions, aspiring instead to influence the quality and relevance of education system-wide. Though a valiant ambition (and one Geneva Global whole-heartedly supports as systems entrepreneurs ourselves), the results of the associated efforts have offered mixed results.

One challenge evoked in a recent New York Times article is the frequent desire to “fix” education largely by applying core business principles and practices, including a focus on results, accountability, and competition. This is an understandable motivation given that philanthropists generally earn their wealth in the private sector. Yet, as the New York Times concludes in a different piece, such philanthropic initiatives overlook the vital and “nuanced requirements of applying these principles to the education ecosystem generally.”

Looking at both the research and my own experience, the funded initiatives I have found to be most successful in creating systems-wide change in education are those that take fully into account the highly complex and context-sensitive nature of the education environment. They reflect how vital it is to engage all actors and factors to mobilize the requisite knowledge, buy-in, resources, decisions, and synergies for success.

Furthermore, when embarking on philanthropic education initiatives, funders and systems alike must be mindful that what may work in one specific school or group of schools may not translate to other schools even across town, much less across the state or country. Rather, successful funders consider the varied needs and circumstances of each community, and adapt to these particular conditions.

As philanthropists and other private investors continue to seek to play active roles in education system change, it is essential to respect the following four crucial elements when developing and implementing a strategy.

1. Each context is unique, so solutions must be also

No matter how much one might hope, the invention of a unitary better “solution” will not transform a system. For one, education simply has too many working parts, each of which affects the others. Furthermore, not all of the essential parts of a solution fall within the education domain.

Motivating teachers with bonuses (or sanctions) alone, for example, may somehow yield more inspired and skilled instruction. However, if children are coming to school under-nourished, school infrastructure is failing, or an aggressive testing regime is narrowing the curriculum, even the most expert instruction often ends up severely hamstrung.

Two, context matters critically in education, and the factors that form the context are numerous. These factors include each teacher, school, and child along with the child’s parents and community, among many more. What may work with one teacher in one school with one group of students is unlikely to work the same way and with the same results in all settings.

Education research and policy seem increasingly to focus on evidence, aiming to demonstrate “what works.” However, in my work both domestically and internationally, I have found that even if a new model or technology succeeds in one place, no matter how magnificently, there is no guarantee it will work the same in all contexts. (I develop this argument in more depth in my chapter in the upcoming book The Practice of International Development, edited by Keilson and Gubser.)

As a philanthropist, then, whether aiming to change individual lives or a whole system’s impact on the lives of all its students, it is essential to remember that there is no “silver bullet” solution. Rather, bringing positive change across an education system requires letting all the key actors adapt any innovation (and to innovate afresh) to accommodate the conditions, resources, motivations, and other factors that make each school and classroom setting unique. Philanthropists’ investments will optimally include ideas, money, and other resources that will let many flowers bloom across the vast landscape of an education system.

2. Evidence should illuminate paths to proceed

It is critically important to assess student learning and school performance. All certainly want and need to know that their investments in education are equipping children and youth for life and livelihood and for serving society’s needs.

However, the “assessment for accountability” formula that often leads education authorities and society to blame teachers, schools, and/or systems alone for failure is neither reasonable nor useful. As Australia has shown with its My School initiative, student success depends not just on the quality of teaching and schools but also on the socio-economic and other characteristics of the communities in which students live.

The accountability formula also often falsely presumes that it is measuring students’ readiness for the workforce and life. Reading and math are undoubtedly necessary skills for graduates to have. However, as I often hear employers and civic leaders assert, these skills are far from sufficient. For one, students must know how to use their academic skills capably to communicate, calculate, solve problems, and so on. They must also possess the full battery of 21st century skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking, grit, and creativity; something Geneva Global helps Ethiopian and Ugandan students develop through the Speed School program we’re running for clients.

Speed School students in Ethiopia working on a project together.


Unfortunately, the use of assessment to hold teachers and schools alone accountable for results has proven to undermine critical learning in many ways. It narrows what is taught and banishes topics and methods of instruction that contribute best to the cultivation of these modern skills. Instead, it often focuses teachers on the middle range of students who are most likely to raise the class average, and only minimally informs the many decisions and actions taken by actors outside of the education sector that are vital to student empowerment and success.

What we need instead is assessment that permits and encourages educators to appraise learning across the full range of competencies. Furthermore, such assessment should do so in ways which both identify what learning is and is not occurring—for individuals, for classrooms, for schools, and for full systems—and that guides deliberate and strategic actions by all stakeholders to yield improved results.

In creating their own program evaluation indicators and strategies, philanthropists can contribute greatly to systems change by embracing comprehensive assessment that captures learning that pertains to the “whole child” and also serves to inform the actions and decisions of all stakeholders holistically.

3. Teachers are vital to any education solution

Helping teachers and schools to understand how well their students are doing by providing test results is unquestionably indispensable. Yet, the idea that we must “fix” teachers or that we can “teacher-proof” education to improve results is neither reasonable nor helpful.

When investing in education, one must see teachers as vital to any solution, not view them as the problem. Teachers are the only ones who truly understand what combination of factors affect students’ learning the most. In the same vein, they are uniquely equipped to understand how to manage these factors and actually to do so.

Like Santa Claus, they know which of their students has been sleeping and which has not, which is struggling because of problems at home, which due to academic reasons, and which to others. Unlike Father Christmas, they are with their students a majority of their waking lives and manage directly all the inputs a system provides to yield quality learning.

Including teachers as full and active partners in setting the goals of a philanthropic initiative as well as in its design, planning, implementation, and even evaluation should yield great dividends. As Mark Gleason, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, recently told a private delegation Geneva Global hosted from Detroit, all systems change in education ultimately must understand that schools—embodied in their teachers—are the key unit of change.

4. An “all hands on deck” attitude and approach is essential for success

Aiming to do good for a student, groups of students, or a school, a philanthropist can reasonably operate relatively alone; though, even here, allies usually prove important. One may, for example, pay college tuition for a group of disadvantaged students, but a whole network of support will be necessary for most of these youth to succeed and persist in their university studies.

The desire to have a systemic impact, however, requires absolutely that all concerned stakeholders be involved. This includes decision-makers and other actors at all levels of the education system—especially teachers—as well as parents and the broader community actors.

Consultation, coordination, and even full collaboration with all stakeholders are necessary for a few reasons. For one, there is the simple fact that whatever a philanthropist contributes, it will virtually always pale next to the overall education budget. Two, a philanthropist may pilot and prove a great innovation, but in order to scale and sustain the idea, it will require the system and its full set of partners. This means at a minimum that the system understands and is fully committed to the innovation and that it has the technical and financial means to carry it on.

Conversely, one must galvanize any intervention against the inevitable detractors. In education, this often means most essentially bringing teachers and parents into the process. While these actors should be the greatest assets in innovation, if excluded from the design and other key decisions, they can—often properly—pose the greatest obstacles. Undeniably this demands a longer, more complex endeavor, but with these vital actors on board, the prospects for smooth sailing are infinitely greater. As the African proverb goes: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.

Global experience shows that philanthropic investment can contribute to education in many promising ways. Schools and systems alike can clearly benefit from philanthropic giving, deriving advantage not just from financial contributions but also from both the many intellectual and the networking assets philanthropists can offer. To strengthen education delivery and outcomes in any system, it is critical to keep at the forefront of one’s mind that such gains are not guaranteed. The four elements above will hopefully serve as a guide to many who choose to embark on such a journey.