I come to grind the grain, not break the grinding stone.

A few months ago, a member of Elevate’s board of technical advisors came into the office to discuss our teacher training harmonization program. We were preparing to present the program to a panel of government stakeholders and development partners later in the week. In preparation, we had been meeting with technical experts, teacher trainers, other organizations working in education, and the government to fine-tune the project model and ensure that they were fully meeting the needs of everyone who would be impacted by their program. “I tend to speak in many African proverbs,” the advisor told them. “This is one my mother used – I come to grind the grain, not to break the grinding stone.”

When I was interviewing for summer placements, one of the first questions I asked was, “Can you tell me about the way that your organization involves local stakeholders in the project cycle?” I came to Elevate because I thought they had the best answer to that question. I’m paraphrasing, but they said something to the tune of, “Everything we do at this organization is in response to and driven by the needs identified by people within Uganda’s education system.  We are not trying to overhaul the system or claim we have developed the perfect solution to Uganda’s education challenges. We are simply trying to fill the capacity gaps to make the system, as it stands, work for everyone involved.” They came to grind the grain, not to break the grinding stone.

What does “grinding grain” look like in practice? Let’s look at the organization’s largest program – Village TEACH. This is a participatory scorecard program for building accountability back into the primary education system. With the implementation of Uganda’s Universal Primary Education policy in 1997, many parents started to feel that schools were no longer attentive to their opinions because they were no longer the primary funders of their children’s educations. This has resulted in parent disengagement with the school system and a disruption of the traditional accountability mechanisms that influenced school quality. Under the Village TEACH model, teachers, students, parents, and other community members can come together to identify challenges in their schools, develop action plans to address those challenges, and continuously monitor the school’s progress in addressing them. Scorecard models have shown tremendous success in other service-delivery situations, including an RCT conducted in Ugandan schools in 2011 which found that the introduction of a scorecard resulted in a significant reduction in pupil and teacher absenteeism, and improvements in test scores. So far, Village TEACH is functioning in 50 schools in Uganda’s Mukono District and they are planning to scale up at the beginning of next year with an adjusted model which I am helping to develop this summer.

Since my arrival, most of my work has centered on preparing for the Village TEACH rollout in 2020. I started day one with compiling, cleaning, and analyzing the data that Elevate collected on the program during the 2018 school year. These data included facilitator notes, meeting minutes, parent interviews, school observations, conversations with Head Teachers – the list goes on. My goal was to take all this information and put it in a digestible format for us to start drawing conclusions about what worked and what did not work about the program. The sheer mass of information that Elevate collected made it immediately clear just how much consultation they had done with everyone in the education hierarchy to develop this program. Even as we finalize the new structure with all the feedback from last year in mind, we are still holding meetings with parents, teachers, and community leaders who are currently running the Village TEACH model in its initial form to get their insight on our proposed alterations, such as restructuring the composition of the scorecard oversight committee to give greater voice to parents and students rather than teaching staff and school management.  We are verifying, checking, and questioning everything to make sure it aligns with what our community partners want from the program.

The other program that Elevate is developing is a mobile tool for in-service teacher training. Uganda’s program for in-service teacher training has a great deal of potential as to improve the quality of teaching and learning in the country. High-performing teachers in primary schools are given the opportunity to move into positions of leadership at Primary Teacher Colleges (PTCs) where they can either tutor pre-service teachers or become a Coordinating Center Tutor (CCT) in the field. CCTs are responsible for overseeing and supporting in-service teachers within their catchment areas through direct observations, continuous professional development, community mobilization, counseling, and resource development. However, the in-service teacher training system is not functioning to its full capacity in Uganda. This is due to a lack of direct oversight of CCTs, a proliferation in the number responsibilities each CCT has, and a poor monitoring and evaluation system to keep track of the data CCTs are collecting from schools that could help them respond to system-level needs. In Elevate’s meetings with education stakeholders, these issues came up again and again.

To enhance this potentially strong in-service training system that already exists in Uganda, Elevate has developed a cell-phone based tool for CCTs to use when they conduct any activities in the school, such as continuous professional development meetings or in-class observations. CCTs will fill out observation or activity forms on their phones and the data they collect will be automatically aggregated and available on a dashboard that they can use to target their activities and design programs to address the needs of their schools. Their supervisors at PTCs and the Ministry will also have access to this information which will be used to evaluate the work of CCTs and identify systemic knowledge and skills gaps across teachers and schools.

In one meeting introducing this new tool, a government stakeholder told the Elevate team, “You are speaking to my soul.” She meant that this is something that the government has needed for a long time to fill the gaps in the in-service teacher training system. Instead of creating an extra reporting burden on the CCTs or trying to impose a “best-practice” model for in-service training, it is making the current system more streamlined and effective for all stakeholders involved. I would argue that Elevate in this instance is not just coming to grind grain, but they are repairing a pretty-worn out grinding stone.

What I find so special about these two programs is that they were both developed hand and hand with local stakeholders in a way that is meant to fit within the education system as it exists and help the already-existing structures function better. I wholeheartedly believe that this approach to development and institutional capacity building is the most sustainable and effective way to ensure that real positive change is made and sticks. I am exceedingly grateful to experience firsthand what it looks like when an organization places the voices and needs of local stakeholders first!

Author: Diana Winter, Georgetown University