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Denis Mizne on transforming Brazil’s education system to deliver learning
Episode 95th January 2022 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
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The first RISE Podcast episode of 2022 features Denis Mizne, who is CEO of the Lemann Foundation and leads its efforts to transform Brazil’s education system so that schools deliver learning for all children. In conversation with RISE Research Fellow Jason Silberstein, he explains why foundational skills are a political winner; the Lemann Foundation’s work on Brazil’s Learning Standards; how to balance accountability with support for teachers; what we can learn from Sobral, Brazil’s famous success story; “status quoism”; Lord Voldemort; and much more.

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Guest biography:

Denis Mizne is the CEO of the Lemann Foundation. 

A graduate of University of São Paulo Law School, Mizne was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University Center for the Study of Human Rights, a Yale World Fellow at Yale University and completed the Owner/President Management Progam at Harvard Business School. 

While at Law School, Mizne led the first disarmament campaign in Brazil. The Sou da Paz - I am for Peace - movement was instrumental in approving the Disarmament Statute, one of the most modern pieces of legislation controlling civilian gun possession. The law directly contributed to the reduction in homicides in the country. 

In 1999, Mizne joined Brazil’s Ministry of Justice as special advisor to the Minister and later Chief of Staff. After one year in Government, he came back to São Paulo to create the Sou da Paz Institute, where he stayed as executive director until 2010. 

In 2011, Denis Mizne became CEO of the Lemann Foundation. In the ten years he has been in this position, the Foundation grew to become one of Brazil’s leading philanthropies, focusing on improving public education and fostering a generation of talented leaders who will contribute to solving the country’s most pressing social issues. Among its achievements, the Lemann Foundation lead the civil society process to have National Learning Standards - approved in 2017, built a large scale intervention to support student learning reaching 2.5 million students and built a network of 653 diverse, committed leaders working in public service, politics, academia, the NGO sector and as social entrepreneurs. 

Mizne sits on the Boards of Instituto Sou da Paz, Nova Escola, Instituto Natura, Fundacao Roberto Marinho, and PraValer, and is a member of Yale University President‘s Council on International Affairs. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.

Attribution:

RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.

Producers: Joseph Bullough and Katie Cooper

Audio Engineer: James Morris

Transcripts

RISE Programme:

Hello and welcome to the RISE podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education, research, and practice as part of the multi-country Research on Improving Systems of Education and funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Hello, and welcome to the RISE Podcast. I'm Jason Silberstein, a Research Fellow at RISE, and today I'm speaking to Denis Mizne. Denis is the CEO of the Lemann Foundation, which is helping transform Brazil's education system to ensure schools deliver learning for all children. Lemann Foundation is also an active part of the RISE Community of Practice, a group of implementers working to share lessons and experiences about how to address the learning crisis. We talked about a whole lot in this episode. Why foundational skills are a political winner; Lemann Foundation's great work on national learning standards; how to balance accountability and support, and why you need both; what we can learn from Sobral, Brazil's famous education success story; "status quoism", Lord Voldemort, and a whole lot more. So welcome to the podcast, Denis.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Thanks. Thanks for having me here. A pleasure to be here.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

So, I thought we could start today, before we get into to what the foundation does, I thought we could start with something a little provocative that I heard you say recently, that stuck with me, which was that improvements on foundational skills are possible. They're possible fast, and they can be a political winner. And I think I remembered that, because it's kind of the exact opposite of most of the sector talks about the politics of learning. So what is the story you tell about foundational learning to make it politically supportable?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Well, I think, first of all, we're never going to get anywhere without foundational skills. There's a reason why they're called foundational, right. And I think, unlike the more general vision around education, where correctly, so people say it takes decades to improve education, and to see results, and education is a long term commitment from government, which of course I agree with. But I think foundational skills, if you think about, we're talking about the first few years of a child, and it can be achieved, and it is achieved in many classrooms around the world. And you know, especially for the more privileged kids, in the more developed countries, and the whiter kids and the richer kids. So it's doable, and it is happening, actually, you know, and and it's happening all over the world. So I think we shouldn't confuse the idea that education could be a quick fix. That's not true. But it is true that you can get kids literate in one or two years. And that's actually happening. And it's the best timing to do it. Right. That's the right timing to do it. So I think in that sense, if we can be more vocal about the need of foundational skills, and if we can also walk policymakers through how this happens. And they saw that probably with their own kids, I think we can believe that in a term or in a political cycle, you can see significant results in terms of improving those. That's why I think, first it can be done because it's being done. And secondly, it can be done in a cycle, because that's the time it takes to do it. And this is good, because it reinforces, kind of gives the system some quick wins, and gets people excited for the more complex next steps that that certainly will be needed as well.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

I find that really fascinating and hopeful. And one other thing I remember when I heard you speaking before was foundational learning has to compete with other kinds of investments in education, right, like building schools or making schools look good. And you also said something about foundational learning being really observable. And that's another reason why maybe, we can get a large political constituency behind that. So can you just expand on that too?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Sure. I think that in most developing countries or poor countries, the situation is that the current generation is more educated than their parents, right? So because parents didn't have access to education or to free public education, it's very hard for them to judge the quality of education of their kids. So in Brazil, for example, where this is the case, approval of public schools are very high even if the results are very low. And the reason why people approve it is because they think well, first my kid has a place in school, I didn't, and then they have meals, they have textbooks, they have uniforms, they have sneakers and transportation there, you know, a school bus that picks them up. So it's fantastic, right? These are important inputs, but that's not why school is there. Right? If you think about higher order learning later on in school, it's hard to know if your kid really learned biology, or chemistry, but if they really learn how to read and do basic operations, like this is very identifiable, right. And it's one of those moments. I have kids. I remember when my kids first started looking at these things on the road and then read them, right, it's very moving also. And, it's very powerful. So I think if we can make this more visible to parents, if we can talk more openly about this, I think this is one of the things one of the few instances where you can connect what is expected to happen in terms of learning with what parents are able to identify. And I think that's powerful.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Great. So now, can I ask you to introduce us to the work of the Lemann Foundation and specifically the work on education in Brazil.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

So the Lemann Foundation is a private, nonprofit, focused in ensuring that every Brazilian kid has a world class education. The reason we believe education is important, we don't need to have a reason, but the reason why we connect with our mission and vision is, we think Brazil will only be a more developed and fair country once we can ensure that every kid reaches their potential. And education is the best way to do this, especially in a very unequal society like ours, where with public education, you should be reducing inequality, right, making the playing field more levelled, that should be happening. So that's why we have been investing in supporting learning in education, of all the problems in education, we've picked learning. And we were very influenced by a very prominent RISE figure in the whole idea of "schooling ain't learning". And the idea that Brazil in the end of the 90s, were able to ensure (very late in the game compared with many other countries), but ensured access for all kids in education. Today, education is mandatory in Brazil in age four, onwards, so it's good. The problem is "schooling ain't learning". And so we are focusing on the learning. And what do we do? We do a combination of basically three things. One is to help reach consensus around and then help design and implement key structural changes that need to happen. And this is more the policy work, right. And the problem, the thing that we have been mostly involved with our national learning standards, and we can talk about those if they are of interest, we believe policy is super important, but it's not going to change things on their own. So we have also been supporting the creation of this idea of instruction, infrastructure, funding organisations either in government or NGOs, who are able to support districts and schools, who are willing to improve either to implement the new policies that are coming in, or just to do the good practices that are needed to ensure learning at scale. And the last part is direct support to schools. We do this through partnering with districts. We are currently working with almost 20% of kids in elementary school in Brazil, 12% of kids in middle school, with robust programmes around learning, management, and supporting school leadership and classroom leadership in a way that it's ensuring learning. In the end, and this is what we think the hard part of education is, not to have good ideas. It's not to show that two schools can do it or 50. The hard part is the large scale transformation. So that's where we invest most of our energy.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Yeah, that's terrific. And, yeah, I mean, very comprehensive, and also very, we would say, RISE-y in the fact that, you know, you're really tackling system level problems, and not just picking out a certain narrow part of the system and and then trying to make that little part of the system or a few schools work better. But you're really have positioned the Foundation to take the system's approach. So just to pick up on one of the threads that you brought up. Can you tell us more about the the education standards, the national education standards, and how were you involved and why did you have to get involved and what was the story?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

So Brazil didn't have standards, right. So although we had the very robust assessment system, and we have a very expensive textbook buying programme from the federal government distributing to schools. Basically books for writing what publishers wanted to right. And the assessment was measuring what assessment people wanted to assess. So teachers were, you know, basically doing reverse engineering, trying to figure out when they had some access to the assessments, like what they should be teaching their kids. And then they would do like some exploration of the textbooks to figure out if they were teaching it or not. And so that doesn't seem like a very systemic approach. So the reason why we pick standards is not because we think standards change the game or are a silver bullet, but we think they reposition the debate. And once you're discussing standards, so that means what kids need to acquire, develop by the time they finish school. Once you're very clear about that, you're shifting the conversation from the adults to the kids, right? It's not about what teachers conditions are, and those are important, or how publishers are being paid, or the structure of management in the schools, or important things, but nobody's talking about the kids. And when you're talking about standards, you shift the conversation to the kids, this was the number one reason. The second is we thought it could be a great kind of strategic pillar to organise the system, once you put standards there, then you should be influencing. The standards should say, what kind of textbooks do we need to teach that? What kind of teacher initial preparation? Do we need to have teachers who are able to get their kids to be able to do this? And how are we assessing the best possible way that the kids have acquired these skills and competencies? So I think it reorganised and then it makes the classrooms and the school systems more coherent. So this is the long answer on why we decided to work with national learning standards. And how we did it is we started in 2013, by convening a group of very different perspectives, diverse visions of education, policymakers from academia, civil society, government, federal government, state municipal, Congress, National Education Council and bringing them together, in a setting very close to this one that we're now at, Yale University. And we started discussing, you know, should we have standards? And standards were...some people compared to Harry Potter, Voldemort, like you cannot even say "standards" in Brazil, and it's, you know, people start to freak out. And there was a lot of resistance against that. And, I think we started creating the conditions to, before even discussing anything, shouldn't we have this discussion? And then we we built this trust, and a constant process where different kinds of people could sit together and go through the process of "Do we need standards?", okay, we need standards, what kind of standards, what principles, then what's the quality? What's the content, how it's going to be implemented? So it was basically through supporting a movement that was ensuring honest conversation and learning from what's happening around the world and in Brazil to inform policy debate around the creation of the standards. And this group still exists, and now is focused on supporting the standards implementation. Standards were approved in Brazil in 2018. National learning standards in Brazil cover every subject matter for every school year, they are mandatory for public and private schools. There was a two year window between being approved and starting implementation. They just started last year 2020. And they cover all the way from preschool to end of high school. So it's a very comprehensive change. And it's been very well accepted. And we, you know, it's an interesting story, and I think it will generate a lot of change in the Brazilian education system.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Yeah, fantastic. I mean, congratulations on being able to be part of that and convene that in some ways. And, yeah, that's terrific. So one piece in there. I mean, that was so rich, but one piece in there that I wanted to pick up on, was what you mentioned about, you know, the standards being the kind of Voldemort in the education sector and in a lot of places, and I think they are often seen as these kind of top down tools for accountability. Right? And I think that's really why a lot of people resist them or don't want to talk about them. And RISE is starting to talk more about kind of balancing centrally set, top down accountability with lots of support to teachers and to schools to kind of meet these goals that we're setting. And I know Lemann thinks a lot about this. In fact, in a recent RISE blog, I think the Lemann Director of Education was talking about the need to kind of, "put teachers at the centre of our practice", and in particular to do that in ways that, "unleash teacher agency". So can you talk a bit about how you kind of marry this top down standards approach and kind of bringing teachers into that and supporting teachers and achieving that balance?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

I think that's a great question. I'm so happy you asked, because one of the hardest and most exciting things that we learned through the standards journey, and it's part of our constant internal conversations at the foundation and in the movement for national learning standards that we helped create, was these conversations about the "Can we avoid the traditional trade offs?" Right? Is it possible? Is it necessarily a trade off? So we were looking very closely at the Common Core in the US, and we had a lot of learnings from the Common Core. And they, for example, were suffering a lot with teachers and parents resistance to the standards, because they had to make a decision because they thought it was a trade off, right. And so, we're always looking into that. So one trade off, traditional trade off, is either it is going to happen, or it is participatory, you cannot have both. There is a you know, there is this vision, the other vision is, you know, either it is like you're going to look at the world and do something that will push the system to a higher level. It's more demanding. Or you're going to make it useful at the classroom level. And you connect to the classrooms. And that's a hard one, because you're creating standards, you should look at how the world is going. At the same time, you want teachers to look at this and recognise themselves in those standards and the kids. So we would look at those very clearly and spend a lot of time thinking, can we avoid this trade off? Right. And I by no means think we have done this perfectly, but on participants on the first trade off.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

So we set the guide of principles, a set of principles, and one of them was we're going to focus on the what, and not in the how. And we think a lot of teacher agency and autonomy happens on the how. This idea that teacher autonomy means no support, no direction, no, you know, standards. I don't think that's true. It's not. Actually we measured, we surveyed teachers very early on, and over 80% of teachers answered in the survey, saying "We would rather know what is expected of us", right, it's super hard to wake up, go to the classroom, and you just get a tap in your back and say, you know, go there and shine. Use the autonomy, figure out what each kid needs and where they are and their context and do something beautiful. This is not like a professional way to deal with people. Right? You should say, Okay, this is where I want to get by the end of the year, I expect your classroom to be doing basic operations, to be understanding the community around them, and to be able to read short sentences. Now go there and use what you learn and different, you know, connect with your kids and look at the textbooks, the resources available. So, I think that's super important. So we don't have standards to establish how teachers are going to teach, what we are agreeing to is a common destination, this is what's expected. So this is one way to deal with that. The other way is how you build the standards and how open you are about the process. So although it was a small group in the Ministry of Education, we had another principle that we pushed for, and we won, was this idea that it would be federal, state and municipal governments working together, and the teachers would have a voice. And we supported this last part very strongly, helping the government put together a platform where the different versions of the standards as they were, first the group's writing the standards were composed always by people from the federal government, you know, experts, to people, and then one person with a classroom experience from the state level and one with classroom experience from the local level. And each one of those groups was responsible to draft parts of the standards. And again, this is not the smoothest operation, but it's already giving agency and representation and then every time a version of the standards were ready, they would be published in this platform and teachers would be invited to comment. Three hundred thousand teachers submitted comments on the different versions of the standards. Three hundred times one thousand, out of 2 million teachers in Brazil, so it's 15% putting there so it's relevant, right? And then, okay, then there were public hearings, in every state in the country to get perspectives, not only from teachers, and in the end, standards were published. But every state and municipal education system had to create their standards based on the national learning standards. And we supported very heavily this process, and it was very bottom up. There were commissions in every state, they were in every city, they did it. And it's interesting, because in a very recent study, sponsored by the federal government, which is by no means a friend of the national learning standards, they looked at teacher and principals how much they felt they participated in the standards, almost 40% of teachers said they feel they participated--40%. And in principals, it's like 60%. And I think it's partly because of the drafting and the consultations, but it's largely because of the implementation, this idea of phased implementation, getting the different components and the different levels of government engaged before you change the assessments. Because before you made standards mandatory, I think that's another kind of secret that we learn from this. So I think these are some of the ideas that helped us make a process that was top down, in the sense that established something that brings more equality to the system, right? It doesn't matter where you're born in the country, you have and the last part--sorry, for such a long answer--the last part is standards only covered about 60% of what teachers should be teaching. And the other 40% is expected to be the local, the state, you know, the school kind of things that are relevant to them, it's hard to know if it's 60, 70, 80. But since the beginning the the discourse around it and the structure around it was, it's not going to be 100% of what happens in school, there is a local component, there is a state component, regional components. So I think these were important aspects that help us reduce the traditional effects of this trade off.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

You know, I feel like that's a whole different way of looking at that trade off. And we usually talk about top down versus bottom up as if it's some kind of black and white, this or that. And, in fact, like you were saying, you can't succeed unless you have both and you need certain elements that are top down and then you need certain elements that are bottom up. And you need to do the top down pieces in a kind of participatory bottom up way and and in fact, the teachers, you know, in the classrooms want some of that top down guidance, because it's support it's not necessarily just imposed on them. And so anyway, that's a great story. Thank you for sharing that. Right. Well, I can't talk about education in Brazil without bringing up the, who would it be?Maybe the Albus Dumbledore? Or maybe it's Harry Potter himself of Brazil, which is is the story of Sobral, right? And this is one of the big success stories we have in global education and everyone seems to be talking about it. But I think learning slightly different lessons or takeaways from Sobral. So I wanted to ask you to briefly tell us what happened in Sobral, in your version of the story, and what are the key lessons that you think we can learn from Sobral?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Yeah, it's confirmation bias, right? It's always out there. So people can read anything and find whatever they want to find, which is great. Make each one you know, happy. But I think the story of Sobral is remarkable because it's a very poor city in a poor state, Ceará, and it's not small. It has about 200,000 people living, about 50,000 students, 40 plus schools. And in 10 years, they went from being municipality number 1500 in the national kind of assessments to be number 1, right in terms of learning, so it's a remarkable journey. I think my understanding of what happened first was political continuity and education became the number one issue for every mayor in Sobral from 2000 onwards. I think a part people don't talk much about is what happened in the first term of the first mayor who made education a priority. He approached education, he said, education is a priority. What should I do, and people told him, you have to improve the infrastructure of the schools. And you have to pay your teachers better. And you have to, you know, a bunch of, you know, find people with degrees and things like that, inputs, inputs, and he did all that. And then in the last year of his term, he decided to do a literacy test. And he found out all the kids were illiterate, and he was mad. And when he ran for reelection, he was very open about this, like, I thought I was doing what every expert told me to do, but it didn't work. Kids are illiterate. And you know, I want another term for these reasons. But one is, I want to make this work, right. And he moved to a model where they prioritise, especially in the next four years, that came foundational skills without calling them foundational skills, but it's like, it's all about literacy. And they said, education, we're going to test we're going to offer, they were non ideological, on their literacy approach. They bought all methods of, you know, helping kids with literacy, which allowed everyone in Brazil to say my method actually did it, but they bought all of them. So, you know, and they said, teachers should do whatever it takes, but you should get your kids literate. And we're going to be assessing this, and we're going to be publishing the results. And they invited all the principals that used to be political appointments, and you know, no, and they started to say, "Okay, you're going to come to my office," the mayor said, and you're going to tell me the results of how your kids are doing in literacy. And, you know, if the principal was not engaged or didn't know, or thought this was not really for real, they will change, and started to say, okay, we're going to put people who are really committed, and the ones who get the best results will be promoted. And so in the beginning was as simple as that assessment, support and accountability. That's what they did. And in four years, they increased dramatically the number of kids who are able to read and write, and then they said, "Hmm, this is working, can we go to the next level?" So you know, what do they need to finish elementary school? They looked at the National Assessments, and they said, "Okay, what do they need to learn to perform at the best possible level? So what do we need to do?" And then they started to bring this culture of constant improvement assessment. And also this idea of putting the right people and recognising the right people who are doing we're focused on learning. And they started doing this for attendance for you know, for the other subject matters and, and that's how they went. And once they got great results in elementary, they said, Okay, now these kids who actually learn, they weren't illiterate, they finished elementary school with a good level of learning. Now they are reaching Middle School, let's look at middle school, because we learn how to do this basic, we'll keep doing it. But now we're going to look at middle school. And they looked at their science curriculum, and they revised their math, they created local standards before Brazil did the national standards. They created the an assessment, the local assessment capacity, and they would give feedback to the teachers on that. And they created a culture of love of learning.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Like, the first time I visited a school in Sobral. I've visited a lot of schools and I imagine people listening to us visit a lot of schools or work in schools. And it happened, something to me that never happened before. And I'm there you know, I'm from the southeast of Brazil, I get to a school in the Northeast of Brazil, it's very recognisable, that I'm not 100% local, and you know, people are looking and the kids are curious, who are these adults in the school? It's always, that's normal. And then I said, I'm here to look at, you know, some of your classes, I'm going to sit in the classrooms. And I have some kids pushing me, "You have to come to my geography class. My geography teacher is amazing. You have to come." No, no, no, no, no, no, come to my math class. Come to my math class, you know, you should see the math lesson. Like so. You know, I don't know how to replicate. So we talk about the elements that we know how to codify assessments, focus on literacy, the textbooks the accountability, but there is a general cultural element of an obsession with making schools the place where kids are going to thrive that I think you know are all over teachers work on Saturdays on Sundays. I'm not saying teachers should be sacred but but it's just happening. They go there, they prepare. Last story, I was sitting in the classroom, watching one of these classes, and then the principal comes, opens the door and starts calling the students two by two, and they would leave five minutes, they will come back or two minutes, they will come back. And then she would call another two. And after the class finish said, What is this? They said, oh, we have a big test on Saturday. So we leave two by two to say encouraging things, one to the other. These were 10 year olds. And then, you know, each one has to say, like, "Why do you think your colleague is going to succeed?" You know, when you say, Oh, I see you pay attention, and a lot in you know, and I see you participate, so you're going to do it, you're going to have, like, you know, you can trust yourself, things are going to. Oh, and I see that you're, you know, you always bring your homework. So, you know, you're like, who does that? Like I for me, it's it's very, and so there are these elements of a commitment to succeeding and learning, that are very powerful. And they didn't start with that. They started with the hard, measurable, you know, simple, proven things, but they were able to evolve. And they are still evolving, they are very commited to improvement. Culture, like everything, is how we were going to make it better, how we're going to make it better, they are never sitting on their success. Yeah.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

No, those stories were great. And rightly kind of putting putting the child at the centre. And no, that's amazing that they have been able to create that culture. So okay, follow up question is kind of like you were alluding to, what can we learn from that example and kind of take elsewhere? You know, are there ingredients that we can scale up, so to speak? I know you do a lot of work also in in the larger state of Ceará, right, in which Sobral is is the municipality so yeah. Can you tell us how do we think about kind of taking this and doing it somewhere else? Like, is it? Do we need enlightened mayors in every city in the country? Or how do we where do we go from here?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

That's another great debate. So the best way to answer this is, we're doing this right. So we help the former mayor of Sobral to put together a team of people who work at Sobral to systematise the experience to make it sure it you know, what are the elements that they think are the most effective, and they are expanding this. They are already working in 30 cities in Brazil, and implementing the Sobral methodology. The first results are incredibly encouraging. So what do they bring to those cities? They start with the mayor political commitment, and they only work with mayor's who are willing to do it. So political will was something that they select for. And then after finding the mayors who are willing to do it, they work with the Department of Education in the city. And they look at the basics, assessment, teaching materials and teacher training around foundational skills. That's what they start with. They assess the situation, they look, but they also look at the finances, how they're allocating the money, because it's the mayor, former mayor, who looks from a broader perspective than only about the pedagogical part. So it's a lot on the pedagogy. A lot of the investment in the programme is on making sure there are assessments, making sure there are teaching materials and making sure there are teacher training around the materials based on the results of the assessment. So it's, again, the coherent model inside the classroom. And the other part is making sure like the student allocation, do we need that number of schools? There are a lot of things that we didn't talk about that Sobral did. They reduced the number of schools so they could have less great principals. There are a lot of things that are not politically the easiest thing to do, but they were able to do it. So they advise on that as well. And and I think that's how it's, we believe, it's replicable with, of course agency from its, you know, it's the people inside the districts who are receiving the support that need to lead it and things like that. And some critics will say, "aw, but you know, the results you might get are because of the political will these people wanted to do anyway." And so that's a problem. You should be doing an RCT and should be a lottery which municipalities are taking. I have a different approach. I think political will. It's not a fixed thing. I think if you have more stories, hopefully two years from now we can talk about Teresina. We can talk about you know, Campina Grande, Caruaru you know many other cities and things who are having/doing and having results. And I think this will be a formidable form of expanding political will, I think the mayor of another city who says, "Wow, there are 50 cities doing this and succeeding." And they are getting going, back to your first question, like they are getting the political recognition, because they are tackling this, I want to do it. So, I don't think we should start doing with people who are super against it, just to prove the point that it works everywhere. I think in 5,000 municipalities in Brazil, if you can find 100 who are willing to do it, and if we succeed there, fantastic, you know, more people will want to and eventually this will become a majority. And today, as I said, we are working with 18% of the kids in elementary school in Brazil and political will is is still a cut that we do, but we reached now 18% of the kids. So I think it's it's it's proven that political will can change, it can come. So, yeah, I think Sobral has a lot of lessons. More places in Brazil also have lessons. And I think it's this combination of willing to do the basics. Well, political priority. And this secret sauce of you know, building a culture, where teachers and students are really, you know, leading this, they believe in themselves, they see that they are part of a successful environment, rather than a failure of failing environment. And I think in a lot of schools, we are pushing a culture of failure. You know, outside people were just talking about how they're not doing well, the tests are showing how they're not doing well, the, you know, everything in this conversation around failure. And I don't think that's a good environment to generate change.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Right? The the learning crisis is also an opportunity. In other words, right? Yeah. And one other thing that just jumps out at me from that narrative is maybe specific to the political economy of Brazil, where these mayors have a lot of autonomy, right? And they can actually, you can actually go around and find empowered public servants at the local level, who have control over the budget who have the authority to change the test develop their own standards. I guess I just wanted to ask you, I haven't heard that talked about too much. But is maybe that kind of distributed authority within the Brazilian system another positive thing?

Denis Mizne, Guest:

I think it's both positive and negative. The positive is the the space for innovation. All you mentioned, right, you have space to innovate, you have space to find like people who are willing to do it and all of that. The negative is most of the municipalities in Brazil have very little capacity in their departments of education. And the fact that they need to have this local capacity makes it super hard for to achieve large scale, faster change. So I think, again, here is a question of combining. So yes, municipalities can do their standards, but now it's based on the national learning standards. So we have now 5400 or 5300, municipalities, I believe, who already aligned their standards. Most of them didn't have standards. So they created standards, or the few that had aligned to the national learning centres. So gives them agency but there is an umbrella, there is something. The textbooks are the same thing. The federal government buys it and the municipalities choose out of those approved by the federal government, which they want to to adopt. But now this textbook programme is aligned to the standards assessments, the federal government funds, you know, every two years assessments, some places fund their own assessments, you know, and so I think it's this combination of some policies that could be offered to schools, either to be directly implemented or, you know, tweaked a little. But you have that and not rely on total decentralisation. Because I think total decentralisation increases inequality, right there. It's very hard. So I think that's an educational principle that people like this, you know, each student, each teacher, each context matters. Yeah, that's all true. But if you do this, schools are not going to be reducing inequality. So you have to balance that again. There's a lot of balancing to do.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Great. Two more questions for you. So one is also going going back to this idea that we can't just be negative about the outlook on education. Maybe there's some some space to be positive and I wanted to ask about COVID In particular. Because we were hearing a lot about COVID related learning loss and a lot of worries that the time that children spend out of school, they'll fall behind and then having fallen behind, they will fall further and further behind over time, and these learning losses will accumulate. And I think there's a lot of pessimism and even in some countries, schools still haven't reopened. But I know you think there's some silver lining here. So to tell us about that.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Yeah, it's really hard to find it. No, I think in general, the impact of, I'm using this image of people talking about long COVID. Right. And I think the metaphorical long COVID Is the effects of COVID on education, right, the immediate effects of COVID are on health and on the economy. But we have found vaccines, thanks in large part to this university, and we have, you know, government's accelerating spending, we have problems with inflation and other things. But in general, economies are rebounding quite fast. And so although these are the more acute effects of COVID, we have a solution for them. Right? Whereas long COVID is education. And there is not an obvious vaccine, or economic recovery programme, you know, checks that we can send in the mail. So I think it's going to be hard to deal with COVID. I'm an optimist, but I'm a realist.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

But there are a few things that we can think to do differently. One is COVID made very visible inequality. And it's making very visible the idea of learning loss and that kids are coming to the classroom with different levels of learning, and that teachers need to assess those and to be able to offer remediation and acceleration. Well, this was true before of COVID, we are just not talking about it. So this COVID If we don't lose this opportunity, of really preparing the school systems to deal with remediation, to deal with personalization of learning, I think then there is an opportunity here. The other opportunity that we have is parent engagement. Parents became way more engaged with their kids education, most of them not by option. But they had to, this made teacher's work more valuable and more visible. I think most parents agreed that they respect more their kids teacher after having to teach their kids on their own. And I also think they understand better where their kids are and and what they're learning and how the school system works. So I think we should be galvanising that like, what's the role parents, it's definitely not homeschooling, I think homeschooling is probably in the lowest popularity ever, right? People had to try it, and I think most people hated it. But how can you galvanise this kind of, you know, attention from parents. And the last part is not a RISE favourite, but is technology. I think the teachers we measured in Brazil, only 3% of teachers in Brazil, say they feel unprepared to use technology in the classroom now. These numbers were like in the, you know, over 50% every time. And that's because they were using technology, even if it was only the WhatsApp to communicate with the students or send a video or quiz, whatever they were using to the most sophisticated Google classrooms or, you know, Microsoft Teams or whatever. And so my sense is, that's another opportunity here, because if we need remediation, personalization, technology can be an ally, right? It's not a silver bullet again, but it could be an ally, if it's in service of pedagogy, right? So these are some of the opportunities. My biggest, the thing I'm most afraid of, I created a term for that, that probably doesn't exist, but I think the biggest enemy of education sometimes is something called "status quoism". And I think it's very easy to go back to status quo. And I think right now, people are very young, you know, it's very open wounds, we're talking about it. Nobody can imagine a classroom that is the same thing for every student. But I don't know even six months from now, we will all go back to this fake idea that kids in the sixth grade are in the sixth grade. It's not true. Like it's never true, it's even less true. I think now people recognise it's not true, but I'm afraid that if we don't keep repeating that and pushing that and publishing data on that, that the system will just go back to normal, and then I think we will crystallise the learning loss. And that's the risk, the risk is that we crystallise the learning loss. And then if we look at the kids in the sixth grade and say, I don't care which grade you are, I'm going to assess where you are. And I'm going to teach it for you. Somehow, I'm going to work around that or small group of you who are actually in fourth grade or in third grade. And then we can recover quite quickly, because we were not doing that before. If we ignore that, and we say you are now sixth grade, I was taking care of you now. Seventh grade. It's good. We'll continue from there. Then I think we're crystallising the learning loss, and then it becomes a long COVID nightmare scenario.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Yeah, I love that long COVID metaphor for education. I'm going to remember that. Alright, last question for you, which is how we end all of the RISE podcast, which is, what's one thing you wish that other people knew about education systems, or one thing you you wish they thought differently about in in reforming their education systems.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

I would go back to the trade off idea. It is possible to bring change and have support from within. These are not incompatible. People inside the school systems were not drawn to the school systems because they don't care about the kids, because they don't care about education, because they're not thinking about learning. This might happen to some people inside the system because of how the system is structured. And I think if we can reconnect the people with the reason why they went into education in the first place, you will find a lot of allies, a lot of people whose biggest reason to be in education is to see their kids learning. And if we can bring this back, this accelerates reform dramatically.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Denis Mizne, thank you so much.

Denis Mizne, Guest:

Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

RISE Programme:

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at riseprogramme.org or follow us on social media at RISE Programme. You can find links to the research mentions and other work shared under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme through support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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