2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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School 2001: TC Professor Works on Mega School Reform Project in Mongolia

Elementary school children in Bayanhongor, Mongolia Led by Professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi, several Teachers College faculty members and doctoral students have been working in Mongolia to moderate five national one-week workshops, suggest ways to revise teaching strategies, design curriculum, initiate cooperative learning, and to look at compatible assessment and testing methods.

Budgeted at $6 million, the project is very comprehensive with teacher education components, textbook development, policy reform, assessment methods, and accreditation criteria. It calls for increasing participation of parents and teachers in schooling, and outreach to rural communities beyond the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.

The project included every region in Mongolia. A total of 72 secondary schools representing city schools, town schools, and village schools, were selected as partner schools of the project. Half of the participating teachers were social science teachers and half were humanities teachers. Each school was represented by a principal, a school board member and a "core team" (one head teacher, one social science teacher, and one humanities teacher).

While there have been many successes, Steiner-Khamsi sees a gap between reform at the classroom and school level and reform on paper. In part, according to Steiner-Khamsi, the gap was an intended outcome of the first year (August 1998 to June 1999) of the project. It enabled educators and practitioners to have input on policy issues and allowed the Mongolian policy makers to be informed about educational practice. In the second and third project years, however, Steiner-Khamsi believes there will be a need to enhance policy support for the Ministry of Enlightenment by providing advice on how to adjust curriculum documents and student tests in ways that are more coherent and less fragmented.

Since "School 2001" is a school-based reform project that distances itself from top-down school reform, priority was given to strengthening the schools as centers of reform.

"We said it's not enough for teachers to come from school and undergo a week's workshop and then leave them to their own devices. Instead, we decided we would strengthen schools to become centers of innovation and excellence and we did that by selecting a group of five educators from each school, three teachers, the principal, plus a school board member, to work as a reform unit, at each school level.

"Despite the Ministry of Enlightenment's desire to develop school-based reform," according to Steiner-Khamsi, "it is not experienced because of its long-standing tradition of Soviet-style top-down policy-making." Nonetheless, the decision was made to give the teachers in the schools the opportunity to develop new curricula and to establish new assessment methods. The project helped them to refine their current practices and provided an important vehicle for discussing and disseminating materials. For instance, a ninth grade social science teacher at the secondary school located in the geographic center of Mongolia, designed an impressive "project week," where students gathered new and useful information and students became valuable resources of information.

In most schools, the core teams functioned as catalysts of change within their own schools. However, in their enthusiasm for the School 2001 project, sometimes teachers were not able to innovate. A core team, for example, was not able to take the initiative but attempted to exactly replicate training workshops that Professors A. Lin Goodwin and Celia Oyler had done for them.

According to Steiner-Khamsi, rather than spread the project objectives too thinly and superficially support a reform in all subject matters, the decision was made to focus on the strengths of the existing expertise of the MFOS. The foundation is known for its network programs in the humanities (English language programs) and in the social sciences (e.g., civics, debate). Steiner-Khamsi candidly remarks that for "the School 2001 project staff, the task of remaining focused on a reform of the humanities and social sciences has not been easy."

The Ministry of Enlightenment and many principals requested to include teachers that teach mathematics and the natural sciences. Steiner-Khamsi sees the requests as indicative of status differences within Mongolian schools and society. Teachers of mathematics and the natural sciences are considered to be of higher status than the ones included in the project.

Steiner-Khamsi said, "We want to work with the 'low-ranking' teachers and empower them."

For Steiner-Khamsi, when working in an international project, the most important factor is cultural sensitivity and symmetry. "In School 2001," Steiner-Khamsi said, "We are trying to make the project reciprocal so we now have Mongolian students coming to Teachers College and visitors coming for shorter periods of time. There's always a danger in international education projects that you just go there and teach what you teach here. We want the Mongolian stakeholders to drive reform."

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