Learning by Really Doing
“I am an entrepreneur—an academic entrepreneur,” says Gita Steiner-Khamsi, Professor of Comparative and International Education at Teachers College. “Totally. I am not ashamed to say it. But it’s because I believe that those of us in my field should be seeing ourselves as experts who help people from other countries become experts and cut their dependency from us.”
To that end, Steiner-Khamsi, over the past decade, has become a one-woman cottage industry in the emerging market of international program evaluations by ingeniously fusing the interests of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the needs of her students. Her medium has been a unique course in which TC students and NGO staff members learn together and then evaluate real educational programs and initiatives in countries throughout the world.
Innocuously titled “International Educational Policy Studies,” the experience has become so highly sought after at TC that Steiner-Khamsi typically accepts only about one-sixth of the students who apply to take it each spring. At one point the World Bank, as part of its efforts to bolster developing countries’ capability to evaluate educational programs, asked her to coordinate the teaching of 155 versions of the course.
In many ways, International Education Policy Studies simply reflects Steiner-Khamsi’s own experience. She developed it in 1997, soon after joining the TC faculty, on the heels of a decade spent creating multicultural educational policies at the Ministry of Education in the Canton of Zurich in
. It was that work that had first sparked her interest in comparative analysis and the evaluation of programs and initiatives—and that gave her, when she arrived at TC, a ready-made network of contacts among NGOs with offices in New York City. Switzerland
Still, timing may have been her ultimate asset. Steiner-Khamsi began teaching her course at TC just as the
Soviet Union was collapsing. The Open Society Institute (OSI), founded by billionaire George Soros, was building up democratic institutions in countries across the former Soviet bloc, and Steiner-Khamsi sensed an opportunity: OSI needed to build program evaluation expertise among its rank and file, and her students needed a steady supply of real projects to evaluate. So she offered to enroll OSI field staff directly in the course along with TC students; deliver instruction mostly over the Internet to accommodate those in far-off locales; and then have the students and staff work in small teams to do field research and produce full-fledged evaluations of OSI initiatives.
OSI agreed, and in 2002 the organization went all in, essentially becoming the course “sponsor” by paying the expenses of up to 10 TC students to do overseas research. Today, OSI not only enrolls its own staff in Steiner-Khamsi’s course, but also frequently sponsors professionals from UNESCO and UNICEF, as well as those from the ministries of education of different countries. As a result, the course has now trained hundreds of education professionals, from the
Ukraine to and beyond, to perform program evaluations. Lesotho
“The course has allowed us not only to provide professional development for our staff but also develop local capacity in the countries where we are involved,” says Aleesha Taylor, a TC alumna and senior program manager at OSI who coordinates the organization’s involvement with Steiner-Khamsi. “Usually, evaluation work is done by someone from a Western country who has the expertise. Gita’s course is important because it’s a way of developing local capacity by increasing the research skills of people in those various countries.”
Steiner-Khamsi has fine-tuned the course over the years. Originally, it was taught over one semester, but she and the students found it difficult to cover the various theoretical perspectives and applied aspects of program evaluation and then assess a project and write a report within that time. Now, students work through the course modules and engage each other online during the spring semester, and then travel overseas to do their evaluations in June.
It’s a framework that has worked well both for TC students and field staff—and at other institutions as well. Alexandru Crisan, who co-taught the course with Steiner-Khamsi in 2003, now teaches a similar program evaluation experience at the
University of Bucharest in . Although he does not teach online, Crisan covers much the same theoretical ground as Steiner-Khamsi and often has his students collaborate on evaluating a local program. Romania
"I really admire my old friend Gita,” Crisan says. “This was needed, and there was nothing like it at the time. My course is a little different, but the spirit of Gita’s is there in what I do.”
Not surprisingly, other clients have come knocking. In 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) decided it also wanted in, and Steiner-Khamsi invited Fenot Aklog, Senior Research Associate at TC’s NCREST (the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching) to co-teach the course and co-advise the evaluation teams, half of them educational economists from IDB and the other half TC students. Steiner-Khamsi tailored a policy evaluation course for the bank that it then sponsored in the spring of 2008, sending students to South America and the
Caribbean to evaluate IDB projects. “We looked at other options, but for us, Gita’s course made the most sense because it focused on qualitative research and allowed us to work on our projects,” says TC alumna and IDB economist Mariana Alfonso. “That was key.”
Also in 2007, Steiner-Khamsi forged a partnership with the
University of Witwatersrand in . Steiner-Khamsi and Portia Williams, TC’s Director of International Affairs, co-taught the course with two Witwatersrand professors in Spring 2009, drawing students from ministries of education and not-for-profit organizations throughout southern South Africa Africa.
“It was helpful to have graduate students from Columbia University and our professors help us think in a scholarly and analytical way, because most of us have been working—in a hands-on way—in the field for many years,” says Alick Nyirenda, who at the time he took the course was Executive Director of the Copperbelt Health Education Program in Zambia. “To have time to reflect on and think about the methodology issues and learn the skills of evaluation and write a policy report was, for me, very memorable.” Last year’s policy evaluations in the Southern Africa region and in the Caribbean and
Latin America region have been compiled and will be published as books by OSI and IDB, respectively.
And then there is Steiner-Khamsi’s work with the World Bank. Long in the market for a new method of ramping up its expertise in program evaluation throughout the developing world, the World Bank approached Steiner-Khamsi last year about using her course as a core program for its people. Her first instinct was to sign on, especially given that the training would build capacity at ministries of education in developing countries in all six of the bank’s regions.
Yet when she did the math, she realized she would have to train enough World Bank staff to teach 155 courses—too much for someone who, in addition to her other work, assumed the presidency of the Comparative and International Education Society in March 2009.
Steiner-Khamsi ended up backing off the deal—but only for now. She remains in discussions with the World Bank and is confident something can be worked out that will allow her to adapt the course to the bank’s needs while allowing her to continue her research and teaching.
Meanwhile, she is convinced that there ought to be more of these skills-based courses—whether they’re structured her way or not. And it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, she says, if more institutions of higher learning started getting into these win-win arrangements with nonprofits, where students can learn with and from working professionals, and vice versa.
“In international development and education, we try not to be colonialists,” she says. “We try not to tell people, ‘Do things our way and, by the way, hire us, we’re experts on your country.’ We try to build local capacity, have people from those countries become experts. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this course—build capacity in other countries—and those of us in higher education should be doing more of it.”previous page