Teacher Support at Pencils of Promise (PoP) is our flagship program for moving the needle on early literacy through improved teaching in the classroom. As we continue to grow as an organization, we are investing more and more, both in terms of human and financial capital, to the growth and expansion of Teacher Support in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. With this rapid expansion comes the responsibility of ensuring communities are provided with a high quality and sustainable product that adequately and appropriately meets their needs. We take this responsibility with the utmost seriousness at PoP and all of our teams make an extended effort to reassure our supporters that their valued donations are being allocated thoughtfully and that our partner communities are receiving a service and support that satisfies contextual needs.
Money spent on foreign aid has long been criticized as wasteful with hundreds of billions of dollars being distributed annually to and from a massive cohort of countries around the world. While I admittedly believe in the need for foreign aid (and more of it), I also understand the general critique. Over the span of my career working in international development, particularly in the fields of health and education, I have witnessed money being spent on products and/or services that are both unused and, more discouragingly, unwanted. For example, when I used to work in wheelchair aid and distribution, there were multiple occasions I witnessed several (seven in one instance) nearly brand new and unused wheelchairs piled up on a wheelchair user’s property. When asked where they came from, responses always shed light on the countless aid organizations and religious institutions that would distribute mass quantities of product, stop to take a picture, and report back to their donor base about the “good” they had done. Not only is this a wasteful approach to aid, it is irresponsible and harmful. Charitable behavior too often manifests itself as selfish thinking with an outlook of “I want to give to make myself feel good” and rarely pays close attention to the end result of the charitable act. Beyond the responsibility of donors’ understanding how their contributions are being spent, an even larger responsibility falls upon organizations to make sure dollars are being spent carefully and thoughtfully.
I am infinitely proud to say that I work for and represent an organization that constantly goes the extra mile to ensure the sustainability of our programs and maximize the return on investment for our community of supporters. This all begins with paying close attention to the needs of the communities we partner with around the world and developing a detailed system of checks-and-balances that take several variables into consideration. PoP’s success in building sustainable infrastructure begins with needs assessments (Figure 1) tailored to the context of each country and our success using this approach has significantly influenced the way in which we determine where our programs will make a meaningful impact.
While we deeply believe that we offer a high-quality product and service, we also recognize our programs aren’t perfect and, therefore, may not work ideally in every setting. This self-recognition is the first, and arguably the most important, step in sustainable aid; we use data and results from our programs to help inform us how and where we are most successful and actively use this information to scale our work. This enables us to offer teachers an evidence-based program that will improve their performance in the classroom and, alternatively, we continue working on iterations of our program that can better serve communities where our results have been unsatisfactory.
Selection for schools to receive Teacher Support and water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) programming for the 2020 school year is currently underway in Guatemala. Our Learning & Evaluation (L&E) team in the Guatemala office oversees the process from start to finish, with sourcing of potential schools through a screening process and visiting qualifying schools to present on the particulars of PoP programs. Development of the screening tools, assessments, and rubrics used in the selection process are thoroughly reviewed and vetted by in-country leadership and program specialists. These tools are intended to identify characteristics among teachers (e.g., formal training) and within schools (e.g., student-teacher ratio) that help us determine where we’ll be best positioned to succeed. These tools are not used for the purposes of creating rigorous qualification criteria that identify already successful schools for us to piggy-back on their upward mobility. PoP’s model is founded on empowering communities and helping students, teachers and communities reach their full potential and the program selection process we have created helps all involved parties (both PoP and our partner communities) get on the path to success.
Without question, the most important moment of the school selection process is when the community members, represented by teachers, principals, parents and community organizers, hold an anonymous vote on whether or not they would like to welcome PoP programs into their school. Prior to this vote, PoP’s L&E team presents on every detail associated with PoP programs and community members are given an unlimited amount of time to clarify any remaining questions. Then the most pure form of democratic voice comes to fruition as PoP team members leave the room, community members discuss among themselves, and each representative writes down their vote on a piece of paper and places it in a cup on the teacher’s desk.
Having the opportunity to observe this process first-hand just weeks ago in the Suchitepequez department of Guatemala, in a community just 30 minutes from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, my pride to work for PoP expanded to new bounds. I quite literally watched our team walk-the-walk and create an environment where community members were empowered to decide whether or not they wanted to receive the charity we offer. This by no means suggests that what PoP provides will be an immediate success, but it does set a clear path for ethical delivery of services, mutual buy-in and collective agreement on expectations. In the complicated world of foreign aid, these are standards PoP, as an ever rising star in the field of education service delivery, can be proud of.
As a trained researcher, I understand that critics within the academy may suggest that my advocacy for such a selective approach is in fact making our evidence less powerful and relatively impossible to generalize. But why would we want to generalize our results? Don’t all students, teachers, and schools require different needs and support? In order for foreign aid, especially education, to become more efficient in terms of expenditures, actors in the arena need to understand that generalizability isn’t the goal. There is no vaccine for literacy. It is a change that takes time, attention, and care, which demands the understanding of an audience, the needs of a community, and the commitment of a country. I believe that PoP has an education program that can dramatically change public education in rural areas around the world. I mean, we already are generating change after 10 years and with a small, yet powerful, army of dedicated team members in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos, and New York City, all with the same vision in mind. When I joined PoP in 2017, I knew I was becoming a part of something that will change the world and I couldn’t be more proud of where we are, how we’ve gotten here, and where we’ll go.