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Peace Through Education

Reforms Secure Economic and Political Stability

By Suzy Frisch | Spring 2011

Over the past 25 years, professor David Chapman (organizational leadership, policy, and development) has traveled around the world and collaborated on more than 150 research and outreach projects. Fueled by a desire to guide emerging nations in developing strong education systems, he believes that global stability is at stake.

“An educated citizenry is a fundamental building block for stable governments,” he said. “It’s in our national best interest that education in other countries be enhanced.”

Anxiety over poor test scores, racial disparities, and low graduation rates in communities within the United States drive ongoing demand for collaboration with college academics. The reasons that many CEHD faculty collaborate internationally are just as compelling, though. Strengthening education can build economic capacity and give those who have been pushed to the margins—for example minority ethnic groups or girls and women—new opportunities.

"There is Here"

In fact, the line between education outreach conducted abroad and domestic work has grown fuzzy. It’s never been more critical for teachers to understand the socio-cultural context of education in other places, said Frances Vavrus, an associate professor and the coordinator of the college’s Comparative and International Development Education program, who has studied, taught, and researched in Africa for 20 years.

“It’s very important for us to recognize that there is here,” she said. “We have the largest Somali population outside of Mogadishu in the Twin Cities and significant populations of people from Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Kenya. Our teachers are struggling to understand the different assumptions about education that families from other countries bring to schooling in Minnesota.”

Kendall King (curriculum and instruction) finds resonances between her research on preserving endangered languages, which has taken her from the Andes to Sweden and Singapore, and her research into policies and practices for English language learners. Students in Minnesota classrooms may speak 10 different languages. “For ELLs, one approach for effective instruction involves learning about students’ language, cultural skills, and practices and trying to work with teachers on how to draw on them as resources for learning,” she said. “It’s an asset that can be used positively and productively in the classroom.”

International teachers and education experts can teach researchers plenty that benefits U.S. classrooms, as well. “The problems we’re dealing with in the United States are often very similar to the problems other countries are facing,” Vavrus noted. “We can see what’s worked and not worked in other places and learn from that.”

The flow of ideas and people is an outgrowth of a globalized world. As CEHD faculty help develop education practices from the individual teacher to underserved communities, from country-level education systems to continental higher education, their outreach can have local as well as international impact.

David Chapman: Educational journeyman

Chapman in Delhi

David Chapman (second from left)and his colleagues from CARE India at the Qutb complex in Delhi.

From Azerbaijan and Somalia to Laos and Yemen, Chapman has assisted governments and institutions like the World Bank and UNICEF with education planning, program evaluation, and policy research. He is devoted to multidisciplinary research that addresses the complicated educational, social, and economic issues facing a country.

Chapman has evaluated the impact of development education, specifically analyzing United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded global education projects. After researching documents from 33 projects between 1990 and 2005, Chapman and his team concluded that the $733 million USAID had spent contributed positively to improving student access, retention, and learning. However, the agency had been less effective at assessing project accomplishments compared to stated goals. Chapman and co-author Jessica Jester Quijada recommended in the International Journal of Education Development that future basic education projects set benchmark goals for concrete improvements in achievement and retention.

Early in his career Chapman immersed himself in teaching and research on international education development for postsecondary and K–12. Today he believes the work is as important as ever. “The focus of international donor attention used to be on improving basic education, and the international community and governments have been remarkably successful at accomplishing that,” he said. “As the world has gotten more complex, economies more interwoven, and technology so prominent, countries have realized you can’t run complex economies with just a primary and secondary-educated population. Higher education has been resurgent.”

To that end, Chapman is currently tackling a higher education-related project for the Asian Development Bank. He serves as team leader for a two-year study of higher education issues across Asia, helping the bank determine its best strategies for higher education lending. The seven-member team is conducting sub-regional studies across Asia that will culminate this summer at an international summit in Manila.

His findings so far? “For the past 20 years Asia has seen explosive growth in higher education enrollment with the prospect of that continuing,” Chapman said. “Our observation is that a consequence of the rapid expansion is that quality suffered. Governments and universities now need to take a deep breath, slow expansion, and focus on raising quality.”

Frances Vavrus: African Teacher

Vavrus in Tanzania

Frances Vavrus works with future teachers in Tanzania.

A Fulbright Scholar, Vavrus developed a fascination with Tanzania during her undergraduate years at Purdue University, where she learned about the country’s post-colonial commitment to universal primary education. Over the past 20 years she has learned Swahili, studied and taught in Tanzania numerous times, and most recently developed a training program for high school teachers there to encourage critical thinking and participatory approaches to education. Vavrus has also assisted faculty at a Tanzanian teachers’ college with developing their own research projects.

Vavrus’s primary project started as post-baccalaureate training for teachers who were attempting to implement a more student-centered approach to learning. It’s no small order in Tanzania, where rote memorization has been the standard for decades, and teachers often work in classrooms with more than 50 students.

Teaming with Lesley Bartlett, her former colleague at Columbia University, and Minnesota doctoral student Matthew Thomas, Vavrus developed a seminar called Teaching in Action at Mwenge University College of Education. The aim is to reconnect with recent graduates after they gain a bit of real-world classroom experience. Through demonstrations, curriculum development, and peer feedback, the program arms new teachers with resources, practice, and advice for using participatory instruction in their classrooms. In 2009, the program received the Ashoka Changemakers Champions of Quality Education in Africa award, one of three to receive the honor from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Tanzanian math teachers

Two Tanzanian high school math teachers try learner-centered lesson plans on one another.

Last year, the University of Minnesota and Mwenge University signed a Memorandum of Understanding to deepen collaboration, and AfricAid is continuing the seminars. Seed money from the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance has also created opportunities for doctoral students to work with Mwenge faculty. They observe teachers in their schools and measure the impact of the workshop on classroom practice.

“It’s a capacity-building program, and it’s good for our graduate students to have real-life experience working with Tanzanian faculty on a tangible research project,” said Vavrus, one of the University’s five 2010 McKnight Presidential Fellows.

Prosperity Through Equality

Vavrus also researches the impact of global education, especially in regards to gender relations and economic development. In Tanzania, Vavrus has observed that while the gender gap in enrollment is closing at the primary and secondary school levels, girls still face numerous challenges. 

Girls in Tanzania

In Tanzania, girls are particularly vulnerable in the education system and in long-term employment.

“These are not unique to Tanzania, but they may be more pronounced than in some other countries,” she noted.

Frequent sexual harassment and violence in schools—at times by teachers—and inadequate accommodation for girls who are menstruating are two barriers. At the same time, responsibilities around the home keep girls from spending more time on homework, especially in households without electricity or money for adequate kerosene for lighting.

These factors may explain why only 43 percent of the students who passed the national exam at the end of high school were girls, Vavrus noted. The consequences of this gender imbalance continue through university, where less than 30 percent of the students are female, and on into the workforce. “There are fewer qualified women for [white-collar] positions,” Vavrus explains. “My view is that interventions need to occur in primary and especially in secondary school if young women are going to be able to contribute equally to economic development in Tanzania.“

Vavrus is involved in a longitudinal study of Tanzanian youth to evaluate the impact of attending high school on their long-term economic and social wellbeing. The study started in 2000, when the Tanzanian government and many international donors were directing significant resources to primary education. “Ultimately we want to make a case for the significance of secondary schooling on the long-term life trajectories of youth,” she said.

Kendall King: Language Preservationist

King in Ecuador

Kendall King (above, right) worked extensively in Ecuador to help the Quichua people revitalize their indigenous language. Now her work as a linguist has taken her to Sweden and to Singapore.

Just as biologists and environmentalists want to protect the biodiversity of the world’s creatures, second languages and culture associate professor King and other linguists believe strongly in protecting the diversity of languages across the planet. “Once languages are gone, they are gone forever,” she said.

Groups and individuals rarely give up their language unless they are being marginalized or face social, economic, or political pressure. “I feel an obligation as a linguist to provide as much support as I can to the groups who want to save their language,” said King. “Most people don’t switch languages out of free choice, and there are major, long-term costs that come with shifting away from one’s native language.”

Some of King’s earlier research involved working with Ecuador’s Quichua people on language revitalization, especially with younger generations who speak Spanish. Through that project, King found that the longer people wait to revitalize their language, the more challenging it can be. In addition, through preservation and revitalization efforts, the language often changes, going from an oral to a written tradition or from a family tongue to a formal, school-based language.  

King also has spent time in Sweden, serving as a visiting professor and consulting with minority language groups. The Swedish government recently funded an initiative to support maintaining Romani, Sami, Meänkieli, Finnish, and Yiddish speakers in Sweden as part of a larger effort to empower minority groups. King met with representatives from the minority groups to help them tap into research practices and develop ways to encourage language use and language learning.

Her future projects include finding strategies in Singapore to support kindergarten through 3rd grade students who are having trouble learning to read in English. It’s a challenging task in a country where four languages are officially recognized and many more spoken, but English is the official medium of instruction.

Michael Rodriguez: Master Tester

Rodriguez in Guatemala

Michael Rodriguez (standing) has helped the Guatemalan education ministry measure new education reforms.

There is a vast, global need for assistance with developing strong student testing and assessment programs, and educational psychology associate professor Michael Rodriguez’s expertise is in high demand. Over the years he has worked closely with the Guatemalan government as it seeks to boost education outcomes that have hovered near the bottom in the world.

In Guatemala less than 10 percent of the population finishes high school, and the country also has low literacy rates and postsecondary attendance. Working with USAID while on sabbatical in 2007, Rodriguez spent nearly two months helping the Guatemalan Ministry of Education design assessment tools to monitor the outcomes of its new national content standards for math, reading, and science.

Though Rodriguez has served as a technical testing adviser to numerous U.S. states, he is particularly gratified to help an impoverished country like Guatemala. “We have addressed some really challenging issues I have never addressed when working with the states,” said Rodriguez, who also directs the Office of Research Consultation and Services. “It’s because of the overwhelming need for education reform. It’s just dramatic there. Here we talk about reform, and it’s like tweaking. There, it’s major.”

For example, most teachers in Guatemala have no more than a high school education. Based on recent test data, the country is considering requiring one year of postsecondary teacher training.

Goal: Self-Sufficiency

Guatamalan literacy gets a boost!

Reforms aim to boost Guatemalan literacy and educational attainment rates, especially for rural populations.

Rodriguez returns to Guatemala at least one or two times a year, offering training to Ministry of Education officials who maintain the test and helping the country assess the reams of data it has collected during the past three years.

Rodriguez is now working with education officials across Central America and the West Indies on establishing a regional graduate program in educational measurement and research that will train others to do this work. It would be too costly for one country to develop such a program, but together they could. The University of Minnesota might become a partner in the initiative as well, Rodriguez said.

He also is participating in a team project gauging how other countries prepare educators to teach math in hopes of producing better learning outcomes. The Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics, funded by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and the National Science Foundation, is analyzing teacher training in 17 countries from Botswana to Chile and Taiwan. Rodriguez helped design and scale the survey assessment forms, resulting in a data set that is becoming an important international research tool.

He’s devoted to international work because countries need data to inform decisions about policies, teacher training, and approaches for meeting students’ changing needs. “It’s hard to make a decision on how to proceed unless you know where you’re at.”

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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