Getting to know Amy Black: Q&A with R4D's new education lead

 

[Editor's Note: On March 1, 2017, Amy Black joined Results for Development (R4D), as the executive vice president of education. Black succeeded former managing director, Nicholas Burnett.

Black has a strong track record designing and building a global organization that supports a highly effective multi-country network, and is deeply passionate about improving access to quality education for children in low-income and marginalized communities. 

 

Wambui Munge, R4D communications officer, sat down with Black for an in-depth interview on her experience and path to R4D.]

You have spent much of your career with Teach For America and Teach for All as a teacher, a teacher trainer, and as a senior executive in both organizations. How has your involvement with these organizations shaped your views on education?

I’m grateful that I began my career in the classroom as a middle school teacher in Baltimore City. This has grounded me in the reality of what kids from marginalized backgrounds need to overcome. My work at both Teach For America and Teach For All has taught me there are no shortcuts or easy answers. It takes very hard work from kids, teachers, system administrators and families that needs to evolve over time based on circumstances. Nonetheless, I’ve seen hundreds of schools and classrooms across the world where children growing up in poverty out-perform their more affluent peers because of the transformative opportunities educational leaders are designing with and for them, so I know it’s possible despite obstacles.

What are you most proud of from your time at Teach For America and Teach for All?

When I was the executive director of Teach For America in the DC region we increased the number of teachers serving in our local area from 90 to nearly 300. This required partnering with local stakeholders and becoming more responsive to local needs. We expanded our region and designed and piloted the first early childhood initiative to serve younger children, which was adopted nationally because of its success. Responding to local needs and partnering with local stakeholders is something I feel strongly about—and something that’s very much in line with R4D’s approach.

In 2008, I left Teach For America to help create Teach For All—a global network of locally-run organizations that adapt the “Teach For” approach of recruiting and developing promising future leaders to initially teach in their countries’ high-need classrooms and then leverage their leadership throughout their careers to affect needed changes for kids from a variety of roles inside and outside education systems. It’s a highlight of my career that after eight years, Teach For All has supported the creation and growth of 40 national organizations from all regions of the world.  My work at Teach for All taught me how much more we can accomplish in international education by strengthening networks that support local efforts and capacity. Creating communities of knowledge and practice is also a hallmark of the R4D approach. For example, R4D’s Center for Education Innovations is the largest and most comprehensive network of innovative education programs in the world. I look forward to thinking about how CEI and possibly other networks can play an even bigger role in supporting national-level change agents to improve the quality of education for everyone.

You mention instances where students and schools succeed despite difficult circumstances. Is there a recurring pattern you have observed, or a common thread that can be replicated?

One factor that has been present in each success story I have seen is exceptional leadership. Teachers and others who are putting the extra supports kids need in place, believing their students can achieve at world-class levels and working hard with families to achieve goals grounded in children's highest aspirations. I’ve seen the positive changes that are possible when the providers and supporters of education commit to building a talent pipeline that attracts, trains and retains a significant force of promising leaders who are inspired to work in marginalized communities.

At Teach For All, I worked with local social entrepreneurs in more than 50 countries and this globally diverse group of leaders also taught me how similar their challenges are even though they’re leading in very different places. I’ve internalized the importance of local leaders fully owning the solutions that make sense in their contexts and cultures while also benefitting from relevant lessons learned elsewhere in the world. Together, we developed insights into overcoming the inherent challenges in making it possible to be both locally rooted and globally informed.

R4D has a similar approach that responds to the needs of in-country change agents by providing contextually relevant support and tools, while simultaneously building the global knowledge base about how to strengthen education systems and improve the quality and availability of learning for everyone.

While you’ve spent most of your career focusing on education, you also spent some time at the State Department working on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Do you see any parallels between what you observed working on a major health initiative and in education?

When President Bush announced PEPFAR, an unprecedented $15 billion initiative to fight international HIV/AIDS, I was working in the U.S. embassy in South Africa. I helped coordinate the work of multiple agencies and local implementing partners as we developed the initial country operational plan. Later, I transitioned to the headquarters office and, through traveling to and supporting the strategies of more than 15 PEPFAR implementing countries, came to understand how much leadership, hard work and collaboration it takes from everyone working at both local and global levels to fight such a complex problem.

While nothing at PEPFAR’s scale gets implemented perfectly, today nearly 7 million people are on lifesaving treatment, tens of millions of infections have been prevented and the systems needed to fight HIV/AIDS and other diseases are stronger. An epidemic that threatened to devastate millions in multiple countries less than two decades ago is far more manageable. While I think the challenges of providing comprehensive HIV/AIDS services differ in very important ways from the obstacles to ensuring children in low-income communities receive an excellent education, I also believe there are lessons to be learned in PEPFAR’s success.

What would you say some of those lessons are?

Again the importance of leadership—PEPFAR had significant support from the president and was staffed, structured and given sufficient political support in the U.S. to get off the ground. There were clear global and national plans from the beginning, with ambitious goals for treatment, prevention and care that guided and unified efforts in the early years.

The funding commitment of $15 billion over 5 years was enough to inspire a radical shift in what people thought was possible and signaled more than a short-term commitment. It required and provided resources for systemic rather than band-aid or silver-bullet solutions. PEPFAR eventually attracted more money to the cause from other sources. Turning the tide on HIV/AIDS had previously seemed insurmountable but now became possible if everyone contributed. This inspired a necessary level of urgency, shared vision, and collaboration across multiple necessary players. While there was global accountability for hitting goals, there was country-level flexibility for how to do it. Countries had systems for measuring progress and the growing numbers of lives saved inspired sustained commitment. A learning network was created so that country teams weren’t wasting time reinventing the wheel if they knew something was working elsewhere and innovative ideas could be shared.

Of course it was stressful, messy, imperfect and political, and I’m sure still is. But it’s a recent example in international development of how enough vision, hard work, resources, accountability and collaboration can effect positive game-changing results.

In international education, I think there are often additional challenges to creating these necessary conditions for systemic success when the paths, processes and questions about how to holistically educate children growing up in poverty can be more numerous, need to be more locally-rooted, are more open to debate, and take longer to see and prove results than even the very complex task of providing HIV/AIDS services. Nonetheless, many of the underlying conditions that lead to systemic success are similar.

I’m excited to have an opportunity to work at an organization like R4D that has a strong track-record working in both health and education and is therefore uniquely positioned to share solutions across sectors.

What else inspires you as you prepare to take on this new role?

I’ll begin full-time at R4D in March and know I’ll have a lot to learn once I come on board! I’ve always been blessed to work with amazing people and as I came to know the team at R4D, I quickly realized that it is a mission-oriented organization with committed professionals who are driven to make a real difference in people’s lives. I’m excited to combine my previous experiences with others’ to hopefully contribute more than we would able to do otherwise.

I think there will be opportunities to work closely with other teams within R4D—health, governance, market dynamics—to tackle some cross-functional issues together.

I hope to work with our external education partners to build on R4D’s strengths in critical areas like early childhood development where the team is supporting the global education community to fill systemic knowledge gaps and inform policy and practice, and in the area of skills for employment where we are discovering innovative, effective ways to deliver skills-based training to students both inside and outside the classroom. I’m also interested in exploring the intersections between health, nutrition, and education, and thinking about how we can better support the entire education ecosystem in a country by focusing on areas like how education is financed, the importance of a high-quality workforce and strong leaders, the use of evidence for decision making and the importance of scaling up innovations that work. And of course, I’m excited to explore new strategic areas in the broader landscape where R4D could play a uniquely useful role.

I look forward to getting started!

For more information on the education leadership transition at R4D, click here or contact Wambui Munge, wmunge@r4d.org.