Musings on the Global Education Movement

2015 is rapidly approaching, and among all of the Millennium Development Goals, we’ve arguably come closest to achieving Goal #2: Universal Primary Education. Access to education has dramatically increased, with the number of out-of-school children dropping from 96 million to 72 million between 1999 and 2005. Average enrollment rates in primary school have increased to over 80%, and completion above 60%. Between 1991 and 2007, the ratio of girls to boys in primary education in the developing world improved from 84 to 96%. However, assessments since 1999 show that poor learning outcomes in language, math, and other subjects are pervasive—with over 60% of countries allocating less than 800 yearly hours of instruction for grades 1-6 (far too few), and many developing countries facing shortages of trained teachers.

From my own experiences volunteering in government primary schools in the poor neighborhoods of Bangalore, children were hardly fazed by teacher absenteeism and misconduct. It’s far from surprising that the Education for All (EFA) agenda has been widely criticized globally for having a one-dimensional focus on increasing access to education for children around the world, while not focusing enough on the need to improve learning outcomes.

Given that, we’ve seen many approaches to this challenge come into play—the Fast Track Initiative, invests in a partnership model to support the development, monitoring, and evaluation of education reform at the global and country levels. The World Bank’s strategy on Learning for All acknowledges rapid changes globally and calls for a new focus on learning instead of schooling. The recently released Global Compact on Learning from the Brookings Institution argues for reprioritization in the education sector, focusing on early childhood education, basic literacy and numeracy in the primary grades, and a emphasis on livelihood skills and transitional support to secondary education as the key drivers of change.

Yet despite these new calls for focus, and for all players to come to the table and join in the common fight to improve education, I can’t help but feel a little lost in the muddied waters of this movement. We’ve heard these messages time and time again—that education is critical for the development of individuals and nations; that we need to move together in a common direction to improve learning outcomes for all. Yet it’s clear that despite the fact that everyone agrees on the critical importance of education, the global movement to change the status quo has failed to capture the attention of the public, and has failed to truly move the bar on delivering quality education to children in the developing world. Efforts to make change are disjoint, operate in vastly different contexts, and often present confusing or competing messages. I wonder to what extent we can even speak of a “global education movement,” given that there has been no single, unifying strategy to improve learning outcomes to point to. What will it take to chart a common strategy, what roles will varying stakeholders play (government, international organizations, private sector, foundations and NGOs, communities, parents and youth), and what unit of analysis should we work within—globally, nationwide, provincially, or within cities and communities? I think of how education reform is organized in the US, or exciting examples of partnership, like Strive, that operate in a city and its surrounding regions, and wonder how meaningful it is to talk about a global strategy that is supposed to operate in 192 countries with 116 official languages, with vastly different states of development and experiences of childhood.

Without negating the importance of identifying high-level priorities, or of sharing important lessons to be learnt across countries and contexts, this movement needs a clear strategy, through a manageable unit of analysis. It needs to define the unique position that different players take to address critical challenges in education, and identify specific ways that we can better work with each other to drive better learning outcomes for kids.

We need more examples of great strategy on improving education in the developing world. What examples do you have to share?

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