To give all children the best chance of success, the glaring inequalities in educational opportunities and investment must be addressed. Achieving the United Nations goal of ensuring quality universal education for all requires, above all, eliminating the environmentally destructive and economically inefficient poverty traps.
SAN JOSÉ – The COVID-19 pandemic caused the most significant global disruption to education in modern history. With nine out of ten children affected worldwide, two decades of progress in education access and success are at risk.
In response to this crisis, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres convened the Transforming Education Summit in New York this month. But the summit is about more than just reclaiming lost terrain. The goal is to mobilize a global movement that puts education at the top of the political agenda and pushes policymakers to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal for Education (SDG4): “Ensure inclusive and equitable and quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. ”
It’s not hard to see why education needs to be transformed. Even before the pandemic, the educational situation worldwide was anything but optimal. With 300 million children out of school, an estimated 57% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries cannot understand even a simple text.
To give every child the best chance of success, we need to aim higher. Making education more inclusive and equitable means addressing glaring inequalities in opportunity and investment. It also means removing the self-reinforcing mechanisms, also known as poverty traps, that perpetuate existing inequalities.
First of all, education must enable all students to develop their ability to learn by starting with the building blocks of knowledge and critical thinking: reading, writing, arithmetic and scientific thinking. This would help students distinguish fact-based arguments from false or unsubstantiated claims. Education should also enhance the capacity for lifelong learning and reskilling – a crucial skill in today’s rapidly changing labor market.
But at a time of increasing political polarization, education should go beyond academic ability and develop students’ ability to live together. This would require education systems that emphasize civic responsibility, democratic governance, respect for human diversity and an active commitment to sustainable development.
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For education to change for the better, schools themselves must change. In developing countries, for example, an estimated 90% of children with disabilities are still not in school. All schools must become safe and healthy places of learning where every child or young person feels accepted and protected.
Educators are the single most important contributor to education, and we need more of them — 69 million, to be precise — to meet the UN goal of universal basic education by 2030. But to transform education, teachers must transform themselves, transforming themselves from simply delivering content to developing their students’ problem-solving skills, and from reciting preconceived answers to asking challenging questions. The problem is that teachers are underqualified, underappreciated and underpaid. The only way to have more and better teachers is to improve their training, give them more trust and respect, and make sure they get paid more.
The pandemic has exposed the promise and danger of digital learning. Amid lockdown, digital technology has enabled many schools and teachers to reach otherwise isolated students. Yet many children in low- and middle-income countries still lack access to necessary equipment and reliable connectivity. Around the world, two-thirds of children and young people under the age of 25 still have no internet connection at home.
The digital revolution has the power to expand access and enrich learning. But if left to the market alone, it can exacerbate existing inequalities. Pedagogical teaching and learning resources should be considered public goods, free and accessible to all.
But it would take more than access to digital resources to narrow disparities in investment and educational opportunities. According to recent data from the Global Education Monitoring Report, rich countries invest an average of $8,500 a year in each school-age person. Upper-middle-income countries invest about US$1,000 per student, lower-middle-income countries only US$275, and the poorest countries less than US$50.
It is not just inequality between countries that is a cause for concern. The gap within a country between children from higher-income households with better-educated parents and children from lower-income and less-educated families is no less worrying – particularly in developing countries, where fewer than half of children have access to pre-primary education, compared with 91% in high-income countries.
To close these gaps, public education funding must be treated as an efficient and socially responsible investment: we must invest more in education, and invest more equitably and efficiently. A growing body of research has shown that education yields the highest returns – particularly early childhood education, which yields a $17 value for every $1 invested.
The problem is that investing in education is contextual. A country suffering from high inequality and an abundance of cheap labor attracts easy investments that create low-productivity jobs. Without the need for a skilled workforce, governments have little incentive to invest in education. As Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson have shown, institutional frameworks in such countries tend to be weaker. Economic and political power is typically concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, who resist the progressive tax hikes necessary to fund universal quality education. The result is a poverty trap.
It is often said that education plays an essential role in promoting sustainable economic growth. But environmentally destructive and economically inefficient poverty traps are the opposite of sustainable. In order to achieve the UN SDGs, they would inevitably have to be abolished. Only with a fairer model can we successfully anchor education as a human right.