The Covid-19 pandemic caused the most significant global disruption in education in modern history. With nine out of 10 children around the world affected, two decades of progress on educational access and attainment 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 regaining lost ground. The goal is to mobilise a global movement that can bring education to the forefront of the political agenda and push policymakers to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for education (SDG4): “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
It is not hard to see why education needs to be transformed. Even before the pandemic, the state of education worldwide was far from ideal. With 300 million children out of school, an estimated 57 percent of 10-year-olds in low-and middle-income countries cannot even comprehend a simple text.
To give every child the best chance to succeed, we must aim higher. Making education more inclusive and equitable means addressing glaring inequalities in opportunities and investment. It also means eradicating the self-reinforcing mechanisms, also known as poverty traps, that perpetuate existing disparities.
For starters, education must allow all students to develop their capacity for learning by starting with the building blocks of knowledge and critical thinking: literacy, numeracy, and scientific reasoning. Doing so would help students distinguish fact-based arguments from fake or unsubstantiated claims. Education should also enhance the capacity for lifelong learning and re-learning – a crucial skill in today’s rapidly changing job market.
But at a time of growing political polarisation, education should go beyond academic skills and develop students’ capacity 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.
For education to be transformed for the better, schools themselves need to change. For example, in developing countries, an estimated 90 percent of children with disabilities still don’t attend school. All schools need to become safe and healthy learning spaces where every child or young person feels accepted and protected.
Educators are the most critical factor for education, and we need more of them – 69 million, to be exact – in order to achieve the UN goal of ensuring universal basic education by 2030. But to transform education, teachers must also transform themselves, shifting from merely transmitting content to developing their students’ problem-solving skills, and from reciting preconceived answers to posing challenging questions. The problem is that teachers are under-trained, undervalued, and underpaid. The only way to have more and better teachers is by strengthening their training, showing them more trust and respect, and ensuring that they receive higher pay.
The pandemic has demonstrated the promise and the peril of digital learning. In the midst of lockdowns, digital technology allowed many schools and teachers to reach otherwise-isolated students. Yet, in low- and middle-income countries, many children still lack access to necessary equipment and reliable connectivity. Worldwide, two-thirds of children and young people below the age of 25 still have no home internet connection.
The digital revolution has the power to expand access and enrich learning. But if left to the market alone, it may exacerbate existing inequalities. Educational teaching and learning resources should be considered public goods, free and open to all.
But it would take more than access to digital resources to reduce disparities in investment and educational opportunities. According to recent datafrom the Global Education Monitoring Report, rich countries invest an average of $8,500 per year on each school-age person. Upper-middle-income countries invest about $1,000 per student, lower-middle-income just $275, and the poorest countries less than $50.
It is not just inequality between countries that is a source of concern. Within-country gaps between children from higher-income households with better-educated parents and children born to lower-income and less-educated families are no less disturbing – particularly in the developing world, where less than half of children have access to pre-primary education, compared with 91 percent in high-income countries.
Closing these gaps requires treating the financing of public education as an efficient and socially responsible investment: we need to invest more in education, and to invest more equitably and efficiently. A growing body of research has shown that education has the highest rate of return – particularly early-childhood education, which yields $17 in value for every $1 invested.
The problem is that investment in education is context-dependent. A country that suffers from high inequality and an abundance of cheap labour attracts unsophisticated investments that create low-productivity jobs. Without the need for a skilled labour force, governments have little incentive to invest in education. As Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson have shown, institutional frameworks tend to be weaker in such countries. Economic and political power is typically concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, who oppose the progressive tax increases necessary to finance universal quality education. The result is a poverty trap.
It is often said education plays an essential role in promoting sustainable economic growth. But environmentally destructive and economically inefficient poverty traps are the opposite of sustainable. Achieving the UN’s SDGs would necessarily require eradicating them. Only with a more equitable model can we successfully enshrine education as a human right.
Leonardo Garnier is Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the Transforming Education Summit.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2022