Friday, September 21, 2012

How should the global community define new educational goals?

Number of primary-school-age children
not in school, by region (2006)
The other night I sat in on Laura Engel's UNESCO seminar. There was a most interesting discussion about education policy for developing countries. Timely too. The Education for All (EfA) initiative dates back to 1990, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to 2000, and both set benchmarks for 2015. We have a few years to consider new goals and initiatives for after 2015.

It is clear that schooling, at least at the primary school level has been greatly expanded over the past two decades. Of course a lot of the credit goes to people in many, many countries who feel that education is important and who have worked to make it more available and better at the local, national and/or international level. I know that there are criticisms of both EfA and the MDGs, but I feel that they have made a contribution to the improvement of school systems. On the other hand, there is still a lot to be done to get all kids to school for a reasonable number of years. Therefore it makes sense to me to create a new multinational initiative with its own goals.

Primary School Completion Rate by Country
Source: Gapminder
I found myself in the discussion arguing that the rate of change in developing countries is greater than that in developed nations. The majority of people living in developing nations in Asia and Africa are experiencing rates of economic growth several times those experienced in European or other developed nations. Their industries are experiencing the "creative-destruction" of capitalist economies at a faster rate than ours, the balance between cost of capital and cost of labor is changing quickly, and workers are having to learn new techniques at a high rate.

Similarly, developing countries are experiencing high rates of social change. The rate of rural to urban migration alone is staggering, and the changes someone moving from a rural community to a city are very great. Global media are intruding into traditional societies, bringing all sorts of new ideas. Political institutions are changing. Foreign firms are entering local markets in developing countries, bringing new products, new ways of doing things, and new ideas with them.

If I am right, people in developing countries face even greater challenges learning to live successfully in their changing societies than do people in developed nations. The will have to learn fast and learn continuously over their lifetimes.

Mean Years in School (Women 25 years and older) by Country
Source: Gapminder
Educational systems in developing countries, which are generally starved for resources and already failing to serve many of the people they should serve, face huge challenges helping people to learn that which they will need to learn to live successfully in their changing societies. Note that I am talking about primary, secondary and tertiary schools, but also about other institutions and systems that provide learning opportunities, from libraries and publishers to radio and television, and beyond.

We had an interesting discussion on educational content. How important is training to equip students with the skills to find immediate employment? How important is it to provide continuing opportunities for training through peoples lifetimes to help them adapt to changing work environments and challenges? How does an educational system organize to provide the society with all the different workers it needs for rapid progress?

What more should the educational system take on? Does it have a responsibility to prepare people for their roles as parents, as citizens, as conservators of the environment? Should it seek to build character so that people will help their neighbors, battle against corruption, and/or sacrifice for their children and families? How in the world does one educate to build strong character?

How important are the economic versus other objectives of the educational system?

One of the criticisms of the current multinational education initiatives and goals is that they are largely the product of only four agencies -- UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the UNDP -- and that the member nations of these agencies were not sufficiently involved in developing the goals that they, the national governments, would be expected to fulfill.

How then should the international community go about developing a new initiative and new benchmarks for education? What would be the best way? What kind of impact can such an exercise have, and how can that impact be directed to do the most good? What is the most feasible way to develop an adequate initiative and benchmarks? How could a plan be developed that best enlists the enthusiastic participation of the many stakeholders in carrying out the plan?

It would seem a first step would be an assessment of the current situation and a review of the progress, success and failure of EfA and the MDGs. Many elements exist that would contribute to such an assessment, and the major intergovernmental organizations involved in international education might usefully develop (jointly or individually) position papers.

The audience for a new multinational statement of purpose and benchmarks would be national governments, especially their education ministries, the international agencies mentioned above, as well as other civil society and private sector agencies involved in education policy. The audience includes both donors of foreign aid and recipients of that aid. How would one go about development of the policy to make it most intelligible and useful to this broad audience?

Who are the ultimate beneficiaries? I would say they are the learners in developing nations, and the nations themselves. That is, the policy should take into account not only the needs and desires of the learners who would be the ultimate beneficiaries of the educational system, but also the role of the educational system in nation building (economic, political, cultural. etc.). Perhaps it would be useful to use some approach to survey the demands of learners. Perhaps is would also be useful to survey governments to discover their aspirations for the contributions of their educational systems to national development.

Presumably the new initiative and benchmarks will be approved by the United Nations. Would the debate in that forum provide adequate input for the national governments? One approach that has been used in the past has been for the nations themselves to develop national plans, and to integrate these into a global plan. Would such an approach work?

Of course, one can not answer such questions in any adequate way in a two hour class discussion. Still I think it is useful to consider the questions themselves, both in class and at length. In fact, people talking to students in this seminar will have participated in making such plans in the past, and students who think about these questions will be in a better position to appreciate those informants.

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