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Symposium 2011

Proposal - Reinventing Education

The Challenge

Global competition and the global financial crisis have put additional pressures on education programs around the world—what they should deliver, how they should be delivered and how they should be ...

Global competition and the global financial crisis have put additional pressures on education programs around the world—what they should deliver, how they should be delivered and how they should be financed in terms of the relative contributions of the public and private sectors.

“Back to the Blackboard,” as an approach to the task of “reinventing” education suggests that the aim of the effort is not necessarily to create something completely new. It is, rather, to reexamine the goals, assumptions and the existing structures of the education enterprise, as a step towards evaluating proposals to improve educational processes and outcomes.

This caveat is particularly important for emerging economies struggling to invest additional funds in education. The plausible belief that the metrics and the high-end technologies adopted by developed countries accounted for their success can drive late-starters to take the same direction. Countries with cash to spare now propose to fund programs, for instance, to distribute tablet computers to all Grade 1 pupils. Studies have shown that computers are effective only when teachers have acquired control over subject area content and the training to deliver this through the new technology.

Randomized Control Trials (RCT) in underdeveloped countries have been yielding results that call for the need to address issues even more basic than teacher training in ICT. Teachers must actually report to the school, ready to conduct classes. Pupils must also be able to attend school and do not habitually absent themselves or drop out altogether because of chronic but curable ailments and the lack of funds to cover the costs of transport or incidental school expenses.

Successful pilot projects in developing countries need resources for scaling up tested best practices at the basic education level.

  • incentives, such as conditional cash transfers, to encourage parents to keep their children in school;
  • incentives to keep parents engaged in the tutoring of their children;
  • incentives to attract better students to pursue a career in teaching, and especially teaching science and math at the secondary level;
  • decongesting the curriculum to focus on critical competencies and life skills;
  • a system of sanctions and rewards to help ensure that teachers report to the schools and actually conduct classes for the children;
  • ensure that teachers are relieved of non-teaching obligations;
  • entrust the evaluation of student achievement to an agency apart from the education ministry;
  • coordinate with the health ministry and its agencies to address common, endemic diseases.

In the countries negotiating the difficult “last mile” of Education for All coverage—to reach isolated mountain or island settlements or small pockets of indigenous communities—approaches that have worked include:

  • the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction;
  • training of community members for basic literacy instruction;
  • aligning the school calendar with the community’s livelihood activities;
  • ensuring that the education agencies accept and support these practices and develop a system for an assessment and remediation program to allow graduates of indigenous elementary schools to mainstream to public secondary schools.

At the higher education level, the tension between the objectives of access and quality remains problematic. The global competition for talent and the mass demand for college credentials that it has reinforced have pushed emerging economies to accommodate a double standard of quality. Governments are selecting winners, identifying flagship universities to elevate as national, comprehensive research universities, which it supports with additional funds, to educate the best students and produce world-class research, while accommodating institutions that they hold to a lower level of quality to address the mass market for post-secondary education.

To address equity issues, governments must at least require the flagship universities into which they pour additional resources to assume some responsibility for technology transfer to the rest of the higher education system, so that the flow of funds helps to lift all boats. Governments must also invest in vocational-technical schools and ensure that pathways remain open for their graduates to earn college degrees at a time of their choosing.

The rapid pace of knowledge generation and technological change—and the shorter shelf-life of academic degrees—requires a commitment to both life-long learning and closer linkages between universities and employers. As the job market has become global, the advocacy for cooperative education, which promotes these linkages, has expanded to cover international internship programs for students, even before they graduate. This requires and deserves government support.

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