Two comprehensive reports on education reform validate key pillars of Creative’s efforts to improve quality and expand access to education throughout the developing world. The reports were commissioned by separate groups for different uses, but they carry several common themes that are striking.
In the first report, the National Conference of State Legislatures—disappointed by U.S. performance on a comparative global learning assessment called Program for International Student Assessment—assembled a group of legislators, educators and experts to see what U.S. states could learn from education systems in the top-performing countries. Together, they published No Time To Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State.
The second report, released to the U.N. Secretary General, comes from the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, a high-level advisory body led by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and comprised of leaders in education, academia and business. It is called The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world.
The U.N. Commission’s work occurred as a follow-on to achieving the new Sustainable Development Goal on education, which calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Well-qualified and supported teachers
In terms of their common themes, it will be no surprise that both reports stress the critical importance of having an adequate number of well-qualified and supported teachers.
First, each document calls for more selective recruitment of teachers.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that the top-performing countries have a rigorous set of criteria for determining a candidate’s eligibility for teacher preparation, including an entrance exam that few pass.
The U.N. Commission recommends setting entry requirements that reflect both the ability to learn and develop and subject knowledge (supplemented by additional training if these are hard to meet), and recruiting from a range of backgrounds.
The reports also emphasize the need for solid teacher preparation and training.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that most teacher preparation programs in top-performing countries are based in prestigious research universities where candidates must master subjects to be taught and often participate in clinical practice. In these countries, new teachers are given a thorough induction into teaching, working as apprentices alongside more experienced colleagues in the first year.
That report also emphasizes that in some high-performing countries, only 30 percent to 35 percent of a teacher’s time is spent teaching students, while the rest is spent on activities such as working in teams with other teachers to develop and improve lessons, observing and critiquing classes, and working with struggling students.
In No Time To Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State, the authors note: “When not working directly with students, teachers are rewriting curriculum and assessments to meet the needs of their students and to meet high student performance expectations. Teachers also counsel and train each other, constantly observing, evaluating and improving their practices.”
Likewise, the U.N. Commission focuses on ongoing training, mentoring and support during teachers’ careers, and ensuring that all teachers, especially those in the early stages of their careers, are given sufficient time throughout the school year for professional development.
Support for early grade & at-risk students
A much greater focus on preschool and early childhood development, and significant help for struggling and vulnerable students is the second major area of overlap between the two reports.
The U.N. Commission’s The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world states that quality, pre-primary programs are highly cost-effective, increasing the likelihood of primary school attendance and decreasing grade repetition and dropping out. It also observes that good-quality preschools improve school readiness and can lead to better primary school outcomes, particularly for poor and disadvantaged students.
Similarly, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that the top-performing countries ensure that children arrive at school ready to learn, with this responsibility resting in some countries primarily with the government, and in others with families and the community.
For disadvantaged kids already in school, the U.N. Commission emphasizes the need for cross-sectoral strategies that tackle challenges children face around health, hunger, and disease; disabilities and sensory impairments; poor early childhood development; school safety and resilience; child labor and street children; and child marriage.
It states: “Getting all children into school and learning will require collaboration across sectors, recognizing the impact that all sectors can have in enabling the most disadvantaged children to learn – from health to infrastructure to security, and from communities and parents to religious leaders and private-sector innovators.”
On this issue, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that in top-performing countries, more teachers are typically allocated to schools with struggling students, with the best teachers serving in the most challenged schools, and resources are reallocated within schools to reach those most in need of extra support.
That report contrasts top-performing schools in this regard with the United States, where students from the wealthiest communities are most likely to get the best teachers and the finest facilities.
Strong education systems
Both reports stress the importance of robust and efficient schools systems.
The U.N. Commission states that strong education systems should focus on results at every level, urging countries to develop their own national student assessments as part of a sustainable infrastructure of data collection, organization, analysis, and feedback.
The U.N. Commission’s The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world states: “Learning from results-driven systems in education and across sectors, the Commission calls on decision-makers to set standards, track progress, and make information public; invest in what delivers the best results; and cut waste.”
The U.N. Commission also stresses the importance of reliable education management information systems, and scaling up innovation in three key areas: the education workforce; the use of technology; and the role of non-state partners.
The National Conference of State Legislatures report echoes many of these systemic issues. It finds that top performing countries have adopted a comprehensive approach where all policies and practices are developed to support the larger education system, which is designed to ensure that every student meets the same goal of college and career readiness.
Most importantly, one reform depends upon and is linked to another—schools need high-quality early childhood education, but that investment must be followed by high quality instruction.
Similarly, increased teacher pay is important, but not without more rigorous preparation programs. At the same time, more rigorous programs must go hand in hand with creation of a more attractive teaching profession.
These two major reports are significant in their respective contexts, but also underscore and validate many of the key areas on which we focus in our global education efforts. In this sense, these reports help build a greater global consensus on what works to establish quality education and learning.
Cris Revaz is Senior Education Counsel at Creative Associates International.