Education inches to the fore at the Summit of the Americas

By Jennifer Brookland

April 13, 2015

Heads of state from the Americas pledged to continue efforts to bring greater and more equitable prosperity to their citizens at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama. As part of that promise, a growing focus on education is edging to the forefront of conversations about how to solidify gains in governance, job creation and security.

Summit participants resolved to take three key actions on education: improve the quality of education by training teachers and enhancing their technical skills; use education to enhance people’s job skills; and invest in research and innovation that will boost standards of learning in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The emphasis on education reform at this year’s summit “is a recognition of the key role that quality education has in improving human capital and growth with equity in the region,” says Michael McCabe, Senior Associate for Training and Capacity Building at Creative Associates International.

Prosperity with Equity, the theme of this year’s April 10 to 11 Summit, relies not just on fostering a healthy regional business environment but on educating the future employees and entrepreneurs who can make it run.

“Education must be on any agenda that focuses on prosperity,” wrote Susan Segal, President and CEO of Americas Society/Council of the Americas, in an opinion published by U.S. News & World Report.

In U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Summit remarks to the first-ever University Presidents of the Americas Forum—a Summit side event—he called education “the ladder of opportunity for people all across the planet.”

“How do we together best work to create jobs, to create opportunity, to build prosperity for our children and for generations to come?” asked Kerry. “There’s really a three-word answer to that question: Education, innovation, conservation.”

A patchy history

Economic development and prosperity have been on the agenda since the first Summit of the Americas was held in Miami in 1994, but education has received spottier attention.

It has popped up in various mandates at every Summit, along with topics from drugs and terrorism to democracy and sustainable development.

Education received special attention at the second Summit in 1998, when delegates prepared a Plan of Action ensuring universal access to quality education for all children and access to quality secondary education for at least 75 percent of young people by 2010.

But, the goals unmet, a similar pledge found its way into print at the most recent Summit, held in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012.

While many countries in Latin America have seen strong economic growth and lower poverty rates, there is still a notable income inequality gap overall, along with high school drop-out rates, youth under- and unemployment and crime and violence—which all feed on one another and prevent equitable, sustainable growth, says Sean Carroll, Senior Director at Creative.

“An increase in quality education for all in the region will go a long way towards mitigating these debilitating factors, and increasing inclusion, security and prosperity throughout the Americas,” says Carroll.

Just ahead of his appearance at this year’s Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama launched the $68 million Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, which will provide 250 fellowships annually to help youth in Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States develop business and civil society projects.

A fact sheet on the initiative lists limited access to educational opportunities and jobs among the reasons many youth are currently unable to reach their full potential.
Part of the new funding will go toward a $13 million U.S. Labor Department program in El Salvador and Honduras to develop market-relevant skills training for vulnerable youth.

“The focus on improving teacher’s technical skills, improving educational policies linking education to twenty-first century job skills and investing in innovation is an effort to break with old, traditional entrenched approaches to teaching,” says McCabe.

McCabe says that if we do not refocus education on demand-driven, learner-centered approaches that prepare teachers and provide students with the skills, critical thinking and flexibility needed for today’s jobs, then “the region will fall farther behind other regions that are comprehending these new dynamics.”

Proven returns on investment

The Americas have achieved near-universal primary school attendance, but learning quality remains variable.

“We have to be sure that between the time that our children enter school each morning and the time that they leave in the afternoon, they actually learn something,” said Kerry. “Sitting in a classroom and getting an education are not the same things.”

He said there was no substitute to investing in good teachers, providing them with quality professional development and incorporating new methods and technologies.

Furthermore, students need to see that academic success translates into success in life in order to tamp down the high levels of school dropout.

Beyond basic numeracy and literacy, an education system for the modern job market should “instill in its students a sense of curiosity, creativity and an ability to work well with others, which builds a foundation for life-long learning that is imperative for successful workers and entrepreneurs entering today’s growing economies around the world,” says Larry Hearn, Senior Associate for Workforce Development at Creative.

Today, Kerry said, the gap between the skills learned in school and the expertise demanded by the job market leaves both students and employers frustrated—a problem Summit participants seek to remedy through quality, workforce-oriented educational reform.

“The focus on education this year highlights a growing consensus to make investments that may take longer to see the payoffs, but those results have proven to have larger returns on investment,” says McCabe.

With additional reporting by Jillian Slutzker

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