Q&A: From politicization to action in education

Students in class at a school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by: GPE / Midastouch / CC BY-NC-ND

Is education a human right in and of itself, or something that is justified because it makes economic sense? Is a for-profit system more effective than a state system? Are direct comparisons between the two even possible?

When it comes to education, the debate between different approaches to ensuring education for all often hits a wall and taking the narrative beyond politicization to action can be a challenge.

“These are some of the old debates that are holding education reform back,” said Devex London-based reporter Sophie Edwards. “At Devex World, we want to talk about emerging approaches and identify ways to build an effective movement around education. At the moment we don't really have one, it's very fragmented.”

So how can we move the needle on progress? Taking a deep dive on what’s possible in the education sector at Devex World on June 12 in Washington, D.C., Edwards will drive a conversation focusing on a way forward that’s not about communications plans or social media strategies, but coalitions, community activism, and, ultimately, movement building.

“The Millennium Development Goals were all about universal access, and the Sustainable Development Goals have taken this even further, but it's pretty complicated how you actually deliver that and also who delivers that,” Edwards added. “I think the idea is to work out how we get beyond these goals and actually bring real change.”

Edwards — who writes on global education, water and sanitation, and reproductive and sexual health and rights among other topics at Devex — will be drawing on the perspectives of luminaries including Teach for All’s Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Wendy Kopp, Education Outcomes Fund for Africa and the Middle East’s CEO Amel Karboul, and Phyllis Costanza, CEO of the UBS Optimus Foundation, on how to turn debate into progress. We sat down with Edwards to learn more ahead of the event.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the key issues within the education sector today — and what role does storytelling play?

The basic thrust is that education is in crisis — not only around the number of children in schools. In recent years we’ve started to understand that even when kids are in school, they may not be learning very much. Then there’s the added damage when they come out of school: Is what they've been learning actually relevant to the ever-changing jobs market — especially with the emergence of artificial intelligence and mechanized jobs? With this in mind, is traditional education even going to be useful in tomorrow’s workplace?

I think the storytelling part comes in, because it’s one of the reasons education doesn't seem to be moving forward, or that progress doesn't seem to be happening at the rate of, say, health. It's not attracting the kind of international or domestic funding that health is. Education and health are usually held up as comparable sectors because they’re both seen as social goods that are not easily quantifiable with financial benefits.

The narrative around education is stuck within this old debate around whether education should only be delivered by the state, or whether it’s something that the private sector needs to be involved with. Is education a human right and something that's a good in and of itself, or is it something that we should do because we can see that there are health, job, and wealth creation benefits that come from education? And should we be describing it in those terms as opposed to “every child has a right to an education?”

Why is it important we talk about storytelling around education at Devex World?

The sector is very polarized. On the one side, you have groups like teachers' unions who very much push for the idea that education should be delivered by the state and only by the state, and that it’s a universal right.

Way over on the other side, you have the for-profit school providers who say that states are failing and we have to find alternative solutions — for example, why not utilize the power of the private sector and technology and why not do that on a for-profit basis because that's the way that it will work and become scalable?

There are also a lot of opinions in between. There are many private school chains that don’t run on a for-profit basis, but a lot of air time and column inches get taken up with this conversation around the for-profit versus state argument.

With that in mind, what can people expect to leave this session with? How will it take the conversation forward?

We want to drive some actual outcomes and partnerships. We don't want to get stuck talking about these debates — they're just the background for why we need to have the conversation move forward. I also think it will be showcasing some of the innovative new approaches within education and ways of financing it.

Other than development practitioners working in education, are there others who might find this track at Devex World useful?

I think it’ll be especially interesting to funders, because a lot of it is related to new funding models. For example, the education outcomes fund that Amel Karboul will be talking about, which is basically a development impact bond on education that they're trying to raise. It’s innovative because very few have been done in education before, partly because learning outcomes themselves are hard to measure and quantify, and they only present themselves over the long term.

Global education providers looking to work more with philanthropists can also get some insights from UBS Optimus Foundation’s Phyllis Costanza.  UBS banks half the world’s billionaires, many of which want to become philanthropists. So that’s a lot of potential funding which, if it can be directed constructively, could have huge impacts on global development, including education.

It will also be fascinating to hear from Wendy Kopp, who as head of Teach for All is leading an education movement in her own right. Kopp’s organization is taking a very different approach and, instead of focusing just on getting more money into education, is working to strengthen and develop community education leaders in developing countries, supported by a global network of teachers and students to drive better learning in their local contexts.

Devex World is on June 12, 2018, at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C., Find out more here and note that this unique event will reach full capacity.

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