GMR Reflections: Investing in Teachers for the Future

Recently, Samantha Williams, Teach For All’s Director of Growth, Strategy, and Development – Africa, attended the launch of the United Nations’ 2013/14 Education For All Global Monitoring Report, which assesses the progress made toward the six Education For All goals established in 2000 at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal. These are her reflections:

As I made my way to Addis Ababa, I found myself wondering how much more I would actually learn from the launch of the latest Education For All Global Monitoring Report, which tracks how far we as a global community have come towards providing quality education to all of the world’s children. Admittedly, my expectations weren’t high. After all, haven’t we known for quite some time that while the focus on access has contributed to great strides in enrollment, the quality of education has also suffered due to overcrowding, fewer resources, and less support for teachers? And that not only are many children sitting in classrooms where they’re learning very little, but millions of children never sit in classrooms at all?

Despite all that has been “known,” the grim findings of the Global Monitoring Report shocked me deeply. The quantitative data was far more alarming than I’d anticipated. Fifty-seven million children out of school. Eighty million children in sub-Saharan Africa who will not learn the basics of literacy and numeracy. Worldwide, that figure leaps to 250 million children. Of those 250 million children, the majority attended school—the key failure that the Report seeks to emphasize.

There is a crisis out there that extends far beyond access, and it is painfully clear that meaningful access still eludes far too many children across the globe.

The panelists didn’t shy away from reflecting on the costs of this crisis. Financially, the Report estimates that up to 10% of what the world spends on primary education is more or less wasted, to the tune of $129 billion a year. But the true costs run even deeper. Amina Mohammed, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, pled for the world to pay attention to the young adults who lack the academic skills to succeed in the current economy – adults who a few short years ago were the children reflected in the data used to highlight our global shortcomings. “They haven’t gone anywhere,” she said. “The next set of goals [post-2015] has to address the skill set we need to give to those who received less than an education. This is a human right and not charity…and it’s absolutely essential in our budgets.”

In a world where education budgets are already strained and—as this report would suggest—somewhat misallocated, hard questions must be asked about where to focus investment. The Report’s key finding on this matter—taking into consideration the massive number of kids out of school, and the noted shortcomings of the existing opportunities children do have access to—is that the single most critical factor in solving this crisis is teachers. More teachers—but also  better trained, strategically placed, and meaningfully retained teachers, who are galvanized around a commitment to equity and equipped with the tools to meet the needs of kids at the very earliest years through to matriculation.

This recommendation in many ways echoes Teach For All’s vision and it resonated deeply with me as I reflected on my work here in Africa. In the context in which the social entrepreneurs seeking to launch “Teach For Ghana” or “Teach For Kenya” operate on a daily basis, realizing such a vision can seem beyond reach. Of all global teacher vacancies, 61% are in Africa. African children in low-income communities (both urban and rural) still face steeply unequal options. Even in Kenya—where the report indicates that learning outcomes are generally higher than in other nearby countries—half of all children from economically poor households drop out of school, while only 16% of kids from wealthy households do. And throughout the continent, the teaching conditions in rural vs. urban areas creates an enormous challenge around placing teachers in parts of the country where access to urban amenities is limited. Too often, teachers placed in rural areas are not provided with the ongoing support they need to continuously drive steady improvement in the schools where they teach. They are expected to do the same job as teachers in urban areas, but without the requisite training, resources or personal comforts.

In all, the Report stressed that globally, we need to make teaching a profession that is harder to get into, but easier to stay in. Across Africa, the social entrepreneurs championing the Teach For All model will have to internalize this recommendation as they seek out the most inspiring, motivated future leaders from their countries and develop them to be dedicated teachers, champions for equity, and lifelong advocates for children.

In time, I believe these efforts will lead to two things. First, a focus on teacher quality will impact the challenges around access. Good teachers make school more compelling—and given that 130 million of the 250 million kids worldwide who cannot read a sentence actually attended school, good teachers show families that the time their children spend there (and away from income-generating activities, for example) is actually worthwhile. Second, prioritizing the cultivation of excellent teachers who are advocates for their students will channel forward-thinking, committed leaders into the systems that determine educational quality and equity. Leaving Ethiopia, I was more excited than ever about the ways in which Teach For All partners in Africa can contribute to the global effort to recruit and retain outstanding classroom leaders, and to build a pipeline of system changers who will tackle the problem of inequity from all sides.