Making the Grade in Global Education

Recent headlines around the world feature a hotly contested debate about how societies should educate their youth for the global economy. On Tuesday, December 3, Shanghai's school system was named best in the world by OECD, and the United States came in slightly below average among industrialized nations. These results shined a spotlight on the relative strengths and weaknesses of education systems in China, the US, and countries around the world, but when the stakes are excellence and equity in education, pitting nations against each other is taking a narrow view. What’s most compelling about the global education conversation isn't who's right and who's wrong, it's in the nuanced discourse about what each system is doing right, where there is room for improvement, and what we can learn from one another.

On Tuesday, December 10, Teach For All and Asia Society presented "Making the Grade," a public program that examined these issues. Joining Teach For All CEO and Co-Founder Wendy Kopp and Teach For China CEO and Co-Founder Andrea Pasinetti were Susan Fuhrman, President of Columbia University Teachers College, and Tony Jackson, Vice President for Education and Leadership at Asia Society.    

Prior to the discussion, we caught up with the panelists via email to ask a few questions about what they see as the critical issues relating to equity and education.

Andrea Pasinetti: You were raised in New York City and went to China to launch Teach For China. Why did you feel compelled to address educational inequity in China?

I came to China in 2007 to study Chinese as a Princeton undergraduate, and at the time I knew nothing about China's educational system. But as I conducted research on rural policies for my college thesis, I began visiting multiple rural communities and schools. One particular visit is still extremely vivid: I arrived late one night to a small village seven hours north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. The next morning I awoke to attend classes and was quickly bombarded with questions by curious students. It wasn't hard to recognize that these children were incredibly smart and highly engaged, but it was heartbreaking to learn that many would not attend junior high, and that even fewer would make it to high school.

The headmaster told me it was impossible for his school to keep teachers because the village was remote and living conditions were challenging. It was the same in other rural locations, and the story was repeated by local teachers and education bureau officials everywhere I visited. Everyone was eager for good teachers—thanks to increased funding and government support, they had school buildings and infrastructure, but it remained challenging to recruit talent. I returned to Beijing with an incredible desire to alleviate this problem and I founded Teach For China to provide quality teachers to students who needed them most. 

Wendy Kopp:  What inspired you to take on education globally after 20 years of focusing on American education?

For several years I had been meeting inspiring social entrepreneurs from all over the world who had come across the model of Teach For America and were determined to bring it back to their countries to address the gap in educational opportunity. They wanted help recruiting and developing their nations’ future leaders to join this mission, so I joined forces with the founder of Teach First in the UK to launch Teach For All in 2007. Just six years later, the Teach For All network includes partner programs in 32 countries on six continents. Each organization recruits, trains, and supports top college graduates and professionals to commit two years to teach in high-need communities and provide long-term leadership in pursuit of expanding educational opportunity. Because rich and poor countries alike face similar challenges in educating their most disadvantaged students, we’ve discovered that solutions can be adapted across borders, inspiring innovation and new ways of thinking that increase our collective impact.

Through this work, I’ve realized that education is no longer a country by country issue, but a global one. In today’s world, our futures are connected regardless of national borders, and we all benefit from learning from each other’s best practices. As this week’s PISA results illustrate, we’ve seen that the systems in the world that are improving fastest are using similar strategies. They set high expectations of their students and embrace rigor curriculum that demands critical thinking. They place a high priority on teacher quality and development, and are focused on closing achievement gaps by providing disadvantaged students with more support, not less. PISA’s top performers demonstrate Teach For All’s core belief that equality and excellence must go hand in hand.

Tony Jackson:  Why should any country look abroad for educational practices?  What can we be learning from one another?

There are three reasons we should all be learning with the world as we strive to create better education systems:  (1) there is much to learn: there are great examples of what high quality education looks like around the world, and particularly in Asia we see how this is attainable at scale in a very short period of time; (2) no country knows it all: though many countries have examples of excellent practice, no country has a lock on what successful, high quality education should look like for all kids.  That last part is key:  for all kids; (3) dialogue creates opportunity: if we want to get to the point of educating all students for success in the global economy, we have to have an open dialogue about our successes and challenges. 

In the United States, as in many countries, we do know what it looks like to educate students successfully.  Where the US struggles is in doing this equitably and at scale.  In East Asia, you see an intense focus on implementation of high quality standards, a belief in children to succeed, and support for high quality teachers and training.  As we delve deeply into these issues in our work across countries, we have found emerging opportunities to build stronger educational practice by working together rather than alone.

It is easy to say we should learn from abroad, but tough to do.  Collaboration is a first step.  As in all the other areas where Asia Society works, sustained partnership is needed to support all kids in their journey to global competence and success.