Speaking Out for Education — in the U.S. and Around the World

I’ve been fortunate to be involved since early 2014 with the Global Partnership for Education, which, to oversimplify their mission, gathers and manages resources from countries and other donors for developing nations that are building their primary and secondary education systems. More recently, I worked with an organization called American Graduate, which raises awareness about ways to improve U.S. high school graduation rates, as well as with the Save the Children Action
, which is dedicated to promoting universal early childhood education here in the States.

desksThe more I learn from the Global Partnership about the challenges of educating children in developing countries the more I think about the public
discussion about the shortcomings in our own education system here in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, our tradition of and emphasis on universal education for everyone in the U.S., not to mention the sophistication of our teachers and teaching systems, are well beyond the dreams of most developing countries. According to UNESCO, an estimated 124 million children globally — primarily in low- to moderate-income developing societies — are currently not in school, and hundreds of millions drop out or don’t learn basic reading or math by the time they reach grade 4.

Still, many of the points global education advocates make could in some ways apply to our own often flawed system here in the U.S.

Most prominent among those points: with so many high-profile crises swirling around us, there appears to be too little urgency associated with education. That’s the point Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister and now Board Chair of the Global Partnership, makes in this piece (which I had a hand in). “I am always heartened by these displays of global goodwill driven by” painful humanitarian emergencies that emerge from conflict, natural disaster, epidemic and the chaotic breakdown of governments, she writes.

But, I confess, I’m also troubled that the world cannot summon the same sense of concern and action around an insidious and long-standing misfortune that dooms millions of lives to despair.

I’m speaking of the less visible tragedy of hundreds of millions around the world who have little or no formal education at all. I’m speaking of the silent horror of children who have no hope for a better future because they are denied the right to learn. Many of these children are deprived of an education because of the surge in violent conflicts around the globe, the same fighting that is driving the refugee crisis… But, in comparison to typhoons, earthquakes and wars the education crisis is less noticeable. Its velocity is far more incremental. Its victims’ pain is much less visible. They, too, can tell countless stories of suffering and the scale of the damage is enormous.

She notes that global funding for education in developing countries has dropped in recent years, even as development aid overall has grown. Surely, she says, we can address the most visible, fast-moving emergencies just as we try to solve the longer-term crisis of education.

Too often, it seems, there is a tendency in the U.S. to take our eyes off the centrality of education. I say that with full respect of the many educators and education advocates who dedicate their lives to helping children learn in the U.S. But it’s striking how little attention education gets in our national public discourse. Except for some perfunctory utterances about the value of education to America’s future, our public office holders (and candidates) and pundits seemingly spend little time on the subject. And, too often, our school systems are struggling to provide the resources necessary to improve education outcomes for all.

That’s a lesson from this piece (that I helped develop and place) by John Gomperts of America’s Promise Alliance. Appearing in Washington Monthly earlier this week, the Op-Ed tells the story of Charlie Bird, an educator in the St. Louis Public Schools system whose job is to find students who have left school before graduation and coaxing them back to get their diploma. As Gomperts stresses:

Not surprisingly, young people living in challenging circumstances tend to be, by necessity, resilient and resourceful. But for many of them, resilience and resourcefulness are not enough to overcome the barriers they face. They require something that so many others their age take for granted: help from caring adults to reassure and guide them, steer them toward opportunity and keep them on track.

It’s a tough job that Bird performs by himself, one that almost lost its funding until groups like American Graduate mobilized St. Louis residents to make the case to continue its funding.

Save the Children Action Network is trying to do in the U.S. what many developing countries are also trying to put in place: early childhood education. Experts agree that early childhood education yields enormous long-term benefits for students and society as a whole. I was happy to have helped with this piece by Scott Hilliard, a county sheriff in New Hampshire, who notes:

Those of us in law enforcement will always be seeking new and more effective crime fighting approaches and more sophisticated tools and technologies to help us stay ahead of crime. But we know that even innovative, well-equipped police forces can only go so far to tame the problem. Ultimately, police are battling a symptom of a fundamental challenge, not its source. By supporting strong early childhood education today, we will be in a much better position to secure our communities in the future.

The good news is that so many prominent voices are speaking out. The question is, who is listening and taking action?

Jeff Weintraub

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