Unfinished Business in Education

How do we improve education? Where do we start? Does the pandemic represent a pivotal moment?


Photo: Unfinished Business in Education / Agustín Porres

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How do we improve education? Where do we start? Does the pandemic represent a pivotal moment? Is there a possibility to define a new kind of learning?

In May 2020, as the first stages of a harsh quarantine in the region began, I decided to put these questions on the table.

But who could answer them? In my search for answers, I began to talk with former education ministers around the world via Zoom. However, I didn’t want to hear only about their successes. Rather, I wanted to know about the battles they had failed to win, the reforms that were still pending, and the decisions they wouldn’t make again.

On the other hand, I also sought to understand the concrete opportunities that were being considered in a post-pandemic scenario. The result: a frank conversation with great world leaders in education.

Those talks were compiled and published by Editorial Paidós in a book that has versions in English and Spanish, titled Unfinished Business in Education. It is prefaced by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education at the OECD, and features the voices of 31 great leaders in global education, including Arne Duncan of the United States; Julio María Sanguinetti of Uruguay; Ju Ho Lee of South Korea; Stefania Giannini of Italy; Daniel Filmus and Esteban Bullrich of Argentina; George Papandreou of Greece; and Julia Gillard of Australia.

When I embarked on this journey, I believed that the experiences of the leaders returning from public service were not valued enough:

What would happen, I wondered, if we had to redevelop the smallpox vaccine because we didn’t have enough records of our previous advances? How many resources, how much energy, how much time could we save ourselves just by having an overview of humanity’s mistakes and lessons learned?

I believe that collective intelligence lies in forming links that were not noticed before. For that reason, it was not only a question of investigating past experiences, but also of asking new questions: What were the main impediments to achieving change? How could those changes be achieved today? Is there a strong political will to support education? What reforms has this pandemic caused, and what will happen next?

Unfinished Business is a book of questions during a time of questioning. It is an invitation to inquire into why we do what we do and how we can do it better. In this sea of questions, the literature shows a clear history of successes and lessons learned. The following were the most recurrent ones:

1. Does It Improve Student Learning?

This is the fundamental question that must precede every decision in education policy. If that question is constantly present, it will be difficult to lose focus from the main goal of improving student learning, even if there is pressure from parents, officials, unions, political parties, the media, or other groups.

2. The Cultural Battle

Any society seeking substantial change must make education its priority, placing it as the great marker of progress. If education becomes a public demand, political decisions will not be able to circumvent this critical issue. However, for education to be on everyone’s minds, it is necessary to wage a cultural battle and create incentives for citizens to demand and support changes, no matter how difficult.

3. Government and Education

How do we make reforms happen and sustain them over time, regardless of changes in government or the political environment? In the English language there is a distinction between politics and policy. In Spanish, however, both translate as “política.” Unintentionally—or intentionally—partisan politics often intersect with public policy.

4. Autonomy

The degree of decentralization in education systems varies around the world. This variation has led to the development of different methods of leadership. There are models that work by responding to a central state authority, and others to a municipal one. In the interviews in Unfinished Business, some leaders point out possible paths towards an educational system with effective autonomy, moving beyond models based on surveillance and toward those based on trust and accountability. This would allow schools to decide for themselves how to achieve their learning objectives.

The pandemic is not only a health crisis; it is a crisis of meaning, of identity, of certainties. The crisis is also an opportunity. The word “crisis” comes from Greek and refers to distinction, choice, discernment, decision, and judgment.

The time of crisis is when routine no longer serves as a guide, when we need to choose one path and give up another. The time of crisis is one of decisiveness, intelligence, and courage. And that is the challenge of the pandemic.

Agustín Porres is the Latin America Regional Director of the Varkey Foundation.

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