Quick reactions to The Learning Generation

The Learning Generation – the Report of The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity chaired by Gordon Brown – was published last week. When the Commission was announced amid much fanfare last year, I was sceptical, but I have to say I found the final report a lot more encouraging than I expected to.

The first big thing the Commission gets right is to continue what CGD calls the pivot to quality. Words matter, and the whole language of a ‘learning generation’ underscores that the focus needs to move beyond getting kids into school and towards the question of what happens when they get there – where right now, the answer is not enough.

The second big thing the Commission gets right is to recognise that the primary responsibility for financing public education lies with domestic governments, though of course international actors must play a role.

The third big thing the Commission gets right, though I would have liked to see it go further, is to acknowledge that while government has ultimate responsibility for guaranteeing access and regulating standards, when it comes to delivery it should be looking to partner with and learn from the best of the non-state sector (including private schools) to achieve its goals, through things like public-private partnerships.

The fourth big thing the Commission gets right is to link investment and reform, and to posit a virtuous circle between the two “in which investment in education leads to reform and results, and reform and results lead to new investment”. Gordon Brown’s influence is particularly visible here: money combined with reform was his mantra when, as Britain’s finance minister, he significantly increased government spending on public services.

This is an important rhetorical shift: too much of the education debate continues to suggest that money by itself is the answer, as evidenced by the plaintive cries for "a Bill Gates for education”. As the Commission notes, there is no evidence to suggest that simply spending more money would help (e.g. in India private schools achieve learning gains that are the same or better than government schools at a third of the unit cost). No one is suggesting that money doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t appear to be a driving force so much as a force multiplier: where the system is configured to deliver improvements in learning, more money helps; where it isn’t, it doesn’t.

The real test of the Commission’s impact will be whether the new rhetoric signals a more fundamental shift in the international education community’s theory of change. At the moment, there is a tendency for the official voices of that community to squander their considerable profile and platform on platitudes about how important education is. The implicit assumption seems to be that if only people could understand the importance of education, they would open their wallets and all would be well. By this logic, appointing Rihanna as a Global Ambassador for education makes sense because she has the star power to get out the message that education matters. 

But if Rihanna is the answer, what is the question? I totally buy Jamie Drummond’s argument that there is a place for pop culture in advocacy. But as he points out, celebrity is not enough without the right policy and the right political analysis.  Find me a single politician – actually forget that, find me a single person – who says education doesn’t matter. Ignorance of education’s importance is not a convincing explanation for why so many education systems are failing children on a truly industrial scale.

Much more convincing is the emerging work of the RISE programme that locates the problem in the politics of education reform. On this view, school systems fail because prevailing political incentives reward policy-making that won’t improve learning while punishing or at least not rewarding policy-making that might. The decline of development assistance to the education sector (at a time when funding for the health sector has grown strongly) in part reflects a fairly rational calculation on the part of donors about the prospects of getting a good return on their investment.

And here’s where the Commission’s Report is less compelling. In its definition of what constitutes quality, and its financial modelling of what it will take to deliver it, the Commission falls back on the sorts of policies that fall into the first category – things that don’t improve learning – not the second. For example, defining quality teaching by reference to increasing the supply of teachers with a tertiary degree leads the Commission to the rather implausible conclusion that 60% of tertiary graduates should be going into teaching, or that teacher salaries need to be 7 to 8 times GDP per capita.

Indeed, the whole exercise of putting a (rather eye-watering) price tag on a universal quality education feels premature when the evidence base about how to achieve it is essentially non-existent. Yes, there is a growing body of rigorous research about the sorts of things that improve learning outcomes (which essentially boil down to better, more differentiated pedagogy and stronger accountability), but very little about how these get diffused across actually existing education systems.

The bottom line is that the politics of raising quality are much, much tougher than the politics of increasing enrolment. Closing failing schools makes you much less popular than building them; getting rid of bad teachers wins you fewer friends than hiring them (actually, even finding out whether teachers are good or bad can make you pretty unpopular); and facing up to the hard facts about how little kids are learning takes a lot more courage than basking in a self-congratulatory glow about reaching universal enrolment.

The ideas in the report that feel most exciting are therefore the ones that feel like they have some potential to make the politics easier for reformers - in particular, the push for investing in internationally comparable learning assessments. Through peer pressure and the implicit threat to national prestige of slipping down the rankings, the OECD's PISA assessments have provoked important political conversations within education ministries in rich countries about the relative performance of their school systems in a way that hasn't happened as much in less developed countries, despite sterling work by the community-led learning assessment movement. 

"Without the ability to successfully navigate the politics of reform to build support for change", the Commission notes, "the best intentions will not lead to results." By making clear that the fate of the learning generation rests on the shoulders of true reformers, and that the responsibility of the international education community should be to support them (both financially and otherwise), the Commission has done an important service.