What Global Education Can Learn from Global Health

A young child looks out the door of a building (Taiwan ICDF/Flickr)

Photo: Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) / Flickr

By Matt Schiavenza
November 10, 2017

Globalization has created a world in which multinational companies compete against each other in a range of cultural and linguistic environments. Finding workers capable of participating in the new global economy, though, has proven challenging. According to a report by the International Commission on Financing Global Economic Opportunity, 40 percent of employers worldwide have reported having trouble finding qualified candidates.

A big reason why is education. Unlike markets for goods and services, education systems have been slow to adjust to an increasingly interconnected world.

“We’re trying to generate educated populations and individuals and children who are able to fulfill their life’s potential,” said Amy Black, the education lead for Results for Development. “And if we’re teaching kids what was useful 100 years ago, we’re not really giving them the opportunities they deserve.”

A huge problem is the fragmented nature of education. Standards and practices vary wildly between and within countries. And methods that prove successful in one context are rarely adapted elsewhere.

Organizations like Asia Society’s Center for Global Education, Results for Development, and Teach for All are working to create a “global education ecosystem” in which resources, insight, and best practices are collected, shared, and adapted by teachers and administrators throughout the world, in part through an informal working group that was created in follow-up to the Education Commission’s Learning Generation report, which proposes the largest expansion of educational opportunity in history and outlines the reforms and increased financial investment required to achieve it.

One field that offers a possible template is public health. In the last 25 years, the lives of 122 million people — roughly the population of Mexico — have been saved through medical advances. Deadly infectious diseases including HIV and tuberculosis have seen major declines. These advancements have occurred through technological change — but they’ve also benefited from an organized, sustained effort to share best practices between different countries.

“In public health, there are dozens of NGOs and civil society organizations, alongside many public-private partnerships, the UN system, and other intergovernmental organizations,” said Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for All. “This organizational infrastructure has almost certainly helped save or improve the lives of millions of people around the world.”

Can global education replicate this success? Doing so would require surmounting a set of idiosyncratic challenges. First is the sheer scale of the problem. According to J. Puckett of the Boston Consulting Group, 57 million children around the world do not go to school. Only 8 percent of young people in developing countries are expected to learn basic secondary level skills. (In developing countries, the corresponding figure is 70 percent.) Overall, 103 million people — nearly 60 percent women — are illiterate.

Measurement also presents a problem. Outcomes in health tend to be conclusive: It’s usually not difficult to determine that a patient has recovered or not. “Once you have a vaccine that works, you can point to a number of children whose lives have been saved as a result of it,” Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership of Education, said. “Not that it’s simple, but it occurs in a short period of time.”

Outcomes in education are more ambiguous. Even countries that adopt wholesale changes to their education system will not see conclusive results for years, inevitably attracting opposition from an impatient public. Determining whether a person is well-educated, too, is often more subjective and dependent on political norms within a particular country.

“In any country, assessment systems dictate what gets learned and what gets taught,” said Tony Jackson, director of the Center for Global Education at Asia Society. “So if those assessment systems run counter to teaching that produces higher-order thinking skills, teachers will find it difficult to implement those different kinds of pedagogy.”

But a real challenge for global education is something decidedly more simple: a lack of money. Again, the comparison to public health is instructive. In 2013, spending on global public health equaled $4.7 billion — more than 20 times higher than the amount allotted to global education. And support for global education too seems to be falling, from 10 percent of total funding from multilateral donors from 2002 to 2004 to just 7 percent a decade later. 97 percent of spending on education goes to local, rather than global, resources.

This lack of funding has had severe consequences.

“From our experience, almost no one, from local implementers to government officials, is globally informed when making strategic decisions,” said Kopp. “Best practices and insights that they could adapt are inaccessible or, when they are not, there is not enough support and practical guidance to help local stakeholders contextualize them effectively.”

The Global Education Ecosystem informal working group, co-led by Teach For All, the Center for Global Education (CGE) at Asia Society, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at the Brookings Institution, Results for Development, World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), will convene for the third time on November 14, 2017, hosted by WISE in Doha, Qatar.

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