Reflections on the International Day of Education

January 24, 2023

“Invest in people, prioritize education.”

January 24 has been proclaimed as the International Day of Education by the General Assembly of the United Nations. This year’s theme, “invest in people, prioritize education”, resonates with those of us involved in the educational enterprise. It is a call to focus our resources on what matters. It is also a call to action, a means of enacting the United Nations value statement that “education is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility”. If these things are so, then what does “invest in people, prioritize education” look like? How do we move from platitudes to making a difference?

The field of education is awash in platitudes. They roll off the tongues and out of the mouths every time a change is proposed.  But, as the saying goes, you can’t fake sincerity. Platitudes, like themes, need to be thought of as mission statements not mottos. A mission is a compelling call to action. It focuses attention and energy in a specific direction. And, a mission  demands a clear linkage between what is done (actions) and how it is done (values). In educational circles, there is often a disconnect between the “what” and the “how” that in the long run works against mission achievement.

Take for example the “No Child Left Behind Act” passed by the US Congress in 2001. The bill set a 12-year goal – the length of time a child would normally spend going through the school system – of having every student reach basic levels of mathematics and literacy achievement by the end of 12th grade. The goal – that no child would be left behind in America’s educational system – was a wonderful sentiment that few would argue against. However, the actions (the how) taken to reach that goal were out of synch with the goal. First, the need to be able to measure achievement levels to determine if the goal had been reached led to the wide-spread implementation of standardized testing; while standardized assessments have some value, they are also known to perpetuate economic and social disparities, and often fail to measure much beyond rote knowledge or lower-order processing skills. Second, and even more problematic, is that funding flowed to schools based on these achievement results. That meant that high-performing schools (most often in affluent neighbourhoods) received additional funds, while underperforming schools (most often in diverse or lower socio-economic neighbourhoods) received fewer funds. In other words, schools in areas that needed additional resources because many of their students faced additional learning challenges had their resources cut. Instead of “no child being left behind”, it seemed as if the program fostered “no disadvantaged child shall succeed”. If the goal was truly to ensure that no child got left behind, funding decisions would have been reversed: more investment is needed where problems are greater.

What could “invest in people, prioritize education” actually look like? At the individual level – that place where learner meets educator – the investment is one of time and personalization, enabling the educator to develop a positive relationship with the learner. The impacts of positive teacher-student relationships are clear: they provide safe space for students to learn, they increase student motivation, and they provide an environment that improves student behaviour. And, when taken together, they result in increased student achievement. I would go so far as to suggest that the most important task of the educator is to form a powerful working alliance with the learner, and that requires an investment in time.

At the system level, it means spending less time recycling platitudes, and more time directing resources at known system problems. Our funding structures are based on convenience financing: $X/head, regardless of need. Or, we play a variation of the no child left behind approach, and provide targeted funding to learners with identified special needs, which has been a boon to the educational assessment industry but still results in large numbers of learners being un- or mis-identified and their learning needs being unmet. Meanwhile, teachers struggle to forge those essential relationships with students because they are expected to cope with a vast array of challenges in the day-to-day classroom. Good system questions, demanding differential consideration of resources, could include questions such as, “How are we going to deal with the lowered literacy levels of children who were “COVID learn from home students” in their first 2 years of school?”; “How can we address the persistent achievement gaps for learners from economically disadvantaged communities, or who come from households with little or no parental support?”; “How can we encourage greater participation and success by girls in maths and sciences?”; “How do we help every child develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to embark on a preferred future?” There is no shortage of these known system problems, but there is a shortage of resources to deal with them. 

In some ways, it seems as if our educational system has retained the structures of a world that no longer exists. Despite the increased complexity of the world around us, we generally provide the same amount of time, in roughly the same ways, for children to become “productive members of society”. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek famously quipped, “If Rip Van Winkle came back, there’s only one institution he would recognize: “Oh! That’s a school.” 

On this International Day of Education, let’s think about how we can turn platitudes into positive change. Let’s remember that the foundation for most learning lies in the levels of respect and trust between learner and educator. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that some of us, at some time, need a little more help and that we need to direct our resources to known problems. And, let’s take a moment to look around us, and stand in both celebration and awe at the marvellous educators everywhere who consistently do these things on a daily basis. Bravo to you!