Even before coronavirus disrupted the education of 1.5 billion children around the world, many struggled with exclusion, inefficiency, high dropout rates, and poor access to high-quality learning and technology. Today, World Teachers’ Day, is an appropriate moment to emphasize that tackling many of these issues requires a stronger partnership with those on the educational front.
In recent years, policymakers seeking to address the learning crisis have deployed numerous models, tools, and approaches, including mixed teaching. mother tongue teaching, structured pedagogy and teaching at the right level, as well as educational technology (edtech).
Yet the reality is that it has yielded modest results. The crisis is deepening, with more than half of the children in low- and middle-income countries unable to read or understand a simple section by the age of 10, according to the World Bank.
The need for critical thinking and problem solving, as well as creativity and the social and collective skills of grace and courtesy are also neglected. So too are practical skills critical for the future, most of which are not explored but can be integrated into teaching, such as carpentry, crafts, arts and crafts, basic farming techniques and entrepreneurship.
The highest priority after the pandemic is to identify what works best at the lowest cost, especially for poorer countries. Credible evidence is needed for governments to make changes.
Progress is being made with initiatives such as the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel to highlight “smart buying”. Good measures include providing information to parents and children, and structured lesson plans. ‘Bad buy’ includes investing in hardware without considering related teacher training.
It is necessary to test innovations, document lessons learned, and evaluate the impact before scaling it up. Too many initiatives are rushed, and in most cases the money invested fails.
Edtech offers room to improve outcomes – if it provides adequate support. It requires teacher tools, time and confidence; it must be designed and created by, tested and shared among teachers.
Some innovations are still being developed by those outside the school system, ignoring critical issues and leaving gaps that hinder the survey. Those that fail are often developed outside the countries where they are applied, ignoring the local context and being forced on teachers.
Other innovations undermine professional autonomy and creativity, and therefore run the risk of failing because it does not get the support of teachers and unions. Examples include lesson plans that require teachers to follow each word without their own input. Even for those with insufficient skills, plans should serve as a reference rather than being followed without a doubt.
Trade unions do not have to be an obstacle to reforms. When consulted and respected, they often support innovation. In Uganda, the ‘thematic curriculum’ approach is designed to help learners start with familiar concepts in a local language. This failed until the union took the lead in preparing teachers, who quickly embraced the model. It showed improved outcomes.
Education International (a federation of teachers’ unions) and individual unions have led innovations, such as the training of 500 educators in Tanzania to diploma level in early childhood education. They helped marginalized children by integrating 3,000 community teachers in Mali into the general education staff. And the Quality Educators project in Uganda has combined technology with pedagogy to improve teaching.
We need highly trained, qualified and motivated teachers who work in safe, child-friendly and sensitive gender institutions, and provide nutrition programs for poor children. In fact, teachers often have insufficient support, jobs in underfunded schools and salaries are delayed or unpaid. This pressure is highlighted by the pandemic, with job losses, increased workload and poor working conditions imposed by hybrid and mixed learning. Teachers are expected to work online and offline, teach in shifts, adapt content to abbreviated terms and undertake additional learner assessment.
The majority do not have the skills and support to teach online. An education-international study in 2020 showed that only 28 percent of teachers in Africa receive training. More high-quality teacher recruitment is needed, along with initial and continuing in-service training.
All of these strategies require adequate funding. Governments need to allocate more resources, rather than cutting budgets to fund other sectors. Development partners should support teaching needs in the country, rather than their own predetermined priorities.
Policymakers should avoid the temptation to outsource, privatize, and commercialize education, especially by using companies that want to benefit from current and future crises. Education is not a commodity, it is a fundamental human right, a public interest and a public responsibility. High quality public education must be fair and accessible to all.
Juliet Wajega is Uganda Coordinator of the Work: No Child’s Business Program and former Deputy General Secretary of the Uganda National Teachers’ Union