Accountability Opinion

Why Educators Should Get Serious About Free Universal Education

By Susan Hopgood, Lily Eskelsen García & Randi Weingarten — October 13, 2015 4 min read
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As educators, we’re optimists by nature, and we believe the global goals adopted by the United Nations late last month will be achieved by the 2030 target date, including free quality education for all. What gives this particular goal the best chance of success is how the U.N.-identified “sustainable development goals” are interrelated—the success of one requiring the success of others. The elimination of poverty and hunger and the ensuring of healthy lives and gender equity, to name a few, are all benefits of quality education.

Why the optimism? Start with the people who were not in New York City to attend the United Nations but who dominate global attention—the millions around the world displaced and on the move because of natural and man-made disasters, and the parents who are risking everything to give their children a quality education, a healthy start, and an upbringing free of violence. We can see this most recently with the tens of thousands fleeing war-torn Syria and Afghanistan and the mounting human toll of that exodus.

No single goal’s success will end this misery. Teachers in Lebanon working double and triple shifts to accommodate Syrian-refugee students without extra pay are part of a comprehensive solution only when we add meaningful civil society and governmental interventions. The inclusion and accountability that link our challenges together will drive a new definition of success that leaves no one behind.


Next, think in terms of the whole child, whole school, whole community, whole system. Failure in the past was marked by fragmented, piecemeal strategies and market fundamentalism. The U.N.'s sustainable-development goals are not a shopping list to guide purchases inside a global supermarket limited by an overstretched credit line and a lint-filled purse. Instead, they are an ecosystem in which education, poverty reduction, healthy lives, GDP, and environmental sustainability are linked and embedded in shared national interests.

The days of arguing over the costs and benefits of overlapping line items are over. The cost of educating a girl and the cost of women’s health programs are no longer a win-or-lose funding choice in an era of goals that recognize holistic benefits. When well-being (physical, social, emotional), environmental sustainability, and greater equality are elevated, cross-sector collaborations take root, and the search for interactions replaces the race of advocates and their funders to prove the worth of single, sectoral interventions.

Failure in the past was marked by fragmented, piecemeal strategies and market fundamentalism.

Third, recognize that the world is not only ready for quality, it’s sick and tired of pretenders. Tablets don’t replace teachers any more than radio or cassette tapes did. More than two millennia of teachers and students have watched fads come and go while study after study repeatedly reports the value of high-quality professional teachers. Yet, trending policies like those that led to expanded class sizes and untrained class minders seem always to use communities of the poorest and most marginalized as laboratories.

Why is it that a 10-year-old girl in Accra, Ghana, must sell water at busy intersections on Mondays and Wednesdays to raise money to go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Why is it that global for-profit companies are hiring consulting firms to help them pick governments with the least capacity as partners in enterprises that eliminate public schooling in favor of fee-based content mills led by the lowest-paid workers available?

One reason is that, until now, there has been relatively little discussion about consistently demanding government accountability on issues like reforming global capital and finance regulations, strengthening domestic resource mobilization, and simply collecting the taxes owed. But in an era in which global priorities are latticed in a visible way, and governments and private-sector actors are internationally branded for their selfish and often callous activities, NGOs, funders, and advocates will be united in defending and promoting the range of goals in unison. Education is a human right and must be free.

This is how we win. It’s no longer enough to support each other’s success in coalitions and collections of shared purpose. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals will guide our success in the next 15 years, because they are a path for a world in crisis and chaos at a time when millions of eyes are turned to the United Nations and global advocates, hoping to see collective engagement across a very broad front of issues.

As teachers, we know how it feels to have so many eyes watching and people poised to participate. They are looking not for answers to every crisis in turn, but for a consistent and aggressive implementation of a plan for success. In this case, in our own time, they are seeking assurance that humanity will put its money where its mouth is, and finally apply lessons learned to its most pressing problems. The U.N.'s sustainable-development goals are the right place to start.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Education Is a Global Answer to the Challenges of Our Time


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