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

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.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability The Feds Offered Waivers on ESSA Accountability. Here's Where States Stand on Getting Them
While they get less attention than testing waivers, flexibility related to low-performing schools is an important federal and state issue.
5 min read
Image of a student taking a test with a mask on.
Rich Vintage/E+
Accountability Opinion Absenteeism Is the Wrong Student Engagement Metric to Use Right Now
In a post-pandemic era for school accountability, let’s focus on measuring what matters.
Sara Johnson, Annette Anderson & Ruth R. Faden
4 min read
Figure being erased.
Accountability Biden Education Team Squashes States' Push to Nix All Tests but Approves Other Flexibility
The department has telegraphed its decision to deny states' requests to cancel federally mandated tests for weeks.
3 min read
A first-grader learns keyboarding skills at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif on March 12, 2015. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.
The U.S. Department of Education denied some states' requests to cancel standardized tests this year. Others are seeking flexibility from some testing requirements, rather than skipping the assessments altogether.
Eric Risberg/AP
Accountability Explainer Will There Be Standardized Tests This Year? 8 Questions Answered
Educators want to know: Will the exams happen? If so, what will they look like, and how will the results be used?
12 min read
Students testing.