A few weeks, ago, I was privileged to share a stage with the President of the World Bank, the Minister of Finance from Ghana, the Minister of Planning from Niger, a Mayor from Brazil, and various experts in the field of education and child development, on a dynamic panel about Learning Poverty.
What stuck with me from the discussion was not the challenge of childhood literacy, nor the remedy the panel’s title espoused, “building the foundation of human capital,” though both are important topics. Instead, I was struck by the one similarity I saw in every panelist’s answers to questions about this critical challenge. They all believed that working together and involving more community members in the challenge was the key to success.
Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of Save the Children UK was perhaps the most prominent example of this belief. He challenged us as audience members by reminding us that, “It is a smart thing to listen to children.” He went on to explain that young people are way ahead of us in understanding the importance of great teachers and joy in the classroom.
Of course, the real star of the show was Anxhela, an Albanian student who spoke with passion about the challenge of childhood literacy and with insight about the factors that stood in our way (her statement). Anxhela, who is already a leader advising her local Municipality Council on issue related to safety, health care, and school infrastructure, provided a great example of how important student leadership is to our work.
While Anxhela’s example may be the most memorable, I can’t think of a single panel participant who did not speak out for greater community engagement. Aichatou Boulama Kane, Minister of Planning for Niger spoke of building community at the national level through her country’s nation-wide effort to increase education funding to 25% of the total budget and to focus the work of all sectors, including agriculture and health as well as education toward improving literacy.
Ivo Ferriera Gomes, the Mayor of Sobral, Brazil has seen tremendous educational success in his city, rising from 1366th to first in the nation, yet still spoke passionately about needing more stakeholders at the table for us to realize success. He specifically pointed out the need for universities to participate as full community members noting that, in his experience, they do not yet prepare teachers effectively to teach the fundamentals of reading or basic math. Mr. Gomes further explained that teachers are playing a central role in creating the curriculum in Brazil, ensuring that those who will implement the solution are part of creating the solution.
Even the Minister of Finance of Ghana, Kenneth Ofori-Atta, noted that we need more parent and teacher involvement to produce improved results for children. Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF offered a simple but compelling approach to addressing this challenge when she said, “Let’s be a team.”
I came to the panel believing that when we discussed human capital, we would focus on building the strongest possible workforce in our schools. The panel, however, greatly exceeded my expectations. Educators, of course, play a critical role in this work. However, when we think of human capital, we should think of all the people whose efforts are needed to realize success for students – including universities, parents, government officials, advocacy organizations and, of course, students themselves. We cannot solely focus on improving the quality of our teachers. We must also focus on deploying all of our human resources to address the challenge of childhood literacy. Training is important, but we cannot simply train our way to a solution. Instead, we need to engage full communities, including all stakeholders, to build viable, durable, workable solutions to our greatest educational challenges.