Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary, CEO of Education.org, a non-profit independent foundation working to advance evidence and improve education for every learner.
With over 240 billion school days lost during the pandemic, the global learning crisis demands urgent action from global leaders. We have many of the answers; we are just failing to act.
By 2030, the world has promised to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. That was the ambition of UN Sustainable Development Goal 4. At the current pace of progress, it is not going to happen.
What would this collective failure mean for the future of our children and communities? For many, the consequences of lost opportunities in basic education are unfathomable.
If we were to write a report card for our world, it would say “try harder”. It would point out that, even before COVID-19 struck and schools around the globe shut down, there were nearly 260 million children out of school.
It would warn that the world is still struggling with the most basic elements of an education that many of us take for granted. Almost 620 million children – roughly six in ten – were not achieving the minimum proficiency standards for reading and maths, with another 100 million likely to join them because of the pandemic.
To make matters worse, the world’s schools have recently been off sick for long periods – over 240 billion days of school have been lost since January 2020 due to COVID-19.
With the ongoing threats of the pandemic, political instability and climate change, is there room at the table for a debate about the global learning crisis? Does the opportunity to press reset and build back better include our children’s education?
We call on the world’s leaders not to ignore the devastating impact that will result from a continued failure to meet our children’s most basic education needs, and which has only been accelerated by COVID-19. There are easy solutions to hand, after all.
Our research shows that a crucial part of the answer can be met by urgently fixing education’s knowing-doing gap. This gap currently creates a disconnect between what we know about improving education from available research, how those insights are translated for and shared with policymakers and practitioners, and what we do in practice.
When I served as Board Member and Chair of the former Strategy and Impact Committee at the Global Partnership for Education, I saw first-hand the damage that this gap inflicted on an education ecosystem that advocates for and funds research but offers little effective support in putting those findings to work.
This gap has painful repercussions, especially for the most vulnerable students, such as marginalised girls or students with different needs, resulting in poor coordination and ill-fitting solutions that do not match the scale or urgency of the challenges we face.
Building an “education knowledge bridge” between researchers, policymakers and practitioners to eliminate this gap would lift millions of children out of deep water and into better lives. A recent White Paper we released, drawing on a thorough 12-month analysis of 45 organisations and 80 interviews with education sector leaders including ministers, academics, funders, NGOs, and international organisations leaders and practitioners, confirmed this. It shows that we have the knowledge we need to make things better, we are just failing to use what we already know.
Education ministers and country managers of non-governmental organisations bemoan the fact that they struggle to make sense of the latest research in a way that can deliver positive change in their own environments. Crucially, an education knowledge bridge would allow us to make better use of the existing evidence in a way that suits different contexts, by including a broader range of sources and voices that are often left out.
Such a bridge would help us make smarter use of scarce funding by identifying the greatest needs, tailoring solutions and avoiding duplication. It would encourage greater inclusion of policy and teaching voices in the early stages of research, contribute to stronger, more equitable education systems and allow us to respond more quickly, especially in times of crisis.
We have seen a similar approach produce remarkable results in the healthcare sector. Investment in applied and user-centred health research has been backed up by an established and structured system of synthesising findings to create actionable, relevant and translatable guidance that informs policy and delivers impact.
How can we achieve the same in education?
We identified five key capabilities that must be developed to bridge the knowing-doing gap in education.
First, while existing education research must be put to better use, new research must be designed with the user in mind, involving policymakers and teachers early on to focus academic studies on real-world problems.
One of the major obstacles faced by policymakers is to make sense of all the jigsaw pieces in research, some of which might conflict. Developing a comprehensive and systematic approach to synthesising this information would clear the fog.
However, bringing together diverse research for a generalised audience must also be supported by a process that translates these findings into helpful guidance for policymakers.
Turning guidance into policy and practice requires improved capacity to implement change by engaging stakeholders from all corners of the education ecosystem, reflecting local needs and adapting mid-flow to improve outcomes, if required.
This demands an enabling environment for evidence-based action: focusing on users more than theory, reinforcing existing education systems rather than forging parallel tracks, protecting research independence and policy choices from funding biases, making the most of global and local networks, and prioritising equity in education for all students.
Building an education knowledge bridge will take a global effort involving everyone working in education. Without it, ambitious targets for providing quality education for all will remain out of reach and the world’s school report card will continue to make for painful reading. Change can no longer wait. Advancing evidence can help course correct this trajectory so that our world can improve education for every learner.