Where are 60 million teachers twenty four years later?
A meditation on World Teachers’ Day
Fernando Reimers and Eleonora Villegas-Reimers
Twenty-four years ago, we published an article titled ‘Where are 60 million teachers? The missing voice in education reforms around the world.’ The article was published in UNESCO’s journal Prospects in several languages and disseminated widely. Eleonora had been a school-teacher in Venezuela, had done research on teacher education in Latin America, and was then working as a teacher educator in Boston, and Fernando had conducted studies in elementary schools in Pakistan, Egypt, Honduras and Paraguay, interviewing hundreds of teachers, and was advising a national education reform in Paraguay. As we had both then advised governments and international agencies on issues of education reform, it seemed to us that we had witnessed too many missed opportunities to include teachers’ voices in the design and implementation of education reforms around the world. We said that much in that article and in various seminars and fora in which we spoke at that time, and Fernando dealt extensively with the issue in a book he was then finishing, with his colleague Noel McGinn, Informed Dialogue. One of those seminars was one of the consultations organized by UNESCO in preparation for the report on education for the twenty first century, coordinated by Jacques Delors. Delors was very interested in our idea that reforms had to explicitly integrate teachers’ voices and the topic was included in the report Learning the Treasure Within. We tried to help education leaders understand that approaches to reform that force ideas about what, when or how to teach without including teachers in decisions and processes from the start are misguided, disrespectful of the teacher profession, and, ultimately, also ineffective.
As we have been examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education, we have come back to the question we posed a quarter century ago with renewed urgency. The pandemic represents the most serious threat to educational opportunity around the world. Not to mince words, we are witnessing the global collapse of educational opportunities, especially for children who live in poverty. This is happening in rich and poor countries, in the north and in the south, in the east and the west.
The mechanisms through which the pandemic is robbing children of low-resourced communities –more deeply than for children of higher socio-economic status — the right to receive an education of quality are three: first, school closures during the pandemic have severely limited, even eliminated, the ways in which students can engage with their teachers and with structured learning opportunities. Second, the public costs of the pandemic are constraining resources to fund schools, even at their most basic levels. And, third, the economic costs of the pandemic are severely impacting poor and under-resourced families, reducing their ability and opportunity to support their children’s education. These mechanisms are discussed in greater detail in Fernando’s recent book Leading Education Through COVID-19. Upholding the Right to Education. Furthermore, the second and third of these three mechanisms through which the pandemic is robbing the children of under-resourced communities of their right to be educated, will continue and worsen once the pandemic is over. We are on the brink of an education crisis comparable to the ‘lost decade’ for social development in the 1980s, caused by the economic adjustment programs put in place in response to the debt crisis of many developing countries at that time.
In many places around the world, teachers have demonstrated remarkable professionalism and commitment to the education of their students during these health and economic crises. They have created alternative modes of engaging with their students, through internet, whatssapp, phone calls, or finding ways to deliver lessons and instructional materials to their students in remote areas and, in some cases, one on one. In the best cases, they have been able to do this with the support of the administrators at their schools, districts and other levels of governance. In some cases, they have done this in spite of lack of adequate support from those administrators. We should celebrate the remarkable creativity, ingenuity, and sacrifice of teachers around the world who have, in very little time and too often with insufficient support to gain the knowledge to do this well, created the most remarkable educational experiment in recent history. An unseen benefit of this pandemic is that it has given an opportunity to most people, parents and non-parents alike, to understand the importance of teachers and good teaching, and the acknowledgement that there are significant and specialized sets of skills and knowledge involved in designing, delivering and assessing student learning opportunities, professional characteristics that professional teachers know well and are experts at.
This celebration of the professionalism of teachers, however, should not blind us to the fact that for many children, especially the most marginalized, the current arrangements are inadequate, insufficient and, in the long run, likely ineffective. Teachers, as those closest to the children, have invaluable knowledge about what is and is not working in the arrangements to continue to educate during the pandemic. If we are serious about upholding the right to education, teachers’ direct knowledge about what is and is not working should be front and center in the conversations that are shaping government’s responses to the pandemic. In too many places, teachers’ voices are absent, even unwelcome, as governments and education leaders make terribly consequential decisions for the life chances of all children, especially children who live in poverty and whose limited resources only come from the governments of their cities, states or countries. The pandemic will cause yet more pain and suffering, much more among the most vulnerable, not only while a reliable vaccine and treatments are identified and distributed widely, but also in the aftermath of the pandemic. It would be unconscionable to ignore those teachers who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to providing children stability, a sense of normalcy, support, and the hope that better days will come, in shaping how communities and societies sustain our schools through the difficult years ahead.
As we witness the collapse of the educational opportunities for the children of those most affected by this plague, and by the deficient responses of many in leadership roles, we ask again, as we did a quarter century ago, where are eighty million teachers? (that is the number of those teaching at all levels today). How are their voices included in shaping society’s efforts to re-build our communities better?
Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation of the Practice of International Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs the Global Education Innovation Initiative and the International Education Policy Program.
Eleonora Villegas-Reimers is a Clinical Professor at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, where she chairs the Department of Teaching and Learning.