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Empowering All Students at Scale



The global movement to educate all children has produced one of the most remarkable silent revolutions experienced by humanity, integrating most children and youth into institutions invented to pass on to them what each generation considers valuable, and to help them develop the competencies to improve the world. Changes in a range of domains, from technology to politics, from the ways in which we communicate and associate, to the ways in which we produce goods and services, continue to expand our aspirations for how schools should prepare the young to invent the future. There is much innovation worldwide responding to this aspiration, and the need to bring such innovations to scale so they benefit all children. The contributors to this book explain what the opportunities and challenges are to scale educational change to make schools relevant to the demands of our times. Based on a Think Tank convened by the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University, this book aims to stimulate broad social dialogue on how to support students and teachers to live fulfilling lives in the volatility and complexity of our times.
All Students
At Scale
Fernando M. Reimers (Editor)
With contributions from
Alejandro Almazan Zimerman,
K. C
Allan J. Coutinho, Armando Estrada,
Luis E. Garcia de Brigard, Paulina Grino,
Santiago Isaza Arango, Ken Kay, Cesar Alberto Loeza
Altamirano, Charlie MacCormack, Eileen McGivney,
María Carolina Meza, María Figueroa, Felipe Martínez,
Pak Tee Ng, and Rafael C. P. Parente
© Fernando M. Reimers (Editor) This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a
copy of this license, visit
ISBN-13: 978-1545486832
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017906111
Table of Contents
Making education for all relevant at scale – by Fernando M. Reimers . . . 1
Scaling 21st Century Education – by Charlie MacCormack . . . . . . . . . . .23
Redefining educational quality: a 21st century understanding of student
achievement in Latin America – by Luis E. Garcia de Brigard . . . . . . . .29
21st leaders needed! – by María Carolina Meza . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Vision and Leadership: Key levers to scale 21st century education
globally -- by Ken Kay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Scaling Impact: A Focus on Flexible Adaptation, not Replication –
by Eileen McGivney . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
Collaborative Cross-Sector Partnerships as a Strategy for Designing and
Scaling Quality
ll You
eople i
n th
e 21st
K. C
ung .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
The renewal of school culture -- by Armando Estrada .. . . . . . . . . . . . . 63
Developing 21st century skills through higher education
by María Figueroa and Felipe Martínez . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
Changing Science Teaching Practice in Chile – by Paulina Grino . . . . . 81
Skills for the 21st century: Perspectives and contributions from the
Active Urban School – by Santiago Isaza Arango . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
Scaling Up 21st Century Education in Singapore
by Pak Tee Ng . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . 95
Implications to develop 21st century skills with the use of technology in
public schools in Mexico: UNETE’s experience – by Alejandro Almazan
Zimerman and Cesar Alberto Loeza Altamirano . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
Introducing 21st Century Skills in Brazil: Conecturma, Our Journey has
Begun! – by Rafael C. P. Parente with Allan J. Coutinho . .. . . . . . . . . . . 107
Making education for all relevant at scale
Fernando M. Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International
Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
The world has, for some time now, been changing rapidly:
technological change, demographic changes, economic changes, even
climate changes. These transformations have caused some to be
concerned that schools may not be adequately helping students to
develop the competencies necessary to participate in society and to
adequately address these changes. Expressive of such concern are
views that argue that schools have not changed at all, or changed too
little, since they were invented, or views arguing that schools are unable
to sufficiently rapidly transform themselves, or to bring the necessary
innovations to sufficient scale to help the majority of students gain the
competencies that they will need in the future. By change at scale, I
mean change in the nature of teaching and learning that is observed
consistently across the majority of schools within a network—where
membership in the network is defined by belonging to the same
administrative jurisdiction—to a set of schools targeted by the same
programmatic efforts of improvement, or to a set of schools that self-
identify as sharing a particular set of goals and identity and commit to
shared norms and practices.
These concerns about the paucity of educational innovation
notwithstanding, there are plenty of examples of educational change
around the world, often at significant scale. Not only have public
schools succeeded in providing access to school to the majority of the
world’s children mostly over the last century, but school expansion and
primary school completion in the developing world outperforms
expansion in early industrialized countries, net of the differences in per
capita income between nations, and average levels of schooling of the
population in the developing world exceed the levels of education of
the population early industrialized nations, at the historical point when
levels of per capita income were comparable to those today in the
developing world (Glewwe and Muralidharan, 2015). Such educational
achievements would not have been possible without significant change
in the institutions of education. Those who think schools have changed
little over the last century overestimate what was learned in the first
public schools invented in the mid nineteen century, their succees in
enrolling all children and their efficiency in helping students complete
the expected course of studies.
The concerns over the question of change at scale therefor stem not
from the inability of schools to change, or even to change at scale, but
from an insufficient understanding of the process through which schools
change at scale and the consequent limitation in our capacity to manage
their future evolution. The problem, therefore, is not with the capacity
of school systems to change, the problem is with our capacity to make
that change predictable and to manage it. Simply put, rather than
decrying schools’ inability to change, we need more understanding of
how they do change at scale.
To advance our understanding of how schools change at scale, it is
helpful to distinguish three forms of educational change: changes in the
number and kind of students schools aim to serve; changes in
instruction reflecting curricular goals on which there is wide consensus
on goals as well as on the instructional practices to achieve such goals;
and changes in instruction reflecting emerging notions of what
competencies matter, but not widespread consensus on either goals or
instructional practices to achieve them. Knowledge of how education
systems change at scale is more developed for the first two forms of
change, which I will call efficiency enhancing change, than for the third form
of change, which I will call relevancy enhancing change. The paucity of
knowledge of how to scale relevancy enhancing reforms is paradoxical
given that there are ongoing efforts to scale such reforms, whether they
have been successful or not. As a result, practitioners involved in these
efforts know quite a bit about the barriers to scaling such efforts, as
well as about the conditions which are necessary for success. It appears
that in this case theory and research trail practice—that we know more
than we think we do, or at least that those who lead those efforts know
more than those who study them. This is a case of a mismatch between
public and private knowledge.
Accelerating the process of knowing how to support relevancy
enhancing reform requires making explicit and visible the private
knowledge that has been gained by those who have attempted
relevancy enhancing reforms at scale, and creating conditions that
enable the formalization of such knowledge so that we can examine
and test the hypotheses that emerge from such formalization. In other
words, we need to make the private and tacit knowledge gained from
the practice of educational change at scale public and visible, and
therefore verifiable. This publication is an attempt to contribute to
such process. It is the result of a two day think tank which brought
together leaders of thought and practice from Brazil, Chile, China,
Colombia, India, Mexico, Singapore, and the United States—all of
whom are involved in leading efforts at scale to transform schools so
that students can develop competencies which are relevant to the
demands of the 21st century. I am very appreciative of all those who
participated in the Think Tank, and especially of those who were able
to write the reflections compiled in this book. I am also very grateful to
Nell O’Donnell for her skilled editing of the submissions.
We convened this meeting as part of the work of the Global Education
Innovation Initiative, a research and practice collaborative that seeks to
understand and enhance the capacity of public education systems to
provide students with effective opportunities to learn what they need
to live fulfilling lives and to improve the world. The Global Education
Innovation Initiative advances three inter-related sets of activities:
applied research, education dialogues, and the development of
frameworks and tools to support the consistent adoption of effective
educational practices at scale. As part of our applied research work, we
have completed a synthesis of research on competencies relevant in the
21st century, and used the report to then examine which of these
competencies are addressed in the curriculum frameworks of several
education systems (Reimers & Chung, 2016). We have also completed a
study of various programs of teacher professional development to
support pedagogies that provide a balanced education, addressing
cognitive, emotional, and social domains. From those two studies we
learned that there are numerous examples of education initiatives that
provide a balanced 21st century education, but far fewer that have
reached significant scale. It was this realization that motivated this
think tank.
The education dialogues that are carried out as part of the Global
Education Innovation Initiative bring together researchers, policy
makers, and leaders of practice to foster learning across these groups
for the purpose of advancing the translation of research into reform
initiatives, or to translate knowledge gained from practice into
researchable propositions. This approach is informed by work that
highlights the importance of engaging education practitioners in
creating knowledge for the improvement of education, such as the
work of Tony Bryk and associates on improvement networks (Bryk et
al., 2015); by the framework of Informed Dialogue to support
collaborative work between education practitioners, policy makers and
researchers (Reimers & McGinn, 1997); and by the concept of
“adaptive leadership” developed by Ron Heifetz and colleagues, to
describe ways to support collective action in domains on which there is
no agreement on the definition of problems or solutions (Heifetz et al.,
An example of one such dialogue carried out as part of the initiative
was a convening of education leaders from Massachusetts together
with education leaders from Singapore, to examine ways of preparation
of teachers and school principals. The lessons learned in that exchange
are reflected in a short publication designed to stimulate a broad
dialogue among leaders of teacher education institutions and other key
stakeholders in the field of teacher preparation and support in
Massachusetts (Reimers & O’Donnell, 2016). The think tank we
convened in October of 2016 to discuss the challenges of scaling 21st
century education reforms was another dialogue of the Global
Education Innovation Initiative. All participants in this think tank were
invited to contribute reflections following the two-day meeting. This
compilation was shared with all those who participated in the Think
Tank who were invited to use this knowledge in developing country
specific strategies to foster collective leadership efforts to advance 21st
century education at scale in their respective jurisdictions. Those plans
were then presented and received feedback at a global conference
convened by the Global Education Innovation Initiative in May of
2017 which brought together over 200 leaders of thought and practice
involved in relevance enhancing reform efforts. This iterative process
that supports educational transformation at scale with periodic
convenings and discussions of such efforts in light of the knowledge
generated by applied research efforts is what we mean by Informed
Dialogue. The publications prepared to support such dialogues are
published using creative commons licenses in order to invite the rapid
dissemination and adaptation of those ideas to various contexts, and to
invite partnership in co-constructing and advancing a knowledge base
that is reflective of practitioners’ knowledge, often underrepresented in
academic literature on the process of educational change.
Education systems have changed more than we think
Developed over two centuries ago as a byproduct of the
Enlightenment, the institution of public education was an innovation
designed to provide all people the opportunities to develop capabilities
to improve themselves and the communities of which they are a part.
Inherent to this institutional invention, therefore, is the aspiration of
scale. The scale that public education has reached over the last century
and a half is remarkable. Today, most children in the world go to
school, a result of dramatic expansion in access which took place over
the last century, especially significant given that it took place in a
context of dramatic population growth. Almost two billion humans
today are under the age of 25, and most of them spend a considerable
period of their lives in educational institutions. Few products or
services have scaled in the history of humanity the way in which basic
education has in the last century. Since public education systems are
typically the largest organizations in most societies, they represent also
the best context in which to study and understand the challenges of
producing change at scale.
Change at scale in public education has unfolded along two interrelated
dimensions. The first: simply in the number of students that schools
have included. The second: in the services delivered by schools to
those students. Over the course of their history, educational
institutions have expanded the definition of who should be educated—
expanding the definition of what is meant by educating all children—as
well as the definition of what competencies those children should gain
in school, with the consequent expansion in the services necessary to
help students gain these competencies.
I have elsewhere argued that the history of public education can be
construed as the history of two competing social “projects.” First, a
conservative project that sees schools as conserving and preserving
social structures and values; and, second, a progressive project that sees
schools as capable of building a more inclusive social order (Reimers,
2006). Each of these competing projects has been defined by
expectations about which students should be educated and by the
purposes for which they should be educated. Institutional structures,
norms, and practices have evolved to achieve those expectations
including, among others, curriculum standards, roles for educators,
pedagogies, governance of schools, and approaches to assessment.
Examples of the expansion of the definition of who should be
educated include the American civil rights movement and the global
movement to educate students with special learning needs. The civil
rights movement in the United States aimed to advance greater social
inclusion and justice by expanding educational opportunities for
African American children and other racial minority children who had
been previously denied those opportunities, both in terms of access to
school as well as real opportunities to learn. The global movement to
educate students with special learning needs, the aspirations of which
are reflected in the Salamanca statement and framework for action on
special needs education, were adopted by the World Conference on
Needs Education in Salamanca in 1994. These are examples of ongoing
progressive efforts to expand the definition of “all to truly include all
Further examples of the progressive project’s efforts to expand the
definition of what, exactly, should be learned in school include the
stance adopted by Horace Mann by proposing that students should be
taught to read by engaging with “big ideas” and authentic texts; the
Progressive Education Movement in the United States advanced by
John Dewey and his contemporaries; or the more recent global
movement to promote the teaching of high order thinking skills,
reflected for example in international assessments of student
knowledge and skills such as the Organisation for Economic Co-
operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International
Student Assessment (PISA).
The global movement to educate all children is therefore, by definition,
an example of change at scale in the institutions of education. The
opportunity to enroll in school and to learn what was intended in the
curriculum has been “scaled” to include more and more children in
ways that have outpaced the growth of the world’s population. This has
been done by identifying institutional structures, norms, and practices
that enable such expansion and scaling them. Often this process has
succeeded by recognizing practices which had been successful in some
geographies, transferring them to different contexts, and then scaling
them. Much of the assistance offered by international development
education organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF, or others to the
global education movement has consisted of identifying such practices,
transferring them, and supporting governments as they scale them. For
example, much of the expansion in access to primary education during
the 1950s was achieved by implementing practices such as “double
shifts” of classes in the same school building, and in this way doubling
the capacity of the existing infrastructure in order to enroll more
children. Efforts to improve quality at scale have included the design
and provision of textbooks and other instructional resources, the
development of norms for teacher certification, and provision of
teacher professional development in core academic subjects such as
literacy, or mathematics, and the development of systems of
assessment of student knowledge and skills.
The scaling of structures, norms, and practices to make education more
“relevant” and more “empowering” of students has been more
contentious, in part because of contestation over the specifics of which
competencies actually empower children. There is, arguably, a
developmental progression resulting from the contested nature of how
to make education relevant. The divergent nature of views over what to
teach and how make this truly an adaptive challenge. As consensus is
reached over what to teach and how to do it, this becomes a technical
challenge of improving quality. It is today easier to find consensus
around the basic literacies of reading and writing, and perhaps
numeracy, and therefore to scale practices aimed at supporting their
development as has been done extensively in the past. This was not
always the case, however, and veritable “wars” were fought over
discussion of what it meant to learn to read, learn math, or learn
Today, consensus around whether other competencies are
empowering, and should therefore be part of the mix of universal
public education, is more elusive. For instance, in the year 2000, the
OECD launched a program to assess higher order skills in the areas of
literacy, mathematics and science, the Programme of International
Student Assessment (PISA). These cross-national assessments were
designed to evaluate the extent to which 15-year-olds who were
enrolled in school had the necessary skills to participate in a knowledge
based economy and in democratic societies. This assessment has
generated valuable information about the levels of skills demonstrated
by youth and the disparities in the skill levels among various groups
within the countries participating in these studies. But, this information
has not been received with the same enthusiasm everywhere.
Education leaders in some nations have withdrawn from participating
in these assessments; others have openly challenged the assessment as
an interventionist attempt on the part of the OECD, controlled by
nations that industrialized earlier, to impose a particular educational
model. Even more elusive is consensus on the ways to help students
develop as whole children, attending to their socio-emotional as well as
cognitive development.
Elusive as the consensus may be over what makes education relevant
and empowering, there is no question that the acceleration of changes
in the social context of schools makes it imperative to keep searching
for ways to make education matter to the lives students live and will
live in the future. Even as the goals of education remain to prepare
students to be self-authoring and to improve the communities of which
they are a part, the specific skills and dispositions that should be gained
in school need to evolve to keep up with changes in social organization
and production. As artificial intelligence increasingly allows computers
to do tasks that humans previously did, this changes the skill
requirements for economic participation. As technology changes the
ways in which people organize, relate to each other, or participate
civically, new skills are necessary to do those things in ways that are
mediated by technology. As the demographic composition of
communities changes because of globalization, new dispositions are
necessary to develop the trust and civility which are indispensable for
humane and civil community participation and social interaction. To
sum up, elusive as the consensus over what competencies will make
education more relevant may be, it is essential that schools engage in
the search for ways to become more relevant. The special challenge will
be to engage in such a change process without complete knowledge to
guide it, and to design a process of change in such a way that it can
help generate some of that knowledge. It is because of the special
nature of this challenge that bringing relevancy enhancing reforms to
scale is not the same as scaling efficiency enhancing change.
In spite of these challenges, calls for such change efforts have been
slowly developing over the last two decades. Beginning in the 1990s, a
number of academics, government agencies, and international
organizations argued that technological change, and the transformation
of the economy it would bring about, would require rethinking of the
competencies that students should gain in school in order to obtain
employment and to add value to the economy (Murnane & Levy, 1996;
Rychen & Salganek, 2003; Unesco, 1996). A concurrent set of ideas
proposed that increased demands of civic participation would require
more intentional efforts to help students gain the skills and dispositions
that would enable political efficacy (Torney-Purta et al., 2001;
Levinson, 2012; Levine, 2000). Other analysts argued that globalization
would call for specific education for global competency (Boix Mansilla
& Jackson, 2011; Zhao, 2010). In response to these developments, a
wave of recent curriculum reforms around the world provide the policy
context to provide students expanded educational opportunities to gain
these competencies (Reimers & Chung, 2016).
Numerous educational innovations in educational structures, programs
and practices have been developed to align with these expanded
educational aspirations. Given the goals of public education to provide
educational opportunities to all, and given the scale of the enterprise, it
follows that a central preoccupation of public education leaders should
be to understand how to scale effective programs that make education
more relevant. While a fair amount is known about scaling educational
change to improve access or quality, most of what is known does not
draw on efforts to make education more relevant.
Three forms of educational change at scale
One form of educational change focuses on achieving goals over which
there is consensus, for which solutions are relatively well known. As
described above, these may include getting schools to serve more
children, or to serve them better by teaching more effectively what
most people agree should be learned in school (such as the basic
literacies). These goals can be achieved by expanding the percentage of
children enrolled in basic education, extending the duration of basic
education, improving the effectiveness of programs to support initial
literacy instruction, or increasing the effectiveness of schools in
teaching students the intended curricular goals. In those cases, the
goals are likely to be relatively uncontroversial, and there are likely
optimal technical ways to achieve them on which there is sufficient
consensus among key stakeholders to support change at scale. Even as
there may be fewer challenges to persuading key stakeholders of their
merits, the challenges to achieving such reforms at scale can still be
significant. Fortunately, there is a body of knowledge about how to
scale such efforts that can be drawn upon. Scaling such reforms
requires identifying technical ways to do it—optimal school size and
design, solutions such as the double shift schools, mapping the
construction of new schools in the appropriate locations, and so on—
obtaining the resources necessary to procure the essential inputs, and
organizing and managing the tasks of converting those inputs into
results such as new classrooms, new school buildings, more students
enrolled, new programs to support literacy instruction, or programs of
professional development to help teachers develop new skills. I will call
this kind of scaling scaling to enhance educational efficiency.
An alternative form of educational change involves defining new
goals—aligning the goals of schools with new trends and demands in
society. An example would be deciding what role arts education, or
sports, or entrepreneurship education should have in the curriculum; or
determining how to foster active citizenship among students; or
whether students should be educated to understand climate change. In
those cases, the goals may be contested and there are no singular
approaches to achieve them (much less consensus over how to do it).
As a result, there are numerous challenges to deciding what to do and
how. Scaling such reforms is initially largely about social dialogue
among key stakeholders; subsequently, it is about collective learning,
ongoing learning, and adaptation. Only once those processes have been
addressed can the management of the tasks necessary to achieving such
goals begin, and even then, the consensus that sustain possible progress
may be elusive over long periods and necessitate continuous learning
and negotiation. I will call these forms of change scaling to seek educational
relevancy. As mentioned earlier, a relevancy enhancing reform may, over
time, become efficiency enhancing once consensus is reached on the
importance of the new goals and on how to reach them.
Fortunately, given that education systems serve about 2 billion people
globally, there is an emerging knowledge base about how to scale
efficiency seeking reforms on which we can build. As mentioned, the
fact that more is known about this process does not mean it is easy. I
will illustrate this knowledge base drawing briefly on five approaches to
the study of large scale change, two of which have been specifically
developed studying education change efforts.
A classic analysis of the formidable challenges involved in producing
significant changes in instructional quality at scale is Richard Elmore’s
1993 “Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice.” In this
seminal essay, written two decades ago, Elmore argues that changing
the core of instructional practice at scale is fraught with challenges
because few change efforts address school organization and incentives,
and those keep “the basic conventions of the core of schooling”
(Elmore ,1996, p. 3) in place. Drawing on research on the Progressive
Education Movement in the United States, and on large scale
curriculum projects funded by the National Science Foundation in the
1950s and 1960s, Elmore shows that most of what changed in schools
was peripheral, and not core to the way in which students and teachers
engaged with content. From this analysis, he proposed four strategies
to support the change of instructional practice at scale. The first:
creating strong external normative structures for practice, such as
performance standards for teachers, credentialing systems, or
exemplars of good practice. The second: developing organizational
structures that allow the teachers most committed to reform to
influence their peers. The third: generating a robust theory about how
to replicate success, which Elmore argues could emerge from
experimentation based on existing theories of incremental growth,
cumulative growth, discontinuous growth, unbalanced growth, or
reproduction. Finally, the fourth strategy involved creating structures to
promote learning of new practices and incentives to support them.
(Elmore, 1996).
Aligned with Elmore’s proposition that attention to structures is
necessary to support changes in instructional practice is Sir Michael
Barber’s concept of “deliverology.” While not developed specifically
for the education sector, this approach posits that policy change
necessitates an implementation strategy that relies on identifying the
delivery chains that permit the translation of objectives into activities
and eventually into results. These chains involve the creation of a
delivery unit,the translation of the strategy into operational goals
measured by a system of indicators to monitor implementation, and the
establishment of routines to achieve behavioral change that will
produce changes in the indicators (Barber, Moffit, & Kihn, 2011).
Along similar lines, the organization Management Systems
International (MSI) has developed a framework to scale up large-scale
change that highlights four elements: developing the vision; identifying
the model; establishing the pre-conditions for scaling up; and
monitoring, learning, and evaluation. Establishing the vision requires
clarity regarding the unmet needs and the beneficiaries the scale up
effort will address. Identifying the model involves an ex-ante analysis of
the strengths and weaknesses of the model that will help achieve the
vision, and identifying the requirements to persuade key-decision
makers. The establishment of pre-conditions for scale requires securing
necessary new resources and skills, necessary organizational changes,
and mobilizing support. Finally, monitoring and learning involves
assessing whether the scaling up process is on track and that
information is used to maintain support (MSI, 2012).
The framework of change management developed by Jim Kotter and
colleagues also offers very valuable insights into managing the scaling
of efficiency-seeking reforms. As a result of studying how change
efforts in business organizations succeed and fail, Kotter identifies the
following stages in the process of managing change: establish a sense of
urgency, form a powerful guiding coalition, create a vision,
communicate the vision, empower others to act on the vision, plan for
and create short term wins, consolidate improvements and produce
more change, and, finally, institutionalize new approaches (Kotter,
One of the most complete and recent frameworks to study scaling up
of quality education efforts has been developed by researchers at the
Center of Universal Education at the Brookings Institute. The
“Millions Learning” initiative has studied successful examples at scale
of quality education focused on mastery of core academic content and
higher order thinking skills. Their framework identifies the following
four features of successful cases of quality at scale: committed leaders,
delivery mechanisms, finance, and an enabling environment.
Committed leaders who plan for scale from the outset by responding
to local education needs, identify cost structures that are affordable at
scale, clearly identifying core elements of the approaches while allowing
adaptation of non-core features to local contexts, and mobilizing
community expertise to support teachers. Delivery mechanisms include
constructing educational alliances, mobilizing learning champions and
leaders, deploying appropriate technologies, aligning with country
priorities, and using data for institutional learning. Finance includes
ensuring flexible education funding to support programs, stable and
predictable long term financing, and financing to take pilots to scale.
Finally, an enabling environment requires a supportive policy
environment and a culture of research and development (Perlman-
Robinson, Winthrop & McGivney 2016).
While knowledge about the process of scaling efficiency seeking
educational change is helpful, there are unique aspects of scaling
relevance enhancing reforms that deserve distinct theorizing. In the
five approaches just mentioned, central to the process of bringing
educational change to scale is obtaining support from the various
stakeholders affected by such change. This support is proposed as
being contingent on a clear understanding of what the change requires,
on having the skills to advance it, and on seeing the expected change as
aligned with the interests of each group of stakeholders. Understanding
what change requires is easier in domains which have developed over a
sufficiently long period that there is consensus on that success looks
like, how to measure it, and how to produce it. Once such knowledge
base exists, creating programs to help build the capacity to support that
change becomes feasible. Negotiating the politics of efficiency seeking
change is also easier, since the politics of such change--particularly
those that involve expanding access typically expand resources—
creating many opportunities for win-win situations. And, even when
they require behavioral changes or adoption of new approaches to
education, the demands they make and the risks they require are more
Scaling educational reforms to make education relevant is not just a
linear extension of scaling reforms to improve the efficiency of school
systems—of their capacity to optimize in achieving established goals,
over which there is consensus and where there are known
technological solutions to such improvement. Scaling relevance-
enhancing reforms requires creating the conditions for collaboration on
provisional and fragile consensus on the purposes of education and on
the translation of those purposes into institutional structures, norms,
and practices in ways that are responsive to the unique demands of the
national and local context, technological change, and individual
characteristics of learners. Just as important, because relevance
enhancing reforms act on a knowledge base that is emerging, advancing
such reforms is especially about creating conditions where
implementation is also an opportunity for learning.
As relevance enhancing reforms consolidate, and the learning it has
allowed produces results, the process of scaling can become one of
improving efficiency, because there is now consensus on the goals and
the means to achieve them. Such transition from relevancy enhancing
to efficiency enhancing usually takes place over long periods of time,
when the ideas about what is relevance enhancing become so widely
accepted that they become mainstreamed into the prevailing culture of
education and part of the set of ideas about how to teach and what to
teach. Expert knowledge, often produced by research, can normalize
these new ideas into the established educational culture. For example,
the “reading wars”—alternative conceptions over how best to foster
the development of early literacy—eventually led to a consensus over
the merits of a balanced approach to reading instruction, and such
consensus was facilitated by expert synthesis of decades of scientific
research on the subject, including a consensus report of the National
Research Council. What were once new ideas about how to make
reading instruction relevant, such as those advanced by Horace Mann,
eventually became integrated into mainstream educational culture as a
result of the development of a consensus on what outcomes were
important, how to measure them, and of a body of scientific
knowledge that illuminated the relative effects of alternative
approaches to literacy instruction. This process took well over a
Thus, there are five key requirements to scaling relevance-enhancing
reforms. Key in all of them is a learning orientation, an approach that
allows continuous learning, refinement, and dissemination of the ideas
that sustain instructional practice to help students gain competencies
that are critical for an evolving future.
Creating conditions for…
(1) … sustained provisional consensus on the purposes of
(2) … the translation of those purposes into institutional
structures, norms, and practices
In ways which are responsive to…
(3) … the unique demands of national and local context,
(4) … technological change and other social trends
(5) … the individual characteristics of learners
Creating conditions for sustained provisional consensus on the
purposes of education
Given the scale of the educational enterprise and the distributed nature
of authority over the educational process, which involves parents,
teachers, administrators, education policy makers, and a range of
interest groups, consensus over what should be taught is difficult to
achieve and always precarious, even more so consensus about what to
teach in response to rapid changes and an uncertain future. Building
and maintaining such consensus is essentially an exercise in
communication, but not just of the kind proposed by Jim Kotter in his
change management framework, or about Barber’s “deliverology”
approach, or the approach proposed by Management Systems
International, which are about leadership communicating to
subordinates the goals of change—typically in hierarchical
organizations. Rather this is multi-way communication aimed at
collective learning in individuals organized in networks of the kind
discussed by Peter Senge in the book The Fifth Discipline, and in the
applications of this work to the field of education (Senge, 2006).
Achieving such consensus requires mapping the networks—the groups
with influence over the process—and orchestrating communications
and negotiations among them in order to build a coalition that sustains
support for the change efforts over an extended period(McGinn &
Reimers, 1996). Creating this provisional consensus is essential to open
the possibilities for educational innovations that are relevance
enhancing. This requires building a new narrative about education, one
that connects a vision about the achievement of desirable social goals,
with the need for the development of new competencies in schools,
and for a call to take the risk to experiment in taking on ambitious
education goals. A powerful narrative is essential to cause people to
change mindsets about what teaching and learning are, and to cause
them to take some distance from existing norms and routines that lock
so much instructional practice in place. For instance, the use of student
assessments which typically focus on a narrow set of skills to support
the improvement of education creates powerful incentives to align
instruction to those domains which are measured. Many argue that the
only way to change instruction is to change assessment, but expanding
assessments to include new domains is, in itself, an adaptive challenge
likely to face as much dissent as the notion that an expanded set of
competencies needs to be taught. Hence there is a need for a narrative
that makes the case for change and opens up opportunities for change,
either through new curriculum frameworks, new assessment
instruments, or new educational programs.
One of the issues that such provisional consensus on the need for
ambitious goals for education must tackle is whether “21st century
education” is a necessity or a luxury good. A prevailing mindset is that
while competencies beyond the basic literacies are desirable, they can
only be considered after the basic literacies have been attained, making
such 21st century competencies a “nice to have,” not a “need to have”
commodity. In the contestation between conservative and progressive
education projects I referenced earlier, it is generally the case that
conservative groups fail to see as necessary for the children of
subdominant groups the competencies that they consider essential for
their own children, perhaps because they help maintain their privilege.
At the core of the question of whether the global education movement
to educate all children does in fact empower them is precisely the issue
of what are the competencies which empower the poor.
Creating conditions for the translation of those purposes into
institutional structures, norms, and practices
Ideas about purposes of education that are relevant need to be
translated into specific observable outcomes or competencies that
educators can understand and recognize, plans for how to assess
student performance in those outcomes and provide feedback, and
specific understandings of pedagogical practices that can help students
develop those competencies. Instruments such as protocols,
assessment rubrics, curriculum, and supplementary resources are
essential to enabling large and diverse groups of educators distributed
across many different institutions to engage in coherent practices that
provide students consistent opportunities to gain such competencies.
Because these tools and frameworks need to be generated based on
emerging and evolving ideas about what competencies matter, the
process of development of such instruments to support instructional
change is less one of creating the “deliverology” that Barber and
colleagues propose, and more similar to the application of
Improvement Science to Education, as Tony Bryk and his colleagues
describe in their book Learning to Improve.
One obstacle to advancing relevancy enhancing reforms is that the
concept of ‘21st century education’ is not just not considered a
necessity, but that it is poorly understood, or fuzzy. Policy can, of
course, provide an enabling context for relevancy enhancing reforms
even if policy is not self-executing. Curriculum standards and student
assessments have the virtue of making such concepts operational in
ways which can be understood by the many education stakeholders
whose concerted action is necessary to open space for relevancy
enhancing reforms. This is no small task, as the resistance still faced by
the PISA assessments of the basic literacies in some quarters illustrate.
The development of practices that are relevancy enhancing requires
experimentation and learning from such experiments at multiple levels.
Policy can create an enabling environment to support such
experimentation, for example supporting the development of
partnerships between organizations of civil society, such as universities,
or think tanks, and schools as well as the creation of school networks.
But learning requires more than a context with the freedom and the
incentives to try new practices—it requires systematic collection of
information about results and integrating it into a cycle of reflection
and revision of innovative practices.
Responsive to the unique demands and opportunities of national
and local context
Uniform standards and instruments that ensure consistency and
coherence across sites need to be balanced with enough flexibility in
schools and classrooms that allow teachers to respond to the unique
characteristics and needs of their social contexts. This requires the
development of high levels of teacher expertise—of professionalism.
Scaling relevance enhancing reforms requires, then, high levels of
investment in the development of teacher professionalism, not only in
teaching teachers new content or techniques, but more generally in
building their capacities to be highly expert in addressing the needs and
opportunities created by the contexts in which they teach, as well as the
particular needs and strengths of their individual students. Such
development requires building work environments that are supportive
of continuous learning and that activate the intrinsic motivation of
teachers to continuously improve. This involves building the capacity
of schools as organizations and of teams, rather than of teachers as
individuals, and this calls for creating multiple learning opportunities in
schools as organizations, so that learning all the time is part of the job.
Continuously responsive to technological change and other
societal trends
The challenge of making education relevant in trying to respond to
social and economic change is that the speed of this change is
accelerating, creating a constantly moving target for the competencies
that are relevant, other than the competency to adapt to change itself.
This means scaling relevance enhancing reforms requires maintaining a
balance between building a consensus on what the new institutions of
education should be, while keeping such consensus open and
continuously evolving to changing trends. Strategy in this context
becomes continuous learning and adaptation. Paradoxically, this
requires stability of teams of teachers and school leaders, and
persistence in efforts of improvement, so that it is possible to actually
learn from them, and to discern with intelligence what adaptations to
make to changes in context.
Responsive to the individual characteristics of learners
Relevant education can only be relevant to individual students, helping
each of them make sense of their strengths and ways of adapting to
and responding to the circumstances of their lives. Just as teachers
need to be able to balance the consistency of uniform aspirations and
standards with the opportunities and needs of their school and social
contexts, they also need to be able to personalize their instruction. This
means recognizing their students as individuals, and providing them
opportunities to build on their own interests and strengths, address
their individual needs, and progress at their own pace. This requires
high levels of expertise from teachers and, as such, scaling reforms to
make education relevant involves investing in the development of such
professional expertise.
To conclude, when Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a Parisian teacher and
editor of Le Figaro, stated about change “plus la change plus c'est la
meme chose” (Karr 1849) (the more things change, the more they
remain the same) the modern French education system did not yet
exist. The creation of public education, in France and elsewhere, shows
that in fact things have changed quite a bit for humanity in a short
period of time by creating institutions that have successfully integrated
most of humanity in a common invented experience. That silent
revolution, however, perhaps the most significant humanity has
experienced, is not all of one cloth: it combines three different forms
of change at scale. Understanding the nuances of such successful and
failed attempts to change at scale who should be taught, what should
be taught, and in what way, is critical to help us steer these wonderful
institutions we have invented in the direction of empowering all
students to live good lives and to improve the world.
Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of
International Education and Director of the Global Education Innovation
Initiative and of the International Education Policy Masters Program at Harvard
University. An expert in the field of Global Education, his research and teaching
focus on understanding how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in the
21st century.
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Scaling 21st Century Education
Charlie MacCormack, Senior Fellow, Interaction. President Emeritus, Save the
The world is undergoing one of its greatest transitionscomparable in
scope to the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and
from agriculture to manufacturing and industrial production. As with
those earlier transformations, the current transition from the Industrial
Age to the Age of Technology and Science will bring dramatic changes
to social, cultural, and political life, as well as to the systems of
socialization and education through which children and young people
are prepared to respond positively and productively to their external
environment. It is not the purpose of this essay to describe the content
and delivery of the appropriate forms of adaptive education, but much
has been written that does this.
Allow me to begin with a plea to rebrand “Education for the 21st
Century.” First, it will become less and less meaningful as the century
marches on. Best to change the framing now, before it gains wide
currency. Secondly, it does nothing to describe the actual content of
what we are trying to do. Instead, I propose something like “Education
for an Age of Technology,” or “Education for an Age of Change”
one of those would serve us better. (Yet, having said this, for purposes
of convenience and consistency, I will use “Education for the 21st
Century” throughout this essay.)
Why scale 21st century education?
21st century education is not a prize for those who successfully
complete 20th century education, however modified by a few group and
experiential activities. Rather, it entails a student possessing the values,
knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary for successful engagement
with an age of technology, change, globalization, and cultural, political,
and workplace turmoil. Elites around the world are already ensuring
that their children receive this type of technological and multicultural
education, and it would definitely further entrench the growing
inequality currently dominating global economic change to deny the
poorer majority access to an education appropriate for the current era.
At the Think Tank that brought us together at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education symposium in October 2016, a thoughtful Latin
American education leader suggested that, given scarce resources, it
would be politically and perhaps ethically inappropriate to deny
investment in basic schooling such as literacy and numeracy in order to
advance 21st century education. Approaching investment in education
as a zero sum decision between basic literacy and numeracy versus 21st
century competencies would be a grave mistake. We need to design
affordable country-appropriate lifelong education systems that deliver
basic education as well as 21st century competencies. For many
countries, this will require bypassing facilities-based schooling beyond
the elementary years. Exactly fifty years ago James Coleman noted that
“schools were created for a world that was experience rich and
information poor. Now we have a world that is information rich and
experience poor.” Yet even after five decades we continue to replicate
20th and even 19th century models of schooling.
Throughout the world, today's students enter school and live their lives
generating most of their learning through electronic media. Growing
school drop-out rates in the later years in country after country
demonstrate that today's young people are “voting with their feet”
against traditional school-based education in the higher grades. This
suggests that poor and middle income countrieswhich in any case
have no fiscal possibility of replicating the capital- and labor-intensive
educational models of Western Europe and North America—should
invest in technology- and group-based teaching and learning. Whole
sectors such as telecommunications, banking, and even health care
have bypassed costly Western models. and we should be much more
serious about exploring similar models for education.
What are the barriers to scaling 21st century education?
(1) Specialized facilities-based schools, traditionally-trained teachers,
school administrators, and educational bureaucracies represent some of
the world's largest and most consistently-replicated interest groups,
matched only by military and health institutions. Hundreds of billions
of dollars have been, and continue to be, invested in maintaining and
expanding this model. Teacher training institutes train teachers in the
same ways they have for decades. Teachers’ unions defend these
practices and their certification programs. Construction and
transportation companies count on schools as a significant segment of
their business. Without a market mechanism, this is not a system that
will easily be replaced.
(2) Beyond the global consensus about school buildings and
consistently-trained teachers that stand in front of students, there is no
agreement on the basic goals and priorities of formal education. Some
believe the inculcation of obedience and discipline in children is the
principal goal. Others feel that the creation of “good citizens”be
they democratic, socialist, or nationalistshould be primary. Still
others feel that the dissemination of religious orthodoxy is the priority.
And then there is the delivery of whatever skills are perceived to be
critical to success in the job market. The point is that without
agreement on the foundational goals of education, it is virtually
impossible to get cross-national replication of the best practices of 21st
century education.
(3) Even if we had agreement on the fundamental goals and outcomes
of 21st century education, we lack data that demonstrates that the
outcomes agreed to by most 21st century educators can produce the
social and economic benefits that are promised. There is even less data
to show which technologies, delivery systems, and pedagogies best
deliver the outcomes recommended by 21st century educators. Thus, if
the experts cannot agree, how is the average citizen to endorse a radical
reformation in the content of their children's education?
What is to be done?
The road to scaling 21st century education at the global level will be
neither straight nor smooth. Opposition from entrenched interests will
be fierce. Organizing and strengthening advocates will be difficult since
there are not a lot of benefits to taking on a large and entrenched
system. Much of the potential success will likely come from
innovations in the private sector and will not be easily transferred to
large government bureaucracies. The beneficiaries—children and
young people—have little political power and are more likely to opt out
than to engage with a long-term change process.
Nonetheless, twenty-five years from now, 21st century education will be
widely practiced. The countries and states/provinces that scale it will
be better off economically and more stable politically. The private
sector will demand it from their governments and will fund alternative
models in the meantime. Social entrepreneurs will pioneer more and
more options and alternatives. Young people will design more of their
own technology-enabled learning. The tax costs of 21st century
education might well be less than traditional school systems. Over time,
governments will adopt an increasingly-accepted approach that
involves decreasing political risk. But how might this process be
rationalized and accelerated?
(1) Build a long-term cross-national research program that measures
the economic, social, and personal outcomes of 21st century learning.
Additionally, compare the cost-effectiveness of different delivery
systems in different national settings. UNESCO or the World Bank are
presumably the logical candidates for this task. It will need to be
sustained for several decades, and the results will need to be widely
disseminated. Without the evidence and a relative consensus from
experts, scaling at the global level will be impossible.
(2) Identify governors and mayors in large multiethnic countries willing
to model 21st century education in their jurisdictions. Focus particularly
on teacher training reform in these locations, and encourage
multilateral organizations and foundations to fund such initiatives.
Building the private and multilateral donor base for models of 21st
century education is an essential step in the coming decade, as a
precursor to widespread adaptation at the governmental level.
(3) For example, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE)
can elevate its convening role around scaling 21st century education by
bringing together leading educational donors, such as the World Bank,
UNESCO, the Gates Foundation, MasterCard, Hewlett, Packard,
Banyan Tree, etc. The meeting should be structured around the most
highly leveraged ways to accelerate 21st century education.
Secondly, convene a similar gathering of the large global organizations
that are collectively implementing billions of dollars of educational
programs in scores of countries. Among these global educational
players are UNICEF, World Vision, Save the Children and Plan
International. They are in a position to model, evaluate and advocate
for 21st century global education in a multitude of countries.
HGSE can also sponsor an annual award for the political or other
leader who has done the most to expand 21st century education—a
kind of Nobel Prize for 21st century educational leadership. The Hilton
Humanitarian Award is an example of this in another sphere. The
media finds this type of award an attractive story, and it would serve to
incentivize decision-makers to take educational reform more seriously.
Finally, there should be an annual publication, similar to UNDP's
Human Development Report, that ranks the world's 200 countries on
how well they are doing in transforming their educational systems to
the demands and opportunities of an age of mass information
technologies. Political leaders have shown an inclination to take these
rankings seriously.
In conclusion
Information technologies have transformed the global economy and its
workforces. They are rapidly destroying the hierarchical organizational
models of the 19th and 20th centuries. People are communicating,
learning, and socializing in entirely new ways. Human society is rapidly
abandoning the types of interactions upon which schooling is still
based. The world's wealthiest countries and global elites have already
embraced participatory, experiential, technology-enhanced,
multicultural education. If we are to avoid increasing the already
unacceptable degree of inequality across and within countries, it is
essential that we accelerate the adaptation of evidence-based,
affordable 21st century education.
Charles MacCormack is currently an advanced Leadership Fellow at
Harvard University, where he is working on issues involving the role of private
philanthropy in global health and development. Most recently, Dr. MacCormack
has served as Executive Chair of the Millennium Development Goal Health
Alliance; Executive in Residence at Middlebury College; and Senior Fellow at
Interaction. He was previously CEO of Save the Children from 1993 to 2012 and
CEO of World Learning/School for International Training from 1997 until
1993. He is a graduate of Middlebury College and holds Masters and Ph.D
degrees from Columbia University.
Redefining educational quality: a 21st century
understanding of student achievement in Latin America
Luis E. Garcia de Brigard, former Deputy Minister of Education - Colombia
The advent of international student assessments a few decades ago led
to the stark realization that pupils in Latin America were lagging behind
their peers from most middle- and high-income countries. The region’s
students were consistently placed at the bottom of the rankings, and
the issue of student performance became a regular topic in the media
and an increasingly common matter during political campaigns. Albeit
with some reluctance, more and more countries decided to participate
in international assessments—most notably the OECD’s PISA and
UNESCO’s Regional Comparative and Explanatory Studies. This
process, along with the rise of civic organizations and a generalized
sophistication of public educational leadership, has led to a renewed
interest in education which has in turn yielded significant progress in
student performance in most Latin American countries during recent
Unsurprisingly, the common understanding of the challenges ahead is
mostly defined by what international student assessments have pointed
to be the most salient shortfalls of the region’s students: performance
levels on math, language, and science. In fact, this has largely become
the very definition of educational quality and has shaped the public
agenda in unprecedented ways. Unfortunately, the long and tortuous
journey to raise awareness around educational quality seems to have
become outdated. While international literature continues to
accumulate evidence around the importance of developing and
supporting 21st century education, most Latin American countries have
embarked on a race to improve performance, as measured and defined
by traditional standards –basic literacy and numeracy-, that do not
necessarily reflect the holistic and multidimensional approach that lies
at the core of 21st century education.
I believe, however, that the region can successfully fine tune its course,
and in the process make a leap that can exponentially accelerate its
progress and close the performance gap that remains the biggest threat
to Latin America’s future. Instead of pursuing the incremental gains
that the world’s leading countries had to pioneer, Latin American
nations have an unprecedented opportunity to fast track its progress by
targeting 21st century education as their primary goal, rather than
interpreting it as a luxury that can only be afforded once the basic
building blocks of literacy and numeracy have been thoroughly laid.
A tale of luxury and necessity
The last quarter of the 20th century was characterized by a vigorous
effort to address issues of access in Latin America. By 2000, the region
had reached net enrolment rates of over 90% in primary and only
slightly lower in secondary. As is now the case with quality education,
the quest for access was largely triggered by the emergence of
comparative data that highlighted the dramatic reality of schooling in
the region. Millions of children were unschooled, few pupils completed
high school, and infrastructure was precarious. Governments raced to
implement measures that would allow them to reach every child, rich
or poor, living in the cities or in rural areas. Most opted to implement
double shifts to expand the existing capacity of schools. Some adopted
innovative methodologies like Escuela Nueva, which trained and
empowered teachers and students to effectively run multi-grade
schools in rural areas. Several countries deployed conditional cash
transfer programs to incentivize enrollment and discourage dropouts.
All in all, the goal of higher enrollment was achieved, and most
countries in the region were able to claim mid- pack or even lead places
in the global race for access.
However, just as countries celebrated their success, the tradeoff
became apparent: the early results of international assessments showed
that the region had neglected to pursue education quality. In the face of
scarce resources, quality seemed like a luxury. The prevalent idea was
that access had to come first and quality would have to be a future
concern. As a result, governments effectively left quality on the back
burner. By the time the comparative assessments gained popularity, it
seemed too late. The performance gap seemed insurmountable and for
many Latin American countries it felt like it was back to square one.
The need for 21st century education in Latin America, I am afraid, is
currently considered a luxury, just as quality education was a few
decades ago. While pioneering countries across the globe are
conscientiously revising their curriculums to reflect the needs of 21st
century learners, most Latin American countries are devotedly focused
on improving test performance in math and language (and as the latest
PISA results have showed, some of them are doing it successfully).
This view is understandable. To many, the benefits of 21st century
education still sound too academic and its implementation seems far
too challenging and expensive—much like quality sounded 20 years
ago. However, the dangers of procrastination are all too apparent. The
region cannot afford to defer the efforts to provide a 21st century
education for every child. If Latin America fails to adapt, it may be too
late and the gap may, yet again, prove to be insurmountable. Just as
several countries—especially in Asia—have been able to
simultaneously target access and quality with remarkable success, Latin
America has the opportunity to embrace the challenge of 21st century
education as a lever, rather than a tradeoff to quality.
Furthermore, the current economic challenges faced by Latin American
countries make 21st century education even more urgent. A significant
portion of the economic growth experienced during the last two
decades (which has yielded enormous social progress in the region) was
the result of a historic surge in the price of commodities. This, no
doubt, allowed the region to reduce poverty and inequality, invest in
education and other social programs, and consolidate stronger internal
economies. The future, however, is more complicated. The
international price of commodities is diminishing and Latin American
economies have experienced very modest growth in recent years.
Sustained growth will depend on the countries’ ability to participate in
a knowledge-based economy that rewards innovation,
entrepreneurship, and sustainability. Equipping students with these
skills must therefore be regarded as seriously as performing well in
math, language, and science.
While the topic of 21st century education is mostly foreign to the public
and to policymakers in Latin America, there are a number of factors
that may yield a favorable environment for implementing reforms in
the right direction. First, the widespread implementation of extended
school days by eliminating the double shift system has opened a
healthy debate around what must be taught and learned during these
longer school days. The experiences in Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia,
Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, among others, have shown that most
stakeholders favor the implementation of non-traditional academic
programs, as well as sports and arts during the longer days in school.
Examples at the regional and national levels indicate a decided effort to
offer learning experiences that develop areas that have historically been
sidelined by traditional education, such as project based learning,
English as a second language, entrepreneurship and experiential
learning. Most of these experiences, however, are still far from
qualifying as rigorous 21st century education. There is a clear need for
robust curriculum and training that will equip schools to offer high-
quality programs. Notwithstanding this obvious challenge, the
extension of the school day in most Latin American countries offers a
unique opportunity to advance efforts geared towards the adoption of
21st century curricula.
On a different front, an equally powerful opportunity arises from the
revamping of international assessments, particularly PISA. The
adoption of measures that target critical thinking and the use of digital
tools, for example, signal to participating countries the need to upgrade
their curricula to equip their learners to face much broader challenges
than those that can be tackled through rote memorization. While a few
governments in Latin America still refuse to participate in comparative
studies, the impact of these assessments in shaping policy in the region
is undeniable. Governments are being held accountable for the
performance of their countries in these exercises, and this provides
reason to believe that ministries of education will respond to upgrades
in international assessments by overhauling their own measures of
learning, curricula, and professional development practices. Some
countries have even implemented non-academic measures to their
national assessments. Colombia, for example includes measurements of
civic competencies in its standardized tests.
Other interesting examples that may accelerate the scale of 21st century
education come from non-traditional actors like the International
Baccalaureate (IB). While traditionally focused on elite international
schools, the IB has extended its reach to a much wider audience of
schools, and at the same time has focused its pedagogical efforts on
developing a learner profile consistent with the demands of the 21st
century. Interestingly, Ecuador has become a pioneer country in
adopting the IB for public schools across its territory. This is an
ambitious initiative that other countries are already following, and one
that promises a departure from traditional approaches to teaching and
After you
Critics often minimize the role of international actors in the shaping of
educational policies. The reality is that the impact of these
organizations on the destiny of Latin American educational systems has
been notable. From the efforts of the Inter-American Development
Bank (IADB) and the World Bank in promoting and financing school
access and quality, to the influence of UNESCO and the OECD in
measuring learning and suggesting pathways to achievement, the region
has largely benefited from the implementation of proven initiatives.
Generally speaking, whenever public leadership has been open to
methodically adopting and adapting robust programs and technologies
that have been piloted abroad, it has achieved progress and success,
resulting in dramatic improvements for children. While this does not
mean that Latin American countries are unable to pioneer initiatives—
several innovations prove this point—it is undeniable that the current
efforts to promote 21st century education are largely being promoted
abroad. While some could see this as a disadvantage, the progress
achieved in other geographies can be used as a unique opportunity to
draft behind current advancements, thus building capacity without
being left behind.
Furthermore, the circumstances under which Latin American
governments embarked in a quest for access are dramatically different
from today’s circumstance. Four decades ago, many countries in the
region were still low-income economies dependent on international aid
to finance social programs. Democracies were still fragile, and in some
cases nonexistent. Internal conflict was common, and education was at
the bottom of national agendas. Moreover, there was still no
international consensus or clearly defined collective goals around
education, and the knowledge base was much more limited and
dramatically less accessible. The marked growth of the region’s
economies, the consolidation of democracy in most countries, the
increasing relevance of education in national policies, and the
globalization of the education agenda since that time represent a stark
contrast. Instead of the helplessness of the past, today Latin American
countries are experiencing unprecedented levels of empowerment that
allow them to better apply and ultimately contribute to the
advancements being made in terms of 21st century education.
As such, countries that choose to commit themselves to promoting 21st
century learning in their school systems will have a clear head start and
a much gentler ride than they did when facing the challenges of access
or quality. It will be up to political leaders and advocacy organizations
to seize this unparalleled opportunity to fast track progress and
achievement for all children.
The past few decades have demonstrated that a coordinated effort by
different stakeholders can promote successful transformations of
educational policy in Latin American countries. As argued above, most
of the progress achieved in terms of access and quality has been the
result of the sustained efforts of a wide range of public, private and
international organizations. In facing the challenge of scaling 21st
century education it will be crucial to promote the participation of all
these actors.
National and regional governments
During the last few decades, there has been a remarkable progress in
the capacity of the educational leadership in Latin America. Senior
officials, especially at the national levels, tend to have a clear
understanding about the challenges of their countries and about the
policy changes needed to face them. This explains the widespread
consensus about issues like the importance of the teaching profession,
the need for national assessments, and the relevance of curriculum and
materials. However, the awareness around 21st century education is still
very precarious. This highlights the urgency to update the knowledge
base and capacity of local and regional governments in order to enable
the implementation of policies directed to promote 21st century
International organizations
The World Bank, the IADB and the OECD, among others, have
historically had a very significant influence in shaping educational
policy in the region. Generally regarded as legitimate sources of
knowledge, these organizations enjoy a privileged position in
influencing the future of education in Latin America. It is critical that
they participate more actively in the debate around 21st century
education by funding research and financing programs, drafting
reports, and driving the conversation.
International student assessment organizations
By continuing to upgrade their tests to assess 21st century skills and
competencies, the organizations involved in administering these exams
will effectively promote policy changes within countries. The current
consensus in the region around the importance of language, math, and
science has been facilitated by the existence of these comparative
studies. As such, it is reasonable to expect that as testes evolve, so will
the understanding of educational quality in Latin America.
Private sector
The private sector has rapidly gained a prominent spot in shaping the
destiny of education in Latin America. By increasing their involvement
in philanthropic initiatives and advocacy groups, deploying innovative
programs that are later scaled by the public sector, and facilitating the
transfer of knowledge from other geographies, private stakeholders are
now a key player in the education ecosystem. Not surprisingly, it is in
the private sector where the region has seen the biggest advancements
in promoting 21st century education. In fact, the vast majority of
ongoing initiatives that exemplify the future of education are being
championed by the private sector (some of which are showcased in this
publication). If the region is going to succeed in embracing 21st century
education before it is too late, the private sector has to lead the charge
by piloting programs, strengthening its advocacy efforts, and
transferring knowledge.
Final thoughts
The 21st century is an era of acceleration, efficiency, and amplification:
information travels at light speed and without boundaries, innovation
and knowledge determines winners and losers, economies react in real
time, and human talent flows across the globe to locate the best
rewards to its value-creation potential. These are precisely the reasons
why Latin American countries should decisively incorporate 21st
... The first book is an analysis of opportunities to transform teacher education in Massachusetts, informed by a study of the way in which Singapore aligned teacher preparation with an ambitious vision for education in the twenty-first century conducted by several educators from Massachusetts . The second, an expert report on the challenges of scaling ambitious education reforms and innovations that aims to support the development of a broad range of competencies in schools (Reimers, 2017). The third book is a study of the lessons learned by system-level leaders as they advanced ambitious national education reforms . ...
The Covid-19 pandemic shocked education systems around the world in ways for which they were not prepared.
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