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13 Jul 2021

Event highlights - Grading Goal Four: a look at what COVID has highlighted

On the anniversary of the publication of Grading Goal Four, edited by Antonia Wulff, Director of Research, Policy and Advocacy at Education International, NORRAG hosted two 90-minute webinars on the 21st and 24th of June 2021 that re-examined the findings of the book in the light of COVID-19. Grading Goal Four was published as it was dawning on the international education community and the world in general that COVID-19 was not just a temporary scare but a lasting and dangerous pandemic. Schools were already closed in a majority of countries in the world and education at all levels had already seen disruption as never before on this scale. As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded it has devastated lives, livelihoods, public goods, and many aspects of education where progress has been possible towards the 2030 targets and goals. The webinar was made up of two panels which are summarized below. Video recordings of the panels can be found underneath panel descriptions. 


Panel I: Are holistic approaches and prioritization truly antinomic?

Date and time: 21 June 2021, 16:00 – 17:30 CEST

After opening remarks were given by Moira V. Faul, Executive Director of NORRAG, Antonia Wulff of Education International provided an introduction about the need for more critical conversations about SDG 4 as the overarching global framework for education and development. When SDG 4 was announced, it was praised for being incredibly ambitious and transformative. However, it came with two major structural challenges: 

  1. An absence of financing commitments.
  2. A weak accountability framework where implementation is voluntary and country-led. Therefore, governments can cherry-pick which goals are of importance to them. As SDG 4 does not place responsibility on the state, it suggests that all stakeholders, including international organizations and/or private actors, have equally important roles to play.

It is important to note that progress toward SDG 4 was undermined much before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 has not brought about new problems, but it has exacerbated existing tensions. Wulff then introduced the panelists: 

  • From Chapter 11: Reshaping Quality and Equity Global Learning Metrics as a Ready-Made Solution to a Manufactured Crisis, Panelist: William C. Smith, Senior Lecturer in Education and International Development, University of Edinburgh. 
    • Smith explained the ways in which Global Learning Metrics (GLM) and cross-national assessments reinforce arbitrary levels of proficiency based on economistic views of education. The results of these assessments perpetuated discourses on the “education crisis” and “learning loss” both before and after COVID-19. Smith argued that these narratives provided simplistic, out-of-context proclamations with little actionable insight, and they continue to promote a narrow, non-holistic view of education which only worsens the education equity problem. 
  • From Chapter 6: Universities, the Public Good, and the SDG 4 Vision, Panelist: Elaine Unterhalter, Professor of Education & International Development, IoE-University College London. 
    • Unterhalter discussed SDG 4.3 which focuses on access, affordability, and quality of tertiary education. Is this “quality” for the holder of the degree or for society at large? The author presented the results of new systematic reviews, and argued that Higher Education can be seen as a means of implementation of the SDGs, because it promotes debating, innovating, and engaging people from a range of different places. COVID-19 highlighted that access and affordability should not be dichotomized and that “quality” is both instrumental and intrinsic in regard to higher education.
  • From Chapter 10: Teachers Are More Than ‘Supply’ Toward Meaningful Measurement of Pedagogy and Teachers in SDG Panelist: Bilal Barakat, Senior Policy Analyst, Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) and Stephanie Bengtsson, Project Officer at IIEP (UNESCO).
    • SDG 4 implies that quality is based on learning outcomes and sees teachers as the means of driving those outcomes. The authors argued that this simplistic view is reductive and called for us to consider teachers as active stakeholders in education and powerful agents of education reform. Although the true value of teachers was better understood during the pandemic, the authors proposed that, especially during crises, more emphasis should be placed on teacher-centered planning as a way to support SDG 4. By capitalizing on the teacher advocacy and mobilization we’ve seen during COVID-19, we can create better environments to reduce teacher attrition. 

After panelists shared their conclusions, Hugh McLean, Senior Programme Advisor to Education Programme at Open Society Foundations, praised the openness of the panelists in discussing the topic of SDG 4. Final remarks were made by Dr. Faul as she invited everyone to continue the conversation during the second panel. 


Panel II: Sustainability by and within education

Date and time: 24 June 2021 16:00 – 17:30 CEST

After opening remarks from Dr. Moira V. Faul, Antonia Wulff summarized the points made in the previous panel and introduced the topic of sustainability in education systems, the focus of Panel II. She welcomed the following panelists: 

  • From Chapter 14: Will Education Post-2015 Move Us toward Environmental Sustainability? Panelist: Iveta Silova, Professor and Director of the Center for the Advanced Studies in Global Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University. 
    • Silova brought up an important assumption within the SDGs: that they are interdependent and that progress toward one goal is beneficial to progress in them all. However, as SDG 4 describes education in terms of economic and social benefits and aligns with global capitalism, it creates tension with other goals, such as those which aim to achieve environmental sustainability. Silova also turned our attention toward the role of culture in handling crises like COVID-19, as countries with weaker individualism have been more successful in containing the virus.
  • From Chapter 13: Can Education Transform Our World? Global Citizenship Education and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Panelist: Joel Westerheimer, University Research Chair in Democracy & Education, University of Ottawa
    • Westerheimer’s chapter argued that all education systems teach lessons in citizenship whether or not they recognize it explicitly in the curriculum. One of the values upheld by education systems as we know them today is an orientation toward economic prosperity. Updates on the SDGs in light of COVID-19 recognize that the pandemic exposed massive inequities in education. However, two other lessons should also be taken into consideration. First, content matters more than coverage in the curriculum. Discourses bring up that children have fallen behind…but behind what? Benchmarks are arbitrary, and in the 21st century, our focus should not be on endless facts and assessments but rather on the process of learning in-depth. Second, teachers are essential, and although SDG 4 mentions teachers, it does little to counter narratives that teachers have easy jobs. We need to invest in them.
  • From Chapter 9: SDG 4 and the ‘Education Quality Turn’ Prospects, Possibilities, and Problems, Panelists: Kate Moriarty, Senior Advisor, Strategic Engagement & Dialogue, and Yusuf Sayed, Professor of International Education and Development Policy at the University of Sussex.
    • The authors argued that the introduction of “quality” in SDG 4, while a milestone, articulates a human capital model of education where cognitive learning is prioritized over social and emotional learning. During COVID-19, there has been a level of openness to adjusting curriculum and exam structures. To have responsive and resilient education systems, authors asserted, we have to reconsider our old dogmas, place more value on teachers, and be aware of threats like the domination of EdTech solutions. Last, the pandemic highlighted the connection between the Global North and South on the SDGs. 

After panelists presented their conclusions, the discussant, Anjum Halai, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the Aga Khan University, highlighted the main points from the panel. Sustainability by and within education is reliant on us developing a more holistic, and less reductionist, view of education. Without this openness, we cannot do justice to the environment, teachers, or students.

Hugh McLean and Antonia Wulff contributed concluding remarks which highlighted the final reflections of the panelists and called on participants to take this window of opportunity to reimagine our education systems to make room for things that matter. Maybe the challenge, after COVID-19, is not how to build back better…but how to build back differently. 



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