In this NORRAG Highlights, Steven J. Klees, Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, discusses the limitations of the recent UNESCO Futures of Education Report. Our world is at a “turning point,” and over the next 30 years, we face existential political, economic, and environmental crises. Can education alone bring about the radical changes needed in society? Klees argues that we must take a look at current realities of education including the role of the private sector, the narrowness of current education policy discussions, and what can and needs to be done outside of education for humanity to survive to 2050, let alone thrive.
Reimagining our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education can be considered the fourth in the series of humanistic thought pieces UNESCO has put together over the years – preceded by Learning to Be (1972); Learning: The Treasure Within (1996); and Rethinking Education (2015). This new Futures Report culminates a two-year effort supervised by an 18-member, star-studded International Commission headed up by the President of Ethiopia, backed up by another 15-member, star-studded Advisory Board. The Report effort commissioned over 30 background papers and engaged in a very extensive consultation process that reportedly reached over one million people. I helped organize one such consultation at the University of Maryland which involved about 25 students and faculty in a serious discussion of education and society looking towards 2050 and beyond, which is the focus of the Report.
Looking 30 or more years in the future towards 2050 and beyond takes us significantly past the 2030 endpoint of the SDGs. While some might say that many things today are not so different than they were 30 years ago, around 1990, especially in education (leaving aside the impact of the pandemic), over the next 30 years, we face existential political, economic, and environmental crises. The Report mentions these crises at least a dozen or more times: our world is at a “turning point” (p. 1), facing “grave risks to the future of humanity and the living planet itself” (p. 2) as well as “polarization” and “structures of power that seek to dominate and control” (p. 9). In passing, the Report blames, at least in part, an “economic growth-focused modernization development paradigm” (p. 33).
A major failure of the Report for me is that suggestions for resolving these crises – or even a serious look at their causes – is not considered. Recognizing that we need a “radical change of course” (p. 117), the only avenue for change considered is education. UNESCO might respond by saying that to do more was beyond the scope of the Report. However, to me, the Report leaves the impression that education alone can bring about the radical change needed, or at least that it is the only lever we have. The Report leaves the impression that other societal changes are exogenous, out of our control – it says “structural factors” (p. 44) and “complex interactions” (p. 112) are reshaping societies. The Report denies or ignores our agency in responding to the crises we face. How can we make a reimagined education a reality if we don’t understand why education today is in such difficulties, why society faces existential crises, and what can we do about both? A vision for the future is of very limited use if we have no idea of what is necessary to bring it about.
Most of the Report is about a vision for the future of education, a vision I find quite appealing. They include that education should be organized around: the “right to quality education throughout life” (p. 2); “principles of cooperation, collaboration and solidarity” (p. 4); a decolonized curriculum; the empowerment and professionalization of teachers; the integration of knowing and feeling; a pedagogy of caring; attention to local and indigenous voices; more “meaningful assessment” (p. 55); and an accountability as “shared goal-setting” (p. 99), devoid of “excessive managerialism and corporatism” (p. 88). This is the meat of the Report for which a simple listing of some elements cannot do justice to the nuanced and detailed vision the Report offers.
But how does this vision become a reality? The only two mechanisms considered are the ideas of forging a “new social contract for education” and treating education as a “common good.” Both are evocative. But both are also vague and consequently unclear. What does a new social contract for education really mean? The Report says almost nothing about what they mean by a social contract. There is a one-line definition as an “implicit agreement among members of a society to cooperate for shared benefit” (p. 2). For education, the Report says this means “a shared vision of the public purposes of education” as a “starting point” and attention to underlying “foundational and organizational principles” (p. 2). But to have this as the central feature of the Report is far from clear. Moreover, if we need a “new” social contract, is there an old one? Do we have a social contract now? What about EFA and the SDGs? Do they represent a social contract? Amazingly, the Report hardly mentions the SDGs — and EFA not at all. And whether we do or do not presently have a social contract, how do we get a new one, especially in a polarized world characterized by conflict?
The new social contract for education is posited to build on two broad principles: one is the right to education, and the second is “strengthening education as a public endeavour and a common good” (p. 2). The language of education as a “common good” is relatively new. It is used literally dozens of times throughout the report but what it means remains unclear. The only clarification is that two “essential features that characterize education as a common good” is that education is “experienced in common” and “governed in common” (p. 13). But what this implies is still unclear. Often, the Report mentions that education is a “public good and a common good.” Education as a public good has been talked about extensively for years. Much of the time it refers to the narrow mainstream economics technical idea that education is a type of good that the market, left to its own devices, would supply inefficiently and therefore some public provision or regulation is needed. While this idea has been useful conceptually, it has been relatively useless in clarifying the extent to which education needs to be supplied by governments. Some authors have pushed for a less technical concept they call a “global public good” that more strongly promotes the need for public provision of education. The Report’s introduction of the term “common good”– at one point it says a common good is “a form of shared well-being that is chosen and achieved together” (p. 13) — doesn’t illuminate much for me.
But I would like it to! One of the biggest questions we face in today’s world as we look towards 2050 and beyond – is what should be the role of governments? If the designation “common good” means we need more of a public role than ever before, then I am all for it. The Report is silent on what else might be considered a common good – the provision of health care, water, housing, clean air? All desperately need more of a public role in provisioning. In education, one of the chief challenges we face in these neoliberal decades is the relentless privatization of education. A major failure of the Report is not to engage with this challenge at all.
The Report talks about “non-state actors” in a number of places but doesn’t make the essential distinction between civil society and the private sector. It calls for “more just and equitable cooperation between state and non-state actors” (p. 5). At one point it says: “The current trend towards greater and more diversified non-state involvement in education policy, provision and monitoring is an expression of increased demand for voice, transparency and accountability in education as a public matter” (p. 13). Another unclear statement in this regard is: “in many instances, around the world, a host of state and non-state actors together ensure the publicness of public education” (p. 107). These statements make some sense if we are talking about civil society but little sense if we are talking about the private sector. Collapsing civil society and the private sector hides the very different motives and characteristics of these very different actors and ignores the ubiquitous search for market profits.
To me, even if it doesn’t say so, the Report strongly implies a very reduced role for the private sector in education. If we want an education based on cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity instead of emphasizing individualistic achievement and competition, we need the kind of democratic participation the Report calls for. This means not relying on the narrow market accountability of consumers responding to private providers. Attaining the vision of education in 2050 offered by the Report requires a “broad-based, inclusive, and democratic public dialogue” (p. 15). I don’t think business interests even belong in that dialogue. And the Report’s calling for the “inclusion of diverse non-state actors in global governance” (p. 133) is very troublesome if that means the private sector. Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum is already very much engaged in transforming the UN into a public-private partnership. In 2050 and beyond, we need much more civil society involvement in governance and much less private sector involvement.
Another major implication of the Report for me is that our current mostly technical dialogue about improving education is wrongheaded. We are inundated with RCTs and statistical analyses of how specific education inputs (e.g., performance pay for teachers, class size, etc.) affect narrow measures of learning. What are the most ‘cost-effective best buys’ for education system managers? The World Bank, which is a major purveyor of these narrow technical approaches, is orienting much of its work toward one outcome indicator that they call a measure of “learning poverty,” examining whether 10-year-olds can read a basic sentence or two. Now don’t get me wrong, basic literacy and numeracy are, of course, important, but, as the Report emphasizes, we need a much broader public dialogue about education than this. Besides, we know what is needed to improve literacy and numeracy – trained teachers with much smaller class sizes in a school setting conducive to learning. The Report really points toward the poverty of learning poverty as the major goal of education. While it would be too much to hope for UNESCO to directly critique the Bank, it should have explicitly critiqued the narrowness of the dominant dialogue’s almost exclusive focus on how to improve test score outcomes. The Report proposes a very different, much broader, dialogue about education than the ubiquitous search for “best buy” interventions offered by the very limited, economics-oriented current approach.
Fundamentally, the Report shies away from anything controversial — like the role of the private sector, the narrowness of current education policy discussions, or more broadly, the degree to which neoliberal, capitalist, patriarchal, and racist structures are causes of our existential crises and what can and needs to be done outside of education for humanity to even survive to 2050, let alone thrive. Neoliberalism is not even mentioned. While teacher professionalization and their essential role in public dialogue are promoted, teacher unions are not even mentioned (except once in passing (p. 135)). The need for greater financing for education is said a few times, but the vast under-provision of what is needed is ignored. At one point, the Report calls global actors “funders of the last resort” (p. 135) when, to me, what is needed for social justice is large scale North-South transfers, in part as reparations for a history of colonialism and neocolonialism. I would have also liked to see attention to Paulo Freire’s ideas about the need for a critical pedagogy, ecologically and peace oriented, that directly challenges the crises we face.
The Report offers a vision of a more sensible approach to education that we do desperately need. But I fear that its failure to confront current realities may doom its message from having much influence, a fate that many would say has been shared by previous major UNESCO reports. However, this Report is intended to generate global public dialogue. If it does, I hope that that dialogue can go beyond the limits of the Report and challenge the forces that underlie our education and societal dysfunctions.
About the author: Steven Klees is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland. He is an Honorary Fellow and former president of the Comparative and International Education Society. He is the author of the book and blog titled The Conscience of a Progressive. His research interests are broadly concerned with the political economy of and alternatives to education and development.