The Gap Between Rich and Poor in Education

April 25, 2016

We’re about to launch a massive open online specialization called “Finance for Everyone.” It’s based on free market thinking that has produced one of the greatest engines of productivity and change in the history of mankind. But we begin with an extraordinary revelation from Oxfam: the richest 85 people control more wealth than the poorest half of our global population. The wealth gap is very real and very distressing (see Finance for Everyone)

But this blog is about a gap that may be even bigger – the global education gap.

I recently spoke at a Global Development Conference where some participants felt that education, like health, is a fundamental human right. I think education is the springboard for almost every aspect of contemporary life. It launches people into employment and livelihoods, into further learning, innovation, community service and giving back. Education allows new voices to be heard in important debates. It also affects our public values and informs decision makers, policies, and laws. And no matter where you have this discussion, most agree that quality education must be identified as one of the greatest gifts of democracies.

There is, however, at least three categories that locate the global education gap.

The first gap is created by differences between poor teachers and great teachers, between poorly designed courses and well-designed courses, between high quality programs for the few and default programs for the many. Closing these gaps is a big part of what many teaching and learning centers do. Most centers, including our Institute, identify evidence-based practices and signature pedagogies with an aim of extending them across campus communities.

But let’s be honest and take a step back for a second. Only 7% of 7 billion people have a college degree. In this big picture, students in most northern countries are afforded an extraordinary opportunity and experience to learn. Some have better experiences than others. To extend the financial metaphor, educational interventions in the developed world are the difference between being wealthy and being incredibly wealthy.

Elsewhere, access to education is a matter of survival, which is why small interventions tend to have a large impact. In this regard, ageing populations of the north blessed with skills and expertise have incredible opportunities to engage with a younger south, especially if you are an educator. And I’m not only talking about formal education but also encouraging co-curricular, experiential, and service-based education that honours the learner – the sort that makes the gift of education enduring and the kind that makes us human.

This brings us to a second more obvious gap: namely, that a growing majority of people can’t afford an education. This is a huge challenge around the world with very few immediate, one-shot fixes. But if I could be the Global Finance Minister for a moment, I’d give every male on the planet a significant tax credit for accredited learning. Every female would be eligible for double the amount for many excellent reasons (that’s another important blog). Educational tax credits are not hard to implement and are already underway in Singapore and Malaysia. Is this idea worth expanding?

The third gap is the most profound and challenging. It’s what I will call the systemic gap. This gap develops in the difference between growing up in, for example, Oxford, England compared to growing up in, for example, St. George’s, Grenada. Systemic realities in Grenada that stifle the abilities of teachers and impede the progress of learners create generational gaps in knowledge, skills, and dispositions that become wicked problems that are difficult to untangle.

But systemic education gaps experienced around the globe might just be overcome if our solutions are systemic as well. Here’s a concrete example of this approach:

A team from University X leads a post-secondary educational intervention in country Y that ranks in the bottom 35 worldwide in terms of GDP. It works closely with the Ministry of Education, with a local College, and a private foundation. The model aims to radically transform the college’s current teaching and learning reality based on a proposal that achieves tangible outcomes and milestones to narrow the education gap over a five-year period. The model has five elements:

First, it engages political leaders and the Prime Minister. Education is a political issue and connected deeply to public funding in various forms.

Second, it engages the chamber of commerce, whose members stand to benefit from an educated, skills-based, adaptive, innovative, and ethically minded cohort of graduates. Business leaders too must invest in this experiment.

Third, it insists on renewed institutional leadership so the college is ready to take risks that invest in transformational change, transparency, and social responsibility.

Fourth, it identifies faculty and staff champions willing to embrace the change process. This means a big-picture view of curriculum and program enhancement, faculty development, and student partnerships. Transformative faculty are at the heart of this intervention, but so are students who are seen to provide the most momentum in this change process.

An important note on student partnerships: several institutions, including ours, define partnerships as practices withstudents instead of doing things to students. This approach implies a new level of trust and collaboration. It means engaging students as co-designers, co-authors, co-presenters, and co-producers of research, teaching and learning. The challenge is to scale and grow student partnerships in order to affect greater transformation and change in educational institutions.

Finally, the fifth element speaks to the Swedish concept of change through network theory. Lund University has clearly demonstrated that faculty change the most when there is an ethos of mutual trust and collaboration built in very local and contextual ways. Networks are comprised of significant others who are typically senior teachers, or those serving as mentors, champions and leaders. Building significant networks of agents who promote change is the key.

So … yes, there is an enormous education gap. We can, however, reduce it if we act not as individual project leaders, or even as institutions, but as systemic partners in the global learning community.


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DisruptED: Education Interrupted Copyright © by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence, McMaster University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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