The Puggle: Echidna Giving - Beyond Business as Usual in Girls’ Education: Reflections from UNGA week

In September, the Echidna Giving team joined the masses of global leaders, practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers who flock to New York City to participate in a series of events around the United Nations General Assembly. This year was particularly relevant for Echidna’s work because the International Commission on Financing Global Education released and presented their report, “The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World.” We packed our schedules with over 30 meetings and events in order to absorb as much buzz about girls’ education as possible.

Girls’ education has many dedicated high profile champions. Over the years, there has been widespread and increasing awareness of the positive ripple effect on communities when girls are educated. UNGA week reaffirmed that girls’ education has a loud bark, but left me wondering: Does that loud bark translate to a strong bite? Our week in New York illuminated three challenges that might be dampening the impact of girls’ education advocates on the broader field:

1.)   Advocacy without accountability: Education for girls is front and center in rhetoric; however, this does not necessarily translate into meaningful action. In fact, a rise in the number of vocal champions for the issue could create the illusion that more work is going on to solve problems on the ground than there actually is.  With the rhetoric high, we’ve entered a critical period for tracking delivery and measuring learning outcomes to ensure that meaningful action follows.

2.)   Diverse “asks”: The messaging around what the girls’ education “asks” are, and what the best practices are to achieving those asks are not agreed upon. Many actors are working diligently on this challenge, yet the risk of efforts being too siloed is high.

3.)   Blanket statements: Evidence reveals that barriers to girls’ education may vary across different contexts. The field is maturing past the blanket statements about girls being out of school and now needs a more nuanced understanding of where the gaps are, and, given those gaps, what interventions can be the most effective.

These challenges present the field with opportunities, which were discussed with great enthusiasm throughout the week. In particular, we heard three trends that might be capitalized on in order to deepen impact for girls’ education around the world.

Trend 1: Systems change

A phrase that we were happy to hear come up quite frequently was systems change. The Education Commission report highlights that more money is not leading to better education outcomes. Despite our best efforts and a commitment to implementing only the best interventions, a piecemeal approach without accompanying systems change won’t add up to quality education. And while that’s disconcerting, it means that the field is ready to start looking at how to shift systems for higher quality education. RISE is working in this space, deploying $25 million in research funds to investigate what works to improve education systems to deliver better learning for all.

Trend 2: Soft skills

Another strong current throughout the week was soft skills. The most commonly and strongly iterated point was the need for agreed upon definitions for these skills. Terms such as 21st century skills, soft skills, and life skills are commonly used, but not always to mean the same thing. While in New York, we engaged in interesting conversations like: which skills are the most important, to whom, and when? The Center for Universal Education, in partnership with the Lego Foundation, is launching a new research project called Skills for a Changing World, to investigate these critical questions and priority areas in girls’ life skills education. While practitioners are pursuing and highlighting the importance of soft skills for girls, the broader education community is realizing the need for soft skills as a complement to hard skills. Marrying these two conversations could help drive further understanding and progress on how to define, measure, and implement the teaching of soft skills.

Trend 3: Evolving education

Underlying all of the opportunities and challenges in girls’ education is a coalescing around the importance of developing lifelong learners. We heard over and over again the many ways in which our world is changing. A quality education will be one that can support what feels like an increasing number of challenges: technological advances, climate change, the refugee crisis, and many other unknowns.  One insight that stuck with me from the week was by Dr. Paul Kim, who, in emphasizing the importance of teaching curiosity, articulated, “Machines are not very good at asking questions so we must encourage our students to be.” We know that in many parts of the world, when a family’s or community’s needs become too much of a burden, girls are the first to drop out of school to help out. To ensure that staying in school actually makes a difference, especially for girls, we need education that is well-suited to our world’s current and future challenges.

This was my first time in New York during UNGA week, and it was an educational whirlwind. It was a valuable time for relationship building, work-shopping ideas, exploring collaborative opportunities, and identifying the key reports that have kept me busy reading well into the fall!