Education First

This is the first Tuesday in nearly 8 months that I don’t have tutoring after work. Almost every week since October I worked with a little girl who was behind in reading. We read stories, wrote about what we like to do in X season or for X holiday, made up words with scrabble tiles to practice pronunciation, played countless games of bingo and tag, and I paced anxiously outside the exam room every time she took a vocab or unit test. She was a spunky, sassy, observant little girl who always told me when she didn’t feel like spelling (which was every Tuesday) and I miss her.

I discovered rather quickly–after reviewing subject and predicate until it felt like my ears were bleeding–that I wasn’t as good at teaching reading comprehension as I thought I was going to be. I’ve taught, tutored, babysat, played games, reviewed times tables and grammar rules. But I have never taught something so fundamental at such a basic level before to someone who truly struggled to learn.

Some weeks I put more effort into it than most, some weeks I didn’t. Sometimes I spent hours the night before a session, the morning before work, and even during my lunch break building worksheets, designing games, writing up practice tests, and making flashcards. So many times I found myself thinking, I wish this was my full-time job. Not that I don’t love my actual job, but I wish I would have and could have devoted more time to tutoring: time that I needed to take to be a more effective teacher and time that she deserved.

It wasn’t just the lack of preparation time that threw me off. I had to miss a few days, she missed a handful of sessions, and the weather gods decided to make over half of D.C.’s snow days on Tuesdays….so in the end, we hadn’t made as much progress as I would have hoped for. BUT, the breakthroughs we did have were joyous occasions and I figured that if, in the end, she only learned a thing or two from me, at least it was a thing or two more than when she got here. Also, like I wrote a few posts ago, steady progress is still progress. And that applies to both of us–her as a student and me as a teacher.

Education is something I am pursuing after my time at Carnegie is over in August (yes, I know where I am going and what I am doing, but am not announcing it until the plane ticket is bought and ready!). And the exciting part is that I won’t just be teaching. I will be learning how schools work, how non-profits work, and how a successful model of education as development works. Thinking about a potential future in this field, I want to know what change I can make that is greater than the impact I can have on one student and remembered a video I saw a few months ago.



Yet no matter how sympathetic the international audience may have recently become to the global education crisis, it hasn’t been enough. Here are a few quick facts about the state of global education and its funding:

  • Over 50 million children around the world are still not in school and over half of them are girls.
  • 250 million students are not learning basic numeracy and literacy skills even though they have spent at least four years in school.
  • Providing basic education to all children in 46 low and middle income countries would require an additional $26 billion annually (which is less than 4% of the US defense budget and half the money spent on the Sochi Olympics).
  • While total overseas development assistance increased over the past three years, the amount going to education fell over 16% between 2009 and 2012.
  • Only 25 % of countries are spending what they need to deliver quality education (the recommended 6% of GNP). In Bangladesh, Pakistan and 23 other countries with large populations of students not in school, governments are dedicating less than 3% of GNP to education.

Educational outcomes need to be re-evaluated using a metric that actually measures learning. Education needs to be redefined as a fundamental part of conflict resolution and humanitarian aid, right along side with physical security, shelter, and food. The media only focuses on one story at a time (first it was Malala and right now it is, rightfully and belatedly, the 200 school girls captured in Nigeria), but there are countless children across the globe who fight every single day for their education as are there children here at home who come to two hour tutoring sessions after a long day at school that are tired and hungry, but willing to learn. They deserve change and change is happening.

Many in the U.S. are beginning to rebel against the previous wave of education reform that focused on “improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teachers’ pay) when their students are “lagging” on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a “Common Core;” and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.”

Educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch says it well:

What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children’s readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

Easy enough, right? Teachers, more than any other profession I feel, experience waves of intense reverence and infantilization. Some years, when educational gaps receive enough attention, teachers are the noblest of humans. But the rest of the time, no one appreciates how challenging teaching is and the profound influence a good teacher can have on a child’s life. Both abroad and at home: schools are sanctuaries, teachers are anchors, and education is hope. Hope for a future that may very well not exist without it. And this hope is something I am incredibly excited to be a part of.



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  1. LOVED this Danielle!!

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