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The gulf

"Why are we so comfortable with letting certain kids fail?" Geoffrey Canada asked on Sunday night. Canada runs the Harlem Children's Zone, a 97-block area in which he is determined that every child will get into college. Harlem's schools are infamous: they were failing when Canada, now 62, was a child, and they have never stopped. "In education there is no penalty for failure," he said.

He was speaking at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, which has assembled leaders in education from all over the world, the most diverse conference audience I have ever seen. Among the speakers: seven former heads of state (the most recognizable being Bill Clinton and Tony Blair), a plethora of education ministers, entrepreneurs, headmasters, teachers, some big-company CEOs, a few authors and researchers. On the agenda: education for the world's 57 million children who are not in school, 28 million of them because of conflicts and other emergencies. Recurring themes included education for often-marginalized girls and women ("Good education for girls is good education for all," said Save the Children global director Desmond Bermingham); the need for disruptive innovation; and the need for more and better teachers. The key theme is public-private partnerships. The list of organizers reflects that mix: UNESCO, Varkey GEMS Foundation, UAE Ministry of Education, GEMS Education, and Dubai Cares in support of the Global Education First Initiative.

I had not heard of either GEMS organization before. The Varkey GEMS Foundation is the philanthropic arm. GEMS Education runs some 70-and-counting for-profit schools worldwide. One such will open in Dubai in 2015, its incoming headmaster, Tom Farquhar, has been poached from Washington DC's highly selective Sidwell Friends School, whose former and current students include Chelsea Clinton and Sasha and Malia Obama.

"It's the opportunity to be part of something inspirational," he says.

In a country where education is often something kids want to escape, it's easy to forget how hard others fight for and value it. At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, said Caroline Pontefract, head of education for UNRWA Jordan, aid workers prioritized health and food, while the parents in the field wanted education for their children. Ohers pop up with personal stories. Abigail Kaindu from Zambia, walked 7km to school every day fearing there'd be no money to pay her fees. Australian Haley McQuire only got an education because of distance learning offered by indigenous radio stations. And, lest we forget, Bill Clinton, honorary chair of the GEMS Foundation and whose office is near Canada's, worked hard, too: he said in a lengthy Q&A session that he grew up surrounded by intelligent people without much formal education. Theirs was an "oral culture", he said, that taught him very young - and this explains a lot, I think - to listen closely and pay attention to everyone's stories. "I learned young that intelligence is evenly distributed."

A recurring theme is the size of the problem, which UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova called a "learning crisis". The West wonders how to pay for medical care for the aging Baby Boomer bulge; the rest of the world wonders how to educate its youth bulge: one-third of the population in the Arab region is under 15 and they need 85,000 more teachers just to keep up. Every country has marginalized groups and finite resources and technology provides both a possible answer and great uncertainty. Are we giving kids the skills they and their prospective employers will need in 2020, or, as some British kids complain, are we training them to be 1990s office workers? Samsung's chief marketing officer, Seokpil Kim, quoted John Dewey: "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's we rob them of tomorrow."

At least part of this event's purpose is to pitch to global businesses that investing in education produces great returns. On Monday, SAP, GEMS and UNESCO announced Business Backs Education, a campaign to push the private sector into investing at least 20 percent of their corporate social responsibility budgets into education.

"We believe we can no longer wait for traditional systems to solve this," said Jim Hagemann Snabe, SAP's co-CEO. "If we want speed, we need to develop the skills of the future. There will be radical changes in all industries...We need the young people with the biggest and most radical ideas to participate."

Farquhar said something similar: "The rate of change has accelerated, so we need more disruptive influences. We need intentional disruption - evolution is too slow." Many things will have to be tried, he said, and in conflicting ways.

In one of the few technology panels, Vicki Davis, a teacher in rural Georgia, provided an example: "We got tired of waiting for bureaucracies to connect us." She is part of a worldwide network of teachers connecting via Twitter, and seems to have an approach that balances technology and traditional values. While saying that every student should have email, a blog, and a digital notebook, she commented, "The solution to student engagement is not excitement and entertainment. It helps, but some teachers are just boring. It's inspiring curiosity in our students."

To make the point about tradeoffs, the entire conference was split into teams of ten and asked to reallocate the budgets of real world-based fictitious countries with troubled education systems. "Be bold," they were told, and given four variables to shift: teacher salary, number/pupil ratio of teachers, continuing professional development, and contact time per student. Scores depended on improved efficiency. I at first thought the game was rigged toward deploying technology instead of teachers. But a winning team outlined their strategy: take money from CPD (including technology), change the ratio a little, and give it instead to teachers to pay for courses and attract new ones; they also gave awards for effective teachers. Aha. As Clinton said to end his keynote, "Teachers matter most."

Even more than history, education policy is written by the winners. You see this in developed world objections to both technological change and for-profit education. The press loves questions like, are MOOCs remotely comparable to traditional campus-based university degrees? Aren't books more important than tablets? Can we trust the private sector? These are luxury questions when a person has no traditional options. Bokova said somewhat impatiently she hoped we've moved on from debating private sector involvement. All know the worst stories, such as the one Rebecca Winthrop, senior fellow and director at the Brookings Institution, raised: one country's population movements left so few children in area schools that the private partner pulled out because it was no longer profitable.

"The piece a lot of us teachers talk about is that for some partnerships the profit motive overrides what's needed for the kids. How do we guard against that?" she asked.

Winthrop's question comes back to me when I find a year-old story about GEMS Education's search for $650 to $1 billion to fund expansion and its IPO prospects (probably years away, at least). Today's company is run by impassioned, entrepreneurial idealists; a public company can't control shareholders demands. Where and what are the better ideas? Besides the millions with no access an estimated 250 million worldwide who've been through formal education still can't read or write.

Canada again: "Send the lousy teachers to the middle class. Put the best teachers in the worst schools." Middle class kids, he argues, have enough other chances in life that they can survive one bad teacher. Education is poor kids' only chance. Later, explaining his focus on getting "my kids" into university, he delivers the aphorism of the conference: "When you don't know what to do, do what rich people do."

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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