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Amel Karboul: The global learning crisis -- and what to do about it

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The most important infrastructure we have is educated minds, says former Tunisian government minister Amel Karboul. Yet too often large investments go to more visible initiatives such as bridges and roads, when it's the minds of our children that will really create a brighter future. In this sharp talk, she shares actionable ideas to ensure that every child is in school -- and learning -- within just one generation.

- Education pioneer
Dr. Amel Karboul builds bridges between the private, public sector and civil society to solve today’s global challenges in education. Full bio

I'm the product
of a bold leadership decision.
00:13
After 1956, when Tunisia
became independent,
00:16
our first president, Habib Bourguiba,
00:20
decided to invest 20 percent
of the country's national budget
00:23
in education.
00:27
Yes, 20 percent,
00:29
on the high end of the spectrum
even by today's standards.
00:30
Some people protested.
00:34
What about infrastructure?
00:36
What about electricity,
roads and running water?
00:38
Are these not important?
00:41
I would argue
00:44
that the most important
infrastructure we have are minds,
00:45
educated minds.
00:50
President Bourguiba helped establish
free, high-quality education
00:53
for every boy and every girl.
00:59
And together with millions
of other Tunisians,
01:03
I'm deeply indebted
to that historic decision.
01:06
And that's what brought me here today,
01:10
because today, we are facing
a global learning crisis.
01:13
I call it learning crisis
and not education crisis,
01:17
because on top of
the quarter of a billion children
01:21
who are out of school today,
01:24
even more, 330 million children,
01:26
are in school but failing to learn.
01:30
And if we do nothing,
01:35
if nothing changes,
01:37
by 2030, just 13 years from now,
01:39
half of the world's children and youth,
01:43
half of 1.6 billion children and youth,
01:46
will be either out of school
or failing to learn.
01:50
So two years ago,
I joined the Education Commission.
01:58
It's a commission brought together
by former UK Prime Minister
02:02
and UN Special Envoy
for Global Education Gordon Brown.
02:05
Our first task was to find out:
02:09
How big is the learning crisis?
02:12
What's actually the scope of the problem?
02:13
Today we know:
02:16
half of the world's children by 2030
02:18
will be failing to learn.
02:21
And that's how actually we discovered
02:24
that we need to change the world's focus
from schooling to learning,
02:25
from just counting
how many bodies are in classrooms
02:30
to actually how many are learning.
02:33
And the second big task was,
02:36
can we do anything about this?
02:39
Can we do anything
about this big, vast, silent,
02:41
maybe most-neglected international crisis?
02:45
And what we found out is, we can.
02:48
It's actually amazing.
02:51
We can, for the first time,
02:54
have every child in school and learning
02:56
within just one generation.
02:59
And we don't even have to really
invent the wheel to do so.
03:03
We just need to learn
from the best in class,
03:07
but not any best in class --
03:10
the best in your own class.
03:13
What we did is actually
we looked at countries by income level:
03:16
low-income, mid-income, high-income.
03:19
We looked at what the 25 percent
fastest improvers in education do,
03:22
and what we found out is
03:27
that if every country moves
at the same rate as the fastest improvers
03:29
within their own income level,
03:34
then within just one generation
03:36
we can have every child
in school and learning.
03:39
Let me give you an example.
03:43
Let's take Tunisia for example.
03:46
We're not telling Tunisia,
"You should move as fast as Finland."
03:47
No disrespect, Finland.
03:51
We're telling Tunisia,
03:53
"Look at Vietnam."
03:55
They spend similar amounts
for primary and secondary pupils
03:56
as percentage of GDP per capita,
04:00
but achieves today higher results.
04:03
Vietnam introduced a standardized
assessment for literacy and numeracy,
04:06
teachers in Vietnam are better monitored
than in other developing countries,
04:11
and students' achievements
are made public.
04:15
And it shows in the results.
04:20
In the 2015 PISA --
04:22
Program for International
Student Assessment --
04:24
Vietnam outperformed
many wealthy economies,
04:26
including the United States.
04:29
Now, if you're not an education expert,
04:33
you may ask, "What's new and different?
04:36
Don't all countries track student progress
and make those achievements public?"
04:38
No. The sad answer is no.
04:44
We are very far from it.
04:47
Only half of the developing countries
04:49
have systematic learning assessment
at primary school,
04:51
and even less so
at lower secondary school.
04:54
So if we don't know
04:59
if children are learning,
05:02
how are teachers supposed to focus
their attention on delivering results,
05:04
and how are countries supposed
to prioritize education spending
05:08
actually to delivering results,
05:11
if they don't know
if children are learning?
05:13
That's why the first big transformation
05:16
before investing
05:20
is to make the education system
deliver results.
05:22
Because pouring more money
into broken systems
05:27
may only fund more inefficiencies.
05:30
And what deeply worries me --
05:34
if children go to school and don't learn,
05:36
it devalues education,
05:39
and it devalues spending on education,
05:41
so that governments
and political parties can say,
05:43
"Oh, we are spending
so much money on education,
05:46
but children are not learning.
05:48
They don't have the right skills.
05:49
Maybe we should spend less."
05:51
Now, improving current
education systems to deliver results
05:54
is important, but won't be enough.
05:58
What about countries where
we won't have enough qualified teachers?
06:02
Take Somalia, for example.
06:05
If every student in Somalia
became a teacher --
06:06
every person who finishes
tertiary education became a teacher --
06:09
we won't have enough teachers.
06:12
And what about children in refugee camps,
06:16
or in very remote rural areas?
06:19
Take Filipe, for example.
06:22
Filipe lives in one
of the thousands of communities
06:24
alongside the Amazonas rivers.
06:27
His village of 78 people has 20 families.
06:30
Filipe and a fellow student
06:34
were the only two
attending grade 11 in 2015.
06:36
Now, the Amazonas is a state
in the northwest of Brazil.
06:41
It's four and a half times
the size of Germany,
06:45
and it's fully covered
in jungle and rivers.
06:47
A decade ago, Filipe
and his fellow student
06:51
would have had just two alternatives:
06:53
moving to Manaus, the capital,
or stopping studying altogether,
06:57
which most of them did.
07:01
In 2009, however, Brazil passed a new law
07:04
that made secondary education
a guarantee for every Brazilian
07:08
and an obligation for every state
to implement this by 2016.
07:12
But giving access
to high-quality education,
07:17
you know, in the Amazonas state,
is huge and expensive.
07:20
How are you going to get, you know,
math and science and history teachers
07:23
all over those communities?
07:27
And even if you find them,
07:28
many of them would not want to move there.
07:30
So faced with this impossible task,
07:33
civil servants and state officials
07:36
developed amazing creativity
and entrepreneurship.
07:38
They developed the media center solution.
07:42
It works this way.
07:44
You have specialized,
trained content teachers in Manaus
07:45
delivering classroom via livestream
07:50
to over a thousand classrooms
in those scattered communities.
07:53
Those classrooms have five to 25 students,
07:57
and they're supported
by a more generalist tutoring teacher
08:00
for their learning and development.
08:03
The 60 content teachers in Manaus
08:06
work with over 2,200 tutoring teachers
in those communities
08:08
to customize lesson plans
to the context and time.
08:14
Now, why is this division
08:19
between content teacher
and tutoring teacher important?
08:21
First of all, as I told you,
because in many countries,
08:26
we just don't have
enough qualified teachers.
08:29
But secondly also because
teachers do too many things
08:31
they're either not trained for
or not supposed to do.
08:35
Let's look at Chile, for example.
08:39
In Chile, for every doctor,
08:41
you have four and a half people,
08:43
four and a half staff supporting them,
08:45
and Chile is on the low end
of the spectrum here,
08:48
because in developing countries,
on average, every doctor
08:53
has 10 people supporting them.
08:56
A teacher in Chile, however,
08:59
has less than half a person,
09:01
0.3 persons, supporting them.
09:04
Imagine a hospital ward
with 20, 40, 70 patients
09:08
and you have a doctor
doing it all by themselves:
09:12
no nurses, no medical assistants,
09:15
no one else.
09:18
You will say this is
absurd and impossible,
09:20
but this is what teachers are doing
all over the world every day
09:22
with classrooms of 20, 40, or 70 students.
09:26
So this division between content
and tutoring teachers is amazing
09:30
because it is changing
the paradigm of the teacher,
09:34
so that each does what they can do best
09:37
and so that children
are not just in school
09:39
but in school and learning.
09:41
And some of these content teachers,
09:44
they became celebrity teachers.
09:46
You know, some of them run for office,
09:48
and they helped raise
the status of the profession
09:50
so that more students
wanted to become teachers.
09:53
And what I love about this example
09:57
is beyond changing
the paradigm of the teacher.
10:00
It teaches us how we can harness
technology for learning.
10:03
The live-streaming is bidirectional,
10:07
so students like Filipe and others
can present information back.
10:09
And we know technology
is not always perfect.
10:14
You know, state officials expect
10:17
between five to 15 percent
of the classrooms
10:18
every day to be off live-stream
10:20
because of flood, broken antennas
or internet not working.
10:23
And yet, Filipe is one
of over 300,000 students
10:27
that benefited from
the media center solution
10:31
and got access to postprimary education.
10:34
This is a living example
10:38
how technology is not just an add-on
10:40
but can be central to learning
and can help us bring school to children
10:42
if we cannot bring children to school.
10:47
Now, I hear you.
10:53
You're going to say,
10:54
"How are we going to implement this
all over the world?"
10:56
I've been in government myself
10:59
and have seen how difficult it is
even to implement the best ideas.
11:01
So as a commission,
we started two initiatives
11:06
to make the "Learning
Generation" a reality.
11:09
The first one is called
the Pioneer Country Initiative.
11:12
Over 20 countries from Africa and Asia
11:15
have committed to make
education their priority
11:18
and to transform their education
systems to deliver results.
11:21
We've trained country leaders
11:24
in a methodology
called the delivery approach.
11:26
What this does is basically two things.
11:29
In the planning phase,
we take everyone into a room --
11:31
teachers, teacher unions,
parent associations,
11:34
government officials, NGOs, everyone --
11:36
so that the reform
and the solution we come up with
11:39
are shared by everyone
and supported by everyone.
11:41
And in the second phase,
11:45
it does something special.
11:47
It's kind of a ruthless
focus on follow-up.
11:49
So week by week you check,
11:54
has that been done,
what was supposed to be done,
11:57
and even sometimes sending a person
physically to the district or school
12:00
to check that versus
just hoping that it happened.
12:04
It may sound for many common sense,
12:09
but it's not common practice,
12:12
and that's why actually many reforms fail.
12:13
It has been piloted in Tanzania,
12:18
and there the pass rate
for students in secondary education
12:20
was increased by 50 percent
in just over two years.
12:26
Now, the next initiative
to make the Learning Generation a reality
12:32
is financing. Who's going to pay for this?
12:36
So we believe and argue
12:40
that domestic financing has to be
the backbone of education investment.
12:41
Do you remember when I told you
about Vietnam earlier
12:45
outperforming the United States in PISA?
12:48
That's due to a better education system,
12:51
but also to Vietnam
increasing their investment
12:53
from seven to 20 percent
of their national budget in two decades.
12:56
But what happens if countries
want to borrow money for education?
13:01
If you wanted to borrow money
to build a bridge or a road,
13:04
it's quite easy and straightforward,
13:08
but not for education.
13:10
It's easier to make a shiny picture
of a bridge and show it to everyone
13:12
than one of an educated mind.
13:16
That's kind of a longer term commitment.
13:19
So we came up with a solution
13:22
to help countries escape
the middle income trap,
13:23
countries that are not poor enough
or not poor, thankfully, anymore,
13:27
that cannot profit from grants
or interest-free loans,
13:31
and they're not rich enough
13:34
to be able to have attractive
interests on their loans.
13:36
So we're pooling donor money
in a finance facility for education,
13:39
which will provide
more finance for education.
13:43
We will subsidize,
or even eliminate completely,
13:46
interest payments on the loans
13:49
so that countries that commit to reforms
13:51
can borrow money,
13:53
reform their education system,
and pay this money over time
13:55
while benefiting
from a better-educated population.
13:59
This solution has been recognized
in the last G20 meeting in Germany,
14:03
and so finally today
education is on the international agenda.
14:07
But let me bring this back
to the personal level,
14:14
because this is where the impact lands.
14:17
Without that decision
to invest a young country's budget,
14:21
20 percent of a young country's
budget in education,
14:25
I would have never
been able to go to school,
14:28
let alone in 2014
14:32
becoming a minister in the government
14:34
that successfully ended
the transition phase.
14:36
Tunisia's Nobel Peace Prize in 2015
14:39
as the only democracy
that emerged from the Arab Spring
14:42
is a legacy to that bold
leadership decision.
14:45
Education is the civil rights struggle,
14:50
it's the human rights struggle
of our generation.
14:53
Quality education for all:
14:56
that's the freedom fight
that we've got to win.
14:58
Thank you.
15:03
(Applause)
15:04

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About the speaker:

Amel Karboul - Education pioneer
Dr. Amel Karboul builds bridges between the private, public sector and civil society to solve today’s global challenges in education.

Why you should listen

Amel Karboul nurtures and inspires a new generation of responsible leaders, teams and organizations to create breakthroughs in their thinking, to transform themselves and to work towards a just and sustainable future.

Together with the Education Commission team, she has played a leading role in a major global initiative engaging world leaders, policymakers and researchers, and she has developed a renewed and compelling investment case and financing pathway for achieving equal educational opportunity for children and young people.

Karboul has also built The Maghreb Economic Forum (MEF) as a non-partisan think- and do-tank, and with her team she has engaged a new type of conversation between public and private audiences and nurtured new solutions for education (including de-radicalisation), employment, leadership and gender equality. She also co-lead the establishment of first democratic society in Arab nation, began economic reform and created and deployed effective pioneering digital media engagement between government and citizen on very limited budget as cabinet minister.

Karboul published her book, Coffin Corner, outlining a new leadership culture suited to the complexity and dynamics of the 21st century. Nominated as one of ten leading young African politicians, her professional brand is first and foremost that of a highly intelligent, well connected, creative and inspirational go-getter with a track record of making things happen.

Karboul received a Master's degree with honors in mechanical engineering from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany and holds a Doctorate in Coaching and Mentoring from Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. She has held leadership roles at numerous firms including Mercedes-Benz, DaimlerChrysler and worked in senior consultant roles at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Beratergruppe Neuwaldegg as well as visiting faculty at DukeCE. Her two daughters, meditation and yoga keep her sane.

More profile about the speaker
Amel Karboul | Speaker | TED.com