Leapfrogging Inequality: Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive

Rebecca Winthrop, with Adam Barton & Eileen McGivney

160 pages, Brookings Institution Press, 2018

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Four years ago, I was struggling with a crisis of conscience. I questioned if the work I had been doing on education reform was really making a difference. Or rather, was it making a difference commensurate to the education problems children face or was it merely an on-going effort to tinker around the edges? The scale of the education problem globally is immense: In high-income countries like the United States one in three children, and in low-income countries like Liberia nine in ten children, do not have even basic secondary-education level competencies they need in reading, math, critical thinking, and problem solving. I began to research education innovations in the hopes of gaining insight into paths for transformational education change. 


As a senior fellow and director of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, I have had the opportunity to have a global view of the growing community of education innovators. Contrary to what many may think, I have found education innovation to be alive and well and taking root in almost every corner of the globe. I have studied over 3,000 education innovations and interviewed over 100 thought leaders and innovators. But what I found is that just because something is innovative, does not mean that it is good. Nor does it mean that it has transformational potential for education. For example, only 20 percent of the tech-enabled innovations studied by me and my team were, in our estimation, harnessing the full potential of technology to transform students’ learning experiences. 

Hence, we became interested in the idea of leapfrogging, the idea of rapid, non-linear progress, and a concept that has not received much attention in education reforms debates—featured in an online series at SSIR. We reviewed literature on what is effective in helping children develop the breadth of competencies and skills they need to thrive in the future and developed a leapfrog pathway. This pathway sets out a roadmap to help guide education innovators, and anyone interested in supporting transformative education change. We hope that our insights on what types of education innovations have the potential to leapfrog progress will help all those trying to ensure that all of today’s young people get the education they deserve and need. —Rebecca Winthrop

Defining Leapfrogging in Education

Educational progress around the world has tended to focus sequentially on access, quality, and relevance—in that order. Education systems first aim to get all learners into the classroom before considering whether they are actually learning anything at their desks. It is not until much later—indeed, until quite recently—that policymakers may question the relevance of that learning to students’ lives. In the United States, for example, universal access began with the progressive education movement at the turn of the 20th century, which slowly pushed compulsory education laws through statehouses across the nation. It was not until nearly 50 years later that national attention turned to the topic of learning quality, as evidenced by the passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act—a piece of legislation in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, intended to close the income-based skills gap.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the developing world, where the inclusion of education in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights spurred global leaders to prioritize universal school enrollment. The 2000 United Nations Millennium Development Goals sharpened this focus by aiming to enroll every girl and boy in primary school. In the past decade, as the global community increasingly gained comparable data on student proficiency, policy leaders finally began to focus seriously on how much—or, in many cases, how little—children learn while in school. It was not until the ratification of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which explicitly articulated the need for learners to develop diverse skills and knowledge in pursuit of sustainable development, that the global community finally set out to provide learners with an education relevant to their lives and livelihoods. To achieve the sort of learning that students across the world both need and deserve, we must jettison this stepwise model of educational progress and make room for an entirely new mental model: leapfrogging.

What, therefore, do we mean by leapfrogging in education? Leapfrogging, often described as the ability to jump ahead or make rapid and nonlinear progress, is not well defined in the education literature. Sometimes, in the business literature, it is associated with innovation that disrupts existing paradigms rather than sustains them in a different form. More frequently, leapfrogging is used colloquially to describe examples of rapid change. For example, the term “leapfrogging” often appears in relation to telecommunications or banking sectors in the developing world, where certain nations have been able to bypass whole phases of infrastructure and institution building that other countries had to experience. Many African countries, for example, never systematically invested in laying telephone lines, yet today access to mobile phone service on the continent has grown so rapidly that in many cases communities are more likely to be connected to the outside world via mobile phone service than to have access to electricity or running water. The situation is the same for banking: instead of focusing on expanding physical branches to reach the many communities and families who lack access, people across the developing world are relying on mobile money—transfers and payments via text message—which grew out of innovations in Kenya.

In one of the few previous explorations of leapfrogging in education, John Moravec and Arthur Hawkins argue that a true leap is not merely adding new skills to an existing system but rethinking education systems altogether. As a futurist, John Moravec draws on Peter Drucker’s work on the rise of the knowledge worker and argues that we are moving into a new economic model that will privilege “nomadic knowledge workers,” whom he defines as people who are “creative, imaginative, innovative,” and “can work with almost anybody, anytime, anywhere.” Although Moravec recognizes that this is not the current context everywhere, he argues that education should leapfrog to a new approach that prepares young people for what he sees as this eventual condition, and he spells out steps to do this along a continuum of education transformation.

This study took inspiration from the overarching idea that rapid and nonlinear progress can be made without following the usual path. Leapfrogging often connotes ideas of skipping over steps to advance along a particular path, but we do not stick narrowly to this idea. Rather, for us leapfrogging is any approach that can rapidly accelerate educational progress, perhaps skipping steps but certainly ending up in a new place altogether. Perhaps the most important part of defining leapfrogging here is identifying our desired end goal. Therefore, we argue that leapfrogging means any practices, whether new or old, that can address skills inequality much more quickly than the current 100-year gap predicts, and any practices that enable us to meet the challenge of skills uncertainty in a rapidly changing world. Ultimately, leapfrogging should set its sights on helping all children develop breadth of skills, no matter if they are currently in or out of school or living in poor or rich communities.

The Education Paradox of Our Time

Having defined leapfrogging, we now face several questions. Is it possible to address both skills inequality and skills uncertainty at the same time? Does focusing attention on one necessarily distract from the other?

This is the educational paradox for our time. As education systems around the world need to be strengthened to deliver their core services, they also simultaneously need to transform what and how children learn. The problem is that the current ways of helping schools better reach and teach the most marginalized often reinforce the education structures that hold students back from developing the breadth of skills they need for 21st-century life. Throughout human history, social institutions responsible for educating young people have always adapted to new eras, but never before on this scale or in so short a time. A central question for us all is how we can change schooling without losing the commitment to the principles of mass education.

Some argue that skills inequality and skills uncertainty cannot be addressed simultaneously. Education systems need to walk before they can run, the argument goes, and thus they should tackle the problems of access, quality, and relevance in that order. Schooling that now leaves large numbers of children outside their doors or that keeps children in school year after year with little progress in developing central reading and math skills instead needs to focus on getting the basics right. Whether in poor countries or poor communities, educators who advocate this strategy claim that there is a real danger in shifting the goal from access and quality to relevance. They worry that a focus on transforming the teaching and learning experience to help students develop a broader range of skills will, however unintentionally, privilege those who are better served today by schools. As a result, the most marginalized will be forgotten, and thus will be less able to master life-changing academic skills such as reading or math. There is a clear rationale to this argument, and those who make it are often deeply committed to helping marginalized children.

The problem with this approach is that there is a high degree of risk that it will maintain a different kind of inequality in the long term. At its core, this argument means that the Prussian model of schooling should be strengthened in areas where it is weak—in poor countries and poor communities—and should be questioned only in areas where it is strong—in rich countries and rich communities. As poor children gain access to schooling that helps them master basic skills, wealthy children will be participating in learning experiences that help them develop the breadth of skills they need.

This is not mere hypothetical conjecture; it is playing out in education policy around the globe. For example, in Madagascar, the government recently developed an education sector plan to address the 30 percent of children who do not finish primary school and the high numbers of children who are not mastering basic literacy and numeracy. As only 15 percent of teachers in the country have received professional training, significant government effort will be needed to train teachers and place them in rural and hard-to- reach communities. Meanwhile, in Finland, educators are taking seriously the prospects of educating children for a changing world. They are not content to rest on their laurels as one of the consistently top-scoring education systems in international measures such as PISA; instead, the government is ushering in reforms that require schools to increase the use of multidisciplinary themes in teaching and thereby move away from traditional subjects as the organizing principle of learning. The Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg notes that schools have some flexibility in how to integrate this phenomenon-based teaching approach, and thus will be able to draw on all the traditional school subjects to explore a topic such as the European Union or climate change. He also notes that what is potentially more forward-thinking is the requirement that students have a voice in designing the topic and in how their learning is assessed. Set subjects and control by teachers are making way for themes and opportunities for students to use their voices. The reform, Sahlberg argues, is motivated by the recognition “that schools should teach what young people need in their lives.”

What will happen to the students entering school in Madagascar 20 years from now? Will they stand any hope of developing the broad range of skills that Finnish students will likely have by then? Or, despite improved access and quality learning, will they again be woefully left behind, missing crucial skills they need to thrive? Most governments aspire to help young people develop the capabilities they will need to flourish regardless of their starting point. In the words of one former African minister of education, Dzingai Mutumbuka of Zimbabwe, “I wanted the children in my country to develop the skills that will make them globally competitive; they are just as capable as children in other parts of the world.”

It would be foolish to argue that Madagascar can become like Finland in a decade, not least because of the massive differences in their economies and available financial resources. But Madagascar could equally chart its own course toward helping children get the full range of skills they need. After all, children are natural-born learners—curious, creative, social, and persistent—and this is no less true in Madagascar than it is in Finland. Technology is advancing so quickly that expensive computer laboratories are being replaced by mobile phones, online and offline tablets, and lightweight solar-powered projectors. If Indonesia can be one of the world leaders in startups, and India can do the same in biometric identification, why cannot Madagascar tackle skills inequality and skills uncertainty without following the same steps as Finland? The long, hard work of reforming education governance and resourcing would be important for this journey, but it is by no means enough. An essential part of the process would have to be identifying new ways of educating children—that is, strategies to engage young people in learning opportunities that will help them master academics at the same time as they build their skills for the 21st century. Luckily, these types of approaches are being tried out in both the poorest and wealthiest parts of the world. Being open to taking a different path is perhaps the first step toward leapfrogging. After all, breaking free from dominant logic—entrenched patterns of thought and action—and the resulting tendency to act in accord with past decisions, also known as path dependence, can be one of the biggest barriers to innovation.

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