Skip to main content

Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

How to Solve Global Education Problems? Ask the Right Questions.


Having worked as a teacher and school leader, I attended Harvard’s 2017 Social Enterprise Conference (SECON) with the hope of discovering solutions to some of education’s most pressing problems. Instead, the conference raised a series of thought-provoking questions about education.

Does innovation in public education preserve, or even exacerbate, the status quo regarding the achievement gap? Can you be considered a global citizen if you do not know how to speak English? Is it ethical to use taxpayer dollars to test innovations in the education sector? These are some of the questions the audience grappled with at SECON.

But it was a question raised by panelist and Harvard professor Lant Pritchett that kept nagging at me after the conference. What can we do about primary education in countries where most teachers do not even show up to school? Chronic teacher absenteeism is a big problem in developing countries. Among other variables, it stems from poor working conditions, the remoteness of the schools, and the status of the teacher as a contract worker or a civil servant. In the end, excessive absenteeism worsens student achievement and wastes a lot of money.

SECON panelist Pranav Kothari, a leader at Educational Initiatives, offered a solution to filling educational gaps students might experience as a result of teacher absenteeism: Mindspark. Mindspark is an “adaptive online tutoring system.” It offers a learning path that’s personalized to match where the student currently stands in terms of her skills and knowledge. Depending on how she answers a question, Mindspark will ask another question of a higher or lower level. Soon, it will detect the cause of any misconceptions the student might have. Then, through interactive lessons, it will help her overcome her misconceptions and build a deeper understanding of the material. Moreover, Mindspark lets students learn at their own pace. It also lets them win “sparkies” and, thereby, earn different tiers of recognition.

Mindspark does not solve teacher absenteeism. But it does help kids learn on their own. And it’s scalable. It can mitigate the negative repercussions of teacher illiteracy and absenteeism across the globe.

Teachers, however, clearly add value to a child’s education that technology cannot replicate. By coupling the human element with technology that enhances student learning, we can optimize the education we offer youth. Lisa Joseph, who sat next to me at SECON and who works at an edtech organization that serves 1.5 million educators and students in the U.S., shared with me her two cents. “Tech can be incredibly valuable in education when it’s a tool that’s incorporated into classroom learning,” she says. “Technology needs to be a partner with the teacher. It must not replace the teacher.”

But the human element is lacking, especially in developing nations. Uganda, for example, experiences one of the worst rates of teacher absenteeism. Boosting teacher salary there has not led to promising results. Monitoring teachers, combined with incentives, however, has proven to be more effective. At a rural school in Uganda’s Kiryandongo district, Build Africa created a student-managed teacher attendance recording system. At the beginning of every week, a different student is randomly selected to track the teacher. For that week, the student documents if the teacher shows up, arrives late, and instructs students. Teachers with the strongest attendance records receive monetary awards. Those with the weakest undergo disciplinary action.

Mindspark and student-led teacher attendance sheets are creative solutions. But why must kids in the developing world rely on such innovations to receive a proper education? What is being done to address the very conditions that necessitate such innovations?

Often, tackling those conditions entail working with or through the government. But many private actors prefer to circumvent the government. They find the government too cumbersome to deal with.

Yet, SECON panelist Jaime Saavedra Chanduvi, the former Minister of Education of Peru, believes that small private initiatives working around the public sector “will not imply a change in the whole education system.” He thinks government can scale innovation in a way that private actors cannot because they do not have the resources or access to do so.

Chanduvi left many audience members wondering: Is it impossible to drive systemic school reform if one works around the government as opposed to through the government?

I left SECON with more questions than I had when I arrived. Asking the right questions can often lead us to the right solutions to persistent problems in education. We just need to remember that, in our zeal to find quick solutions, we might miss the right questions.

Ivan Rahman is an MPA Candidate and a Gleitsman Leadership Fellow at Harvard University and an MBA Candidate at Stanford University. Before pursuing his MPA and MBA, Ivan consulted for the NYC Department of Education. He holds a B.A. from New York University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the Relay Graduate School of Education.

Photo Credit: Angela Hamblen via Flickr.