The following interview between Global Americans and Agustín Porres took place as a commemoration of the International Day of Education, celebrated January 24. This year—as schools worldwide remain shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with millions of students and teachers continuing to struggle with virtual or distance-learning (and with education having become, for some students, effectively inaccessible)—the observance of the International Day of Education has taken on a particular urgency.
About Agustín Porres and the Varkey Foundation
Agustín Porres is the Latin American Regional Director for the Varkey Foundation, having previously served as Country Manager for Argentina. Porres has also worked extensively on issues of education and educational policy at multiple organizations across the Argentine public and nonprofit sectors.
The Varkey Foundation, founded in 2010 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Sunny Varkey, has funded training for more than 46,000 teachers, and directly impacted the education of over 1.6 million students around the world. Especially active in Argentina, Ghana, and Uganda, the Varkey Foundation has awarded the annual Global Teacher Prize, popularly known as “the Nobel prize of teaching,” since 2014.
Agustín Porres can be found on Twitter at @Agustinporres. To learn more about the Varkey Foundation, please visit https://www.varkeyfoundation.org/, or find them on Twitter at @VarkeyFdn.
January 24th was the International Day of Education, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly. When it adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community recognized that education is essential for the success of all 17 of its goals. In particular, the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. Although remote learning is currently accessible for many students, it remains out of reach for at least 500 million students around the world.
a. Which policies should governments foster to achieve SDG 4?
In these times, we have seen how autonomy has driven the actions of many teachers. This could represent a signal for future government policies. But autonomy implies accountability and working intensively on the training of directors, so that they can guarantee results in all areas. On the other hand, teachers themselves need to be able to assess the needs of children in their school. In other words, we need to reaffirm management autonomy such as that of the curriculum, favoring creativity and innovation and attending to the needs and interests of each student.
b. What will be the most critical obstacle to overcome over the next decade if governments want to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all”?
I think every country has their own obstacles. However, I believe that cultural change—that is, making education a priority—is a central issue in ensuring quality education for all. It is an obstacle that could act as a springboard: if we manage to demonstrate the real value of education, and become capable of measuring its capacity to transform society, quality education would become a demand of everyone.
2. The Varkey Foundation has a major presence in Argentina—partnering with the Ministry of Education on a flagship training program for school leaders and undertaking a large-scale principal-training initiative, among other projects.
What lessons have you and the Varkey Foundation learned from your organizational successes in Argentina? And how can those successes be expanded to other countries in the region? For instance, the Coalición Latinoamericana para la Excelencia Docente (the Latin-American Coalition For Excellence on Teaching)—a combined initiative of the Varkey Foundation, the Inter-American Dialogue, and Inicia Educación—represents a region-wide effort, featuring academics, policy experts, and teachers from fourteen countries across Latin America.
Students are at the center of all of our educational goals, and we have learned that when teachers are the protagonists, they have the ability to empower themselves. Their potential is enormous and extraordinary things can happen. On the other hand, the networks generated between schools lead teachers to engage in very innovative activities. I remember the case of a teacher from a northern province of Argentina, Salta, that organized a virtual event where she showed the journey of the great liberator of the region, José de San Martín. That meeting brought together students and teachers from four Argentinian provinces, two American countries and one European country. For her, as for thousands of teachers, networking with other schools was not easy. That changed. We have seen that regional and global networks open new horizons. At the Varkey Foundation, we like this goal of generating community from collaborative work; and to achieve it we created Comunidad Atenea, a collaborative platform for all teachers in Latin America.
3. To cite a recent U.N. policy brief, “The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history.
a. From your vantage point—as the Latin American regional director for the Varkey Foundation—how has the pandemic impacted the educational landscape across Latin America?
We do not yet know the real impact, because this is also a crisis of experience. That is, nothing like this has ever happened before. What we do know is that existing inequalities have deepened and that, as a society, it will take a lot of effort to recover. In this context, the responses of educators must be differentiated. We need to recognize and take advantage of the points that we have in common and, at the same time, detect and value the differences among students. Nevertheless, when we talk about the impact of the pandemic, only the negative aspects are brought up; and I believe that a positive aspect is the capacity for autonomy shown by the teachers, their innovative potential, their desire for professional training, and the power of the educational community when it works as a team.
b. How has the pandemic affected the work of the Varkey Foundation in Latin America, and how has your organization adapted to the new realities created by the pandemic?
Like all educators, we had to reinvent ourselves and transform our way of working, which was mostly face-to-face before the pandemic. On that route, the first thing we did was to listen to teachers to find out what they needed. We couldn’t continue doing the same as before, but in front of a camera. We had to change many aspects, including abandoning certain prejudices about virtual learning. Finally, I think our team’s dedication to service, coupled with their natural capacity to learn new things, made it possible to navigate recent challenges.
4. The Varkey Foundation is committed to teachers—enhancing the status and reputation of teaching as a profession, facilitating teacher training and professional development. As stated on the Varkey Foundation website, “Our vision is a quality education for every child—through boosting the status of teachers and celebrating the profession.”
a. How have teachers across the region adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic?
I believe that there is no single answer; rather, there are many different valid responses. Thousands of teachers excelled with their flexibility and creativity. It was a year of innovation for teachers. We have seen teachers rapping, using social media, creating radio and television programs, and all kinds of feats, such as creating a mobile classroom on their bicycles to visit their students.
We decided to keep going with the global award for teachers. Celebrating teachers’ dedication during this year was more important than ever. While the prize is one way to recognize their indispensable role during this pandemic, I believe that we, as a society, should appreciate their daily work even more. We need to value their efforts and work with them in order to improve educational outcomes.
b. What should the public and private sector in Latin America currently be prioritizing in order to minimize further educational disruption over the duration of the pandemic, and to best equip teachers, and their students, for success in these challenging circumstances?
I believe the challenge is to work as a team. This is not an issue to be solved only from the public sector. We have to go out to seek the greatest possible presence. I believe that we must redefine the value of the teacher and emphasize the importance of technology as a valuable tool in the service of learning.
c. What should be done in the future to increase the resiliency and flexibility of educational systems in Latin America going forward—for the benefit of teachers, parents, and students alike?
One way could be to grant schools more autonomy. I am referring to an autonomy where teachers can be held accountable and use this accountability as a tool for improvement. Along these lines, we also need more, and better access to, data. We cannot think that schools should just upload data into spreadsheets. They should be able to take advantage of this information to know where they stand, where the students are at the beginning and end of the year, what progress has been made and which difficulties exist in order to be able to adapt their planning, etc. Finally, autonomy requires valuing and developing competencies among teachers.
5. The burden of the pandemic has been borne disproportionately by vulnerable populations around the world, and COVID-19’s impact on education has been no exception. To return to the U.N. brief cited earlier, “The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults—those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons—to continue their learning.” The World Bank cites one study showing that, “while 92% of students are participating in remote learning activities in the south[ern] region of Brazil, only 52% of students are doing so in the, poorest, north-west region”; and another model indicating that, in Colombia, prolonged school closures may have led to between 53,000 and 76,000 students dropping out of school permanently.
a. How do you see the educational impact of the pandemic exacerbating existing social, economic, and regional inequalities?
Hopefully, it will awaken us to more creative solutions. We know that the pandemic has deepened the differences that already existed. It has exposed the lack of access to new technologies, the rustiness of school formats, and the bureaucracy of the education system. But, it has also shown positive aspects; hopefully we can continue to build bridges of trust with teachers, deepen dialogue with families, listen to each other more, rethink the meanings of the educational process, build relationships with other institutions, and create spaces for imagination and creativity.
b. What sorts of educational policies—whether implemented by states or by private initiatives—might diminish these deepening divides?
First, digital infrastructure would have to be expanded to improve opportunities for access to digital educational content. But the so-called “digital divide” is not limited to connectivity and devices. The opportunity for available resources to be transformed into digital educational content depends on the skills of teachers to establish connections with students. For this reason, there exists a great need to strengthen the capabilities of teachers, offering spaces for training, support and reflection.
6. Moving away from the pandemic, according to the Global Teacher Status Index (GTSI) report published by the Varkey Foundation in 2018, Latin American countries fare rather poorly when it comes to quantifying, per the report, “the level of respect for teachers in different countries and their social standing.” Among the six Latin American nations included in the sample of 35 countries, Brazil ranked last in GTSI, Argentina ranked fifth, Colombia ranked 10th, Peru ranked 11th, and Chile ranked 14th. According to the Global Parents’ Survey published by the Varkey Foundation in 2017, many parents in Latin America—especially in Peru, Mexico, and Brazil—were significantly more likely to regard the quality of free to attend, government-funded public schools in their country as “fairly poor” or “very poor” than “fairly good” or “very good.” Furthermore, in Argentina and Brazil, a majority of parents believe that “the standard of education in [their] country has become … worse over the last 10 years” (according to the same Global Parents’ Survey).
a. What effect—if any—has the pandemic had on the status of teachers and teaching across the region? And what effect has it had on public confidence in the quality of education available to students?
It is very likely that the pandemic has modified the value attributed to teachers in Latin America. During the pandemic, they were valued for their commitment, their concern, their flexibility and their ability to adapt. Let us not forget that many teachers are also parents. The crisis made that visible. I believe that parents saw that school is not only a place where children go to receive instruction about specific subjects.
b. What should be done to increase parents’ confidence in their country’s public educational systems?
We need to involve parents more in the teaching and learning process.With the pandemic, it has become clear what a great team families and teachers make when they work together. These are two groups that need each other; one cannot do its job without the other. This is a great lesson to learn and should be continued. And here, I return to the subject of education as a social value. If we truly measure the usefulness of education for the development and well-being of a society, everything that follows will be simpler.
7. To end on a more optimistic note, while the catastrophic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education of millions of students across Latin America cannot be downplayed or disregarded, some experts have argued that the pandemic may also represent a catalyst for innovation in the educational sector, an opportunity to transform educational models and systems to better serve the needs of students, teachers, and parents in the twenty-first century. For example, Emiliana Vegas and Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institution write that, “Innovation has suddenly moved from the margins to the center of many education systems, and there is an opportunity to identify new strategies, that if sustained, can help young people get an education that prepares them for our changing times.”
In your opinion, have the events of the past year presented the Latin American educational sector with any such opportunities for innovation, adaptation, or improvement?
Today presents an opportunity to discuss what and how to teach. In the past year, innovation has become a kind of sudden obligation for countless teachers who have had to generate materials, have made school programs on school radios, have taught their students how to study differently, and have sought to encourage collaborative learning. Innovation has to remain an essential property of their work.