Building Education Back Better. Q&A with Emiliana Vegas

The pandemic has turned the education system upside down all over the world – creating massive challenges as schools locked down, but also genuine opportunities through embracing online learning, at least where technology is available.

As co-Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, Emiliana Vegas has been following the situation closely. In a recent essay with her co-director, Rebecca Winthrop, she set out ideas for how education can be built back better. Driving Change began our conversation by asking her about that.

Driving Change (DC): Your essay is about educational inequality pre- and post-pandemic. What is educational inequality?

Emiliana Vegas (EV): Long before COVID, learning outcomes and opportunities between children and youth of diverse backgrounds – combined with race and ethnicity and other markers of disadvantage – varied widely. Wealthy kids tend to have better outcomes not because they’re smarter, but because they have better support at home and more access to extracurricular activities. Often they are also in neighborhoods with better schools.

While these issues greatly concerned the education community prior to the pandemic, we’ve recently seen accelerating inequality in learning opportunities. Children with disadvantaged backgrounds – perhaps socioeconomically because both parents are, for example, frontline workers, and can’t be at home to support their learning – are at higher risk of falling behind. It’s a dire picture, because remote education requires access to devices and to connectivity. A lot of children across the world in both wealthy and poor countries lack access to these luxuries.

DC: Why does this topic merit attention from the unusual suspects – those outside education – particularly today?

EV: Learning is highly correlated with outcomes at the individual level later in life, in earnings and labor market opportunities. So those who miss out on learning opportunities are also less likely to have good jobs, high earnings and to be able to support their families. As a result, countries as a whole will suffer from lower productivity levels, income and gross domestic product. This issue will have lasting impacts on both individuals and societies.

DC: Can you summarize the main conclusions or recommendations of the research explored in your piece?

EV: Wide public recognition of the important role schools play is the pandemic’s silver lining—not just as caretaker so that parents can work – but also as a source of employment. Schools employ both teachers and other staff and support indirect employment for, for example, food and transportation services.  Parents came to appreciate the valuable and critical role of schools and teachers. That alone is huge progress. In many societies the prestige of teachers and the value of schools have lost a lot of ground.

That’s why we put forth in our piece the idea of a “powered-up school” – one recognizing learning outside of school and the school’s role at the center of the community, to leverage effective partnerships to help learners grow and develop a broad range of competencies and skills.

Even prior to the pandemic, kids and youth spent 50% to 60% of their waking hours in school. That means kids are out of school up to half their time. During COVID that has grown.

But that doesn’t mean learning is not taking place. So schools should partner to leverage that learning, by helping students navigate a trajectory more adapted to their own level of learning. Potential partners include community-based institutions such as museums, parks and health and social protection services. Employers and businesses also provide schools with guidance around the competencies most in demand so that students acquire skills that will help them get jobs.  Families have also played an important role in this pandemic. In the education community, much past research and effort has focused on engaging parents in pedagogical innovation in their kids’ learning. Over the pandemic, that’s happened to a degree that’s exceeded our wildest dreams. Let’s keep that post-COVID-19.

When Finland and Denmark reopened schools, to minimize the number of students at one time in schools, they partnered with museums closed to the public to offer safe spaces for students.  Yet another example of creativity and innovation over this time.

DC:  Why the focus on public education rather than all education?

EV: We focused on public education, firstly, because public schools’ mandate is to serve everyone. That makes providing a good education very challenging.

Still, after controlling for students’ socio-economic backgrounds, public schools in many countries perform equally or better than private schools. Secondly, public education in many countries serves the majority of the school-age population.  So focusing on public schools, leveraging them, and putting them at the center of the educational system plays a very important role in equalizing educational opportunity, in reducing the inequality that is growing, unfortunately, during COVID.

DC: What good things do you see coming out of the pandemic for public education?

EV: Five key actions, we hope. The first is leveraging public schools for their essential role in equalizing opportunity across society. Secondly, focusing on the heart of the teaching and learning process – the instructional core – or interactions between learners, educators and the content.  The third action is leveraging educational technology to accelerate learning for all.

In a recent piece I co-authored with Rick Hess from NYU and the American Enterprise Institute, we explore how prior to COVID, many industries had been tremendously disrupted by technology – except education.  When exploring the potential of technology with a focus on the instructional core, one can identify the true comparative advantages of technology to complement the work of teachers and schools.

We identify four of these advantages. First is scaling up quality instruction by, for example, distributing the pre-recorded lessons of excellent teachers. Not all kids can access an excellent teacher, and not all excellent teachers are good at every subject. So technology allows us to access incredible lessons from the best teachers in the world.

Second is facilitating differentiated instruction, through, for example, computer adaptive learning. Evaluations show that relatively low-cost investments in computer adaptive learning for kids who are way behind grade level can help them move up in a fairly effective way. Thirdly, technology can greatly expand opportunities for students to practice. Learners learn by listening and reading but also by practice practice, practice of what they heard or read to hone skills and competencies. Technology provides infinite opportunities for such practice and problem solving. Finally, technology provides fun ways to engage learners through, for example, games and dynamic videos. When learning is fun it is more likely to stick. Technology does this very well.

The fourth action is helping parents and teachers forge stronger and more trusting relationships—so evident over the pandemic. Teachers and parents have been forced to communicate more closely and look after learning at home. Let’s bring that with us when we go back into in-person instruction.

The pandemic has helped us learn as we go. In today’s global education community, a lot of rigorous work and arguments push for evidence-based decision making, which we’re all for. But if you really want to innovate, you also have to test things in areas were there’s not yet evidence, and evaluate as you go, to build evidence at scale for new approaches that can help power up schools over time. We believe these four steps will help transform education after COVID.

DC: How are primary schools part of the fabric of society and the economy?

EV:  Primary schools have historically played an important role at the center of community. In many countries, besides the church, the school is the one institution that is always in every community. In many communities with violence or high degrees of poverty, schools are perhaps the one safe space for children. Therefore schools play a critical role in children’s development.  They are also often the one place in disadvantaged communities where children get a decent meal. And on the flip side, public education is the largest employer in the public sector in many countries. In my previous work at a development bank, we worried that teacher pay, its burden, might crowd out capital investments in education. Because we need so many teachers to deliver education to every child. We also hope that the world will work harder to invest more so that teachers get the pay they deserve. This is a big problem across the world, particularly in countries where the teaching profession has lost prestige and social value.

DC: How has technology helped boost new educational innovation strategies forged over the pandemic? How have parents stepped in in unusual ways?

EV: An organization called Young Love in Botswana worked with teachers before the pandemic to deliver better instructional materials. Teachers in many developing countries lack strong qualifications and are doing the best they can. But with more guided instruction, with more materials that help them follow a path that we know works, they can help meet students at their level.  So in Botswana they used a technology developed in India called ‘Teaching at The Right Level’ based on computer adaptive software and in-person and online lesson plans to help kids advance.

But after schools shut, the organization wrestled with how to continue the program, and worried about large learning losses, particularly among kids in vulnerable homes with unsupportive parents. So they shifted instruction to cell phones, which every parent, but few kids, have.  The pilot program asked parents certain questions and gave them information to quiz their kids on math, and materials to engage them in learning. And after a few adjustments, parents found that they could mitigate learning losses significantly among children targeted for the program, versus a control group with similar characteristics.

So even in low-income, low-tech environments, parents are engaging with their kids’ learning and helping out, varying by the level of parental education, by their own resources, and by the way in which they need to work.

DC: Our site, celebrates public service and effective public policies, to inspire the next generation of public servants. You have a very impressive resume. Has your career been linear or a voyage of opportunity and discovery?

EV: Certainly the latter. I first studied journalism at college in my home country of Venezuela because unlike in the US, we had to choose our major before beginning. Like in France, you choose your professional track when you apply.

Journalism was like a liberal arts degree with a focus on journalism. And I had worked at my high school newspaper and enjoyed it and figured that I wanted to have impact in public policy. I had no idea then that public policy was a field. I knew about politics and political science, but not about public policy. So I started there.

When I graduated, I felt that I could write, but didn’t know what to write about. And I was fortunate to earn a scholarship at Duke University where I earned a master’s degree in Public Policy. Over an internship I was also exposed to really wonderful economics professors whose area of interest was education. And I had been marked by attending high school in the US. My parents were very pious, forward-looking young people who were not highly educated but believed in the power of education and sent us to high schools in the US. So when I attended college, I felt that my preparation for a demanding university program, with wonderful students from all over the country, was superior. And I realized that education made all the difference. I wanted to do public policy, to focus on education, and to affect and improve education in countries like my own.  That led me to this field of economics in education at the doctoral level, because everyone I’d worked with had a PhD and were, in my view, brilliant.

Becoming a researcher in academia or a think tank was the original goal. But upon graduation, I applied to a competitive program at the World Bank called the Young Professionals Program. It’s an interesting program, because you can rotate to different jobs across the institution over the first two years until you find what you’re really passionate about, where you can make your career. So I first pursued research; I was certainly interested in education in developing countries, and the World Bank was a good place for that. And then I found that I really love working with countries—not just the research, but how research influences lending, operations, and technical assistance. That was it. I was hooked.

It’s been a great ride. I’ve worked in many countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each country has its own difficulties but also really great things.

DC: What do you enjoy most about what you do? What are some of the challenges?

EV: I most enjoy that cross between bringing evidence to policymakers and decision makers, and shifting mindsets, helping them do things differently that will hopefully lead to better outcomes, because the work, providing them with solid evidence, answers questions they care about.  That drove my work at the banks and drives my work at Brookings.

The challenge is that in the end, research or evidence in a political world has limits. Sometimes we’re naïve, believing that if we bring evidence to a policymaker on, for example, an excess number of unqualified teachers, he or she might be convinced to reduce costs by letting some go and improving the pay of those who are very good, by changing the structure of pay.  But most of those in a Ministry of Education would say that that’s really hard to do in practice; it would politically backfire.

How do you make sound policy recommendations that are also realistic– that will not generate so much conflict that might push an administration or its leader out of office? There’s always a downside. It takes time to grasp.

Also, when you start in public policy, it’s usually because you want to be a policymaker. If you had asked me years ago what I wanted to do, I’d have said I want to go back to Venezuela, to be the Minister of Education and improve my country’s education system. Over time, that was impossible. So you’re always on the sidelines as the adviser, the funder, not in the driver’s seat. Not feeling the pressure of the driver’s seat is nice. But it also gives you humility as to what you can achieve.

People are also much more trusting of experts in the medical community than they are about those in education, because we’ve all been to school so have very strong opinions. So, in some ways, the evidence base is both weaker and weakened by so many voices and opinions and interests. It’s good to have so many people interested. But it’s tough to change something that’s not working for many when so many feel that that’s the only thing they’ve seen and known.

DC: Was any particular event, moment or person pivotal in your career progression?

EV: That would be Richard Murnane, my grad school advisor. He is an outstanding economist in education in the US. But he is a warm, caring person who is really invested in his students. He’d start every meeting saying, ‘Where do you want to be 20 years from now, because I want to help you get there?’ And do everything possible to guide you in that path, towards academia, development banks, or the nonprofit think tank world, helping with incredible lessons and knowledge and by connecting you to others in that network to help you carve your path. He taught me a lot about mentoring, and I’ve tried to follow his example. As I have become more senior, I’ve mentored younger generations. He’s a remarkable person. It was not everybody’s experience in grad school. I was very fortunate.

DC: Your professional life began in a very different world, when higher education was, relatively speaking, more affordable. What advice might you give young people keen to pursue a similar professional path given the changes and challenges?

EV: I’m not sure that premise is totally right. I agree that higher education costs have skyrocketed. But the field of public policy and public service has also grown.  So you can make a career and earn a decent living in many ways, in the development banks, if you’re into international work, at large philanthropies where many professionals are very evidence-based, who come with similar training and are making decisions on how a philanthropy should strategically invest to achieve impact. And there is the public sector. There is a growing recognition of the value of public service. There’s still a long way to go, particularly in low-income and some middle-income countries, to make public sector compensation and benefits attractive to highly talented people. But there is progress. And in my time working in Latin America, public service careers have professionalized, establishing merit-based competent, competitive processes, thus removing the politics. Not enough and not fast enough. But it’s getting there. And I would close by saying that there’s nothing more rewarding than working on something that you deeply care about—I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

I tell my kids, one in college, one in high school, that it’s most important to figure out what they care about and what challenges them.  It’s important to feel that you’re learning and stretching your limits. But also to know where you can impact areas in which you want to make a difference, be it climate change, or health or education.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

Carolyn Whelan

Carolyn is a writer, editor and analyst who covers the nexus between business and social justice issues. She broke into journalism at the Rio Earth Summit where she interviewed Al Gore and environmental pioneer David Brower. Topics covered since then range from climate change and higher education costs to drugs pricing, geopolitical strife, business ethics, artificial intelligence, gene editing, alternative energy and the search for good jobs -- and innovation in all these areas. Her pieces, reported from Europe, the US and South America have appeared in Fortune, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Previously she worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit,, Columbia Business School, WWF, the UN and PwC. Carolyn is fluent in French and Spanish and resides in Brooklyn.

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