Transforming education systems: Why, what, and how

elementary students raising hands in classroom

Today, the topic of education system transformation is front of mind for many leaders. Ministers of education around the world are seeking to build back better as they emerge from COVID-19-school closures to a new normal of living with a pandemic. The U.N. secretary general is convening the Transforming Education Summit (TES) at this year’s general assembly meeting (United Nations, n.d.). Students around the world continue to demand transformation on climate and not finding voice to do this through their schools are regularly leaving class to test out their civic action skills.     

It is with this moment in mind that we have developed this shared vision of education system transformation. Collectively we offer insights on transformation from the perspective of a global think tank and a national government: the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings brings years of global research on education change and transformation, and the Ministry of Education of Sierra Leone brings on-the-ground lessons from designing and implementing system-wide educational rebuilding.  

This brief is for any education leader or stakeholder who is interested in charting a transformation journey in their country or education jurisdiction such as a state or district. It is also for civil society organizations, funders, researchers, and anyone interested in the topic of national development through education. In it, we answer the following three questions and argue for a participatory approach to transformation: 

  • Why is education system transformation urgent now? We argue that the world is at an inflection point. Climate change, the changing nature of work, increasing conflict and authoritarianism together with the urgency of COVID recovery has made the transformation agenda more critical than ever. 
  • What is education system transformation? We argue that education system transformation must entail a fresh review of the goals of your system – are they meeting the moment that we are in, are they tackling inequality and building resilience for a changing world, are they fully context aware, are they owned broadly across society – and then fundamentally positioning all components of your education system to coherently contribute to this shared purpose. 
  • How can education system transformation advance in your country or jurisdiction? We argue that three steps are crucial: Purpose (developing a broadly shared vision and purpose), Pedagogy (redesigning the pedagogical core), and Position (positioning and aligning all components of the system to support the pedagogical core and purpose). Deep engagement of educators, families, communities, students, ministry staff, and partners is essential across each of these “3 P” steps.   

Our aim is not to provide “the answer”we are also on a journey and continually learning about what it takes to transform systemsbut to help others interested in pursuing system transformation benefit from our collective reflections to date. The goal is to complement and put in perspectivenot replacedetailed guidance from other actors on education sector on system strengthening, reform, and redesign. In essence, we want to broaden the conversation and debate.

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