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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Conference Held at TC Focuses On Educational Access Worldwide

The state of educational access and opportunity worldwide was the subject of a conference held over two days in early February at Teachers College. The conference, titled "Equality of Educational Opportunity at the Dawn of the 21st Century," focused on the relationship between educational exclusion and social exclusion across cultures and countries. "I can't think of a more important theme at this age and time," said Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College, in his opening remarks. "Access and opportunity to education is needed in the U.S. It has grown in some countries, while it has faded in others." Levine also pointed out the auspicious timing of the conference, coming during the 100th anniversary of International and Comparative Education at Teachers College. "The need for international and comparative education in a global society can't be emphasized enough," he added.

Despite attempts recently by the international community to make education a universal human right, educational and social exclusion remain entrenched in most of the world. The poor, refugees, immigrants, women, and racial, cultural and religious minorities are generally given fewer educational opportunities, leading to fewer opportunities for active participation in civic life, society and the economy. The conference-which was sponsored by Teachers College, the TC-based online journal Current Issues in Comparative Education, the international children's organization UNICEF, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education- included panel sessions and round-table discussions touching on many issues, including the roles of governments and other agencies, and the challenges faced in certain countries and regions. For example, separate panel discussions focused on educational equity in Namibia, Latin America and the Caribbean, China, Central America, Africa, Russia, the United States, Bolivia, Mexico, and among nomadic and urban youth. Issues presented for debate included education in divided societies; language and social exclusion; immigrant and minority children; educational opportunities for girls; technology in the service of equity; and the role of international donor agencies in perpetuating inequalities in developing countries.

The role of donor agencies was also the subject of the conference's keynote address, given by Michael Edwards, a former Senior Civil Society Specialist at the World Bank and current Director of the Governance and Civil Society Program at the Ford Foundation. Edwards, author of the book Future Positive: International Cooperation in the 21st Century, detailed the legacy of exclusion left by the 50-year history of foreign intervention in developing nations. "Since 1945, we have created a system of exclusionary forces incapable of inclusion," Edwards said of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Under the old system-which was shaped by the cold war, commercial interests and entrenched inequalities in the various countries-the rich countries made the rules. Not surprisingly it didn't work very well. The organizations were simply unable to grasp the fundamental challenges they faced, find a basis for cooperation and failed to engage the forces capable of changing the situation. Yet despite this history of failure, Edwards' outlook for the role of NGOs is positive. In his remarks he outlined several principles that would create a more equitable basis for foreign aid: ?the "locals" must be included in the planning process; ?the outcome depends on collective action, and must be based on voluntary cooperation; ?cooperation is impossible when people feel excluded. Adhering to these principles, Edwards believes, will create a system that welcomes diversity, encourages local ownership of programs, doesn't allow abuse of fundamental rights and freedoms, and creates a way for people to find their own way forward. "The purpose of foreign aid is to give people on the ground more room to maneuver, to do what they want and need to do," Edwards explained. "They have a vision but they don't have the means to accomplish it."previous page