As their rickety boat approaches shore, sending ripples across the surface of the glossy river water, 17-year-old Filipe and a handful of his classmates hop off and head to class. Teachers are scarce in this remote swath of the Brazilian rainforest. But Filipe’s classroom now has a television screen, and as he arrives, a teacher standing hundreds of miles away appears via live stream to greet him.

Across the world, 250 million children do not have even basic reading and math skills.1 In September 2015, 193 countries committed to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) 17 Sustainability Development Goals for 2030.2 The fourth item on the list is inclusive and quality education for all. The Media Center where Filipe studies is the focus of one of the 14 case studies featured in an April 2016 report entitled “Millions Learning: Scaling Up Quality Education in Developing Countries,” released by the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education.

Filipe is one of the lucky students benefitting from the progress made in education over the last decade. If countries across the globe remain committed to pursuing the UNDP’s Sustainability Development Goals, then he will join the ranks of millions more children with access to quality education where none exists today. Filipe’s school, called the Media Center, is among 1,000 local government schools built in recent years by the Amazonas State Secretary of Education (SEDUC) to make education accessible to children living in rural Amazonas areas, many of whom are in school for the first time.

“We hope the impact will be more attention and investment in scaling, and not just in pilot ideas, which usually get most of the attention,” says Jenny Perlman Robinson, a Nonresident Fellow with the Center for Universal Education and one of the report’s primary writers.

Filipe’s story at the Media Center stuck out to Robinson and her colleagues as a confluence of the strategies they see working best to scale education. As a project initiated by the state, the achievement of the Media Center is an example of central government granting autonomy to the state level. The program also utilizes technology and reaches the most marginalized communities.

“I didn’t appreciate how remote it really is,” Robinson explains. “To get from these villages to the capital can take weeks if not months by boat.”

The Media Center in Brazil is an example of what’s working in education. How can these successes be scaled up to reach other students, especially those living in conflict, and those who are currently being failed by the education systems in Syria and Turkey?

A classroom in the Jamaraquá community in the Brazilian Amazon.

Countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan face challenges in providing quality education to their own youth populations. According to an October 2014 UNICEF Report, more than 76,000 children are out of school in Jordan, and an additional 50,000 are at risk of dropping out.3 By the end of 2015, close to a million refugees had arrived in Jordan from Syria, adding immense pressure to an already strained education system.4

In nearby Turkey, Mohammad would be in 11th grade if he was able to go to school. Instead he works in a small auto repair shop in Istanbul in order to help support his family after fleeing from Syria last year. Even if he could afford to go to a nearby Arabic-speaking school, he’d have to enter 6th grade, the grade he was in when he last entered a classroom.

Five years after the start of civil war in Syria, more than three million Syrian children are not in school.

Injaz Jordan, founded in 1999 and featured as another case study in the Millions Learning report, works to fill these cracks in Jordan’s education system. By creating youth empowerment programs and curricula that develop skills missing in the evolving job market, Injaz helps to keep students in school and to increase employment opportunities for a youth population that reached a level of 28.8 percent unemployment in 2014.5

“We’re noticing more and more that there’s a gap in education itself for the kids in private schools and those that can’t afford them,” says Deema Bibi, CEO of Injaz. “The root of all other problems we are seeing is a lack of equal opportunities in basic services—mostly in health and education, the right to live a healthy life and to have a healthy future.”

The organization has reached 1.2 million Jordanian youth to date, but they do not have any programming today for refugees outside of existing education institutions. Developing countries like Jordan and Brazil are struggling against longstanding inequalities to provide quality education to those that have long been left behind. Even in developed countries like the United States, the inequalities are staggering.

Recent research conducted by NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exposed stark imbalances in spending per student in school districts across the United States.6 One school district in Chicago, Illinois spent USD$9,794 per student in 2013, while a wealthier suburban district less than an hour’s drive away spent $28,639. The difference and its implications cannot be ignored, and yet the national average for the same year is USD$11,841 per student, far above the average annual amount of approximately $1,000 spent per student in Jordan.7

The Millions Learning report refers to a “100-year gap” in educational outcomes between developed and developing countries. This means that students in developing countries will need 100 years in order to reach the same levels of reading, math, and science of students in developed countries as they stand today.

The task of closing this “100-year gap” between developed and developing countries is an overwhelming one. The idea that students like Mohammad in today’s world are forced to take steps back instead of forward is like a slap in the face to the progress made elsewhere towards more equitable education worldwide.

Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement in the Koura District, in Lebanon, on June 2, 2014. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Syrian refugee children found temporary safety in the Kafar Kahel informal settlement in the Koura District of Lebanon.

Why isn’t Mohammad in school? Mohammad’s family lost many of their assets in the violence of their country’s civil war. Mohammad and his family moved to Istanbul to survive, and in order to keep surviving, every member of their family works. They cannot go to the public Turkish schools because they do not speak the language. Mohammad would not be able to afford the costs of attending an Arabic-speaking school, which are privately run, and he doesn’t live close to any of the temporary education centers set up by the Turkish government.

Mohammad’s older brother is 22, and he also stopped studying in the 6th grade. Just months ago, this brother married a 17-year-old girl who also fled Syria for Istanbul with her family last year. His bride is the oldest of six children, and not one of them has gone to school since the war began in Syria five years ago.

If governments and nongovernmental organizations do not adapt with urgency to the reality of millions of refugee youth worldwide, then the gap for millions of children—Syrian and otherwise—will deepen by the day.

Robinson believes that lessons learned in the Millions Learning report can be applied to refugee populations. “It shouldn’t be a burden placed on host communities. We as an international community need to ensure that parents, private sector, civil society—all actors—have a role to play in creating opportunities for education.”

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” she says. “These case studies prove that large-scale change is possible.”


  1. Teaching and learning: achieving quality for all. UNESCO [online] (2014).
  2. Sustainable Development Goals. UNDP [online] (2016).
  3. Jordan: country report on out-of-school children. UNICEF [online] (October 2014).
  4. UNHCR [online] (2016).
  5. Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate). The World Bank [online] (2016).
  6. Turner, C et al. Why America’s schools have a money problem. NPR [online] (April 18, 2016).
  7. Mansur, Y. Regulating private schools. The Jordan Times [online] (April 27, 2015).

Molly Bernstein

Molly Bernstein has worked as a journalist in Amman, Jordan and as a fellow at the Fuller Project for International Reporting in Istanbul, Turkey. She is currently studying for a graduate degree in Global...

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