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What Is Education Policy? A Peek Behind the Curtains

Educator lectures to students in a classroom.

Behind every teacher around the world lies a much larger force at work: education policy. What is education policy? Education policy refers to the legislation, regulations, and resources that shape and impact the curricula, environments, and teachers that students encounter. As such, education policy focuses on the interconnectedness of budgets; curriculum requirements; testing guidelines; infrastructures; teachers’ unions; and private, faith-based, and public education systems. Government institutions at the local, state, and federal levels also have a hand in implementing education policy. Furthermore, a growing number of education-focused international organizations and agencies interact and collaborate with federal institutions to help them meet their goals.

Due to the increasingly complex system that governs schools and education organizations, if you are interested in entering the education field, you may want to consider an online master of education (MEd) in education policy and leadership or an online master of arts in teaching (MAT). Both degrees offer expert knowledge on the various issues that can impact your education and help foster the leadership skills you need to be a social change agent.

How Global Education Policy Works

International organizations like UNESCO, the World Bank, and the Global Partnership for Education work with local governments to help ensure that children receive quality education around the world. Similarly, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is a state agency that helps run education programs in developing nations. Several private foundations and corporations have also focused their philanthropic efforts on education, and wealthy nations like China and Qatar funnel their international donations into education policy, as well.

The world plays a large role in answering the question, What is education policy? Countries with strong education systems, like Finland and South Korea, serve as examples for other nations to follow. They are lauded for their investment in teachers; their focus on teaching fundamental concepts, such as math and reading; and their ability to provide individual support.

Many developing countries face obstacles that prevent them from following the same path. According to Global Citizen, though the number of students attending schools worldwide continues to increase, about 56% are not learning. In regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the number rises to 90%.

Though each region’s challenges vary, certain trends pervade weaker education systems. First, budget deficits can make it extremely difficult to implement even the smallest change, and families may also lack the funds needed for transportation, books, and supplies—even when tuition is free. Second, teacher training and retention is lacking, and dedicated educators may not have the resources they need to effectively manage their classrooms. Third, the world is currently facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, a problem that severely interrupts the education of millions of children around the world.

Even when there are funds, it matters little if policy design and implementation are inefficient. Many education systems in developing countries lack the tools necessary to gather key data on student attendance, retention, testing, and other useful metrics. Likewise, curriculum development is sorely needed in order to help students thrive in the new global economy.

Bridging the Culture Clash

Finding a way to collaborate with countries whose values may differ significantly from their partnering agencies’ is a challenge for global education policy professionals. Education leaders need to walk a fine line between promoting innovation and respecting a host country’s culture.

For example, the status of young women in a society may severely impact their access to education. In some areas, sending girls to school is often seen as less of a worthwhile investment than sending boys. Gender-based violence; the prospect of child marriage; forced labor; and, sadly, trafficking also disproportionately affect girls. Several studies, however, have shown that granting them access to education positively affects their communities.

Thankfully, experts in the field have found ways to push past these barriers. The Global Partnership for Education, an international coalition, tackled these issues in Afghanistan by working with the country’s cultural values. The coalition focused its efforts on community and faith-based schools. The coalition also helped train a large number of female teachers, which helped increase the number of girls allowed to attend school. According to Global Partnership for Education the rate of girls enrolled in primary school jumped from 44% in 2002 to 87% in 2015.

Looking Forward

In 2017, UNESCO released a list of 10 goals to help ensure that students around the world receive a quality education. Its objectives include creating universal preprimary, primary, and secondary education; creating effective learning environments; increasing the number of qualified teachers; and achieving gender equality and inclusion.

Many organizations have heeded UNESCO’s call and are actively trying to bridge the gap between strong education systems and those facing steep challenges. One way that agencies try to improve education and help implement education policy is through technology. E-readers, smartphones, and online libraries can offer a wealth of educational material at the touch of a fingertip. Technology also helps teachers manage classrooms, track individual progress, and tailor lessons to a child’s needs.

In India, for example, EkStep, a philanthropic organization, created an open digital platform that provides students and teachers with educational content, worksheets, activities, resources, readings, and other material to help them learn. The World Bank also led a pilot study in the Dominican Republic in which students used a computer program to improve their math skills.

Global education policy can be demanding work, but it is also rewarding and fulfilling for those looking to make a difference. If you are interested in education policy, you may benefit from receiving an advanced degree like American University’s online MEd in education policy and leadership or online MA in teaching.


American University, Master of Arts in Teaching

American University, Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership


Global Citizen, “10 Barriers to Education Around the World”

Global Partnership for Education, Afghanistan: Community Schools Boost Girls’ Enrollment

Globe and Mail, “Seven Characteristics of Great Education Systems”

OpenEdition, “International Education Policies, Issues, and Challenges”

The Borgen Project, “Global Education in 2016”

The Guardian, “Hundreds of Millions of Children in School but Not Learning”

The World Bank, Global Education Policy Dashboard

UNESCO, Ensure Quality Education for All

UNESCO, What UNESCO Does on Education Policy and Planning


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