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December 08, 2014

What if Boston hosted an education Olympics to spur investment and excitement? (Antonio Villani/ Flickr CC). 

Boston is one of four US cities – along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. – vying to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.  Business and civic leaders planning the effort tout the benefits and rosy forecasts – increased global stature for Boston, economic boom in jobs and revenue for local business before, during and after the games, and improved infrastructure and facilities, etc.  The price tag? Recent analysis by The Boston Globe pegs it at approximately $15 billion. That’s correct – billion.  This includes $61 million just to prepare the bid and full campaign required to pursue the Olympics, with no guarantee that Boston will be selected. Olympic planners vow that this money will be fully covered by private funding.

This is an extraordinary undertaking – and no doubt exciting.  Would I be proud to have the Olympics in Boston, to buy my Boston Olympics T-Shirt?  Of course!  Would there be economic benefits for the city?  The track-record isn’t good with past Olympic (or World Cup) venues –perhaps Boston would be one of the exceptions.

But here’s another idea altogether: to spur similar investment and excitement in Boston and other cities for education by borrowing this same blueprint.  Hold a competition among cities to host a World Education Olympics every four years, in which cities compete to demonstrate the best education ideas and innovation, outcomes and levels of student growth from early childhood through post-secondary education.  And then, as a requirement for hosting, have the selected city invest heavily in its education workforce and infrastructure.

In this Olympics, top prizes would be awarded for literacy rates, creative writing, problem-solving, serving children with special needs, eliminating achievement gaps among student sub-groups, using technology to facilitate learning, using assessment to identify early interventions for children, teacher training, etc.  Country or regional teams might compete in hack-a-thons on key education challenges, such as supporting families to increase their child’s vocabulary prior to Kindergarten.

Instead of venues around a city hosting sporting events, one site might focus on literacy, while another might focus on best teacher education models. Here the heroes – the medal winners – wouldn’t be millionaire basketball players, but teachers and school leaders, child development and education researchers, and social education entrepreneurs.

And the benefits of a World Education Olympics?  In fact, they mirror those of a traditional Olympics:

Economic – There is no greater investment we can make to improve our economic prospects then education.  Increasingly our students will need exceptional technical and analytical skills, as well as content knowledge in the STEM areas to compete in the science and knowledge based economy.  Further, think of the World Education Olympics as one of the biggest conferences in the world.  By comparison, the Comic-Con and Consumer Electronics Show conferences attract 100,000 attendees.  The World Education Olympics would shoot for a similar number of attendees, all paying a conference fee. Education technology companies, social entrepreneurs, and higher education institutions might also pay for space in exhibition halls. The boost to the local retail and hospitality economy would be significant, as well.

Infrastructure – Investment in transportation would be required to move attendees from venue to venue.  Further, almost all of Boston’s 128 public schools need facility and technology upgrades.  The city’s capital budget – and state school building funds – are nowhere near enough to meet this need.  If we hold this World Education Olympics over the summer and host events across Boston schools, we could provide many of facility and technology improvements.

Civic Pride – To be known as the hub of education excellence and innovation in the world for a summer would be extraordinary. Wouldn’t it be great too if several medal winners where Boston teachers, students, researchers and leaders. I’d buy a T-Shirt with their names on it!

I’m not sure what our odds are of landing the 2024 Summer Olympics, but Boston stands an excellent chance of winning a competition for a World Education Olympics. With 60 higher education institutions in the Greater Boston area – the greatest concentration in the world –  we have multiple event sites, and plenty of great minds to help plan this event, recruit education leaders, and vet and present cutting edge education ideas.  And the other good news –thanks to our Olympics planners –we have a strategy for raising private funding.

This proposal, of course, is the longest of long shots.  But the message behind it is essential: as a city – as a society – we should prioritize and invest heavily in ideas and actions that improve the lives of many over the long-term, over those that celebrate the physical feats of a few over a summer.  

Jacob Murray is the executive director of the Aspire Institute, at Wheelock College, which seeks to improve education and social services for children and families in Boston.

opinion, wheelock, global competitiveness, innovation

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