Today at the Global Education and Skills Forum, in Dubai, education entrepreneur and philanthropist Sunny Varkey announced a $1 million prize, to be awarded to one outstanding teacher somewhere in the world. Nominations and applications are now open at  The winner will be announced in November.

(disclosure: GEMS  Foundation supported my coverage of this event, but had no editorial input). 


President Bill Clinton, Honorary Chairman of the Varkey GEMS Foundation, with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the Global Education and Skills Forum.

For classroom teachers, this is the largest prize of its kind ever to be announced. In fact, it’s larger than most prizes in most professional fields. It rivals the the Nobel Prize itself, currently around $1.2 million. The MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Grant”), which is currently $625,000, went to a high school physics teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, in 2010.

Varkey is a newly minted billionaire, originally from India, who founded GEMS, the largest network of private for-profit schools in the world. It has 132 schools and 142,000 students across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China, and India. He told the crowd that the mission of the global teacher prize, supported by Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, was inspiration.  “We want to inspire children from far-flung villages, towns and cities around the world to say ‘I want that prize!’ How many kids say they want to be a reality TV star? Let’s get them aiming to be the greatest teacher in the world.”

The Global Education and Skills Forum was organized in partnership between GEMS’ nonprofit foundation, UNESCO, The Commonwealth Business Council (a sort of global Chamber of Commerce), and UAE’s monarchy.  The underlying aim is to raise the profile of global education on the agenda of big-time philanthropy, international aid, and the business community directly. At the Forum, UNESCO also announced the Business Backs Education campaign, which asks corporations to nearly double their giving to education-related causes, to $1 billion by this time next year and to 20 percent of all corporate social contributions by 2020. Corporate charities donate sixteen times as much money to health-related causes as to education, even though cultivating human capital contributes directly to the bottom line. As keynote speaker President Bill Clinton told the GESF audience, every dollar invested in education returns $53 to employers through a better qualified, more productive workforce.

Here in the US we debate the benefit of big donors and private wealth in schools. But in the developing world the story is very different. Globally, 57 million children are not in primary school. Many countries don’t have the resources to expand access. “Universal Primary Education” is #2 on the list of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; this would require an estimated 6 million new teachers by next year, 2015. The private sector has stepped into the breach. GEMS is one of a new breed of private, for-profit chain school operators that have sprung up in China (where some are owned by Disney), the Middle East, and Africa. These global education organizations have a mix of pro-social and business motives.

Viewing access to schooling through the lens of global development lends a proper urgency to the issue. But it also encourages a narrow instrumentalist view of education as a means to economic growth and only economic growth. When a gathering is hosted by an absolute monarch, sponsored by multinational corporations including Samsung, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Credit Suisse, one can’t expect much room for the role of education as a radicalizing, democratizing force.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

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Anya Kamenetz writes the Digital/Edu blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (2010).