A quarter of a century ago, barely half the children of primary school age in sub-Saharan Africa were enrolled in school. By 2012 the share was 78 percent. In South Asia, primary school enrollment jumped to 94 percent from 75 percent over the same period.
This didn’t happen by chance. Policy makers around the world have come to understand the importance of learningfor every aspect of human development. Universal primary education was one of the United Nations’ core Millennium Development Goals, which mobilized large amounts of aid in the first decade of the century for poor countries to expand access.
Despite this phenomenal advance, however, a peek under the headline statistics suggests that much of the world has, in fact, progressed little. If the challenge was to provide a minimum standard of education for all, what looks like an enormous improvement too often amounted to a stunning failure.
“We’ve made substantial progress around the globe in sending people to school,” said Eric Hanushek, an expert on the economics of education at Stanford University. “But a large number of people who have gone to school haven’t learned anything.”
Can the world do better? Experts and diplomats have been working for two years to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals to succeed the previous millennium goals in guiding development strategy and steering international aid over the next 15 years. The targets are expected to be formally adopted by the United Nations in September.
An educated population is a critical precondition for broadly shared prosperity — an essential tool for nations seeking a role in the global production chains driving economic growth around the world. But simply pursuing “universal education” will not get us there. It cannot do the job alone.
Aiming resources at expanding access will probably be fruitless without an understanding of what a quality education means. And without some clear, measurable standards laying out the skills that must be achieved, the strategy is likely to fall short again.
A report published on Wednesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the PISA standardized tests taken every few years by a sample of 15-year-olds in some 75 countries, offers up a distressing take on the state of the world’s learning. Even among relatively wealthy countries, many students fail to master the most basic skills.
Achieving PISA’s Level 1 requires no more than a sort of modern functional literacy. Fifteen-year-olds need to be able to figure out, for instance, how many South African rand Mei-Liing will get if she changes 3,000 Singapore dollars into the South African currency at the rate of 1 Singapore dollar for 4.2 rand. (The answer is 12,600.)
Among 15-year-olds, 89 percent of Ghanaians failed to reach this level, as did 74 percent of Indonesians and 64 percent of Brazilians. So did 24 percent of Americans.
These deficiencies impose a huge cost. The O.E.C.D. report — put together by Professor Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich — takes a shot at modeling the impact of education on economic growth.
If the skills of every student in secondary school were to be brought up to Level 1 over the next 15 years, it estimates, Ghana would add more than 1.2 percentage points a year to its economic growth over the long term. Indonesia would grow nearly 1 percentage point faster. Bringing every child in secondary school up to this level would provide far more economic punch than universal secondary enrollment at the current quality.
It is not surprising that the world settled for targets on the quantity of education but skimped on quality, which is not only difficult to deliver but also more contentious and harder to measure.
“Universal education is an agenda with no opposition; it offers free services and swells public employment,” said Justin Sandefur of the Center for Global Development. “Quality is a little more politically contentious.”
Policies aimed at promoting enrollment, like subsidies or the conditional cash transfers offered to parents who sent their children to school in Mexico or Brazil, added students to the system without improving its capacity.
“The challenge on quality is an outcome of success,” said Chandrika Bahadur, director for Education Initiatives at the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a group advising the world body on the new development strategies. “Systems were overburdened by the influx of children coming in, and very quickly it became a problem to ensure that they were learning well.”
They weren’t. There is still very little information on how well — or badly — children around the world are doing at school in many countries. But a recent effort by the World Bank to measure the quality of education systems in some African countries painted a dismal tableau of what they are being offered.
In Uganda, only one in five elementary schoolteachers meets the minimum standard of proficiency in math, language and pedagogy. Few of them spend much time teaching anyway. In surprise visits to public schools, survey takers found that 27 percent of teachers were absent. Of those present, 56 percent were not in the classroom during scheduled teaching hours.
The O.E.C.D. report — aimed at influencing the debate over development goals at the United Nations — proposes a target of providing universal secondary education by 2030 that ensures all students achieve the basic level of skill as measured by PISA. The economic gains, it argues, would more than pay for the effort.
Distressingly, the educational goals under discussion do not focus on quality. The draft of the United Nations documenthazily promises “equitable and effective” universal secondary education that produces “relevant and effective” learning outcomes. But it fails to define the terms. The promise to eliminate illiteracy among the young is the nearest it comes to a concrete, meaningful target.
Achieving quality will be tough and more expensive. Teachers have to be retrained, curriculums revised and pedagogical approaches changed. All this while providing universal secondary education and closing the gap that still remains in primary access at a time in which development assistance for education is waning.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is developing a useful measure of educational competence to ensure accountability around the world among radically different cultures with different educational philosophies. “Is there a common set of questions?” Ms. Bahadur asked. PISA tests, she noted, are designed for rich countries.
The superheated debate over the use of standardized tests in the United States suggests how difficult that task can be.
But without an improvement not just in the inputs to education (like the number of teachers and time devoted to instruction) but in the outcomes as well (better-performing students), much of the effort may go to waste. “Equity at the price of poor overall outcomes,” said Andreas Schleicher, who heads PISA at the O.E.C.D., “is not doing anyone any good.”