Keeping the global promise of a quality education

Countries and world bodies such as the UN have helped expand access to schooling. Now they must enhance the quality of education.

English teacher Abdiweli Mohammed Hersi teaches children at the school near a camp for internally displaced people from drought hit areas in Dollow, Somalia April 3.

A big worry in education these days is that easier access to schooling has come at the expense of the quality of learning. One example is an investigation of test scores at some 200 American colleges by The Wall Street Journal. The results reflect a rising global concern that students are learning far too little even as access to education expands.

The Journal study found that the average graduate of some of the most prestigious universities showed little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years. At a majority of all schools, at least a third of seniors could not make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document, or interpret data in a table.

Such results reflect a global trend that has caught the eye of many big institutions. The World Bank is expected to devote its upcoming World Development Report solely to the topic of education – a first for the bank. And in a preliminary report last January, the bank said there is a “learning crisis” in low- and middle-income countries. 

“While the world has achieved massive growth in school participation in recent years, many systems have struggled to ensure that students learn and acquire relevant skills,...” the bank stated. It warned of “schooling without learning.”

On June 28, the United Nations General Assembly holds a special event on education while many international groups are trying to increase funding for schools in the world’s poorest nations. Foreign aid for education has declined for six years even as total development aid has risen. 

Last year, the UN began to implement its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 with a key goal being improvements in the quality of education. The UN’s previous target in education, which was part of the 2000-15 Millennium Development Goals, was mainly aimed at increasing the number of children completing primary school. While that goal achieved remarkable success, it may have helped weaken a focus on learning outcomes.

As the World Bank notes: “In Malawi and Zambia, over 80 percent of students at the end of the second grade could not read a single word; in India only 75 percent of grade 3 students could not do two-digit subtraction.”

The UN’s new goals on education come with dozens of themes, many of them related to quality, such as proficiency in math. This has led to calls for countries to better measure results that can serve as a barometer of progress.

Only about one-half of countries now participate in regional and international testing, or “learning assessments.” Yet, as the bank points out, education is a foundational building block for achieving nearly every other goal in a country’s development. For every year of schooling, a person’s earnings rises some 6 to 12 percent. People with better education are more engaged citizens.

Just as democracy is not only participation in elections, education is not just attendance at school. The title of the bank’s coming report is “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise.” Let’s hope all nations keep the promise of quality learning for their young people.

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