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Since the early sixties (at the conference of Addis Ababa), and with the best intentions, the international community has been setting goals to solve educational problems in developing countries. Unfortunately, and for various reasons, these have not been met. Even the most recently agreed targets in the Millennium Development Goals, which should be achieved next year, will not be met. In fact, 54 countries will not have achieved universal primary education by the end of 2015.
As is well known, the coverage problems (which are less serious in Latin America compared to other regions of the world) coexist with serious quality deficits. To put it bluntly, school coverage increases but learning does not. The magnitude of the challenges, and the difficulties to achieve the targets set in the past, should lead us to be rigorous and cautious when setting new goals.
UNESCO has recently published a paper that proposes 10 goals and 25 indicators to monitor the progress in educational development after 2015. The proposed goals represent very laudable aspirations, with which it is hard to disagree. However, in order to be considered as tools to monitor the progress of educational outcomes in developing countries, these proposals concern us given the number and nature of the suggested indicators.
We understand the temptation to use the opportunity of new global targets to be ambitious and cover a wide range of issues and levels of education. But we see two potentially serious problems with having 10 goals. First, knowing how difficult it is to achieve even a few goals, we believe that setting so many implies acknowledging that, in fact, these are just statements that will hardly be met. Second, we are very concerned that having so many goals may dilute each one of them. It is well known that when everything is equally important, nothing is a fundamental priority. We believe that the agreements reached will be a lot more powerful and influential if they define three or four goals with which citizens can identify themselves and eventually demand results.
Here we offer some specific comments regarding the goals set by UNESCO.
1. While our preference is for goals that are linked to international tests and common standards, we do not object to the principle UNESCO proposes of setting as a goal the compliance with national standards of learning. However, for this to be credible there must be a mechanism by which the citizens of each country are able to know whether these standards are sufficiently demanding or not. Just saying ‘accomplish what the government says should be done’ is not enough. Citizens should be able to judge those goals, and without international ‘benchmarks’ that is hard to do.
2. We are surprised that the first goal UNESCO proposes corresponds to the end of elementary school. That is too late. We need indicators to identify problems long before. We have argued before that if there are no clear gains in the first years of childhood, subsequent interventions can represent a waste of resources because there has already been irreversible damage, for example in the brain development of children. We believe that an indicator related to early interventions is a priority.
3. Despite the importance of teachers to achieve quality education, we are not convinced by the idea of including a goal on the quality of teachers. It is very complicated to achieve an international consensus on how to measure teacher quality and, thus, difficult to monitor it. Inevitably you end up with indicators such as the proposed (number of teachers with diplomas) which we know are poor predictors of outcome.
4. Including goals related to public expenditure objectives is problematic because it is proven it is not the amount of money spent, but where and how it is invested that makes the difference in terms of results.
5. We are perplexed to see that the goals set for ‘skills for work and life’ are about coverage and not quality. In that sense, the only impact indicator proposed is one related to employment, an unsuitable measure when it comes to measuring the quality of teaching and training services.
How much more powerful and potentially transformative would it be to agree on a few indicators of learning (before starting primary school, at the end of it, and at around 15 years old) that everyone understands and, thus, commits to monitor that we are actually accomplishing them!