Ensuring Education Leads to Learning: The Task Ahead for the Education for All Goals in the Developing World

On Tuesday, March 22, education leaders from around the world will meet in Jomtien, Thailand to discuss the progress of education across the globe. This 10th meeting of the Education for All High-Level Group marks two decades of concerted global effort to improve educational attainment, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. The discussions will most certainly celebrate the development of the Education for All (EFA) movement, which began in Jomtien in 1990, and has led to six widely shared, time-bound goals for meeting the learning needs of all by 2015.

And there is indeed a great deal to celebrate. Driven by the EFA movement, more children are entering and completing primary school today than ever before. Even in the poorest countries, average gross enrollment rates in primary school have risen to 80 percent and completion rates over 60 percent. There has been a significant decline in the number of out-of-school children from 100 million in 2000 to 67 million in 2008, with over 80 percent of the decline in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. Gender disparities in primary enrollments are narrowing and more children are making the transition from primary to secondary school. A recent study found that girls’ enrollment in primary school has increased from 82 percent to 100 percent from 2002 to 2008 in 43 Fast Track Initiative (FTI) countries.

However, despite this progress, there is an education crisis facing many of the world’s poorest countries that delegates must tackle head on this week in Jomtien. The nature of this crisis is essentially one of learning and primarily manifests itself in three dimensions: (1) the 67 million children and 73 million adolescents who remain out of school without opportunities to learn; (2) children who are in school but not learning basic skills, such as reading, math and critical thinking, which in turn leads to further drop outs and low transition rates to secondary school; and (3) children who are progressing through school but not learning relevant skills that will prepare them for a productive, healthy adulthood.

Millions of children drop out of school every year before completing primary school, a waste of human potential and investments. Almost half of all children out of school today live in countries affected by conflict and these countries receive much less funding and are much less equipped to reach the EFA goals than other low-income countries. As children enter adolescence, enrollment rates fall. One in five children of lower secondary school age is out of school. Girls and young women in developing countries remain at a considerable disadvantage in access to education, particularly at the secondary level. For girls, additional factors of discrimination intersect to exacerbate the marginalization and exclusion they may already face as a result of their gender—this includes poverty, language, conflict and geographic location of residence. Before even starting school, millions of children suffer from poor health and malnutrition that irreparably impairs their cognitive development and learning potential.

For those who are able to go to school, sitting in a classroom hasn’t necessarily translated into learning. The latest data reveal a learning crisis around the world that risks reversing significant gains in access—and indeed in improving lives—in many countries. A recent study found that in many countries, student outcomes have either stagnated or regressed over the last 10 years. In some sub-Saharan African countries, children with five years of education had 40 percent probability of being illiterate. In Peru, only 20 percent of 15-year-olds were able to identify one piece of information in a text.

The Way Forward: Key Priorities for Improving Learning Opportunities & Outcomes

If national and international partners don’t take swift, bold action to address this education crisis, the EFA goals—and the U.N. MDG education goals—will not be met. Business as usual will not get us there. At current pace, most of the goals will fail to be met by 2015—many by a wide margin.

The Center for Universal Education at Brookings, in partnership with a wide range of actors, has been examining recent research and empirical data and has identified an emerging consensus that there are at least three critical transition points that are essential to support in the lead up to and beyond 2015. These transition points are particularly important for girls and young women who still face considerable challenges in accessing education. Ensuring that girls and young women have equal access to quality learning opportunities is a basic human right as well as delivers high social and economic returns to individuals, families and communities. While there are no silver bullets or one-size-fits-all approaches, recent research, empirical data and on-the-ground experience suggest the following three policies are essential to improving learning opportunities and outcomes for children and youth:

  • Prepare girls and boys at an early age to learn and do well in school. The argument for focusing on early childhood development (ECD) and early learning is strikingly straight-forward: early life experiences have a significant impact that persists well into adulthood. Research suggests that critical brain development occurs before the age of seven, influenced by nutritional and health status, as well as by interactions with people and objects in the environment. Better health and nutrition is linked to better test scores, more consistent attendance, lower repetition rates and higher grade completion. Extending ECD opportunities to children in poor and marginalized communities can overcome household deprivations and set them on the right track at an early age to succeed in school. Building children’s social and emotional aptitude (e.g. positive coping mechanisms, self-regulation, interpersonal and decision-making skills) at an early age is crucial for future academic success. It is especially important to ensure girls are prepared to enter school at the proper age as many of the gender disparities in later school years can be traced back to initial intake into primary school.
  • Build foundational skills in reading and numeracy in the early grades. Research shows that the trajectory of a child’s reading progress at the end of the first grade can predict his/her skills throughout primary school since reading skills are self-reinforcing (strong readers acquire double the vocabulary that build better reading skills than weak readers). Early learning success in reading and math also contribute to higher retention rates as children who are successful early on are more likely to remain in school longer. Strategies to build these foundational skills include training teachers in effective methods of reading instruction; maximizing the amount of time spent on literacy and numeracy activities; supplying appropriate level reading materials to children and communities; and providing mother tongue-based multilingual education language of instruction. While the language of instruction can be one of the most contentious and politicized issues in any education system, it has profound effects on the ability of millions of children—and girls in particular—who don’t speak the official language to access and learn effectively in school.
  • Support opportunities to transition to (and complete) post-primary educational opportunities that build relevant life and labor skills. Quality post-primary education is one of the keys to breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality within and across countries. There is considerable evidence as to the strong social and economic benefits from secondary education, particularly for girls. Preparing young people to participate in the 21st century knowledge-based economy requires strengthening the link between education and the local labor market and focusing on transferable skills, such as computer literacy, communication and financial skills. Given the wide heterogeneity of young people, there is a need for more non-formal and flexible approaches for learners. Second chance and catch-up programs that offer clear pathways back into school or work provide critical opportunities for young people who have missed out on years of school.

The 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Education for All—and the meeting in Jomtien this week—should serve as platform to call for bold action to move education up the global policy agenda. Twenty years ago, collective action, dedicated attention and increased resources resulted in significant advances in universal primary education. We now need to build on this success with the same committed focus and strategic investments to ensure that children who are still out of school have access to a quality education and those who are in school acquire the relevant knowledge and skills needed for a healthy, productive life.