Stealing from the Future: The Urgency of the Global Learning Crisis

This year’s Global Monitoring Report (GMR)—the annual publication that tracks progress toward Education For All (EFA) goals—presents a situation already recognized by most working in global education, but it frames the data in a new and sobering way. Highlights include:

  • One out of 4 young people in poor countries cannot read a basic sentence, even after four years in school.
  • If recent trends continue, the richest boys in sub-Saharan Africa will achieve universal primary completion in 2021, but the poorest girls will not catch up until 2086. In addition, girls from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa will only achieve universal lower secondary completion in 2111, 64 years later than boys from the richest families.
  • In a third of countries analyzed in the report, less than 75 percent of teachers are trained.
  • The cost of 250 million children around the world not learning the basics translates into a loss of an estimated $129 billion per year, the equivalent of 10 percent of global spending on primary education.

These statistics should cause worldwide alarm and urgent action, just as A Nation at Risk rattled educators in the United States more than 30 years ago. But in fact the global education community has been well aware of the declining quality of schools since long before 2000, when it committed in Dakar to reaching the six EFA goals by 2015. And less than a year out from that deadline, we are on track to achieve none of the six goals. Amina Mohammed, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on post-2015 development planning, spoke at the GMR launch in Addis Ababa as someone who had participated in the Dakar discussions: “We should really be angry about where we are in education 13 years later after Dakar.” She states that we have failed children over the decades, and we fail teachers as well. “So many students have passed through education, but education has not passed through them.”

Teachers are the focus of the 11th GMR, and rightly so. Teachers are the most important schooling factor effecting student achievement. But again, the GMR’s four recommendations regarding teachers—attracting good quality teachers, improving teacher education, ensuring the most disadvantaged students have the best teachers, and retaining good teachers with incentives—are not novel ideas. The trouble is they have not been implemented at scale.

The GMR points out that a lot of the problem has to do with education financing. Following the launch event, Chernor Bah, chair of the UN Global Education First Initiative’s Youth Advocacy Group, moderated a discussion with teachers and students in a typical classroom at a local secondary school in Ethiopia’s capital city. The schoolteachers on the panel hailed from Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi. Pakistan was also represented by Mariam Khalique, teacher of young education champion Malala Yousafzai. Despite their different contexts, they each described common problems including teacher shortages, severely overcrowded classrooms and chronic lack of teaching materials. One Ethiopian teacher explained that he and his colleagues are the lowest paid public servants in his district, forcing many to take on other jobs. Furthermore, it might take days of travel for teachers in remote areas to collect their pay.

Sadly, in many parts of the developing world these conditions are not the exception but the norm. New analysis by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics estimates that based on current trends, in sub-Saharan Africa $4 billion—the equivalent of 19 percent of the region’s total education budget in 2011—will be required annually to cover the salaries of the additional teachers needed to achieve universal primary education by 2020 (GMR 2013/4, p. 24). Despite the great need, the GMR points out that aid to education is falling: “In sub-Saharan Africa, home to over half the world’s out-of-school population, aid to basic education declined by 7 percent between 2010 and 2011. The $134 million reduction in basic education aid to the region would have been enough to fund good quality school places for over 1 million children” (GMR 2013/4, p. 11). Mr. Bah’s reaction was spoken as a passionate advocate for education and youth: “When we don’t pay teachers adequately, we’re stealing from the future.”

The themes emerging from these discussions on the global learning crisis—urgency, anger, inequality and injustice—should drive parents, youth, communities and the private sector that depends on skilled labor to demand better from governments. When asked whether they aspire to become teachers, not one of the young students on the panel raised their hands. They explained that it’s not because they don’t value the teaching profession, but rather that they see the challenges teachers face for seemingly little reward. In contrast, each of the teachers on the panel easily responded that they do hope their own children grow up to become teachers, even though they know all too well the hard road ahead. Why? “Because if not, who will teach the children?” was the unanimous answer.

Teachers are not only working today to ensure children’s right to learn, but they’re also looking ahead to secure the future. Governments and donors must look to the future too, and support teachers and education quality through greater investments, developing effective teacher compensation systems and improving conditions for teaching and learning.