In the ongoing debate over learning outcomes and measurement in the lead up to the post-2015 framework, the education community risks falling victim to the old English proverb, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” We want global education goals but local adaptation, if not local origination. We want goals that are practical and can be measured realistically while also sufficiently ambitious and forward-looking. However, we may indeed be able to “have our cake and eat it too” if we use very precise language and realize the need to put into place goal-seeking rather than goal-setting processes. This is the spirit behind an upcoming report from the Methods and Measures Working Group of the Learning Metrics Task Force scheduled for release in June 2013.
Crafting a Goal That is Both Global and Local
One key distinction needed is between goals versus metrics. Goals motivate while metrics measure. What is often overlooked is that goals can be lofty, long-term and universally applicable yet still be locally adaptable. An example of such a goal is: All children should be able to read at proficiency, by the end of the primary cycle in their country, according to their national curriculum. The metrics for this goal could be robust assessments of reading administered at the end of primary through a national assessment. Countries could then report on the percentage of children achieving proficiency based on their national curricula or, to use Keith Lewin’s concept of “yield,” they could report on the percentage of children completing primary school and achieving a certain level of proficiency.
Risks do exist, however, in defining a goal relative to national curricula. These same national curricula have been failing children in many countries for the last decade. Measuring a goal based on national targets may risk stagnating progress in learning outcomes and disincentize governments to make real improvements to education quality.
But this problem can also be addressed. In addition to a goal that measures outcomes relative to national curricula, countries can also measure their students’ achievement based on an international metric, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), or a regional one such as the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ). Utilizing a robust metric and publishing the outcomes are good ways for national governments to make explicit their commitment to education quality and garner support from the global education and development community.
Practicality versus Long-term Ambition
In distinguishing between goals and metrics, there is also a tension between practicality versus long-term ambition that needs to be addressed. While we may want to have a goal to ensure that all children possess civic values and are prepared to be global citizens, we are confronted with a very practical reality that there are currently no widely agreed-upon metrics for these goals.
However, to propose that we not measure anything because we lack such measures is like throwing the baby out with the bath water (apologies for all the idioms). In fact, there are areas of learning where measurement is quite far along at the global level, such as reading and math. Therefore, there is a need for international bodies, like the International Bureau of Education, as well as civil society organizations, academia and other groups to have the resources to implement rigorous data collection for measurement and developing metrics.
In other cases, there are other competencies that are equally important but the metrics are not as well developed. However, not including these competencies would be setting our sights short, much like we limited ourselves a decade ago by only including access, and not learning, in the MDGs. In fact, research is currently underway to define and measure so-called “global competencies”, such as civic values, critical thinking and problem solving by the Learning Metrics Task Force and others. Choosing not to include these critical non-cognitive skills in an education goal that will span the next decade or two – when the metrics for measuring them may be available within the next few years – does a real detriment to the ultimate well-being of millions of children and young people worldwide.
Progress Needs to Be Measured
We also need to distinguish between metrics and setting benchmarks on those metrics. Goals should remain ambitious and long-term, and may use a both national metric and an internationally comparable metric. But countries may also wish to set intermediate benchmarks of progress on metrics as a way to set and chart progress. For example, if only 10 percent of a country’s children are currently proficient in reading, having a lofty, long-term goal of getting 100 percent of children to be proficient is daunting. An ambitious goal can depress more than motivate if taken seriously or, given its distant timeline, could simply not be taken seriously at all. Having intermediate benchmarks, with shorter timeframes and more realistic targets can motivate by setting attainable milestones and provide guide posts to reach the ultimate goal.
Finally, a distinction needs to be made between top-line reporting and sub-line tracking of indicators. For example, if the top-line reporting is on the percent of children who achieve proficiency in literacy and numeracy after nine years of education according to national curricula, there can still be multiple sub-line indicators that are essential to monitor. Participation in a common international or national assessment is one. Even if a country’s performance on an assessment is not its main metric, its outcomes on an assessment can still help explain and anchor the ultimate goal. It is also important to monitor measures that are pedagogical precursors: are children learning the basics of reading early on, so they can go on to become lifelong learners? Similarly, input indicators, such as teacher training and financing, are also important since they relate to and influence the ultimate goal.
What is Still Needed
What is clear from these debates is more work, and more coordinated work, is needed. Setting a simple top-down “requirement” that uses only one global curricular objective and only one metric is relatively easy but risks repeating mistakes from the past. Creating distinctions between goals, metrics, and benchmarks, and encouraging a subtle interplay between the global and the local, is harder but can ultimately lead to greater impact. This is something the Learning Metrics Task Force is grappling with in their global deliberations. A recommendation from the task force’s latest meeting is the need for an international multi-stakeholder advisory group that promotes collaboration among the different measurement processes and leverages financial and technical resources on measurement within the education sector. Such a body could help countries develop their own measurement systems, report learning outcomes, and stimulate work on measurement in areas where it currently does not exist. In other words, it could facilitate a goal-seeking rather than goal-setting process.
Esther Care, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, calls the A-F grading system “nonsense.” “Grades are mere proxies for what we value. What we actually value is our children being prepared for the future,” she said. “We need to find ways in educational assessment to convey information about the degree to which they are ready to venture out and to deal constructively with the huge challenges posed by our 21st century.