So far, the 21st century has seen great improvements in primary school enrollment. When the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set in 2000, there were 102 million primary school age children not in school. In 2013, that number had fallen to 57 million children. Clearly, there is significantly more work to do, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, but nearly halving the number of children out of school in thirteen years is still to be applauded.
Now, as development professionals around the globe discuss and debate recent successes and future goals, people are asking, will these improvements last? And are all these children who are now in school actually learning?
Research suggests that while primary school enrollment rates have increased significantly, this hasn’t necessarily translated into more education. Just getting children into classrooms isn’t enough; they must also be gaining the skills they need to be literate problem solvers.
Anecdotal evidence from India tells of students in fourth grade who can’t even tell which direction the text is going, let alone read with comprehension. Study after study in a variety of developing countries shows that many students lack the ability to read quickly enough to comprehend what they’re reading or to apply basic mathematical concepts to actual problems.
So what’s the problem? The answer demonstrates the complex nature of education. In some places, it’s student-teacher ratios. In other places, it has to do with discrimination against students from lower income families. In another, it’s a matter of teacher training and incentive. In some, it’s gender discrimination.
Development experts and educators are debating what can be done to improve student learning outcomes. Some, like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, believe that more spending on education is the answer. Others see an overhaul of countries’ teacher training and placement systems as essential. Others suggest that more equitable spending in education would help. Just like the problem, the solution is complex and multi-faceted. It will not be a quick solution. Educations systems in developed countries have taken hundreds of years to develop to the point they are now, and still have not worked out all the kinks.
One thing is for sure: however complex the problem and however complex the solution, educating the world’s children is one of the most important issues facing the world today. This is why education continues to be a priority as the UN and other global stakeholders discuss the Sustainable Development Goals, the next phase of the global development agenda to succeed the MDGs. It’s why organizations like Shukuru exist and are working to ensure access not just to schooling but to learning.
For students everywhere to meet their potential, governments, civil society, and global organizations must address the issue of education not with grandiose sentiments but with a patient and determined effort to develop education systems that work.
Getting children into classrooms is a start. The next steps – improvements in literacy, comprehension, and problem-solving ability – won’t be easy to address, but they are essential if we want to live in a world where children everywhere can learn.
-Jamie Holbrook, 8 July 2014
• The Guardian, smart as always
• Evidence that getting kids in school hasn’t equaled actual learning.
• More on this from a famous development economist (at least, famous for a development economist)