Since the Millennium Summit in 2000, the United Nations' development goals have succeeded in driving and focusing the world debate on human development. The UN Millennium Declaration, adopted by all 193 UN members, sought to define a common global approach to addressing poverty, health, and education challenges.
Access to education is a major plank of this effort, listed at number two out of the eight Millennium Goals, adopted in 2005 at the follow up World Summit meeting in New York. While other goals include eliminating extreme poverty, empowering women, and combating disease, in the realm of education, the focus of the effort is to deliver universal primary education. Specifically, world leaders committed a deadline of 2015 to achieve both the enrollment in and completion of a full course of primary schooling for any child, girl or boy.
In the wake of such high level commitments, there has been important progress. According to the Brookings Center for Universal Education, the past decade has seen a surge in primary school enrollments, and developing countries have collectively raised their education spending from 2.9 to 3.8 percent of GDP.
All the same, full access to education is still an unfulfilled goal. According to UNESCO's latest Education For All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report, as of 2012, 120 million children either never make it to school or drop out before their fourth year. In addition, in 123 low- and middle-income countries there are nearly 200 million children that haven't completed primary education, and out of those, 58 percent are female. This is a problem that starts early: Out of 650 million children worldwide of preschool age, only 164 million are actually enrolled.
But in addition to ongoing problems with access, there is an increasing understanding that access alone won't solve our education crisis. Quality is just as critical -- getting our children into classrooms achieves little if they are not learning when they get there. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim writes, "Reaching the classroom is only the first step. Every child should have the opportunity not only to go to school but to acquire the knowledge and skills she needs to lead a healthy, productive life, care for herself and her family, and become an empowered citizen."
Unfortunately, the same UNESCO study tells us that at least 250 million primary school children can't meet minimum standards for reading, writing, and arithmetic -- including those who have spend up to four years in school. Surprisingly, the UN Development goals make no mention of quality, or any sort of achievement benchmarks.
For this reason, UNESCO has joined with the Brookings Institute to create the Learning Metrics Task Force, a year long project to shift the conversation from access-only to access in addition to measurable learning results. The task force will engage high level policy makers, technical experts, and other practitioners to build consensus and create guidelines for the evaluation of learning.
It remains to be seen how effective this effort will be -- but at the very least it is positive movement in the right direction. The Task Force is not overly ambitious; it advocates, for instance, for tests and other measurements that will "take into account internationally comparable assessments in some countries and alternative assessment in others," although it will likely be hard to develop truly comparable international measures if the sources and methodology are different. The group does focus on six specific areas for measurement, which include completion indicators, school readiness indicators, reading comprehension tests, and numeracy indicators.
But we can and must push forward faster. As the UN is developing its post-2015 development agenda, the international community should be more ambitious, introducing more innovative attempts to reach our goals. After all, the Task Force estimates that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries achieved only basic reading skills. Repeating the formulas of the past will not get us where we need to be, and it will be millions of children who will bear the brunt of further delay.
As the Task Force states, "learning and education are inter-related but not the same." Students in all countries will increasingly need a broader range of abilities -- the so-called 21st century skills -- that can only come from a more holistic approach to the education system. This means that an updated conception of educational development needs to consider health and nutrition, as well as stable family life.
To achieve this, the next round of UN goals must not only innovate but also broaden its focus by engaging an expanded range of stakeholders. This means, among other things, a better engagement with the private sector -- and not just as a funding source, but as innovative providers. Private groups can push ahead with new technologies and blended learning alternatives to traditional education. Since the 2000 summit, technological advancement has changed the equation in almost every industry -- except education.
Progress on increasing access is encouraging; it shows we can advance in areas in which we put our time, money, and commitment. Now it is time to expand that commitment to quality, and make sure our children are truly developing.