02/22/2016 12:49 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2017

What Do We Mean by a Quality Education?

Last September, the United Nations (UN) ratified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to serve as benchmarks for every nation to ensure global prosperity, protection of the planet, and an eradication of poverty.

This Agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. We recognise that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan.
-- Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations

Goal 4 of the SDGs was a unique goal focused purely on education. This is the first time such a standalone education goal has been set and ratified.

Goal 4--Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning

For those who agree with the role that the UN plays, it is hard to disagree with any of the goals or much of the wording. The call for a Quality Education - not merely access to any education - is a grand step in ensuring that all children, and not just those from high-income countries, have a quality education.

But what do we mean by a quality education?

There are some who argue that the threshold of quality education is met by focusing only on literacy and numeracy, but the SDGs are a recognition that this definition is insufficient and outdated. Education is not simply a content delivery system; rather, it is a system designed to help all children reach their full potential and enter society as full and productive citizens. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set the SDG process in motion in 2012 by declaring that every child must be in school, and the quality of those schools must improve so that students are prepared to be productive citizens, ready to lead the future.

Education must fully assume its central role in helping people to forge more just, peaceful and tolerant societies.
-- Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

We must make sure that what comes out of the indicator roundtables taking place in 2016 defines and addresses the term Quality Education.

Too many times, we have seen the meaning of words be adjusted, stripped, diluted, or subjected to complete metamorphoses. Words and phrases like accountability and data driven have had their well-intentioned and appropriate meanings changed. Accountability is now code for teacher evaluations linked to student academic achievement, while data driven too often equates to test scores only.

The meaning of a Quality Education is one that is pedagogically and developmentally sound and educates the student in becoming an active and productive members of society. A Quality Education is not one that is measured purely by a test score or by how many words per minute a 5-year-old can read. To hark back to these simplified measurements is to do a disservice to both the student and the phrase Quality Education itself.

This week, two leading education organizations that represent over 30 million educators globally--ASCD, based in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and Education International (EI), based in Brussels, Belgium--released a statement in support of the SDGs and the pursuit of quality education for all.

In the statement, ASCD and EI define a quality education:

A quality education is one that focuses on the whole child--the social, emotional, mental, physical, and cognitive development of each student regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. It prepares the child for life, not just for testing.

A quality education provides resources and directs policy to ensure that each child enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle; learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults; is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community; has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults; and is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

A quality education provides the outcomes needed for individuals, communities, and societies to prosper. It allows schools to align and integrate fully with their communities and access a range of services across sectors designed to support the educational development of their students.

A quality education is supported by three key pillars: ensuring access to quality teachers; providing use of quality learning tools and professional development; and the establishment of safe and supportive quality learning environments.

The statement also describes the current state of education in the world and calls on educators to promote a whole child approach to education:

The SDGs reflect a global consensus in our young century that education is a human right and a public good that is critical to the health and future of the world. But ours is a world of severe challenges, with millions of students under fire, unsettled and unschooled due to conflict and governments globally failing to meet their funding commitments to education, especially with regard to their poorest citizens. Education advocates have a responsibility to promote policies that integrate schools, communities, and nations into a system that supports development of the whole child, ensuring that each student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

We must make sure that a Quality Education is just that - an education that serves each child pedagogically and developmentally. An education that is inclusive and is structured to realize the potential of each child regardless of location or economic status. Don't let the words change their meaning--a quality education is needed for all.