Don’t give up on ‘Education for All’

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

The well-being of individuals and nations depend on nothing more than on what people know and what they can do with what they know. And if there’s one lesson the global economy has taught us over the last few years, it’s that we cannot simply bail ourselves out of a crisis, that we cannot solely stimulate ourselves out of a crisis and that we cannot just print money our way out of a crisis. Investing in high-quality education is the gateway to better skills, better jobs and better lives.

And yet, the 2014 Global Monitoring Report, the world’s most authoritative source to track progress towards the ‘Education for All’ goals, paints a bleak picture. With the deadline for these goals less than two years away, progress has been insufficient to get close to even a single goal by 2015. To date, just half of young children have access to some form of pre primary education, and in sub-Saharan Africa it is less than one in five. Universal primary education is likely to be missed by a wide margin, with 57 million children still having no access to any schooling. Access is not the only crisis: one third of primary school age children are not learning the basics, whether they have been to school or not, and even those who eventually graduate may not find jobs because their education hasn’t been in sync with the skills that societies need.

It would be a grave mistake to consider this exclusively or even largely an issue for conflict zones or the developing world, even if that’s where those issues are most visible. When it comes to education, the world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated nations and poor and badly educated ones. Similarly, the challenge of poor schooling is not just about poor kids in poor neighbourhoods, but about many kids in many neighbourhoods. Last year, OECD countries invested over USD 230 billion into teaching children math in the industrialised world, but 23% of their 15-year-old students performed below the baseline Level 2 on the PISA 2012 mathematics assessment, showing that these students can barely use basic mathematical procedures and conventions to solve problems involving whole numbers. Worryingly, that proportion is exactly where it stood a decade earlier.

Those numbers matter, for the life chances of individuals, and for the growth prospects of nations. If all students attained at least Level 2 in the PISA mathematics assessment, the combined economic output of OECD countries could be boosted by USD 200 trillion. So the cost of low educational performance is far higher than any conceivable investment in improvement.

The Global Monitoring Report also shows how many adolescents lack essential foundation skills and adult literacy has hardly improved since 2000. Here too, the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills finds that poor skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs and, at the aggregate level, inequality in the distribution of skills closely relates to how wealth is shared within nations. People with better skills are also more likely to volunteer, see themselves as actors rather than as objects of political processes, and are more likely to trust others. As the Global Monitoring Report notes, educated people are more likely to start a business, and their businesses are likely to be more profitable. In Uganda, owners of household enterprises with a primary education earned 36% more than those with no education; those with a lower secondary education earned 56% more. In short, fairness, integrity and inclusiveness in public policy thus all hinge on the skills of citizens.

That’s the sad side of the story. The encouraging side is that, while there is so much to do in so many parts of the world, some countries show that it can be done. On PISA, countries like Brazil, Tunisia, and Turkey rose from the bottom, countries like Germany or Poland have moved from adequate to good, and countries like Singapore or Shanghai in China have moved from good to great. In some of PISA’s top performers, even the quarter of the socio-economically most disadvantaged children break through the cycle of disadvantage and reach high levels of student performance. Leaders in these countries have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education, their future, more than consumption today. And they believe in the possibilities for all children to achieve.

The Global Monitoring Report puts the focus on what matters most. Good teaching. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. That is why top performing education systems pay attention to how they select and train their staff. They watch how they improve the performance of teachers who are struggling and how to structure teachers’ pay. They provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice. And they provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers. They invest resources where they make most of a difference, and they attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. The lessons for policy and practice from these countries are clear, and it is time for the world to take notice.

The Global Monitoring Report rightly calls on governments to fix this. But the magnitude of the challenge suggests that countries will only succeed if they can make education everybody’s business. Where public resources remain insufficient, governments need to think harder about who should pay for what, when and how, and better align their resources with the challenges. Employers can do a lot to better integrate the world of learning with the world of work, offering high quality work-based learning that allows people to develop hard skills on modern equipment and soft skills, such as teamwork or negotiation in a real-world environment. Schools can do better in offering more relevant learning, recognising that the world no longer pays people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know. Guiding people to make sound educational and career choices, with the latest labour-market intelligence at our fingertips, will help reduce the toxic mix of unemployed graduates and employers saying they cannot find the people with the skills they need. Labour unions can help make investments in learning translate into better-quality jobs and higher salaries. And at the end of the day, we all can take more responsibility for our learning and make better use of available learning opportunities.

None of that’s easy, but the Global Monitoring Report highlights what is possible. It takes away excuses from those who are complacent. And it helps set meaningful targets in terms of measurable goals achieved by the world’s educational leaders.

Education For All Global Monitoring Report
PISA for development
PISA 2012 results
OECD Skills Surveys
Photo credit: education sign  / @Shutterstock

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