With quality of education becoming recognized as a vital component of post-2015 development goals, measuring how much children are learning is high on the global agenda. The Learning Metrics Task Force recently brought together education experts to discuss how to improve learning through measurement and assessment. Soon after, a World Bank symposium featured wide-ranging and informative debates on what international, regional and national assessments of learning can tell us.
At the same time, Pearson – which refers to itself as “the world’s leading learning company” which operates “in virtually every sphere of the education landscape, from schools to higher and professional education; from publishing textbooks to operating entire institutions” – has announced that it is setting itself targets not only for revenue and profits but also for making sure that children using its products are learning. Referring to the EFA Global Monitoring Report’s estimate that a quarter of a billion children are not learning the basics, the company describes its approach as a “bold and brave aspiration”.
Pearson anticipates that by 2018 it will be carrying out rigorous and externally audited reporting on progress in improving learning outcomes. The company intends to determine what learner outcomes its products are designed to deliver and under what circumstances; how many learners are intended to benefit and to what extent; and how progress towards these goals is to be measured.
Pearson’s model is not proposing anything new – we already know it is vital to focus not only on inputs to education but also on processes and outcomes, including the importance of qualified and experienced teachers able to motivate students. And bringing business-speak of products, sales and profits into education raises the fear that it comes with an intention to commercialize education more generally. But it is noteworthy that a company would hold itself to account for learning outcomes.
It is worth asking, however, how effective Pearson’s plan will be, and how it will fit into the broader need for countries to improve learning. If a company such as Pearson does not make a profit, there are real business consequences; but what would be the consequences of it not meeting learning targets? What type of learning would be measured, and would this be sufficient? What instruments would be used (hopefully not limited to its own products)? Is it possible to disentangle Pearson’s contribution to learning outcomes from others?
It is also crucial to ask whether Pearson’s approach could leave behind disadvantaged learners who are likely to cost more to reach – for example, children from ethnic minorities who need textbooks in different languages. Pearson’s model does not currently mention explicit targets for overcoming inequalities.
Governments ultimately have the responsibility of ensuring that no one is left behind in education. Could an approach like Pearson’s have the unintended consequence of undermining government efforts?
There is a broader question of whether Pearson’s approach can inform wider discussions on measuring learning within a post-2015 framework. Equating the two (a business holding itself to account, and holding governments to account for learning goals) would need to be done with caution, however, as they have very different purposes.
Let’s hope that out of these various perspectives and the consultation processes under way a common understanding will emerge of how to measure learning in ways that ensure all children and young people, regardless of their circumstances, receive a good quality education.
Such a common understanding was missing when the sixth Education for All goal, on quality of education, was established to ensure that “recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all”. We need a stronger starting point for tracking progress towards such goals after 2015 – so that by 2030, we’ll no longer have to report that as many as a quarter of a billion children not even learning the basics.