By Jordan Naidoo, Director of Education at UNESCO, and Sylvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).
The fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is a global dream about quality education for all children, youth and adults. But this ambitious vision will remain just that – a dream – without a concrete plan and real commitment. We need a data-driven mechanism to ensure that every effort and dollar are targeted to transform the promise of quality education for all into reality.
This week Member States are adopting the Education 2030 Framework for Action in Paris alongside the UNESCO General Conference. To map the way forward, the framework includes a list of 43 thematic indicators, or, ways of measuring progress towards the education SDG. These are proposed by the extended Technical Advisory Group, which was established by UNESCO to develop recommendations for education indicators and to inform and support the work of the Education for All Steering Committee.
We are in a far better place than we were fifteen years ago when countries adopted the Education for All Goals and Millennium Development Goals and then began the process of defining the monitoring indicators. The new Framework for Action is clearly linked to an existing proposal of indicators. This proposal has been the subject of considerable debate and global consultation among Member States, international organizations, academics and civil society over the past 18 months. While this is work in progress, we already have a solid base of information and a strategy to establish the mechanisms needed for effective monitoring.
Overall, the indicators are carefully designed to reflect the components needed to provide quality education for all. They cover ten key areas: seven outcome targets and three means of implementation targets in order to achieve SDG 4. These targets are global and universal but enable each country to focus on specific items related to their own needs, priorities and context.
Most importantly, the indicators serve as a tool to meet the educational rights and needs of the current generation and those to come. From early childhood education to adult training, the indicators can be used to track lifelong learning.
Quality education for all
Not so long ago, it was easy to fall into the trap of complacency by thinking that major challenges in education were found in a relatively small group of countries with dramatic inequalities in terms of access to schooling and quality of teaching. Data show that the reality is far more complex.
The world is no longer easily classified between rich and poor or the well-educated versus the poorly-educated countries. Inequalities in education limit the opportunities and outcomes of different groups and individuals within every country. So any measurement of quality must address inequalities both between and within countries as a result.
In principle, all education systems have the same mandate: to provide everyone with access to quality education. Although quality is usually proxied by the results in a single test, it really encompasses three dimensions: (1) coverage or the proportion of the population enrolled in a given level of education; (2) measure of the quality based on a standardised test at the country, regional or international level for the target population; and (3) equity in the distribution of educational services, opportunities and outcomes for different sub-groups (such as refugees, children with disabilities, etc.).
Measuring access is relatively easy: the person (child, youth or adult) is either in or out of formal education. In most cases, we can gather this information from administrative records while using household surveys in some cases to provide a more nuanced perspective.
The measurement of learning outcomes raises considerable debate, with questions on what skills and knowledge should be assessed and how. The simplest and most direct approach is to assess learning outcomes in core areas, such as reading and mathematics. A standardised approach is needed at the system level to evaluate students in different classrooms, schools and countries.
This standardisation will require considerable investment but the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Through the proper design and use of tests, the entire education community – from ministers and donors to teachers and parents – will have a powerful instrument to improve the learning process of all students and effectively address the inequalities between and within countries.
Country roadmap to 2030
Overall, the 43 indicators serve as a roadmap to monitor progress at global and national levels. Using these, the international education community has a solid base of information to select a number of Global Reporting Indicators that will be used to monitor global progress towards SDG 4, which will be examined in the GEM Report 2016. At the same time, countries can set and monitor their own targets, by reviewing the complete list of thematic indicators and choosing those that reflect their specific national priorities.
UNESCO is the anchor bringing UN agencies, international organizations, national statistical offices and civil society groups into the debate. Through its Institute for Statistics (UIS), which works on a daily basis with national statistical offices and education ministries around the world, the Organization is uniquely placed to coordinate the efforts needed to produce the next generation of internationally comparable data on learning and education quality.
We are at a critical juncture. We must find the political commitment and financial resources to inform policy, knowing that there is no higher cost that the one derived from inaction. By linking the data to the goal, the Framework for Action can be used not just to monitor progress but transform our dreams of education and inclusive societies into reality.