|4.1 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes
Progress towards target 4.1 will be seen as a key measure of government and international community commitment to the SDGs.
Target 4.1 envisages quality education and universal primary and secondary school completion as a path to relevant and effective learning outcomes. There has been a lot of interest in the monitoring indicators for this target and the three main concepts that feature in it: completion, quality and learning.
The ambition of universal completion of primary and secondary education
The target has been criticized for its level of ambition. While the new agenda aims to achieve 12 years of education for the current cohort by 2030, it should not be forgotten that 25 million children do not even access primary school. Almost 30% of children from the poorest 20% of households in low income countries had never been to school in 2008-2014.
Looking at participation, 91% of children of primary school age, 84% of adolescents of lower secondary age and 63% of youth of upper secondary age were in school. But with many children starting school late, and high levels of students repeating years, this indicator can provide an overly optimistic picture.
The new agenda therefore marks an important step forward with its emphasis on completion, instead of participation, an approach the GEM Report has advocated in recent years. Over the period 2008–2014, the upper secondary completion rate was 84% in high income countries, 43% in upper middle income countries, 38% in lower middle income countries and 14% in low income countries – equivalent to a global average of 43%.
Yet inequalities are massive: while 93% of adolescents from the richest households in high income countries complete upper secondary school, just 1% of the poorest girls do so in low income countries.
The shift in emphasis from monitoring participation to monitoring completion needs to be better understood by stakeholders. It is important to communicate to education ministries that completion rates will be the touchstone for monitoring progress toward target 4.1. [Tweet]
Narrowing down the debate on quality?
The proposed monitoring framework focuses on a limited number of quality indicators related to: (i) equity, such as the percentage of children who are taught in their home language, or the financing policies countries implement to address disadvantage in education; and (ii) learning outcomes.
The GEM Report used an indicative framework to guide overall discussions of quality and highlighted two aspects. First, textbook (or any reading book) availability and use can be critical for making progress in the poorest countries. In Chad, about 90% of grade 2 and 6 reading and mathematics students had to share textbooks with at least 2 other peers.
Second, classroom observation-based indicators can bring critical aspects of teaching practice and pedagogy to policy-makers’ attention. A survey of 15,000 classrooms in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica and Peru showed that teachers spent about 60–65% of their time on academic instruction, well below the recommended 85%. While it is difficult to advocate for such indicators at global level to compare education practices around the world, it is important for countries to search for tools that are adaptable yet reliable, valid, cost-efficient and easy to use at scale.
Learning outcome measures as a means for better learning outcomes
The key outstanding question is how the international community will monitor ‘relevant and effective learning outcomes’. This involves the content of learning (defining what is ‘relevant’) as well as whether it is achieving various aims (defining what is ‘effective’).
Monitoring learning outcomes will require the building of robust national learning assessment systems that take country priorities into account. Comparable learning outcome indicators need to serve not just the objective of global monitoring; rather, it should primarily serve country needs and help them reform their policy and improve their education practices.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics has initiated a process to address these challenges through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML). It is seeking to improve the documentation of national learning assessments by collecting essential background information. It is also aiming to define the broad content of the learning outcomes that different learning achievement surveys seek to assess. Finally, it is outlining a process that would assure the quality of existing assessments and provide feedback to countries that would like to improve them.
These are steps in the right direction. That said, it is critical for countries themselves to participate in the design of the process through which their national assessments will be quality assured. [Tweet]
Overly stringent technical requirements could put the necessary capacity beyond the reach of many countries and result in a limited pool of service providers administering most assessments, undermining their relevance and use by countries. Resources to bolster national capacity to conduct better learning assessments should also be allocated more efficiently than currently is the case.
More published blogs in this series: