The Education Commission Report: Will We Achieve EFA and the Education SDG?

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland[1]

viet-namThe International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, aka the Education Commission, recently engaged in an extraordinary process to produce an unusual report entitled The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World.  The Education Commission Report (ECR) is the product of a year-long intensive team effort, 172 pages in length, with 411 footnotes, supported by over 60 background research papers. The Commission was convened by the Director-General of UNESCO and the heads of state of Chile, Indonesia, Malawi, and Norway and supported by the U.N. Secretary-General. The Commission’s members “are current and former heads of state and government, government ministers, five Nobel laureates, and leaders in the fields of education, business, economics, health, and security” (ECR, 6). Initially funded for a one-year effort, funding for a second year was secured, and the 27 Commissioners have agreed to stay on and advocate for the Report recommendations.

The ECR promotes major global changes in almost all aspects of education. There is much to commend in the report, including its comprehensiveness, research-base, wealth of examples, good intentions, and herculean efforts. However, in what follows, I will briefly discuss four very significant problems (also see Global Campaign for Education, 2016; Stromquist, forthcoming).

Reneging on the SDG Promise

Perhaps most astonishing is that the ECR gives up on achieving many of the education SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) promises before we have even started trying to fulfil them!  The goal of 2030 is unceremoniously moved to 2040, arguing that a full generation—defined as 25 years—is needed to achieve the “learning generation.” And even in 2040, not all will be achieved: “Following the Commission’s Learning Generation pathway, in 2030 [only] 62 per cent of girls and boys in low-income countries will complete secondary school…[and] [i]n 2040, [only] 83 per cent will complete” (40). The ECR operationalizes learning goals that are left undefined in the SDG targets. But the projections of learning are more dismal, even if all the ECR recommendations are enacted. While the ECR envisions nearly 100% primary school completion by 2030, it points out that only “68 per cent will achieve learning benchmarks” (40).  And we will not even have universal secondary school completion by 2040.  These projections, of course, depend on an array of assumptions.  I think it was a mistake for the Commission not to consider what it would take to achieve all the education SDG targets by 2030.  I don’t think the education SDG should be abandoned or postponed already!

Improving the Performance of Education Systems

Many of the ECR’s recommendations are directed towards improving the effectiveness and efficiency of education.  I found many of them problematic.  First, there was an overemphasis on international and national testing of a very narrow slice of cognitive skills, chiefly reading.  This will be a boon to testing companies and will likely shift attention away from other important educational outcomes as happened in the U.S. under No Child Left Behind.  Second, the ECR purports to show the relative cost-effectiveness of 20 “best-proven…practices to improve learning” (57), such as computer-assisted instruction, ability grouping, performance incentives, and community-based monitoring.  This is giving bad advice using bad data.  We do not agree on the costs or the effects of these reforms – certainly not at a global level, but also not at national or even local levels.  Best practice is hotly debated, and there are no blueprints.  Moreover, many of the practices are essential rights and should not be implemented based on their cost-effectiveness, such as mother tongue instruction, providing water and washrooms, malaria control, or even school feeding.

Another troubling major recommendation from the ECR to improve the performance of education systems is the widespread use of computer technologies (76-81). The Commission wants every school online by 2030, believing that technology can improve learning and lower costs. I believe internet access is a great educational tool and desirable for many reasons, but there is little evidence that it will increase learning, even in the narrow cognitive sense. And it is a costly add-on. The only way it can reduce costs is by increasing the pupil-teacher ratio and class size which will impede the attainment of broader learning dimensions in primary and secondary education.

A basic problem with the ECR and other recent efforts to improve education is their unremitting focus on so-called “results.” The endless emphasis here and elsewhere on “results-based” financing is detrimental to good education. First, again, “results” are defined narrowly in terms of a few measures of cognitive achievement and, second, there is a need to balance attention to outcomes with attention to inputs. Good schools, “child-friendly schools” require attention to well-educated teachers, good curriculum, adequate supplies of high-quality learning materials, facilities conducive to learning, child-centred teaching and more. In the rush to focus on “learning,” attention to critical inputs is being ignored.

How to Finance EFA and the SDGs

Finance was the central issue of the Commission’s effort, and lack of finance has perhaps been the most significant obstacle to achieving EFA (Education for All) and the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) in past decades.  The ECR projects that while most of the financing needed can come from the countries themselves, there will still need to be substantial international assistance; specifically, external funding will have to rise from $16 billion/year today to $89 billion/year in 2030.  I find the Commission analysis here vague, unrealistic, and perhaps even dangerous.  I think it unrealistic to expect “philanthropists, corporations, and charitable organizations” (114) to contribute $20 billion/year by 2030.  Moreover, whatever they do contribute will continue to be as uncoordinated, self-interested, and misdirected as it is now (van Fleet, 2012).

The Commission also relies heavily on a new coordinated Multilateral Development Bank (MDB) initiative – combining the World Bank and the regional development banks – that would increase their funding for education from $3.5 billion today to $20 billion a year by 2030.  I doubt that the Banks will be able or willing to leverage all those additional resources for education. But more than that, the World Bank – and the regional development banks – have been ideological institutions, not at all evidence-based as they claim.  To the contrary, for over 30 years they have been committed to a set of neoliberal education reforms (Klees, Samoff, and Stromquist, 2012). This World Bank-on-steroids-MDB-proposal turns over education reform to the vagaries of Bank ideology.  If this proposal were to come to pass, the MDBs would be the biggest players in education, mobilizing 5 times more resources than GPE (the Global Partnership for Education), which will be relegated to the position of a peripheral actor.

The ECR ignores two solutions to the lack of finance.  First, for some reason, they decided to let wealthy countries off-the-hook.  It is unfortunate that the Commission argued that only 0.5% of GNI need go to ODA instead of the 0.7% agreed on long ago. If the international community lived up to its stated commitment, we would not have to renege on the SDG targets.  Second, the ECR basically ignored one of its own background papers that argued that all 17 of the SDGs could be financed if we developed global mechanisms to tax corporations fairly, wealthy individuals and financial transactions (Cobham and Klees, 2016; Klees, 2017).

Social Transformation

In the ECR, as in many reports, education often seems like it is a miracle cure for the ills of the world. While I am a firm believer in the value of education, education is far from a panacea.

The report spends no time examining why EFA and the MDGs have failed, nor why, longer term, more than 50 years of promises by the international community of universal primary education and broader development goals have borne such little fruit. As I (and many others) have elaborated elsewhere, neoliberal capitalism, underpinned by patriarchal, racist, and other structures, is not conducive to achieving broad education or development goals (Klees, forthcoming(a)).  Despite good intentions, EFA and the MDGs have not been serious efforts; relatively few resources have been devoted to them, and none of these efforts challenge the dysfunctional structures in which they are embedded.  EFA, the MDGs, and the SDGs, serve mostly to legitimate an extremely unequal world system by promising changes which are not forthcoming, helping to justify a system in which literally billions of people are relegated to a marginalized existence.

We need to transform neoliberal capitalism if we wish to fulfil the education and other SDGs. Among other things, neoliberalism has exalted the private sector, and it is treated as a key partner in the education and development effort (ECR, 81-86). In a past life, I went to Stanford Business School. There, I had a professor who wrote a paper entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business and Other Pollutants of the Air.” He was pro-business; his point was that the business of business was business, and we shouldn’t want or expect them to help solve problems that are fundamentally government’s. Business should not be a partner, should not be at the advice or governance table, should not be a part of the Global Partnership for Education, for instance. Whether the transformation of neoliberal capitalism means a return to a more liberal welfare state or a more radical change based on more participatory approaches to governance and more democratic approaches to the workplace remains to be seen (Klees, forthcoming(a)). However, without such a transformation, the SDGs will remain more of a dream than reality (Bond, 2015; Hickel, 2015).


Gordon Brown, in his preface to the ECR states: “We cannot accept another year or decade like this” (2). But the report does and we do.  The ECR talks of the lives that can be saved if we meet the SDGs. What about all the lives that will be lost if we wait until 2030, or 2040, or longer, to achieve education and the other SDGs? Right now we live with global triage, saving some lives while letting so many die or barely survive due to situations we can remedy.  Right now, international aid is basically charity, dependent on the self-interested whims of the wealthy.  This must change.  Sharing this planet’s wealth more equitably and treating the Earth with the respect required for our own survival are essential.  My fear is that without major social changes, we will get to 2030 with neither the education SDG nor the other SDGs fulfilled. My hope is that, around the world, this is more widely recognized than ever before, and there are more advocates than ever before for the types of transformations that we need to live equitably, well, and peacefully on our severely-threatened planet. We need to use the Commission’s Report and the SDGs themselves as an impetus for a broader, participatory discussion of needed educational and societal changes.

[1] This is taken from a review essay looking at the Education Commission Report and UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report that will be published in the May issue of the Comparative Education Review (Klees, forthcoming(b)).


Cobham, Alex with Steven Klees. 2016. “Global Taxation: Financing Education and the Other SDGs,” Background Paper for the Education Commission.

Klees, Steven. forthcoming(a). “Capitalism and Education: Some Reflections,” Policy Futures in Education.

Klees, Steven. forthcoming(b). “Will We Achieve EFA and the Education SDG?,” Comparative Education Review.

Klees, Steven, Joel Samoff, and Nelly Stromquist, eds. 2012. World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives. Rotterdam: Sense.

Stromquist, Nelly. forthcoming. “Review of The Learning Generation,” Comparative Education Review.

van Fleet, Justin. 2012. “A disconnect between motivations and education needs: Why American corporate philanthropy alone will not educate the most marginalized.” In S. Robertson, A. Verger and K. Mundy (Eds.), Public Private Partnerships in Education. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Steven Klees is professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland.  His email is

Other NORRAG Blogs by Steven Klees:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here. 

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Transversal Competencies and their Assessment: Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific

By Ramya Vivekanandan, UNESCO Bangkok.

transversal-comp-circleIn today’s world, there is a growing sense that the real purpose of education is not only to produce learners who are literate and numerate.  Instead, the complex times in which we live make additional, more crucial demands on our education systems: that they facilitate the holistic development of our young people such that they are creative, resourceful, self-disciplined, adept at collaborating with others, appreciative of diversity, able to resolve conflicts and contribute peacefully to democratic societies.

Some people refer to these as “21st century”, “transferable” or “socio-emotional” skills. Through ongoing research undertaken by the Education Research Institutes Network in the Asia-Pacific (ERI-Net), UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education (UNESCO Bangkok) adopted the term “transversal competencies” to refer to these skills and competencies, as per the following framework:


What are transversal competencies? (click image to enlarge)

The idea that education should contribute to such outcomes is not new. What is notable now is the policy importance that countries across the socioeconomic spectrum have placed upon orienting their education systems to develop these competencies in their students. The idea is even enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goal 4/Education 2030 agenda, notably in its Target 4.7, which commits the international community to “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Through the ERI-Net research and other work, it has become clear that a number of countries have reflected the importance of the transversal competencies in their education policies and plans. Many have explicitly integrated the teaching of these areas in different areas of their national or local curricula, while others have worked to ensure that the initial preparation of teachers and their ongoing professional development include focus on these dimensions. What is less clear is the extent to which these competencies are or can be assessed. How can a teacher, for example, evaluate the degree to which a student is empathetic or compassionate? Can examinations and other “tests” actually measure abstract areas such as creativity or entrepreneurship, in ways that are valid and reliable? Are there successful examples of how this has been done?

UNESCO Bangkok, in its capacity as Secretariat of the Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP), recently published Assessment of Transversal Competencies: Policy and Practice in the Asia-Pacific Region in the aim of understanding more about these questions and how some countries are trying to answer them.

assess-trans-comp-cover is a regional network focused on supporting countries of the Asia-Pacific to strengthen their systems of student learning assessment. The network counts 41 members across 24 countries to date and focuses on research, knowledge sharing and capacity development. The study on assessment of transversal competencies was conducted under the auspices of NEQMAP and was authored by Dr. Esther Care of the Brookings Institution and Dr. Rebekah Luo of the University of Melbourne. It focused on the following four questions:

  • Is assessment of transversal competencies reflected in policies, plans, legislation, curriculum guidelines, or national assessment frameworks?
  • Are transversal competencies being assessed at school and/or system level?
  • What are the challenges of assessing transversal competencies at school?
  • What are the recommendations for initiating or improving assessment of transversal competencies?

Focusing on nine countries/jurisdictions of the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Hong Kong (China), India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam), the study found that the assessment of transversal competencies is definitely being considered by policymakers across the countries. Some have explored how such assessment can be concretely implemented but have faced a number of challenges, including integration of transversal competencies in curriculum and teaching in general, unclear guidance as to how to operationalize systematic vision about assessing these areas at the school level and lack of professional development and support for teachers to guide them in this process. There is also a dearth of knowledge of and access to appropriate assessment tools in regard to these domains.

The nine case studies revealed a great deal of diversity across the region but common calls for more professional development and the development of tools for the assessment of transversal competencies. UNESCO Bangkok, through NEQMAP, will continue to work in this area and explore the topic, focusing a next phase of research on a more concrete understanding of how schools and education systems can assess competencies such as integrity, respect for the environment, civic participation and the other areas which are so crucial for today’s young people to master.

How does your country or organization approach the assessment of transversal competencies in education? Please share with us notable practices and innovations in this area!

Ramya Vivekanandan is Programme Specialist and leader of the team on Quality of Education at UNESCO Bangkok. In this capacity, she also serves as Head of the NEQMAP Secretariat. She can be reached at r(dot)vivekanandan(at)unesco(dot)org.

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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Financing Education and All the Other SDGs: Global Taxation is Needed

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland.


NORRAG NEWS 54 on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?” in now online.

The failure to achieve Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals is liable to be repeated with the Sustainable Development Goals.  At present, we rely on the vagaries of self-interest in the Global North to finance the development gap in the Global South.  This charity model must be replaced by enforceable global taxation.

None of the Education for All (EFA) goals nor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were achieved by 2015.[1] The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have expanded the EFA and MDG targets and moved the goal-post to 2030. While some argue that we are making progress and that the SDGs represent an enhanced commitment by the international community, I am afraid that the commitment is not there and that we will get to 2030 with none of the goals achieved yet again.

The biggest problem has been and continues to be an unwillingness by the international community to put in the resources required.  It is estimated that an additional $39 billion is needed each year to meet just some of the principal SDG education targets. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the big multilateral effort to finance the EFA shortfall, has only been able to come up with $0.5 billion a year; so 80 times more resources are needed!  Moreover, the education SDG is competing with 16 other SDGs. The additional financial requirement for achieving all the SDGs is estimated at $1.4 trillion annually overall. The most optimistic assessments of the potential for domestic revenue mobilization to contribute still leave a gap of $150 billion each year – and that is likely to be a significant underestimate.

A major reason that this shortfall has continued and is likely to continue is that the world is relying on the charity of the Global North to fill the gap in the Global South.  Contributions are completely voluntary.  Every three years GPE begs for “pledges” to fill its coffers.  Overseas Development Aid (ODA) rests on the whims of donor countries.  International agreements, like that made at the U.N. in 1970, set a voluntary goal of rich nations contributing 0.7% of GDP for ODA.  Despite repeated exhortations and renewed “commitments” to it, only a handful of countries reach this 0.7% target and most fall far short. The U.S. spends about 0.13% of its GDP on ODA, less than one-fifth of what has been promised.[2]

One answer to this challenge is to stop relying on global charity – which too often these days is also the neoliberal response within nations trying to fund domestic social services.  What is needed is global taxation, some of which can be implemented within existing national tax structures and some of which need new global structures.  Working with ActionAid International and Oxfam International, I helped put together a background paper on this topic for the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, aka the Education Commission.  Its principal author, Alex Cobham of the Tax Justice Network, and I examined the potential of corporate taxation, a tax on individual wealth,[3] and a financial transaction tax to not only finance the education deficit but all of the SDGs (Cobham and Klees, 2016).

Our report considers both global reforms to support domestic taxes, and globally-levied taxes. Of the former, reforms can help to address the major losses due to international tax evasion and avoidance. Globally, revenue losses due to multinational corporate tax manipulation are estimated at or above $600 billion annually. Revenue losses on income taxes due to undeclared offshore wealth, meanwhile, are estimated to approach $200 billion. Progress in these two areas – which will depend in large part on global counter-measures – can make a vital contribution to closing the domestic revenue gap.

Of globally-levied taxes, a financial wealth tax, as suggested by Thomas Piketty, has major revenue potential. Levied at 0.01% annually, revenues could cover the estimated requirement for additional public financing of all the SDGs. Levied instead at 1%, revenues might plug the entire incremental financing gap.  A global financial transactions tax could potentially contribute revenues in a range of $60 billion to $360 billion. In each case, international measures to ensure greater transparency could alternatively support the levying of such taxes at the national level.

There are technical and economic problems that must be faced in moving ODA from a charity-base to a tax-base but these can be resolved.  The biggest barriers are political.  For example, OECD has been working on corporate tax reform, but their scope is much less far-reaching than what is needed.  Politically, what is needed is shifting that effort to the U.N. and expanding it.  An appropriately resourced and fully representative, intergovernmental U.N. – based tax body was a central demand of the G77 group of developing countries, and of many civil society organizations from the Global South and North, at the Addis Financing for Development summit in July 2015. Unfortunately, this effort was blocked in Addis by a number of OECD governments.  The establishment of such a body at the U.N. was a key recommendation of our report to the Commission.  Unfortunately, the Commissioners chose not to re-visit the Addis debate.  Nonetheless, the idea still has broad support and momentum; the new chair of the G77 is very much in favour and has made it a priority.

Charity cannot and should not be relied upon to meet the needs of public policy as manifested in the SDGs, as well as in national goals.  Relying on charity, as we have historically, is an abrogation of our collective social responsibilities.  If we want to ensure that the SDGs will not be mostly empty promises, the international community must make an enforceable commitment to put its money where its mouth is.

[1] While some claim that the MDG of cutting extreme poverty in half was met by 2015, this is only true if one continues to use the absurd, outdated, low-ball cutoff of $1.25/day.

[2] It is worth noting that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as a result of the Marshall Plan, the U.S. was spending as much as 3% of its GDP on ODA in order to help war-torn Europe.  Such an effort is not on the table today.

[3] A tax on individual wealth is made urgent by what I can only call obscene statistics.  Oxfam (2016) reports that the richest 1% own more wealth than the rest of the world combined and that 62 billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people.

Further reading

Cobham, A. with Klees, S. (2016). Global Taxation: Financing Education and the Other SDGs Background Paper for the Education Commission.

Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland. Email:

This blog reproduces an article in the new issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here. 

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Agenda 2030 – SDG4 Education 2030 – One Year On: Challenges and Opportunities

By Jordan Naidoo, UNESCO, Paris.


NORRAG NEWS 54 on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?” in now online.

It is just over a year ago on September 25, 2015 when global leaders adopted Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.  Some may argue that little has changed in the global landscape since then, as war and conflict have intensified and the means to address the refugee situation continues to elude policy makers.  Yet there have been a number of significant developments, not least on October 4th 2016, the historic Paris Agreement on climate change came into force — years sooner than expected. With regard to  Education and SDG 4 – many of the 22 countries provided some reflection on progress in education during the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2016; the Education Cannot Wait (ECW) Initiative was launched; the cross-cutting SDG era Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report was released and positively received, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity presented its Learning Generation report to the out-going Secretary General; and the former Executive Director of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, was acclaimed as the new Secretary General of the UN, raising hopes that education generally and that of refugees will receive increased dedicated attention in the new agenda.

Over the course of the year the challenges of delivering on the expanded ambition SDG4/education were fully recognized, with many critics continuing to emphasize that the targets are unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved.  However, many stakeholders particularly among civil society emphasised the need to remain committed to an expanded universal vision focused on leaving nobody behind. At the same time there have been some significant developments at national, regional and global levels in attempts to come to terms with how to manage implementation that is not only greater in scope but also universal.  First it has been fully recognized that such a comprehensive and ambitious agenda, requires country-level action linked to existing national or (only if necessary) new contextually defined plans based on an assessment of the current situation.  This has been the clear message arising from the series of regional and sub-regional SDG 4 consultations held in Bangkok, Cairo, Dakar, Kathmandu, Nairobi, Lusaka, Sharjah, Paris etc. since September 2015.

This was also echoed in many national consultations most of which invariably and positively were not sector specific, but approached the SDG implementation from a cross-sectoral integrated perspective.  In this first year many countries have devoted some effort, time and resources to analyse the implications of the Agenda 2030 and establish links between the SDGs and national priorities of the respective countries. Countries as diverse as Belize, Germany, Ghana and Vietnam among many others have undertaken reviews to align national development plans with the SDGs. With regard to SDG4 specifically, a host of countries have had consultations and aligned or started the process to align national education plans with SDG 4 including: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Cook Islands, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia Islands, Gambia, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Malaysia, Mauritius, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Tonga, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Zambia and  Zimbabwe.[1]

SDG consultations thus far have improved understanding of the SDG agenda, but have been inadequate. There has not been enough communication and understanding among policy makers, education officers and other stakeholders from senior levels down to rank and file staff responsible for policy implementation on what it actually means for their day to day work. For example, many SDG targets may mean curricular changes – what these changes are and how they may be enacted at different levels of the system and especially at classroom level is not clear for most actors in country. This is also the case for other requisite adjustments related to expanded early childhood education provision, learning assessment, skills development, TVET and higher education opportunities and the complexities of target 4.7. While most discussions have noted teachers as central to the SDG4 agenda, the challenge of addressing teacher shortages or quality has not been fully comprehended.

Many of the consultations at global, regional or national level have also surfaced tensions around prioritization, and between the interests of sub-sector stakeholders and constituencies. While there appears to be some commitment to lifelong learning, most consultations and plans are still dominated by an emphasis on basic formal education with some discussion of the need to expand TVET access with higher education receiving little attention. In terms of Target 4.7 the discussion and prioritization appears to focus primarily on global citizenship and how to measure it or its role as an antidote to extreme violence, with other aspects of 4.7 being downplayed or ignored.

While civil society actors have been quite active at global level in demanding greater civil society participation in the implementation of SDG4, and have been involved in the HLP review process and other global consultations, their participation in most countries appears to be quite minimal. There is no doubt that governance is a critical factor for successful implementation of the SDGs, and that ensuring transparency and good governance requires continuous monitoring from citizens. So it remains to be seen, given the current levels of engagement of civil society on the SDGs at national level, whether the role of civil society in accountability which is critical for the success of the new agenda is being adequately served. Hopefully, the 2017 GEM Report, which will focus on accountability, will shed some light on this issue.

Monitoring and reporting mechanisms for tracking progress toward SDG provide an enormous opportunity for learning and building on existing efforts, but this too has been a challenge given the delay in finalizing the indicators for monitoring progress. The recommendations of the Interagency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), created to finalize a global indicator framework (and associated global indicators) were to be considered by the Statistical Commission at its forty-seventh session in March 2016, and endorsed by ECOSOC and adopted by the UNGA in September 2016. However, its remit and work was extended and it is yet to finalize the global framework, which is now projected for completion and adoption in March 2017.  Accepting that delay was necessary to ensure necessary clarity in the indicators and to address issues related to methodology and data gaps, it has nevertheless resulted in a fair degree of confusion.

The readjusted IAEG timeline has in turn affected the work of the Technical Cooperation Group on Indicators co-chaired by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and UNESCO Education Sector’s Division of Education 2030 Support and Coordination (UNESCO ED/ESC), comprising experts from governments, multilateral agencies and civil society. It works to produce comparable education data required to track progress and monitor Sustainable Development Goal 4. Part of this task is to finalize the thematic indicators for SDG 4 (of which global indicators to be finalized by the IAEG is a sub-set) as outlined in the SDG4-Education 2030 Framework for Action. Despite concerted efforts including two face to face meetings and several on-line consultations it has not been able to finalize the indicators for endorsement by the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee. The latest status is that it will present 18 Thematic Indicators and the 11 Global Indicators (or any additional that may be proposed by the IAEG) to the Steering Committee in December for tracking progress in 2017. Fourteen (14) indicators will require much more substantive work by the TCG before they can be endorsed.  As a result, tracking progress across all targets of SDG 4 in a comprehensive way will not be possible in the immediate instance.

Another key area of concern in this first year are unanswered questions on the issue of the increased finances needed from domestic and external sources for supporting the expanded agenda amid further evidence from the 2016 GEM Report and the Learning Generation on the widening gap in funding. There is no clear indication at this point on increased commitments from either source. In this scenario, the role of the private sector while increasingly in the spotlight, is not clear both in terms of increased funding but also its impact on the right to education. The issue of funding is further complicated by some of the proposals from the Commission for Financing Education Opportunities, in particular that of a multi-lateral Bank for Education Financing. It is not clear where additional funding will come from or how it will cohere with exiting mechanisms such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) or the newly created Education Cannot Wait (EWC) fund.

Despite these and other challenges, in particular related to   moving beyond slogans such as ‘leaving no-one behind’ and ‘not business as usual’, the general commitment expressed for SDG 4 and its fundamental importance for the overall SDG agenda give hope that action will be speeded up at all levels to ensure the promise of inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all. The overall commitment and enthusiasm at different levels are promising and must be capitalized to support effective action going forward.

Jordan Naidoo, UNESCO, Paris. Email:

[1] The further OECD countries also had such national consultations: Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, USA

This blog reproduces an article in the new issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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Do the SDGs Matter? A Teacher’s View

By Desmond Bermingham, Varkey Foundation, London.


NORRAG NEWS 54 on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?” in now online.

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may be important for global policy makers, the real change makers are the teachers in the classroom. Finding new ways to train and motivate these teachers will be key to reaching SDG4 in all developing countries.

One of my most enjoyable tasks since joining the Varkey Foundation earlier this year was to spend a day with the Instructional Leadership training programme for senior teachers and school leaders in Kiyunga- Mukono District, a two hour drive outside Kampala, Uganda.   The trainers organised a warm up activity to re-energise everyone after lunch.  The seventy seven teachers were asked to line up outside the training room in order of years of experience.  The spectrum ranged from 35 to 5 years in the classroom. I calculated that there were more than a thousand years of teaching experience represented in that group!

Yet these experienced teachers were eagerly engaging in a series of intensive training sessions to learn new skills and new ways of supporting active learning.   After the one week training course, the Varkey Foundation Uganda team – all experienced Ugandan teachers themselves – carry out follow up visits to the schools over a period of one year to see if the teachers are putting the training into practice in their classrooms.  In almost all cases the answer is yes.

The skills being taught are not rocket science – they will be familiar to many teachers reading NORRAG News.  How to get children thinking and problem solving together.  How to make best use of locally available resources.  How to make sure that every child – especially the girls – participate in the class.  How to pace your lesson and check for understanding so that learning really takes place. This was a cost effective (no expensive international consultants!) and well thought out training programme designed by teachers for teachers.

I have to confess that I have spent far too much time over the past two decades in ‘high level’ discussions on the ‘alphabet soup’ of international development – PRSPs, MDGs, IDTs (anyone remember those?) and now the SDGs. It was a joy to spend a day with practising teachers from some of the poorest communities in Uganda who are still dedicated to the care and learning of the children in their charge.

I am fairly sure that most of those 77 teachers would not have been aware of the details of the 17 SDGs and the 169 associated targets.  Nor would they necessarily have been conscious that their work is critical to the achievement of the targets 4.1, 4.2, 4.5 and (possibly) 4.7 in the education SDGs as well as (indirectly) the achievement of many of the other SDGs.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that the SDGs are not important.  As writers elsewhere in this issue of NN54 have eloquently argued, global goals have a role to play in shaping the agenda of international organisations and (to a lesser extent) influencing national policy decisions.  This global voice of reason is more important than ever as a response to the reactionary and ill-informed nationalism evidenced in many countries.

However, I do make an appeal to all of those involved in these international debates to remind themselves from time to time of the reality of the teachers, classrooms and homes in poorest and marginalised communities in every country in the world.  The SDGs do matter to these communities.  But for the achievement of the education goals at least, #teachersmatter more.


The Varkey Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation committed to ‘Changing lives through education’ by ensuring that every child has a great teacher and advocating for their increased status across the world including through the Global Teacher Prize .

Desmond Bermingham is the Director of Progammes at the Varkey Foundation in London

This blog reproduces an article in the new issue of NORRAG NEWS, NN54, on “Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One Year On?”.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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For Global Learning Metrics, Ask Cognitive Scientists

By Helen Abadzi, College of Education, University of Texas at Arlington.

learningThe December of 2016 brought worrisome messages to many Ministries of Education.  The 2015 PISA and TIMSS[1] scores were publicized.  Despite efforts, Latin American countries have low scores, as do the wealthy Gulf States.  Policymakers are unsure how to improve instruction for better outcomes.

The results’ release coincided with several regional workshops to contextualize the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4).  The targets were developed after consulting with thousands of people who were related to education in some ways.  Agreement could only be reached in the broadest terms: e.g. “Percentage of children and young people in grades 2/3 achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics, by sex.” [Global indicator 4.1.1]

Now comes the hard part. How to set valid benchmarks of “minimum proficiency” in reading and math for Yoruba, Arab or Lao children in grades 2/3 or justify comparisons with the Finns and Chinese?

Apparently no one knows. Thus far, the only emerging benchmarks are for more monitoring and consultations. One proposal is for subject experts to meet regionally, discuss how learning progress in each subject is understood in different contexts, and which assessment questions best capture learning progression.  Organization and funding will be needed, and any answers may be years and millions of dollars away.

In the meantime, policymakers despair over test scores. Some wish that this enthusiasm for testing spread into curricula, teacher training, textbooks, and instructional time. But the SDG consultations focus on lofty, big-picture strategies. The “translation” job is left for local actors to figure out.

Is it possible to shortcut the looming years of uncertainty and teach students efficiently?  Most certainly, if someone asks cognitive scientists. But readers must be warned that some answers run counter to popular beliefs.

The unifying principle for international comparisons is the DNA of homo sapiens.  Our brains think in similar ways, say the writings of Dr. William Huitt, Professor Emeritus of Valdosta State University in Georgia, USA.  Despite individual differences, humans process information similarly across countries and cultures. This bedrock of human commonalities could be used to build SDG benchmarks.

An obvious aid for benchmarking is “working memory,” would say Dr. William Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A & M in the US and a prolific author on memory topics. Working memory contains what is in your mind right now and accurately maintains information that is necessary to work through problems.  But its capacity is very limited; it holds 4-7 items for maybe 12 seconds. This gives us just seconds in which to comprehend, calculate, make decisions.  We must be able to act rapidly and effortlessly.

Thus the holy grail for comparing performance is execution speed and automaticity. Global metrics could be developed for fluency in reading, math, science, various other skills.

Dr. Pierluigi Zoccolotti, professor at University of Rome psychology department, finds this a promising approach.  Words per minute are a rough but easy way to gauge whether students retain enough text in working memory in order to understand it. For that, students must know the language and recall meanings instantly. If they must exert mental effort, they use up extra milliseconds, lose their trail of thought and may answer incorrectly. Students taking TIMSS essentially engage in the battle of the milliseconds.

But how to speed up processing to the point of instant, effortless, automatic performance?  The nervous system demands practice. Classroom time and homework must offer sufficient practice opportunities, according to Dr. Craig Speelman, of Edith Cowan University in Australia. Improvement is rapid at first, then slows down. Learning curves have mathematical trends.  They could help predict the amounts of time children would attain various objectives and the number of instructional hours.

How else to speed up reading?  The size and spacing of letters read are critical, says Dr. Marialuisa Martelli, University of Rome.  Our visual system slows down if the letters are too small or too dense.  Optimal spacing and size will shave seconds off the reading time giving our working memory more time to consider a message before it disappears. Younger students are affected. This matters a lot in the younger ages, but adults often write texts for their own expert reading processes.  In principle, 4th grade TIMSS scores in visually challenging scripts like Arabic or Thai could improve a bit by optimizing size and spacing.

Which mental functions would improve math performance in TIMSS and other tests?  Accurate estimations are important, says Dr. Daniel Ansari of U. Western Ontario.  Our brains have an exact and an approximate number system.  Again, practice is needed to automatize the components of the exact system, and also to fine-tune the approximate system.  This way, a student may get a fuzzy estimate and see which response alternatives fit.

But practice, memorization, automaticity are not on the menu of modern schools.  They sound like narrow, sterile, traditional, 19th century education! Governments nowadays aim for creativity, discovery learning, and critical thinking.  Some fun projects are certainly important, but many activities gobble up teaching time to the detriment of practice. And neurocognitive research suggests that is putting the cart before the horse. Complex thinking is possible only when lots of prerequisite knowledge arrives instantly into working memory.  Students who were merely “exposed” to certain concepts may forget them entirely or retrieve them after a delay. Life events require instant retrieval.  To spend our money wisely, for example, we must calculate unit prices quickly, not three hours after leaving a store.

Why is speed a hard concept to digest? Perhaps because of incongruity. Memory functions are largely unconscious, so we are unaware of what we do. Please pay some attention and see how many seconds you took to read and understand this paragraph.  If you used more than about 10, you would get tired and give up.

The primacy of processing speed has big testing implications.  Most tests do not exactly measure knowledge; they only measure the knowledge that can be retrieved and applied within a few seconds. To perform, students should spend significant time memorizing and practicing sequences, which then pass as a single item into working memory. Top-scoring countries in TIMSS or PISA have historically emphasized practice.  Their students may not necessarily know more; instead, they may be able to retrieve more in fewer milliseconds.  Emphasis on fun activities worldwide may reduce practice time and eventually test scores. And governments that invested millions in modernizing methods may be at a loss to explain why.

Below are some of the ways to specify terms like “minimum proficiency.”  If cognitive scientists had been consulted about the indicators for SDG 4, they might have recommended some items like the ones below:

  • Reading speed for the primary school grades to monitor the attainment of automaticity
  • Calculating speed, magnitude processing tests, speed of single-digit operations
  • Learning rates for students in key tasks

Neuroscientists may have much more to add.  For example, research to model structural changes in developing brains may help estimating learning rates for various subjects beyond basic skills. By 2030, neuroimaging devices may assess knowledge through learners’ brain states and thus bypass some problems of international comparability. This is already feasible for some tasks. Experimentally, reading automaticity is often assessed using neuroimaging methods in ways that bypass the complexities of different languages and scripts. Thus, comparative education may morph into comparative neuroscience.

To achieve the 2030 targets, governments and international organizations must engage cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. Right now neither side knows that the other exists. Education colleges keep their distance from psychology, and their degrees rarely include courses on memory. During the 2015 consultations about the SDGs, the input of the few learning specialists was averaged with that of generalists. The consequences are now obvious.

If we continue to disregard the DNA guidance, test scores will continue to be modest. By 2030 surely more policymakers will demand help from memory functions. But students, particularly low-income students, should not have to wait until then.


[1] Programme for International Student Assessment; Trends in Mathematics and Science Study.

Helen Abadzi is a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington.  To improve the outcomes of education investments she regularly monitors research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.  Her publications can be found at:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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2017: Reshaping the Landscape for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training

Kenneth King, NORRAG News editor, and University of Edinburgh

ghanaIn our first blog of January 2016, we celebrated the end of post-2015 and the beginning of Agenda 2030. A huge amount has happened on this new Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda since then, and some of the diversity of that is captured critically in a forthcoming special issue of NORRAG News (NN) 54: Education, Training and Agenda 2030: What Progress One year On?

Another almost unprecedented event of 2015/2016 was the massive movement of peoples both across and within national borders. This was by no means only a phenomenon affecting countries in Europe; in most cases the refugee and displaced people movements were very much larger in other countries, in the global South. Again, we captured something of the sheer variety, impact and consequences of this external and internal migration in NN53: Refugees, Displaced Persons and Education: New Challenges for Development and Policy.

What, if anything, was the connection between ‘the world we want’ – a slogan closely associated with the SDG process – and ‘the world on the move’- of mass external and internal migration?  We will note in NN54 that the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘displaced’ don’t even occur in the main text of the SDGs and that ‘migration’ only appears once, in a sentence that it is hard to believe was crafted and agreed by the member states of the UN when disorderly, unsafe, irregular and irresponsible migration was massively already underway:

10.7 Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies (UN)

There does, however, appear to have been some connection between ‘migration’ and two of the other dramatic events of the past year, both completely unanticipated by polling professionals: the BREXIT vote in the UK (by just 52% of the 72% who voted) was in part influenced by an anti-migrant rhetoric, and the same could be said of the US vote in November 2016.

Whatever the weaknesses in the phrasing of some of the SDGs, they draw upon a long and historic process of establishing universal aspirations and ambitions for the world. For instance, the word ‘international’ appears no less than 20 times in the text of the 19 goals, in such phrases as international ‘cooperation’, ‘agreements’, ‘frameworks’ and ‘law’. The spirit of internationalism runs throughout the SDG agreement, even if the whole process is based on an assumption of national implementation.

These four events of 2016 will have a continuing impact in 2017, altering the landscape in ways that are still hard to anticipate. The new populism and nationalism, captured in the mantra of ‘Get our country back’, may be evident in other referenda and elections taking place during 2017.

Our interest in NORRAG is of course to analyse how these new forces will influence international policies and cooperation in education and training. It can be anticipated that the pressures around these new nationalisms will discourage the spending of state budgets on development aid – on far-off ‘foreigners’. In response, it may be argued that if development finance can help improve the living standards in the countries and regions from which migrants are pouring out, it will prove to be politically attractive. But such impact will be hugely difficult to demonstrate rapidly. We may anticipate, therefore, that 2017 will see the demand for cuts in development aid, regardless of the SDG commitment in Goal 17.2 for:

Developed countries to implement fully their official development assistance commitments, including the commitment by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income for official development assistance (ODA/GNI) to developing countries (UN)

Already the reduction in the value of sterling by at least 10% has wiped £1 billion off the value of UK’s annual aid budget. In addition, there will be eventually a removal of the €2 billion euros channelled annually through the European Union’s Development Fund (EDF). 2017, with the new US presidency, will be a critical year for United States’ development funding, including for USAID. In the next issue of NORRAG News (55) we shall examine how the impact of these new national and global movements are influencing the landscape of traditional development aid.

We are particularly interested in what may happen to international cooperation in education, and to educational mobility and educational partnerships. The BREXIT vote has of course already begun to impact student mobility to the UK and from the UK to other member states within the 28 countries of the EU. This will become much more marked once the UK formally exits the EU. The current vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, 17% of whose university research income comes through competitive grants from the EU, has stressed that ‘More worrying than the loss of revenue is the damage to the networks of collaboration on which world-class science depends today’ (Borysiewicz, 2016:13).

In NORRAG’s current membership of some 5000 individuals, no fewer than 1 in 10 members are based in the UK, the majority of them with significant international and comparative educational linkages and partnerships. We shall begin monitoring in 2017 how the new forces of nationalism are impacting on international educational partnerships and mobility.

Education Milestones in 2017

Though the political and partnership forecasts for 2017 seem currently very uncertain, there are still some significant education events which hold promise for refocusing attention on international education as well as on education cooperation.

The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report (WDR): This will be the first WDR ever to focus exclusively on education. The initial concept note on this WDR uses the title: Realising the Promise of Education for Development. In addition to the promise as a key theme, there is mention of The Learning Crisis and Learning Metrics to Guide Reform as key themes, as well as Effective Interventions to Build Learning and Learning at Scale. There will be consultation processes taking place globally during January-March 2017, and the final volume should be available in the late autumn of 2017.

The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), which will be thematically focused on Accountability, will become available also in the autumn.

Two of the world’s great conferences on comparative and international education take place also in 2017: the CIES will be in Atlanta, USA from 5-9 March, and the UKFIET’s biennial conference will be in New College, Oxford from 5-7 September. These are both events which attract NORRAG members from around the world. Doubtless, they will provide ample opportunities thoughtfully to review the changing landscape for international policies and cooperation in education and training.


Borysiewicz, L. 2016. Brexit means Brexit. This is how the university will meet the challenges, Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM) no 79.

Kenneth King is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Social and Political Studies and in the School of Education in Edinburgh University. He is also the Editor of NORRAG News.

Follow this blog by email, Facebook or via Twitter @NORRAG_NEWS

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,700 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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