The Education SDG and Leaving No One Behind: Training Teachers Matters

By Monica Mincu, University of Turin, Italy.

A key role to promoting educational quality is played by teachers and thus it is important to note how much “training teachers matters” when it comes to achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. In fact, the idea of quality is explicitly used in SDG4 and it is specified in target 4c – the percentage of teachers with minimum training – as “deploying qualified teachers”. While quality needs to be both understood in terms of academic and training qualifications, the proposed global indicator focuses on training rather than academic qualification.  In addition, the number of trained teachers is a concern globally, either in absolute numbers – 1 in 4 primary teachers in half of the countries considered by the Global Education Monitoring Report were not trained – or as their distribution across schools and types of unavailable specialisation. At the same time, short-term contract teachers form a large proportion of the teaching staff (Chudgar et al. 2014). In fact, the number of short-term contract teachers is increasing at a similar pace as the use of more school-based initial preparation as an alternative path into the profession (Mincu, 2017). The quality of teaching and the availability of good training on innovative and effective pedagogies in low and middle income countries is therefore an important issue to be tackled. Important questions to consider include: Which teaching approaches are in use? Is structured teaching purposefully used with more socio-economically disadvantaged groups? Are constructivist approaches, such as personalisation, adequately used with older and more able pupils, but also in the correct order and in alternation with direct instruction? We also need to question the type and quality of teacher training provision, because if alternative preparation paths may be preferable to untrained contract-teachers, and these may be the “only feasible solution” (UNESCO 2006, 55) there is a need to identify specific good practices. So, what types of alternative training have proved to be of good quality in more difficult and poorer contexts? In this blog post, I will offer some examples from the area of teacher quality and the relevance of teacher training to improve education and achievement from an equity perspective, based upon a research review of teacher quality and school improvement and the particular role that research knowledge and evidence-based research may play in this field (see Mincu, 2015).

It is well known that effective teaching represents a unique protective factor that may reduce and even close the achievement gap and that it is especially pertinent for underperforming students and for those schools in more challenging contexts. Teaching quality and expectations are key issues, as well as curriculum coverage, instructional approaches and the provision of good quality feedback to students to identify the educational needs of lower achievers. Most important, it should be noted that the development of meta-cognition appears to be particularly relevant for closing or narrowing the gap between low achievers, including minority students, and high achievers.

Schiebelbein and McGinn (2017) consider that metacognition is essentially about “the reflection on, or thinking about how we are learning and thinking” (p.41) and, quite interestingly, it is suggested to be closely related to a key “soft-skill” such as the self-awareness, and more broadly to the very building of the personhood. In fact, while research recommends structured teaching (e.g. direct instruction) as an appropriate strategy and particularly beneficial for low achievers, teachers shouldn’t narrowly focus on basic skills and knowledge. Meta-cognitive strategies linked to cognitive acceleration show great effects (Higgins and colleagues, 2005) and are especially beneficial for less able students who might otherwise have difficulty monitoring and self-regulating their own learning’ (Leithwood et al., 2010, p. 612). Therefore, a quality teacher preparation is likely to enhance the ability of the teacher to support the development of students’ metacognitive processes (see for instance Zohar, 1999). As such, quality cannot be achieved withouth possessing a wide repertoire of teaching strategies, extending students’ knowledge and promoting meta-cognitive skills, which in turn requires research-based teacher education and reflection on professional practice (Mincu, 2015).

Moreover, good teachers are effective in different ways with different pupils, and such differential effectiveness must be cultivated through quality training as well as through their immediate working contexts, such as teaching teams and subject-based departments, which contribute more to differential teacher effectiveness than the schools themselves. If we are to promote quality teaching and teachers, findings of importance in more developed contexts need to find their way into more challenging school contexts in the poorest parts of the world. Links with the wider school environment are also highly relevant: while school leadership may enhance teacher quality through professional development, the possibility to further develop locally is usually conditioned by the availability of some form of initial preparation before entering the role, to access a critical mass of necessary pedagogical knowledge. If we are to seriously consider a “concept of meaningful access” and thus education quality itself, we cannot leave these questions unanswered on the premise that more demanding economic and quantitative progress should be in place first. Thus, the challenge for the community of scholars and practitioners is to share more widely the local solutions available to tackle education quality in general and teacher quality in particular. This can be a viable way to effectively address the quality of teachers, their preparation and their teaching in very poor countries.

Other References

Mincu, M. (2017). Tensions between training and teaching in School Direct Salaried: alternative preparation under market accountability in England. Paper presented at the CIES conference Atlanta.

Schiefelbein, E. and McGinn, N. (2017). Learning to educate. Proposals for the reconstruction of education in developing countries. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers & IBE UNESCO.

Monica Mincu is an Associate Professor in comparative education at the University of Turin (Italy) and an advisor to the Fondazione per la Scuola, active in the area of school improvement. Her work is focused on European school systems, teacher education, school improvement and change. She has also conducted research on Communist countries and rural education in Eastern Europe. Email:

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The Cost of Ignorance Revisited: A Reply

By Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

A blog in reply to ‘The Cost of Ignorance Revisited: Imitating the OECD or Learning to Be Critical?’ (12th April, 2017)

It’s certainly a necessary and worthwhile pursuit to assess and validate findings and research hypotheses in such a challenging area because it helps to improve them. But I would leave the critique of the model’s assumptions to Hanushek and Woessman to consider.

I am more concerned with how the authors misrepresent UNESCO’s position, despite the fact that much has been discussed in various fora and published on this site as well as many others, such as the Data For Sustainable Development Blog. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the Sustainable Development Data Digest, which highlights the breadth and complexity involved in the aspirations of the SDG 4 learning targets, and trying to measure them through the collaborative work of the Global Alliance for Monitoring Learning (GAML). Learning to be critical is also about doing your homework!

My blog does indeed endorse the use of existing international assessments, including regional initiatives in Africa (e.g., SACMEQ, PASEC) and Latin America (SERCE/TERCE) and potentially citizen-led assessments in the short-term for helping to consider which existing measures could be used to monitor SDG4. We have these figures in hand, but this does not imply wishing for a single global test in any way. And the essential point here is that without these initial figures (which are comparable across countries and allow for tracking), education quality could risk dropping lower on the international agenda. Clearly this is not seen as a risk worth taking by the education community at large.

However, even the short to medium-term vision for monitoring progress must consider how to integrate data from national assessments. This will involve supporting countries to better collect quality data and use the information to improve learning in schools and classrooms. And let me add that UNESCO is fully on-board in helping countries to address a range of critical questions, such as how they might better design their national assessments and use the results or how they might link to a global metric (not a global test!) and ensure that existing assessments are of good quality. These discussions will continue at the upcoming meetings of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning and the Technical Cooperation Group, which are uniquely designed to ensure that the perspectives and needs of countries are met, first and foremost.

Silvia Montoya is Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

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The Cost of Ignorance Revisited: Imitating the OECD or Learning to Be Critical?

By Hikaru Komatsu and Jeremy Rappleye, Kyoto University, Japan.

In February 2016, Director of UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) Silvia Montoya wrote a NORRAG blog entitled Measuring Learning: the Cost of Ignorance. The Director pointed out that five of the seven new education targets for Sustainable Development Goal 4 concentrate on learning, arguing it was now an urgent task to set up robust assessments to track progress. More specifically, Montoya opined that although many countries have national assessments, “the problem is that the resulting data cannot be compared internationally” and therefore “the first order of business is to develop the measurement frameworks needed to produce reliable measures of learning at different levels of education that can be compared across countries, time, and disaggregated by age, sex, disability, socioeconomic status, geographical location and other factors.”

Regarding the financial cost of such a framework, Montoya draws on TIMSS, PISA, and EGRA, implicitly endorsing these forms of assessment as a solution to the above mentioned problems. Anticipating would-be critics who argue that these global assessments are time consuming, expensive, and politically distracting, she argues that the cost of NOT testing would be potentially far greater. To support this, she draws from projections conducted by researchers Eric Hanushek (Stanford University) and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich) linking cognitive skills and the ‘knowledge economy’, as reported in their much-cited OECD-sponsored report Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain (OECD, 2015). Montoya writes:

According to this model, Europe & Central Asian countries with 100% enrollment rates that manage to improve their PISA scores by 25 points between now and 2030 will see a rise in GDP of 6.9% over the next 80 years. So by 2095, the annual GDP would be 28% higher than that expected with today’s skill levels…. What country can afford to forego these potential gains? Clearly, the cost of not assessing learning grossly outweighs the cost of conducting an assessment or putting a child through school. Most importantly, what country can take the risk of not providing students with the skills needed to compete in the labour market?

Although not explicit, these comments suggest that the UNESCO Institute for Statistics is fully on-board with plans by the OECD and World Bank to roll out PISA worldwide over the next two decades (e.g., via PISA for Development). Further evidence that UNESCO’s technical chiefs believe that development priorities must focus on competencies required for competing in the ‘knowledge economy’ can also found in the UNESCO-sponsored Muscat Agreement (May 2014).  Point Five of the Agreement states: “future education development priorities must reflect…the changing requirements in the type and level of knowledge, skills, and competencies for knowledge-based economies.” Indeed, it would be hard to be against PISA-style global learning metrics when the OECD data apparently shows what “stunning economic and social benefits” (OECD, 2015, p.1) can be had by closely monitoring and improving cognitive skills measured by PISA tests.  If these projected GDP numbers are correct, the cost of ignorance indeed looks extremely high.

But what if those numbers were actually wrong altogether? Given the major stakes for education globally over the next 15 years, we decided not to simply take the OECD, the World Bank, Hanushek, and Woessmann at their word. Instead, we decided to scrutinize their strong claims more closely.  What we found is rather disturbing.

As summarized by Montoya, Hanushek and Woessmann (hereafter H&W) actually claim the relationship between PISA scores and GDP growth is causal: “With respect to magnitude, one standard deviation in test scores (measured at the OECD student level) is associated with an average annual growth rate in GDP per capita two percentage points higher over the forty years that we observe” (H&W 2015, The Knowledge Capital of Nations, p.44).  Elsewhere: “[Our] earlier research shows the causal relationship between a nation’s skills – its knowledge capital – and its long-run growth rate” (H&W 2015, Universal Basic Skills, 15). But this claim is curious: although it is based on a relationship between test scores and per capita GDP growth among countries in one period, H&W simply assume the relationship as causal and extrapolate off the past relationship to make projections of the future.

Troubled by the simplicity of H&W’s assumption, we decided to look closer at the foundations of their study. To do so, we utilized the exact same sample of countries, data, and methods.  We found that we could, indeed, replicate the strong association between test scores and GDP per capita growth that becomes the basis for H&W and then the OECD’s ‘stunning’ future extrapolations (Figure 1a).

But then we turned to critically address the conceptual problem: H&W compared students’ test scores for a given period with economic growth for approximately the same period. If the relationship was indeed causal, we would expect a strong relationship in students’ test scores for the period and economic growth in a subsequent period. This is because it takes some time for students to become adults and occupy a major portion of the workforce. However, we could not find a strong relationship (Figure 1b). According to the determination coefficient (R2), the variation in test scores among countries for a period explained only 10% of the variation in economic growth for a subsequent period. This percentage was much lower than that for the original relationship (57%).

Click image to enlarge








Figure 1. Relationships of test scores across a given period (1964-2003) with GDP per capita growth (a) for approximately the same period (1960-2000) and (b) for a subsequent period (1995-2014).

The key issue here is the difference between association and causality: an association suggests a relationship might exist, while causality declares it always exists. That is, causality is confident that change in one variable always leads to change in the other variable.  Finding a strong association is a first step towards more refined analysis including and testing more variables and – perhaps most importantly – watching to see if there are temporal fluctuations. But the unclear relationship and low percentage we detected (Figure 1b) reveal that the H&W’s assumption of a causal link between test scores and economic growth is actually wrong. It is likely sheer coincidence. From this we can further conclude that using test scores as the sole factor for projecting future economic growth is overly simplistic. Readers interested in a fuller elaboration of our arguments are directed to our recently published full-length paper entitled A New Global Policy Regime Founded on Invalid Statistics? Hanushek, Woessmann, PISA, and Economic Growth (Komatsu & Rappleye, Comparative Education, 2017).

Once we admit that the assumption of causality backing the push for PISA scores as the new benchmark of educational development is highly misleading, the “cost of ignorance” looks rather different than we first imagined. Rather than students’ ignorance costing future gains in GDP, our own willful ignorance of the lack of causality becomes the source of the problem. That is, the costs are actually those incurred by ignoring the lack of a definite relationship in Figure 1b and simply believing – uncritically – in the causality, generality, and straightforward relationship presumed by Figure 1a. This ignorance costs us not the wealth of future GDP gains predicted by H&W, but instead further wastage of scarce resources, manpower hours for implementation, precious political capital, and endless bouts of recrimination in 2030 and beyond. But most importantly: the wasted time of teachers and students focused on mastering tests, time better spent engaging in meaningful learning.

We understand that having “comparable data, gathered under the same framework with aligned methodologies and reporting criteria to avoid bias” is very attractive for statisticians. But we doubt – based on our work to date – that all of this will result in higher quality learning and higher GDP growth rates. Wouldn’t it be a more effective program for research at UNESCO to analyze the existing data more deeply and provide a critical corrective instead? Wouldn’t it be better to remind the world of the complexity of education, rather than simply imitate, then disseminate the faulty claims of the OECD and World Bank further afield?

Hikaru Komatsu and Jeremy Rappleye are based at Kyoto University, Graduate School of Education. Their recent publications on international learning assessments include Did the Shift to Computer-Based Testing in PISA 2015 affect reading scores? A View from East Asia (Compare, 2017) and A PISA Paradox? An Alternative Theory of Learning as a Possible Solution for Variations in PISA Scores (Comparative Education Review, 2017). They can both be reached 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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Lost in Translation? Is the Road to an SDG Heaven – or to the Other Place – Paved with Inadequate Global Indicators?

By Kenneth King, NORRAG and the University of Edinburgh.

After the highly inclusive process of developing the education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4), a much more technical process was used to produce the global indicators. The challenge of securing the ambitious targets for education in SDG4 and assessing these via the global indicators is examined here with particular attention to primary and secondary education and to skills development. Arguably, a good deal of the SDG4’s huge aspirations for expanded rights to, and breadth of, education appears to get lost in translation to the global indicators.

The UN’s Inter-Agency and Expert Group for Sustainable Development Indicators (IAEG) was responsible for developing Global Indicators for all 17 Goals, including SDG4. There are 11 global indicators for SDG4’s 10 targets. There are 32 other, thematic indicators for education, but only the global indicators are used for reporting to the UN’s Annual SDG Reports. So these will get the priority attention for member states wishing to provide national data to the UN process.

Let’s look at this ‘translation’ activity:

Here is a first example – the vitally important Target 1 of SDG4: ‘….ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes’ (emphasis added).

This become a global indicator via the IAEG translation process, as follows: ‘Proportion of children and young people at grade 2/3; end of primary; and end of lower secondary, achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics, by sex’. That’s it!

So, the crucially important descriptors, ‘free’, ‘relevant’ and ‘effective’ disappear completely; and ‘quality’ is translated and narrowed into ‘minimum proficiency’ in just two subjects.

Here is a second example, from the world of skills development: SDG 4.3 and 4.4 talk of equal access for all to ‘quality technical, vocational and tertiary education’ and of increasing numbers ‘who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship’ (emphasis added). These descriptors confirmed a major change from the term ‘life-skills’ which distracted the global monitoring process of this Education for All Dakar Goal.  What is the global indicator for these two targets?

These SDG ambitions get translated into a global indicator that only aims to measure ‘Proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT) skills, by type of skill’.

And ‘quality technical and vocational’ becomes merely ‘participation rate in formal and non-formal education and training’ in last 12 months.

Of course, ICT skills are hugely important, but they constitute only a small subsector of the very wide range of technical and vocational skills.

These are just two examples of how the SDG4 ambitions for free and good quality education and training at different levels have been narrowed. This abandonment of the term ‘free’ at a time when the privatization of public education is proceeding at speed is potentially very dangerous. The same is true of confining skills development to ICT skills.

Equally at a time when the huge aspirations of SDG4 target 7 for global citizenship education and education for sustainable development have been agreed by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, it seems extraordinary that the global indicator for Target 4.1 should be concerned only with ‘at least a minimum proficiency in i) reading and ii) mathematics’.

Readers of the NORRAG Newsbite will find many further challenges to the global indicator development process in the latest issue of NORRAG News No 54: Education, Training and Agenda 2030.

A longer paper on this ‘lost in translation’ process can be had by writing to Kenneth King.

Kenneth King is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Social and Political Studies and in the School of Education in Edinburgh University. Email:

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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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Why we need a Flagship Indicator for Education: all Children in School and Learning

By Bridget Crumpton, the Education Commission, and Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

For the past year, we have been pushing for more and better data to help ensure that no-one is left behind – a key objective of the new Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data launched in Cape Town this January. We have cultivated new partnerships while promoting innovative data tools and approaches to monitor progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education. But clearly monitoring is only one side of the picture.  It must be reinforced by strong advocacy to make an impact and galvanize stronger global action on education. And strong advocacy, in turn, benefits greatly from a flagship indicator that can serve as a rallying point – an indicator that is easy to understand by all and that comes to symbolize the larger global goal.

In health, the main global goal under the SDGs is to reduce the rate of under-five mortality. For climate change, it’s holding the world to a maximum temperature rise of 2 degrees. But what is the flagship indicator for SDG 4, with its pledge to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning? The absence of an equivalent lead indicator in education may undermine both national and global action and investment in education.  And, it could be argued, weaken the focus on learning outcomes.

A few years ago, in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the rallying call for education was the number of children out of school while the primary completion rate served as the lead indicator. The data, produced by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), were widely disseminated and easy to grasp, making headlines in countries around the world. Today, we have a set of 11 global and a set of 43 thematic indicators that help set a course for countries to measure a wide range of issues shaping everything from access (school readiness, enrolment ratios) to outcomes (learning and school completion).  With the more comprehensive and ambitious vision of SDG4, it becomes all the more vital to set a lead indicator. So, what is the flagship indicator that can serve as a barometer for progress and pull these frameworks together without diluting them?

What will a flagship learning indicator look like?

In December, UIS and the Education 2030 Steering Committee put forward an indicator that would go straight to the heart of the SDG 4 agenda: ensure that all children are in school and learning. Rather than replacing the global and thematic indicators, we are confident that this flagship indicator would help to draw attention to them.

This indicator responds to calls from the Education Commission  for an indicator that reflects the spirit of SDG 4 by focusing national and global efforts on learning as well as access. What is crucial is that the proposed indicator combines data on the quality of education (such as share of children at the end of primary and lower secondary with a minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics), with the unfinished business of the MDGs: the completion rate and/or out-of-school rate for these age groups.

While there are several options to consider, the new indicator will have to combine different types of data and sources of information. It will reflect access to education, by including a mix of population data, enrolment and completion rates as well as information on children and youth out of school, including those who have dropped out or never had the chance to start. But it will also use assessment data to reflect education quality and learning proficiency. In particular, the indicator will include the new data being developed by the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML). In addition, the new indicator will use a combination of different data sources, including household surveys, to reflect the equity issues raised by the SDGs.

How can we move forward?

It is feasible, as noted in a joint blog by UIS and the World Bank, in December. The breakthrough on up-grading the SDG4 indicator on learning outcomes provides a path for countries to strengthen their national assessment systems and use this data to improve learning, refine teaching approaches, and drive smarter use of resources. On learning outcomes, already about one-half of the world’s countries are participating in regional and international learning assessments. Instead of starting from scratch, the UIS, through GAML, has found a way to anchor the results of these assessments within a single database that will, at first, capture the share of pupils reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics at the end of primary and lower secondary education. So while GAML is working towards producing the very first internationally comparable measures of learning, the other data – on completion, out-of-school children and more – are already being produced by the UIS.

Refining the indicator would require a number of methodological developments (some are already underway) in particular to ensure robust articulation between learning assessments data, household survey data and administrative data. These include developing a methodology to ensure correspondence between minimum proficiency levels across learning assessments and over time and using national assessments to complement comparative assessments to enable more regular reporting.

Consultation and support will be required not just to develop the indicator but to help countries report the information needed to produce it at the global level. To explore the options, the UIS is developing a paper, together with the Education Commission, for consultation with the wider education community in mid-2017.  Working with the UIS and its many education partners, we’re aiming for the launch of a flagship indicator this year. Once agreed, this flagship learning indicator can serve as a rallying call to bring the global education community together and marshal the high level political support and additional investment that is so crucial to getting all children learning in a generation.  This is a challenge, but a challenge that we relish and where a breakthrough is within our reach.

Bridget Crumpton is a Senior Adviser of the Education Commission.

Silvia Montoya is Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

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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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Unfinished Business in Global Education

By Nicholas Burnett, senior fellow, Results for Development

Unfinished business [Editor’s pick]

Global education is not in good shape. There is too much unfinished business. I draw attention to four such areas, making no attempt to be comprehensive but rather focusing on topics of personal importance to me:


  1. Sterile debates continue to dominate.

Our field remains excessively concerned about a series of sterile debates. Let me list just three major ones: whether education is important because it is a human right or because it contributes to economic and social development (both, undoubtedly); whether education should be exclusively publicly delivered or should rather deploy both public and non-state sectors to achieve objectives (the latter, obviously); whether education should use evidence from randomized control trials and take advantage of the potential of big data (of course, it should). I have argued before, in my 2008 Gaitskell lecture at Nottingham University and in my short 2012 NORRAG comment about the draining effect of these sterile debates and about the need for our sector to be more pragmatic and scientific.

  1. The international education architecture is still not fit for purpose.

As someone who has proudly held management positions at the World Bank, the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report and UNESCO, I am saddened by the decline of UNESCO and this community’s inability to sort out the international education architecture. The education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4)—with its inclusion of early childhood development and emphasis on equity—is praiseworthy in many ways, but it is also so vague and non-specific that it is not likely to lead to action. There is duplication of purpose and delivery in terms of financing among the World Bank, the regional multilateral development banks, GPE and bilateral donors, duplication that can hardly be afforded in an environment of declining aid to education and one in which foundations and the private sector have yet to contribute in any major way, despite some very modest initial steps. The result is that countries in greatest need, especially in Africa, are relatively underfunded and so things that ought to be easy to provide, such as books and learning materials, including in mother tongue languages are not getting in the hands of the children who need them. There is also vast under-financing and under-provision of global analyses and tools in education; only 3% of international spending in education goes to data or knowledge generation compared to 21% in health. My former World Bank boss and now R4D senior fellow colleague Birger Fredriksen has for years been drawing attention to this huge gap in the education system. The international institutions need to develop more confidence in each other; unless they work more closely together, for example by giving real content to Education 2030, it is hard to see how SDG4 can be achieved. Even more radically, they should consider allocating the important international functions differently across themselves and securing a common pot of funding for global public goods in education. I still hope that the Education Commission will lead the reform of this architecture, and I am heartened to see promising progress on the new proposed MDB financing mechanism.

  1. Neglected out-of-school children and adult illiterates.

SDG4 has replaced the Millennium Development and Education for All goals of getting all children into school and of making a major dent in adult illiteracy. The goal’s emphasis on all levels of the system, on learning rather than just enrollment, and on equity, is great. But enrollment still matters. And the fact is that the absolute number of out-of-school children has stagnated around 260 million at both primary and secondary levels since about 2007. The numbers of adult illiterates, two-thirds of whom are women, have also stagnated around 770 million, though this is almost certainly an underestimate. Yet, with some important exceptions such Education Above All, very few in the global education community now pay attention to getting the out-of-school children into school, except in the context of conflict and displaced people. And we continue to ignore illiterate adult women, as we have for decades, all in the false belief that efforts to educate children will solve the problem.

  1. Innovative financing and Early Childhood Development (ECD) financing.

Frustratingly, there has been little practical movement to adopt innovative financing in education, though one of its cousins, results-based financing, is starting to take off. The reluctance appears to be linked to the tension that exists between paying for results and education being a right; quite reasonably one should not deny children an education just because their school is not producing results. It is also linked to the fact that several innovative financing techniques may work better for non-state education than for publicly provided education. There are ways around all of this, but unfortunately there is a lack of political will to tackle it. The ECD financing problem is a bit different. The case for ECD is now overwhelming; yet its very nature (multi-sectoral and involving both public and private actors) calls for more than simply allocating a budget to a ministry and expecting them to get on with investments. Instead, a lot of creative mechanisms are needed to raise and allocate financing for ECD.
I urge the international education community to pay attention to these four areas. Stop the sterile debates. Get the architecture sorted out. Enroll the out-of-school and provide programs for illiterate adults. Adopt innovative financing and tackle the issue of ECD financing.

Nicholas Burnett served as Results for Development’s (R4D) founding managing director for global education from December 2009 through February 2017. He is now a senior fellow with R4D, chairs the Governing Board of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning and is a member of NORRAG’s Consultative Council. 

Part of this blog was first posted on the R4D blog on 1st March 2017.

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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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Taming Educational Privatization

By Fazal Rizvi, the University of Melbourne, Australia.

private-schoolOver the past three decades, the idea of privatization in education has been widely embraced by countries around the world. Of course the ways in which they have translated it into policies and programs have varied greatly,[1] as indeed have been the reasons given in support of privatization. In a recent book, Antoni Verger and his colleagues (2016) describe various ways in which it has been framed and enacted in education (see earlier NORRAG blog on this). For example, Chile has pursued a drastic form of privatization, driven by deep ideological convictions, while in the United States and Australia it has taken a much more incremental form. In social-democratic welfare states, privatization has often involved public-private partnerships, while in low-income countries it has often been imposed upon them, through various structural adjustment programs.

According to Stephen Ball and Deborah Youdall (2007), privatization of schools can either be ‘exogenous’ or ‘endogenous’. Endogenous privatisation involves the importing of ideas, techniques and practices from the private sector in order to make public schools more business-like. In contrast, exogenous forms of privatization involve “the opening up of public education services to private sector participation on a for-profit basis and using the private sector to design, manage or deliver aspects of public education” (Ball & Youdall 2007, p. 5). Of course, exogenous and endogenous privatization can occur simultaneously, establishing market relations both within and across schools.

Just as forms of educational privatization vary, so do the arguments given to justify it. These arguments include the alleged monopoly and inefficiency of government services, the lack of public funds to meet the growing demand for these services, the importance of accountability and the need to give consumers a choice. Often these arguments are presented in tandem, leading governments to justify providing private operators public funding either as a direct subsidy as in the case of vouchers or through various tax deductions. The question of the extent to which public funding should complement private schools of course remains highly contested.

While educational privatization has now become embedded within the global policy space, it cannot be denied that it has also produced a range of unacceptable outcomes.  Many of these are more far-reaching than is often realized, in not only changing the nature of education but also in transforming education’s complicated relationship to social and cultural reproduction. Most notably, privatization permits the acquisition of knowledge and skills to be redefined in terms of human capital that can be exchanged in the market.

This undermines education’s traditional relationship to the public good. Privatization policies chip away at the role of education in developing and sustaining communities, building social cohesion and encouraging social solidarity. When people are encouraged primarily to look after their own economic interests, their concern for fellow human beings inevitably diminishes, eroding the very foundations of ethics. Insofar as privatization policies are predicated on the assumptions of self-interest, they risk generating unsustainable patterns of social inequality. While inequalities have always been a component of educational systems, privatization policies extend them, by institutionalizing access to various educational opportunities based on the ability to pay.

Nor does education privatization invariably improve the quality of educational provision, as is often claimed. On the contrary, recent research indicates no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools. According to Chris and Sarah Lubienski (2014), the evidence on charter schools’ effectiveness in the US is equally mixed. More disturbing however is the finding that private schools create the conditions in which social segregation is reproduced. In lower income countries, where the idea of low fees private schools has been widely championed (for example by Tooley),[2] the quality of instruction remains consistently low. A critique of many of these schools is that they don’t offer pedagogically enriching activities providing access to new technologies, science laboratories and secure environments.

In his recent book, The End of Public Schools, David Hursh (2016) has shown how privatization policies undermine democracy. He argues that public schools were created as learning communities that supported the development of trusting and caring relationships. In private schools, in contrast, where students are viewed as customers and parents as shareholders, this democratic function of education is necessarily diluted. In the end, privatization policies embody a different view of society in which individuals are encouraged to compete for scarce resources, and in which market defines the nature of social relationships.

These objections to educational privatization are compelling and therefore demand serious and thoughtful attention. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that recent privatization initiatives have assisted greater access to education around the world, in ways that would not have been otherwise possible. Private investment in education has been helpful, for example, in realizing UNESCO’s ambitious plans for universal primary education articulated in both Education for All and MDGs. Across higher levels of education, privatization policies have helped build demand, and created the possibilities of participation for previously excluded populations.

Given the rapid rise in student demand for education around the world, an educational system that is funded exclusively through the public purse does not therefore appear any longer to be a realistic option—especially in view of the inability or disinclination of most nation-states to fund educational expansion through taxes.  Some degree of privatization thus appears inevitable. If this is so then the question is no longer whether private investors should be allowed in education, but to what extent and how should their activities be regulated, and to what end.

The global trend towards educational privatization is accompanied by some serious problems for individuals and communities who find themselves on the wrong side of social hierarchies.  The ideology of the market necessarily produces winners and losers. However, as Robert Reich (2015, p. 218) has noted, there is nothing inevitable about the market: “we need not be the victims of the market forces over which we have no control”.  Markets are based on rules that human beings create; so the questions become ‘which rules’, ‘for what purpose’ and ‘whose interest’. The coming challenge, Reich insists, is not an economic one, but that of democracy. It is not about the freedom of the market or the size of government, but how we determine what government is for and for whom.  The central choice is not between the market and the state, but around the question of how the relationship between the two should be conceptualized so that it delivers broadly based prosperity and benefits rather than delivers all the gains to a few.

In an era of expanding demand for education, few states have the resources to fund education on their own. They need the private sector to help out. The input of the private sector can bring great benefits to educational systems. However, for these benefits to reflect broadly based interests of the communities and the public good, privatization needs to be democratically controlled—to be tamed in a manner that preserves education’s traditional purposes of community building and working towards social cohesion and solidarity. In achieving this goal, the role of the nation-states cannot be allowed to ‘wither away’ against the encroaching power of the markets. Instead we need to develop rules and systems that ensure that privatization of education does not end up favouring the corrupt, the already privileged and the few, rather than everyone.

[1] Though not the focus of this blog, it is known that the private has been for decades intimately involved with the public through the phenomenon of shadow education – from Japan, to India, and from China to the UK (Blog Editor).

[2] Of course, private, English medium schools are widespread in India, West Africa etc regardless of Tooley.


Lubienski, C. & S. Lubienski (2013) The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hursh, D. (2016) The End of Public Schools: The Corporate Reform Agenda to Privatize Education, New York: Routledge

Reich, R. (2015) Saving Capitalism: For the Many Not the Few, New York: Alferd Knopf.

Verger, A., C. Fontdevila & A. Zancajo (2016) The Privatization of Education: A Political Economy and Global Education Reform, New York: Columbia University Press.

This blog entry is based on a longer paper published by UNESCO: Rizvi, F. 2016. Privatization in Education: Trends and Consequences. Education Research and Foresight Series, No. 18. Paris, UNESCO. 

Fazal Rizvi is a Professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the  University of Melbourne, Australia. Email:

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