I have now been blessed with a lot of feedback on the invited essay I published in the International Journal of Educational Development calling on global education actors to focus on foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) in low-income countries (LICs), and hold ourselves accountable for progress.
The feedback provided by colleagues who have spent a lifetime in this sector is steeped in wisdom and mercifully avoids performative and corporate responses. I am glad there is disagreement: we arrive at better answers by having a genuine debate. I try to clarify my views under four themes below: I hope to dispel what I think are misunderstandings but leave many arguments unanswered because I do not have ready responses for them. I conclude with a renewed appeal to make tangible progress this decade.
SDG 4: Dream, smorgasbord, objective, or plan?
I think I may be more of an SDG 4 literalist than others. SDG 4 is neither a dream nor a plan, nor a buffet of options, but a set of objectives with defined outcomes and a specific timeframe.
The risk of treating SDG 4 as a dream is that it enables us to feel good about the work we do without the need to change anything. After all, every time we buy a textbook, build a school, train a teacher, we are virtuously doing God’s work, so why bend the arc of progress?
Treating SDG 4 as a smorgasbord is equally misguided. It suggests that all the SDG 4 objectives are equally important and equally achievable for education systems at any level of maturity; that there are no choices to be made, and that countries should sample liberally from this very large menu of options; and that there are no dependencies. It is a bit of an invitation to build a skyscraper not from the foundation up, but by placing windows, doors, and roof mid-air, in defiance of gravity.
Nor is SDG 4 a plan. SDG 4 as a plan would be utterly meaningless. There is no global plan of action that can faithfully be applied to all countries trying to improve, say, FLN. We have learnt a few things that are true of successful systems, but how those technical principles apply will vary, as we have all learnt from Lant Pritchett, depending on the political and administrative realities of each country. So indeed, choosing to work on FLN does not close the set of options of how to achieve it, nor do I make any such claim.
If, on the other hand, we treat SDG 4 as a set of objectives, this should induce a panic attack because we are undeniably going to fail. There are two responses to the imminence of failure: we give up and chug along, or we set still ambitious but more feasible goals given technical, administrative, political, and fiscal limitations. That is my approach. So, when I look at LICs and LMICs (lower-middle-income countries), my question is: What is the next best thing to aim for, that stretches us out of our zone of comfort but is more achievable? The World Bank’s objective of reducing Learning Poverty (LP) by half represents such an attempt.1
Local context matters
By appealing to global actors, I appear insensitive to the fact that education is an eminently local and political affair. My essay was addressed to my colleagues in international organizations, inviting them to step up. I believe they have a role to play to improve the performance of their own organizations and to improve collaboration between them. But I could have done a better job of connecting the dots between the global and the local actors. If I had to reframe my essay, I would start from the classroom, then zoom out to the country context, and then out to the global actors. I would pose the question as: What needs to happen at the classroom level to improve instruction of FLN; are local actors poised to take the necessary actions to enable this; and what role should the global actors play to support the right local action?
Let’s make this concrete and take the example of the World Bank’s commitment to halve LP by 2030. How does this commitment made at the World Bank’s president’s level translate into action? The Bank’s primary instrument is lending to countries. So, to halve LP, the World Bank needs to have a corresponding loan portfolio to its client countries. But those countries may not want to borrow to meet this particular objective; they might legitimately want to borrow for secondary, tertiary, or vocational education. Even if a country chooses to borrow money to achieve the LP goal, what is the mechanism by which the quality of these loans is ascertained? Do they track learning outcomes? Are there competing programs being implemented in that country? Is there a robust local governance structure that elicits regular review of collective progress against LP, and, if not, how is it being strengthened?
My view is that, having made an institutional commitment to halving LP, it is incumbent on the leadership of the World Bank to align internal incentives and operations to its declared objective. Otherwise, we are left with another grand but hollow promise, of the kind the sector has seen before.
Metrics and accounting
Another set of criticisms my essay received concerns the excessive focus on accountability. I should have been more explicit. I don’t believe that weighing the pig makes it fatter. I absolutely think that countries need technical assistance and, in some cases, financial support. Indeed, this is the bread and butter of aid agencies, and it is not my contention that those should be substituted by accountability. Because there are no foolproof policies and plans to improve FLN for all the reasons we know, there needs to be continuous learning and refinement of whatever plan we start with. We know that implementation eats strategy for breakfast. But I am suggesting that technical assistance without performance monitoring and accountability is tacitly saying: we know what to do, let’s get it done, what’s the point of checking if we are heading in the right direction and at reasonable speed?
The other criticism is that accountability can rapidly devolve into “accounting-based accountability.” This is a serious risk. The kind of mutual accountability I promote should be an “account-based” one. By suggesting we keep an eye firmly on learning outcomes, I am not therefore suggesting we track a set of thin inputs. Those will give us a false sense of progress. Take Lesotho: 100 percent of teachers are reported trained (target 4.c), 87 percent of adults are literate (target 4.6.2), 73 percent of children are developmentally on track (target 4.2.1), government expenditure on education is 7 percent of GDP (exceeding the hopes of advocates), yet only 13.2 percent of grade 2/3 students met minimum proficiency level for reading (target 4.1.1a). Clearly, blindly tracking a set of thin correlates of learning does not help. We need a more granular understanding of why learning outcomes remain catastrophically low, even though our scorecard of determinants of learning is green. This calls for a detailed review of the binding constraints to learning and of the adequacy of the response offered by the government and aid agencies.
Focus and coalitions
There are two sets of criticisms about the notion of focusing. First, there is no legitimacy to a top-down, imperial focus, and that the job of agencies is simply to support what countries want. Second, it is far from obvious that FLN is the right focus since other areas “are hard to get wrong.”
I agree with the first criticism. Thus, in my essay, I don’t suggest that a focus on FLN be forced onto countries, by using aid conditionality, for example. Nor do I suggest a wholesale redirecting of domestic or aid funding to FLN: it may not be needed at all. On the contrary, I suggest that agencies, like the World Bank, US Agency for International Development, and UNICEF, work with countries also convinced that they need to improve the quality of their basic education system within their fiscal constraints. I would have labelled this compact as a “coalition of the willing” had the expression not been irretrievably corrupted.
To this, I’ll add two points:
- First, an honest country dialogue by aid agencies ought to include a conversation about the quality of basic education. It is not true that aid agencies are just on the receiving end of what countries and civil society want: the exchange of ideas goes both ways; it is not obvious that the demand for gender equity or tobacco control or action on climate change emerged from the bottom up. Global institutions play an important leadership role in developing norms, building consensus, and prompting action.
- Second, to focus is not to suggest that countries work on FLN to the exclusion of everything else.2 Obviously, governments will need to continue to run their pre-primary, secondary, vocational, and tertiary programs. For me, to focus is to invite a convergence of effort: it is to take the task seriously, to make every effort to understand the root causes of poor performance deeply, to align collective action to addressing those problems, to review progress regularly, and to have an honest conversation (an “account-based” one) about what needs to change. It is the difference between giving us a chance to make meaningful progress against a fundamental SDG 4 objective, versus making no progress at all against any objective.
The other criticism is that governments could spare themselves the heartache of improving FLN by doing other “easier” things, like providing school meals, expanding secondary school seats, etc. Some things are indeed easier, but I doubt we could credibly tell the government of, say the UK, to please limit themselves domestically to providing school meals in response to their own students not meeting minimum proficiency levels in early grades, because it is a “cost-effective” measure. What applies to the UK surely also applies to Malawi in this case. And some things are easier only if we have low expectations. Only 44 percent of Ugandan students complete primary school, of which only 52 percent meet minimum proficiency levels for reading. We would also have to make heroic assumptions about recruiting and training specialized secondary school teachers, a problem an order of magnitude more difficult to solve than recruiting primary school teachers. In that context, I can only imagine that when we say we can easily universalize secondary schooling, we mean just frog-marching students through secondary schools even if they don’t learn much of anything: we would be promoting a depressingly custodial view of education. In my view, there is no escaping the challenge and the importance of improving learning levels in basic education,3 precious arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.
It remains abundantly clear to me that making progress on something as basic as early grade literacy in LICs and many LMICs will be terribly hard. The key ingredients of focus, performance monitoring and accountability, even in countries that have signed up for improving early grade literacy, are weak or missing. My appeal remains the same: that countries (e.g., World Bank Accelerator countries) and agencies (especially the World Bank, UNICEF, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the US Agency for International Development, and UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics) that are seeking to improve learning levels in basic education form a compact. This means an agreement to work together at country level, to create robust feedback loops so we know whether progress is sufficient, to learn from each other, and to have honest conversations about what needs to be changed to accelerate progress. There are already nuclei from which those compacts can be formed, especially but not exclusively the World Bank’s Accelerator Program, the Global Partnership for Education country compacts, and the Global Education Forum. We will be watching this space with great interest.