By Bridget Crumpton, Senior Adviser of the Education Commission, and Silvia Montoya, Director of the 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 last month. 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.