Working Papers

The Long Walk to School: International Education Goals in Historical Perspective - Working Paper 37

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Raising school enrollment, like economic development in general, takes a long time. This is partly because, as a mountain of empirical evidence now shows, economic conditions and slowly- changing parental education levels determine children’s school enrollment to a greater degree than education policy interventions. A succession of international meetings has nevertheless adopted a litany of utopian international goals for universal school enrollment and gender parity in education based on the idea that a correct education policy backed by sufficient cash could achieve the goals in short order. The latest of these, the Millennium Development Goals, call for universal primary schooling and full gender parity by 2015. This work quantifies how long it has taken countries rich and poor to make the transition towards high enrollments and gender parity. There are three central lessons. First, there is a remarkable uniformity of experience in the rates of enrollment increases, a reality from which the various rounds of goals appear entirely detached. Second, many countries that have not raised enrollments fast enough to meet the goals have in fact raised enrollments extraordinarily rapidly by historical standards and deserve celebration rather than condemnation. The very few poor countries that have raised enrollment figures at the rates envisioned by the goals have done so in many cases by accepting dramatic declines in schooling quality, failing large numbers of students, or other practices that cast doubt on the sustainability or exportability of their techniques. Third, aid-supported education policies can help within limits, and their performance should be judged in the context of country-specific, historically-grounded goals. But a country’s broader development strategy outside the classroom matters much more than education policy.

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