Five Things to Look for at the UN’s Transforming Education Summit

Later this month world, leaders will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss how to fix education.

Expectations are low heading into the “Transforming Education Summit.” Education is a largely domestic affair. Nobody’s proposing any kind of binding international agreement on educational standards, and foreign aid donors show little sign of ponying up with big new financial commitments. This will be a talking shop.

But of course, the whole point of the UN is that talk matters. Summits like this provide a blueprint for national education strategies and aid donor plans. Donors and NGOs who manage to enshrine their viewpoints into the official record will use this UN shindig as a source of legitimacy for years to come.

To make the talks as concrete as possible, here are five big questions we think they need to answer. 

#1 Priorities: Will leaders at the summit make any concrete commitments around hunger, violence, or discrimination in schools?

The UN discussion paper on the first summit theme—“inclusive, equitable, safe and healthy schools” is awash in empty slogans: “empower teachers to empower learners” and “realize the idiom, ‘it takes a village.’” But if you look past those slogans, this first theme of the UN summit covers the broad set of issues where delegates are perhaps best positioned to make a lasting mark. That includes hunger, violence in schools, girls education, and environmental health.

Far too often schools and school systems fail at the core task of keeping children free from hunger and safe from harm. None of the delegates attending the summit would allow their children anywhere near schools that left them hungry or subjected them to abuse. But international organizations have been slow to get behind addressing these issues: if you read the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report on education, you’ll barely see a mention of feeding kids, adolescent pregnancy, or child abuse in schools. These issues deserve the same technocratic seriousness devoted to improving enrollment or test scores.

At the Transforming Education Summit world leaders have an opportunity to redress that imbalance. They should be concrete.

  1. Set a global target of universal, free school meals. School feeding is a simple and scalable intervention that contributes to better learning outcomes, keeps children in school, and promotes not just the health and fertility of girls who received meals but also the nutrition of their own children a generation later.

    Only about one in seven children in low-income countries and one in three children in lower-middle income countries receive meals at school. Unlike many other evidence-based education interventions, school meals are relatively easy to scale up: even low capacity systems have made them work. The main obstacle to expanding school meals is simply cost. As we discuss under the finance theme below, however, these costs are attainable. In the midst of a global hunger crisis, world leaders at the September UN summit should commit to feeding children in school. And donor agencies should commit to a plan to help them finance it.

  2. Commit to banning corporal punishment. And then invest more in discovering what works to prevent violence in schools. Far too many children are abused in schools. Over 40 percent children in sub-Saharan Africa experienced corporal punishment in the last week, including in countries where it is illegal. 12 percent of children in Senegal reported sexual harassment by teachers in the last four weeks. Data from Uganda suggests 8 percent of children have experienced extreme violence—being choked, burned, stabbed, or severely beaten up—in school. It’s clearly wrong in its own right, but it also harms children’s potential; violence is associated with lower educational achievement and reduced adult income.

    World leaders at the summit should first commit to banning corporal punishment in the 65 countries where it is still permitted in school. Policy change won’t solve the problem but it sets the expectation that violence in schools must stop. Then we need better data, better research on what works and elevated prominence of the issue within the education sector. That can start at the summit.

  3. Form a resolution to allow pregnant girls to go to school. Girls education is probably the most popular way for donors to spend education aid money. But if pregnant girls can’t go to school, how meaningful are these big grants? The challenge of returning to school following pregnancy stems not only from the time and resource constraints that come with being a new mother, but also from discrimination and laws preventing girls from returning to school once they’ve had a child. Over the past few years, more countries in the African Union ((Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, for example) have adopted laws and policies protecting adolescent girls’ right to continue their education following pregnancy. But more than 20 countries in Africa still lack a law protecting pregnant girls’ right to education.

    Letting pregnant girls attend schools is the right thing to do. But it’s also a smart policy choice in the long-run, as analysis by CGD colleagues shows. Summit delegates can show their true commitment to girls education by forming a resolution to allow pregnant girls to attend school, everywhere.

  4. Put lead poisoning on the education agenda. In addition to actions within schools, the UN discussion paper spends a lot of time talking about the broader economic and social causes of poor education. An education summit probably isn’t the place to tackle global poverty and world peace, but there are specific areas outside of schools – notably pollution and environmental health – that have a direct bearing on education outcomes and may actually be cheaper and more feasible to fix than many parts of school systems.

    Lead poisoning is an important example. Around one in three children—800 million in total—are poisoned by lead. This is very bad, in many different ways and for many different reasons. It mounts a multi-pronged and permanent attack on children’s health, especially the brain and development during their vulnerable and formative early years, with life-long effects: cognitive deficits, lower educational attainment, and behavioral disorders. Lead poisoning sets children several steps back before they even start school.

    At the summit world leaders and international agencies should commit to taking action to eradicate lead poisoning: firstly by getting serious about measuring childhood lead poisoning and then by implementing targeted measures to identify and remediate sources of lead contamination.

#2 Skills: Literacy and numeracy or climate change education and job skills?

There’s a debate within global education circles about the second theme of the summit, “Learning and skills for life, work and sustainable development.” If the question in that debate is what kinds of skills today’s education systems should be trying to produce, then it’s unclear why the proposed transformation puts climate change education above all else.

The UN discussion paper for this theme is preoccupied with the “existential threat of climate change, mass loss of biodiversity, natural disasters, pandemics, extreme poverty and inequalities, rapid technological change, and violent conflicts, among others.” Yes, the world is changing rapidly but rather than double down on the fundamental skills that will be needed whatever happens, the transformation seeks to plant climate change atop national education strategies and prioritizes vocational skills targeted at each and every challenge.

The paper does include foundational learning in Recommendation 4 (there are 16 in total), but that’s alongside other “transferable competencies for sustainability and entrepreneurship mindsets.” The paper delves into technical and vocational training (TVET), entrepreneurship skills, and flexible learning pathways. That’s despite a pretty dire evidence base for TVET on supporting employment. Sure, some programs work, but outcomes are highly uncertain and come at greater cost than general schooling in low- and middle-income countries.

Three priorities stand out from the literature:

  1. Resist the call to put climate change at the top of the skills agenda. The paper’s Recommendations 1-3 all focus on incorporating climate change into the curriculum. Yet it’s unclear how the average child in a low- or middle-income country benefits from more climate change content in their schooling. Especially when environmental and climate protection are already included in science, social sciences, and civic and moral education subjects from the first grades. There really is a learning crisis and it’s pretty clear that a child will benefit from being able to read and do basic math. And there’s now good evidence that some of the larger scale foundational literacy programs work, with the knowledge base coming together under initiatives like Learning@Scale. We urge delegates to resist reasonable calls for a focus on foundational literacy and numeracy being drowned out by the push to “empower learners for human and planetary sustainability.”

  2. First teach kids to read and do basic math (but not at the expense of all else). As our own research at CGD has shown, the share of kids in low- and middle-income countries who go through primary school and fail to acquire basic literacy is high and rising. Reversing that trend should be a clear priority. A consortium of donors—both the British and American foreign aid agencies, UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—are pushing a “commitment to action,” urging leaders to put literacy and numeracy test scores top of the agenda at the summit. We would endorse that commitment, while cautioning that test scores can’t be the sole focus of the summit, at the expense of things like gender-based violence in schools, nutrition, or free access to pre-school and secondary school. UN leaders and policy makers in UN member states share these broader priorities.

  3. Provide universal, free, secondary schooling. The discussion paper debates lifelong learning and flexible skills but includes little serious discussion of expanding access to secondary (or tertiary). If you want skills for work then the returns literature is pretty clear: you need to focus on getting more years of schooling for more kids. The provision of free schooling is perhaps the most obvious scalable investment, too. Cutting fees and building schools are not cheap (though the costs may not be as high as you think) but can pay for themselves through higher earnings (and tax revenues) in the long-term. Delegates can take the opportunity of the summit to recommit to providing universal, free, secondary schooling for all girls and boys, as enshrined in the first target of the Sustainable Development Goal for education.

#3 Teachers: Can teachers unions find common ground with proponents of scripted lessons and coaching?

More than half of all education spending goes on teacher salaries. Many low- and middle-income countries face a shortage of skilled teachers. But should the emphasis for transformation be more on improving teacher credentials, autonomy, and innovation? Or on improving teaching materials and continuous coaching support?

The “Teachers, teaching and the teaching profession” UN discussion paper favors increasing autonomy, encouraging innovation, and improving credentials and wages. Yet there is no empirical evidence cited to link any of these things to improved student outcomes. We do have evidence on the impacts of teacher credential and wage reforms: observed changes in teacher pay show little effect on student learning in studies from low- and middle-income countries with a credible claim to causal inference.

We think this proposal misses some of the best-evidenced solutions, and so make three recommendations:

  1. By all means, make sure that teachers have guaranteed labor rights, decent working conditions, good training, and support. The discussion paper includes several important points along these lines. Each country should have the right number of well-trained teachers. They should be in the right places, should be safe and healthy at work, and should be supported to teach. We encourage delegates to get behind calls for assuring these conditions and investing in training and support.

  2. At the same time, commit to test and implement structured pedagogical programs. Over the last 10 years, governments have trialed structured pedagogy and coaching programs, and taken them to scale. You wouldn't know it if you read the discussion paper! We now have a strong base of quality evidence showing these programs to be hugely successful in improving pedagogy—and in providing continuous professional support to teachers. We can’t improve teacher performance without looking at the potential that these programs offer. Delegates should take the opportunity of the summit to commit to more testing and large-scale implementation of these programs.

  3. Do #1 and #2 together reject making this a trade-off between teacher professionalism and scripted lessons. To be clear, structured pedagogy programs need not hold down teacher pay, undermine labor rights, or risk school safety as some of the most severe forms of standardization have done. Indeed, to stand any chance of working at scale they have to be delivered very closely with teacher unions and teacher organizations, and through government structures as one of the best evidenced—the Tusome programme in Kenya—did.

#4 Technology: Has the edtech bubble finally burst or will the tech-utopians prevail?

Mercifully, the most utopian hype around edtech doesn’t seem to have made it into the Transforming Education Summit background documents. The UN discussion paper behind this fourth theme—digital learning and transformation—is practical and level headed.

  1. Follow the evidence. The UN discussion paper gets it broadly right. It refers to the need for technology to support well-evidenced interventions, like teacher coaching, mother tongue instruction and structured pedagogy. It recognises that edtech has a natural tendency to increase inequality. And that grand promises to distribute hardware rarely end in success. Its recommendations are the most sensible.

  2. But leaders at the Summit should still resist the temptation to adopt exciting but unproven technologies. Newer interventions—like the supply of tablets with tailored software and automated assessment tools for teachers— seem attractive but have not yet displayed results at scale.

  3. The older types of edtech—radio and television— don’t get a mention in the discussion paper but they may still be the best. So far, the answer to what does work for large numbers of kids in low- and middle-income countries is quite simple. In a systematic review of the evidence on the use of EdTech, there was only one type of program that has (so far) worked at scale: broadcasting lectures to schools. A curious omission.

#5 Finance: Will the world get behind Gordon Brown’s plan to boost World Bank lending for education?

Every sector says it needs more money. But we believe ministers of education have an especially strong case that they face a genuine financing crunch, properly defined. That is, they enjoy a surfeit of public investment opportunities whose returns would cover their costs, but insufficient short-run cash to make them happen.

The UN discussion paper on education finance does a bit better at enumerating the first part (good ways to spend money) than the second (credible sources of finance). Our fear is that the document reads like an unaffordable wish list, and we would love to see leaders at the summit focus in on some key areas:

  1. Don’t pin your hopes on big tax and spending increases. Yes, we’d love for countries to raise their tax-to-GDP ratios by 5 percentage points (!) and funnel the money into the education budget, as the UN discussion paper suggests. And yes, perhaps the IMF should issue yet another round of new Special Drawing Rights, this time to be redistributed to poor countries to pay for education. Hey, why not? But this isn’t the kind of thing that gets agreed at an education summit. Insisting otherwise is a recipe for the summit to be ignored.

  2. Encourage spending that targets shovel-ready investments that have proven effective at scale. More spending isn’t the solution to everything in education, but it is the binding constraint to educational progress on several fronts in many low- and lower-middle-income countries. Examples include abolishing user fees, extending the length of the school day and providing universal school meals. While the academic literature is full of promising innovations, these more traditional “shovel-ready” investments have proven not just effective in rigorous evaluations, but technically and politically feasible when scaled up. These things aren’t cheap. But recent analysis for CGD’s “Schooling for All” report shows that they remain well within most countries’ spending envelopes based on current IMF growth and budget forecasts.

    Figure 1. The cost of school meals and free secondary vs forecast budget increases

    The cost of school meals and free secondary vs forecast budget increases

  3. Unleash the World Bank to lend more for education, and get comfortable taking on debt for education. In terms of generating more finance, former UK Prime Minister and current UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown is leading one of the more practical initiatives up for debate at the summit. Brown wants to boost the amount of World Bank lending for education. His argument is that middle income countries face a fiscal cliff when they graduate out of eligibility for the World Bank’s window for the poorest countries – as Bolivia, Georgia, and Sri Lanka have done in recent years. While 11 percent of the World Bank’s concessional loans go to education, only 6 percent of its non-concessional loans do.

Brown recognizes rich countries aren’t signing up for a big boost in foreign aid. So his proposal hinges on a piece of creative financial engineering: EU countries, he notes, can provide loan guarantees to the World Bank without registering any budget expenditure, boosting the World Bank’s lending capacity without requiring an actual capital increase. The vehicle Brown has devised to execute this maneuver is called the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd). 

Part of the problem though is on the demand side rather than the supply side: many developing countries are reluctant to take on sovereign debt for education. While we talk informally about “investing” in kids, most education spending goes to teacher salaries, and those salaries are classified as recurrent expenditure, not investment. Borrowing to pay teacher salaries would violate the informal fiscal rules that guide policy in many ministries of finance – including the famous “Golden Rule of fiscal policy” espoused by the UK Treasury in 1997, under the leadership of a Mr. Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer.

Brown has changed his mind, and has the zeal of a convert on debt financing for education, advocating for a paradigm shift among ministers of finance. As the UN background paper notes, “Education spending should be treated as investment, not as consumption, with new found ways to recognise the medium- and long-term returns.”

For education activists, backing Brown’s IFFEd initiative seems like a no-brainer. For the rest of the development community, there’s one catch – as noted by a recent high-level panel appointed by the G20. Why should this financial trick to expand World Bank lending be limited to education? Rival proposals exist for climate mitigation and adaptation, for instance.

In our view, this becomes a question more of fundraising politics in rich countries than development policy. Perhaps it’s easier to build support in Brussels, Oslo, and Tokyo for “more education finance” than for “more World Bank lending in general.” If Brown and fellow education activists can convince rich-country governments to back loan guarantees for education, that’s all for the good. And if others can secure support for broader, unrestricted support for expanded lending, even better.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.