Ignorance Attack! New Education Commission Report Sounds Alarm on Global Learning Crisis

Earthquakes and explosions are emergencies to which the international community responds immediately. Others hit so slowly that it takes a dramatic alarm to draw attention.

Well here’s the alarm: “Ignorance Attack!” If we don’t take action now, millions of children who should be learning to read and write will be illiterate; projections show that only 1 in 10 children in low-income countries will be on track to gain basic secondary-level skills by 2030. This alarm is a central feature of The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World, a report released Sunday by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. The report’s 12 recommendations should make us all sit up, take note, and take action.

Chaired by Gordon Brown, the Commission includes such luminaries as Amartya Sen, Felipe Calderón, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The report draws on research from dozens of organizations (including the Center for Global Development) and hundreds of consultations with education practitioners and policymakers worldwide. Consequently, it really does reflect the latest research, evidence, and knowledge in education.

At first glance, this new report doesn’t look very different from The World Declaration on Education For All—the 1990 declaration that called for universal access to high-quality schools. The Learning Generation makes recommendations to improve education in four ways: by focusing on results; by fostering innovation; by prioritizing inclusion; and by committing more and better resources. At the surface, much of this looks like a conventional call for more money, more teachers, and more attention to enrollment. But The Learning Generation gives greater attention than ever before (1) to learning, (2) to efficiently allocating more education funds, and (3) to supporting rapid transformations with flexible financing mechanisms.

1. Measuring and tracking learning

First, the report defines results in terms of what students learn. This is extremely important because it shifts attention away from creating “high-quality schools” and toward asking “are children learning?”. The Commission rightly identifies that the critical first step is to find out how much children know by improving national assessment systems and developing internationally comparable tests (data on learning that can be compared across countries and over time are highly incomplete). This is the only way to find out if investments are leading to results, and to adapt and change course when necessary.

2. Allocating resources effectively

Second, the report acknowledges the primary role of developing countries in funding their own education systems. Alongside domestic resources, more international funding is also needed, and ensuring better value for money will be just as important. But the report correctly sets priorities to use these resources to educate children in the most disadvantaged and vulnerable settings, and as a catalyst for good policies by supporting innovation.

3. Projecting how transformations can be achieved

Third, the report identifies countries where fast progress has occurred and outlines what’s needed to support comparable innovation elsewhere. Countries like the Dominican Republic and Bangladesh have improved functional literacy among 10-year-olds, showing that rapid progress is possible. But the strategies employed in other countries will necessarily differ based on their unique contexts. That is why the report’s proposals for innovative financing mechanisms like a Multilateral Development Bank Investment Mechanism, a Global Offer for Learning, and an Education Outcomes Fund all envision foreign assistance that is more flexible and responsive to results than current forms of aid to education.

The Learning Generation makes a convincing case that business-as-usual is not working. More funding for inputs, such as school buildings, text books, and teachers can only have impact alongside programs and policies that put learning front and center. To prevent an ignorance attack, we need better measures of learning, funding linked to results, improved types of finance, and support for domestic innovation to ensure all children are learning the life skills they need to succeed. The world will be a better place for it.


Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing the series of background papers CGD submitted to the Education Commission. These papers offer analyses on elements we were glad to see included in the report: the benefits of girls’ learning; recommendations on measuring learning outcomes; and a proposal for a Global Offer for Learning. Stay tuned!


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.