Toward Universal Literacy, First Step Is Measuring

September 08, 2015

Alongside National Ants on a Log Day, Andorra’s National Day, and Bernie Sanders’ birthday, September 8 is International Literacy Day. This year, UNESCO has chosen the theme “Literacy and Sustainable Societies” to correspond with the upcoming adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations. And when it comes to learning, the SDGs mark significant progress over their forebears the Millennium Development Goals in that they actually have a literacy target: “By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.”

The focus on learning is welcome, but it is a bold target to set: at the moment, we don’t come close to measuring how many children (let alone adults) worldwide can write a sentence or do a simple math problem, nor know how to put in place education systems that ensure they learn those skills.

In 2013, the CGD working group report Schooling Is Not Education! Using Assessment to Change the Politics of Non-Learning noted that “widely cited literacy statistics are based on years of schooling, not actual tests of learning.” While the report pointed to a number of quality learning metrics efforts including the Early Grade Reading Assessment (used in 44 countries at the time), the ASER exercise in India and Pakistan and Uwezo assessments in East Africa, large parts of the world still lack even simple measures of basic learning outcomes comparable across schools and districts as well as over time. That means we don’t even know how ambitious the universal youth literacy and numeracy goal is: we have very weak data on rates of progress and limited data on starting levels from the past few years.

Hopefully by 2030 we’ll at least know if the universal target has been hit or missed. This year’s World Education Forum Incheon Declaration put emphasis on the priority to measure in the context of the SDGs, with member governments resolving to develop “comprehensive national monitoring and evaluation systems in order to generate sound evidence for policy formulation and the management of education systems as well as to ensure accountability.”

And the concern with evidence-based policymaking is key: at the moment, as the Schooling Is Not Education report highlighted, we know that many education systems don’t work very well when it comes to teaching children the skills they need, but we know even less about how to fix that problem. Simply put, even though enrollment rates have dramatically increased since the passage of the Millennium Development Goals, such increases haven’t been matched by improvements in learning. As Justin Sandefur mentions in a March 2015 blog post, in India “over 90 percent of illiterate 12-year-olds are enrolled in school, most in sixth grade or higher. And in Kenya and Tanzania, over 80 percent of illiterate 12-year-olds are enrolled, and in Pakistan about 70 percent.”

Tightening the link between schooling and learning is at the heart of the Research on Improving Systems of Education program, on which CGD is a partner. RISE seeks to determine how education systems can deliver better learning for all at scale in developing countries. The six-year initiative funds research that, according to RISE researcher Amanda Beatty, “goes beyond the proximate causes of test score performance to understand the underlying ingredients of a well-functioning system — for example, the way in which goals are set, progress is assessed and measured, the teaching career is structured, schools are financed and managed, and innovations produced, evaluated and disseminated.”

Evaluations of efforts like Uwezo and ASER suggest that better data on what is being learned is only the first step toward universal literacy. But when used to help inform experimentation and research like the RISE program, they can help uncover what works in education. Combined with advocacy and reform, that might help make International Literacy Day in 2030 a time for global celebration.


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.