While working to establish the EFA Fast Track Initiative 15 years ago, one of us (Barbara Bruns) remembers asserting that MDG 2—achieving universal primary completion—was implicitly about education quality, and not just access. Countries might be able to achieve universal enrollment without achieving a basic level of quality, but they would not achieve universal completion this way. Why? Because given the opportunity cost of children’s time, as well as some direct costs of schooling such as uniforms, parents would not keep children in school if they were not learning.

Barbara was wrong. Fast forward to 2016, and the evidence is irrefutable—hundreds of millions of children across the developing world sit in school for five or more years but on “completion” cannot read a paragraph. That is a key message of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chaired by Gordon Brown.

CGD’s background research for the Commission: two priority actions

The Commission report released in September is impressive, starting with its title: A Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World. It starkly depicts a “global learning crisis.” The SDGs, unlike the MDGs, set explicit goals for learning: by 2030 all children in every country should master the skills equivalent of a lower secondary education. But the Education Commission predicts that if current trends continue, only 1 child in 10 in low-income countries will be on track to achieve that goal. And 69 percent of children in these countries will leave school without mastering even primary level skills, leaving them deeply unprepared for empowered, productive lives in a global economy.

The Commission makes 12 sensible recommendations in four big areas: performance, innovation, inclusion, and finance. But the biggest change it calls for is more funding: a near tripling of developing countries’ own education spending (from an estimated $1 trillion to $2.7 trillion per year) and a 400 percent increase in donor support, from $13 billion today to $49 billion per year by 2030. 

Is big money really necessary, or even sufficient, to get the ball rolling? CGD’s background research submitted to the Commission has convinced us that the key to faster progress is not incremental money; it is focused action in two critical areas. The first necessary, unavoidable step is for political leaders, education officials, and parents in low-income countries to recognize the depth of the problem (children’s lives and public money wasted) in their country, and have the information to design and implement local solutions. The second is to shift education funding to paying for results, rather than inputs and plans. Specifically, we propose:

  1. A global measure of early learning (we make the case in a new CGD policy paper) that comes at a tiny cost (about $10 million) compared to the billions called for in the Commission’s report.
  2. Paying for progress through a Global Offer for Learning (read the full proposal).

A global measure of early learning

School systems across most of the developing world today have no signal of their widespread learning failures in the first years of primary school. This is needed to drive reform. Most low-income countries have no tests of any kind in the early grades of school; where reading and math assessments have been used, they are not comparable over time or globally-benchmarked. As a result, children waste years in school without learning and governments and donors waste billions of dollars annually on schools that don’t teach. Parents lack the information to demand better education, governments cannot track progress, and the global education community lacks comparable, cross-country data for research on what works.

The technical challenge of creating a robust test of basic skills for 9-year-olds that could be used across the developing world almost immediately is no barrier. There are high-quality regional tests for children in early grades used in West Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean to build on, as well as good tests used for fourth graders (9-year-olds) in rich countries.

Following the example of the OECD’s influential PISA test of 15-year-olds and focusing the early learning measure on an age group—experts suggest 9-year-olds—would de-link the test from a specific curriculum and increase the transparency and global comparability of the results. The estimated cost of developing this test is $10 million, almost rounding error in the Education Commission’s overall price tag. But donor leadership is needed to get different testing agencies to contribute jointly to the creation of a new global public good—a quality test of basic literacy, numeracy, and reasoning skills that can be used across countries of widely different income levels to generate globally benchmarked data. 

Nothing is more important than ensuring that all children master literacy and basic numeracy during their first two years in school—the essential foundation for all further learning.  Educators across the world need to know how they are doing, compared with other countries, to put urgency behind reforms that are not politically or bureaucratically easy. All countries do need to develop national assessment capacity and our paper (see here) proposes donors dedicate modest resources ($200 million over 10-15 years) for this task, as well. But proceeding in parallel with a test of basic skills for 9-year-olds is the smart way to lower costs and speed up progress. 

A global offer for learning

Despite increased donor talk about results, 99 percent of education aid continues to fund inputs: buildings, books, teachers, and training. And even “results-based programs” pay out for sector plans, enrollment increases, or activities such as teacher training—not for any measure of whether children are actually learning. Linking funding for the first time to measured and independently verified progress on learning would powerfully reshape the global education landscape. Our proposed Global Offer for Learning (GOL) (also endorsed in the Commission report) would channel predictable, untied funding to low-income countries that take the first step: testing 9-year-olds and reporting the results. It would create healthy competition among low-income countries for what would be a single, limited pot of donor money: $1 billion over 10 years (small beer in the Commission’s proposal to increase donor support from $13 billion today to $49 billion per year by 2030). For more details, see this blog post by our colleague Bill Savedoff. Only changed incentives, through a program like GOL, can ensure that future dollars invested by both countries and their donors result in learning. 

Our two-pronged strategy of a new measure of early learning combined with a new financing channel to reward learning measurement and progress clearly nests within the Commission’s framework. But it also argues for donor financing to focus, first and foremost, on two specific actions that can kick-start progress—and move the road to SDG attainment out of the rut of business as usual.