By Alexandra Draxler, former UNESCO education specialist.
This blog is a reflection on some of the discussion on educational quality post-2015 that are taking place all week at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) 2013 Conference in New Orleans.
The predictable trade-off between quality and quantity
The last few years of the Education for All (EFA) movement have seen hand-wringing about the fact that what was a predictable and perverse effect of EFA has come to pass, that is a negative trade-off between quality and quantity in the rush to achieve universal primary education. Quality, and how to measure it, has therefore also recently returned to the forefront of most international discussions about the future of educational development.
The scramble for post-2015: enter the Learning Metrics Task Force at full throttle
What we might call the education and development industry – the institutions, think tanks, consulting firms, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, bilateral aid agencies and individuals from OECD countries involved in various capacities in education and development in emerging economies – is concentrating hard on negotiating meanders of the various institutional initiatives leading up to a post-2015 agenda. There are excellent reasons for this, as international priorities and financial flows will be to a very large extent governed by this agenda. Private funders will be inspired by the public blueprint.
What does all this have to do with developing countries, or indeed national policies everywhere? The preferred answer, or rather the atmospheric environment, depends which panel one attends at CIES. In one panel, “Envisioning a critical international education agenda” a group of mainly academic “critical friends” of EFA question the need for any post-2015 programme, or indeed the legitimacy of the principal proponents of EFA to lay out targets and standards for the developing countries yet again. On the other hand, the Brookings Institution, financed and supported by an impressive array of institutions, possibly some with a vested interest in the outcome, is showcasing in partnership with UNESCO progress by its Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF). Its early progress towards a “Global Framework of Learning Domains” is being presented under the title “Towards Universal Learning”. This will eventually detail learning goals and how to measure them “reliably and comparably” across countries. A recent meeting in Dubai of the LMTF (February 20 – 21) recommends a global post-2015 goal that “all children and youth have equitable learning opportunities to become successful global citizens” and attached to this goal six domains of measurement.
Over the past few years, Brookings’ Centre for Universal Education has been advancing rapidly in the education arena, becoming a powerful voice for international collaboration and for continued priority to education internationally. Its “Global Compact on Learning” has planted a flag on the terrain of ideas and research. Its products like the global framework are developed through careful and widespread consultation, and it is responsive to friends and critics alike.
A critical look at the “Global Framework of Learning Domains”
Here follows a selection of a few of the observations and questions raised in the consultations at CIES:
- What is the demand for a global framework, and what is the evidence of demand?
- How will this initiative build on, use or collaborate with existing international measurement initiatives and programmes?
- What evidence is there that the notion of “global citizenship” is or could be a shared vision for post-2015, and is such a vision desirable? Several participants stressed that there is much evidence to the contrary.
- What roles will teaching and teachers have in the implementation and evaluation of such a framework? How and by whom will their roles be defined?
- The LMTF freely admits that the process of developing new universal metrics to assess learning is fraught with controversy and disagreement. Why not, then, make this controversy and disagreement a creative part of its final product, sharing with eventual users the foreseeable drawbacks of different types of metrics, and the probable perverse effects or unintended consequences of various choices?
- How can an international measurement system avoid exacerbating the trend towards using standardized benchmarks as a high-stakes contest for individual learners and governments alike?
- The LMTF acknowledges the impossibility in the early stages of developing measurement tools for all the seven learning domains, and a likely initial focus on measuring literacy (reading) and numeracy (counting and basic maths in real-life situations). Won’t this have the effect of narrowing rather than broadening overall learning goals and curriculum in the countries that use the framework?
- The sixth domain of measurement is “an adaptable, flexible skill set to meet the demands of the 21st century”. Will the elaboration of this domain include vocational skills, or attempt to encompass non-formal learning?
- How will such a framework serve some of the overarching objectives emerging from post-2015: education as an integrated element of societal progress in reducing inequality, promoting human rights and transparent and responsible government, moving towards sustainable development?
Alexandra Draxler was an education specialist at UNESCO. She is now an independent consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org