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Why Measure Un-Sustainable Education? By Janna Goebel, Gustavo E. Fischman and Iveta Silova

In this NORRAG Highlights, contributed by Janna Goebel, Gustavo E. Fischman and Iveta Silova, the authors address the role of education in tackling climate change and the global sustainability crisis, they point to how the “education-for-economic-growth” paradigm cannot persist if it is in conflict with environmental sustainability.

The alarm bells of climate change have been ringing for decades. In its current precarious state, the Earth appears to be leaving behind the relative stability of the Holocene geological era to enter into the Anthropocene or age of human-generated geological change (see Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000; Latour, 2017; Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeil, 2007). The call to respond is urgent. Humans can no longer ignore the warning signs.

What, then, is the broadly defined education sector’s role in addressing the sustainability crisis? In terms of policy making, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and subsequent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth a vision to increase education access and quality across the globe as part of the United Nations (UN) 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Specifically, SDG4 “Quality Education,” challenges nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (Goal 4, 2015).

In order to monitor how education systems are moving toward achieving SDG4, the custodians responsible for reporting on this progress (e.g., organizations such as the UNESCO Institute for Statistics), are in search of globally comparable indicators and metrics of education quality and access that are rigorous and sensitive to each country’s needs (Gorur, 2018; Montoya & Tay-Lim, 2018). While there is a broad acknowledgement of the challenges involved in producing effective global measures accepted by all the stakeholders involved (Fischman, et al., 2018; Fischman, et al., 2019),  International Large-Scale Assessments of education increasingly serve as indicators of national progress toward increasing access and quality in education. Although they have different emphases, ILSAs valorize literacy and numeracy as indicators of education quality over other subjects and ways of knowing (for more see Silova, Komatsu, & Rappleye, 2018).

Clearly, International Large-Scale Assessments serve as an imperfect proxy for education quality. On the one hand, they are used for cross-national comparison of minimum proficiency among children’s literacy and numeracy in line with SDG4 indicator 4.1.1 (Goal 4, 2015; Montoya & Tay-Lim, 2018). On the other hand, a myopic focus on ILSA results has led to “a de-facto prioritization of business-as-usual in education: the continued prioritization of economic growth and social equity over the environment” (Komatsu & Rappleye, 2018). While the use of ILSA data is intended to comply with the United Nations’ mandate to monitor and track performance, and thus, progress toward SDG4 (Crouch & Montoya, 2018), such data is not necessarily meant to be used to improve education quality. Instead, zeroing in on achieving accountability mandates, in turn, is expected to improve education quality (for more see Gorur, 2018). However, in complying with this mandate and by focusing narrowly on literacy and numeracy proficiency data, the conversation about education quality lacks nuance. Education quality is thus reduced to ILSA scores.

While indicators of literacy and numeracy as measured by ILSAs may be important and cross-nationally comparable, they alone are not sufficient indicators of progress toward ensuring that “all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” (Goebel, Fischman, & Silova, 2019). The SDGs are meant to foster sustainable development. While literacy and numeracy proficiency have been found to be strong predictors of economic growth (Hanushek & Woessman, 2015), they say little about a learner’s environmental awareness and aptitude to live and work sustainably. In other words, sustainability is missing from the conversation of education quality. Furthermore, a tacit acceptance of ILSA data as proxies for education quality furthers the assumption that all that is needed is to improve education implementation in literacy and numeracy rather than to question the current education paradigm (Komatsu & Rappleye, 2018; Komatsu, Rappleye, & Silova, forthcoming).

In November 2018, Arizona State University hosted an Innovations in Global Learning Metrics symposium focused on advancing a policy dialogue about a more effective and meaningful use of ILSA data for education policy-making at both national and international levels. The participants emphasized the notion that what does not get measured does not make it onto the policy agenda and thus receives less attention and fewer dedicated resources. Indicators of sustainable lifestyles and environmental awareness are among the things that are not being measured. Therefore, indicators of education quality as they are currently framed do not sufficiently represent education’s potential to address Earth’s precarity.

The current education-for-economic-growth paradigm needs to change. It is not enough to simply foster economic growth if that development places further strain on planetary resources and is in direct conflict with other SDGs intended to foster environmental sustainability. There is a fundamental disconnect between an education model aimed at promoting economic growth and equity that results in greater consumption and pollution by some nations at the cost of the well-being of others. The context of Earth’s precarity requires that “education can and should do more to help populations address climate change, especially in the most polluting countries” (Ward, 2018). Among multiple initiatives, this entails reframing the goals of education to empower citizens to live justly and sustainably (Metcalfe, 2018), while also calling into question what is preventing schools from doing so.

Education systems are implicated in the climate catastrophe and warrant responses varying from curriculum reform to technical solutions. Educators across the globe are responding to this call by coming together to declare their solidarity with the students who are rising up for climate justice action (for more see Educators for Climate Action). They are imploring all educators to rethink educational priorities and realign research agendas to acknowledge and address the danger at hand.  It is critical to begin reimagining educational systems that have as their main goals sustainability, equity, and environmental responsibility so that we have a chance to better respond to the sustainability crisis we currently face.


This blog was written based on the discussions that took place at the Innovations in Global Learning Metrics symposium hosted by the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education of Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in November 2018. The research reported here was made possible (in part) by a grant from the Spencer Foundation (Grant #201800045). The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Spencer Foundation or the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education. To learn more and join the Educators for Climate Action movement, visit (

About the Authors

Janna Goebel is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy and Evaluation at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. She specializes in comparative, international, and global education. Janna is an ecofeminist scholar whose research focuses on education in the Anthropocene. Email:

Gustavo E. Fischman is a professor of educational policy at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. He advocates the need for educational research to be considered as a public good and focuses his work on understanding and improving the processes of knowledge production and exchange between scholars, educators, activists, practitioners, administrators, media workers, policymakers, and the broad public. Email:

Iveta Silova is professor and director of the Center for the Advanced Studies in Global Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Iveta’s research focuses on postsocialist and decolonial dialogues, childhood memories and education, and ecofeminism, the environment, and sustainability. She co-authored her recent publications including a 2018 NORRAG post titled Facing the Climate Change Catastrophe (2018) co-authored with Jeremy Rappleye and Hikaru Komatsu. Email:


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