When member states adopted goal 4 on quality education for all in September 2015, they courageously committed to ensuring free primary and secondary education for all. This commitment goes beyond the current aim of progressively making post-primary education free, and should be celebrated, but the proposed indicator framework is about to pull the carpet from under its feet.
As member states struggled to find political agreement on the new development agenda, the indicators were framed as a technical matter and delegated to the UN Statistical Commission. They, in turn, asked a smaller expert group to work out one indicator for each of the 169 targets of the SDGs. Not an easy task considering that they only had about eight months and that many targets, however well intended, are rather vague and cover several dimensions to measure.
While not surprising that member states were keen to avoid negotiating on each and every indicator, it is comical to claim that it is a technical issue only. The indicators will drive measurements and monitoring of SDG implementation, which means that the indicators determine on which aspect of any given target we focus. The global-level indicators will not only shape the global conversation about progress but will also dictate donor priorities and financing flows, which, in turn, directly influences national-level policy.
In the case of target 4.1, the proposed indicator measures learning outcomes in reading and mathematics in grade 2/3, and at the end of primary and lower secondary education. Proponents of this narrow approach claim that learning outcomes are a proxy as well as a composite for completion, for free, equitable, quality education and for relevant and effective learning outcomes. However, it means that completion is not monitored; they choose to measure progress through the performance of those that are in school, while rendering those that are not invisible.
It also means that the focus of analysis shifts from the performance of the state to that of the individual student. This is symptomatic of the tendency to perceive problems through the narrow lens of the individual, ignoring structural issues and the responsibilities of duty-bearers. Importantly, this also means that it is difficult to know what any change in results is due to, as inputs to the system are not given adequate attention. Has the goal of equitable and inclusive quality education been reached once all children are in school, or once all children enjoy the same level and extent of quality education? And can either be captured through the lens of learning outcomes? Moreover, SDG 4 effectively being about ensuring the universal right to education, both the enjoyment of the right by rights-holders, and the degree of compliance of states with their human rights obligations should be measured. These reveal weaknesses of the system and, thus, helps improve education policy and the creation of sustainable education systems.
Learning outcomes in two school subjects – reading and mathematics – are not synonymous with quality education, nor is measurement in itself a solution to the lack of learning that has been reported over the past years. Teaching and learning can only be improved by addressing underlying and structural causes of poor quality, such as insufficient education budgets, poor infrastructure, unqualified teachers, and inadequate teaching and learning resources. The indicator is not a technical necessity but a political choice, which, incidentally reflects the Early Grade Reading Assessment programme of USAID. There are already calls for the same measure of reading and mathematics to be carried out in all countries, but what would such a single measure mean for individual countries’ ability to design relevant and sustainable national education systems? And what does it mean for countries that traditionally have been dependent on aid?
Repeatedly weighing a pig does not increase its weight. We know what needs to be in place to ensure quality education for all; what SDG 4 needs is indicators and financial commitments that supports the development of strong national education systems that ensure the right to quality education for all.
Rather than fostering test-driven systems and competition based on a global metric, the indicators should reinforce the priorities of the SDGs and oblige member states to implement concepts such as equitable, free and quality in national contexts. The truly transformative option would have been an indicator on the provision of free primary and secondary education, advancing free education as the global priority and gently pushing governments across the globe to get their act together.