SDG4 is a universal agenda – and that includes high income countries


“Can OECD’s data guide the world towards better education systems?” asks a blog promoting yesterday’s launch of the 2016 edition of the OECD flagship publication, Education at a Glance.

The Introduction of the 2016 Education at a Glance is one of the clearest signs that this is a universal agenda, not one dictated by rich countries to poor countries. Up to 2015, for example, OECD member states considered the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All agenda irrelevant to their needs, even if they were missing targets, such as gender parity. This is certain to change. As the OECD notes, “every single country is challenged to achieve the SDGs” not least because of the inter-dependence of the goals.

Accordingly, the 2016 Education at a Glance makes an attempt to measure the distance OECD member states need to travel to reach the ten SDG 4 targets. This is built on “a synopsis of what the OECD has to offer to the international community” in terms of measurement tools. A conclusion is that “of the 35 OECD countries for which relevant data are available, only 12 have attained at least half of the targets; many still have a long way to go”.

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Children study together in a school near Bucharest. Credit: UNESCO/PETRUT CALINESCU

The OECD has indeed made major contributions to education measurement in the past 20 years. Our 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report launched last week used the widest array of OECD-generated data, ranging from different types of learning outcomes, studies of teacher characteristics, and policy reviews at various levels of education.

Results are not the only thing that matters in education. What governments often need is more information on what they can do – and what their peers have done – to address their challenges. Our report therefore also praised the processes that OECD has introduced for its member states to exchange information on systems and policies, which serve as an example for other parts of the world and their regional organizations to follow between now and 2030.

However, as the Global Education Monitoring Report with a mandate by the international community to monitor progress towards SDG 4, we thought that the Education at a Glance presentation papered over several key issues. While there is a symbolic value in getting OECD member states on board for the new global agenda, it is important to clarify that the indicators used to rank them are not the global indicators but the OECD interpretation of these indicators. This nuance is currently missed.

It is worthwhile remembering that the international community has already agreed upon the monitoring framework for the SDGs, including SDG 4 on education where 11 global indicators have been put forward. These were developed as part of the Inter-agency and Expert Group (IAEG) on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators composed of 28 United Nations Member States and including regional and international agencies as observers.

But the IAEG recognized that many of the indicators are not yet sufficiently precise. It has therefore classified the proposed indicators into three tiers, depending on whether established methodology and sufficient data coverage exist and will work until at least March 2017 on a plan for further development of indicators without established methodology.

For the education goal, four are identified as tier I indicators (‘established methodology … and data regularly produced by countries’), three as tier II indicators (‘established methodology … but data are not regularly produced by countries’), two as tier III indicators (‘no established methodology’) and two have been classified at multiple levels.

4.1For example, the indicator on target 4.1, the “proportion of children and young people: (a) in grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics, by sex” has been classified by the United Nations Statistical Division as a tier III indicator.

In other words, a common standard agreed between countries on what counts as ‘minimum proficiency level’ is still missing. Indeed, the UIS, as custodian agency, has set up a mechanism for countries to reach consensus on standards for this as well as the other global indicators.

Yet, Education at a Glance has presented results from PISA, its learning assessment of 15-year-olds, as if it is the accepted standard for its member states and beyond to monitor Target 4.1 – and the same is true of most of the other indicators. It would have been clearer if these had been presented as potential options. Or if the proposed approach had been presented explicitly as a regional, rather than global, approach to monitoring SDG 4.

Recognizing that these decisions are still pending, the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report follows a more nuanced approach. Taking the target formulations and the proposed monitoring indicators as a starting point, the report provides a critical overview of the options. This is aimed to help countries contribute to these discussions in a better informed and meaningful way recognizing that such issues require further debate and consensus through the existing mechanisms.

The OECD recognizes that and acknowledges that it stands ready to work with international partners, notably UNESCO, in that direction. For example, since last year it has been involved in a process with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning to develop a joint proposal on the monitoring of adult literacy and numeracy skills. But this could have come across more explicitly. After all the effort in establishing a single, universal agenda, let us not have a two-gear global approach to monitoring it.




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