Getting the most out of universal education in the next 500 days and beyond

Primary school students enjoy their classroom in the Mwinilunga District of the North-Western Province of Zambia. In Zambia, just six out of 10 primary school students reach sixth grade. Of those, only three can read. Photo by: Zambia STEP Up

Brought together to meet the MDGs, host governments and aid organizations have achieved significant — in some cases remarkable — progress in tackling the most urgent development issues of our time.

We are certainly closer to the goal of universal primary education. When the MDGs were established in 2000, only 83 percent of school-aged children in developing regions were enrolled in primary or secondary school. By 2012, that figure had risen to 90 percent. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the problem of low enrollment is most severe, enrollment jumped a full 18 percentage points over the same period, from 60 to 78 percent. The global increase in enrollment is undoubtedly a significant step in the right direction, and it has been possible because of the momentum generated by the MDGs.

But we have our work cut out for us as we look to build on that momentum. Although significantly more children are enrolling in school, too many are not completing their primary education. Today and 10 years ago alike, more than one in four students in developing regions is likely to drop out of primary school before completion. According to the 2012 Global Monitoring Report, in the 50 countries for which data exists, 24 percent of children who remain in school fail to learn basic math and reading skills. In short, due to the related problems of dropouts and poor educational quality, gains in enrollment under the MDGs have yet to be matched by commensurate gains in learning outcomes and impact on students’ lives.

With 500 days to go, we look at increases in enrollment and have to ask — how do we get the most out of universal primary education?

We know from experience that improving the quality of education is key to keeping children in school and improving learning outcomes. But raising educational quality is about more than bolstering the skills of teachers, the quality of textbooks or the management of individual schools. In the next 500 days and beyond, what we need are integrated interventions that holistically strengthen educational systems by working through — not around — local leaders. Systems strengthening is key to broadly raising quality and improving learning outcomes at scale, in a sustainable way.

At Chemonics, we are seeing the impact of integrated, locally led systems strengthening programs in Zambia, where dropout rates are high and reading test scores low. We implement Strengthening Educational Performance — Up,  one of three U.S. Agency for International Development-funded programs in Zambia working in unison to strengthen the local education system. STEP Up is responsible for helping the Zambian government improve its oversight and management of education. We enable district-level decision-makers to prioritize local needs, engage donor-funded projects more strategically and focus limited resources on what improves their students’ learning. We accomplish this through support for locally led planning grounded in student performance data.

As one part of USAID’s integrated portfolio, STEP Up has leveraged and multiplied resources with complementary interventions to create the conditions for improved quality and learning outcomes. In Mwnilunga district, for example, USAID’s Read to Succeed project helped teachers improve their early grade instructional practice and use continuous assessment of first graders to generate outcome data. Through STEP Up, Chemonics helped create a local education management system that assisted district managers in analyzing and using this data to allocate limited resources, such as teacher training and books, to schools whose learner performance showed they most needed them.

For me, STEP Up also shows how systems strengthening driven by local stakeholders can be more effective than direct interventions because they gain local momentum. For example, the project supported the Ministry of Education in leading a campaign called “Let’s Read Zambia,” which mobilizes educators and communities to support early literacy. We helped the ministry establish a joint committee that uses resources from other donors, local businesses, and the Ministry of Education. This joint committee developed a plan through which each donor supports elements of the campaign that are aligned with their existing programs.

For example, UNICEF used its broad connections in the local media to help the ministry educate journalists on revised curriculum and mother tongue language policies. Further campaign activities were led in each province to build on the relative strength of local organizations and donors in their context. In one district in Southern Province, local private sector actors committed to building six new schools while USAID’s assistance focused on planning and improving classroom practices.

The MDG focus on enrollment has been crucial to coordinate efforts to get children into school, a prerequisite for learning. As the global community and national governments work to get the last 10 percent of children into school, we need to expand our focus to ensuring students learn to read and do basic math during their primary education cycle. Ultimately, the cascade of benefits that we know can flow to students and to other areas of development when children truly learn has not been fully realized and will continue to be elusive until children and their families feel the benefits of school.

We need to approach this challenge from a systems strengthening perspective, working through local actors across the system to facilitate this transformational change.

Aug. 18, 2014, marked the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Emet Mohr

    Emet Mohr is the current senior vice president for education and youth practice and East Africa region at Chemonics International. As an education development specialist, Mohr has conducted technical assignments and implemented education projects in Jordan and Peru. He has also served as chief of party for an innovative education project in Georgia. He has a bachelor's degree from Cornell University and has completed graduate coursework in education at the University of Virginia and George Mason University.

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