Promoting quality education for all.

Principles for a Post-2015 EFA and Education MDGs

Steven J. Klees, 

by Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland-College Park

This is an effort to set out some principles and their rationales that I believe should govern the formulation of new Education for All goals and Millennium Development Goals in the area of education.1

1. Human rights, in general, and the right to education, in particular, should be the explicit foundation.

Some would argue that these rights were implicit in the current EFA and MDGs. However, they need to be explicit. Doing so can affect the nature of goals and their indicators. On the one hand, this should be easy to accomplish as rights are enshrined in UN agreements, conventions, and treaties. However, powerful institutions like the World Bank are opposed to a rights-based framework, arguing instead for an economic view of education.

2. Access to early childhood, primary, and secondary education must be a fundamental goal.

Although progress has been made on access to primary education, at least 10% of primary school age children are not in school, over 60 million children. We are thus still far from meeting the original pledges made in EFA and the MDGs. We are much further away from providing access to early childhood education and secondary schooling. The former is an explicit current EFA goal and the latter was included in the original EFA goals as part of basic education.

3. Quality should be considered an integral part of access.

Too often education has been expanded in ways that give nominal access but not substantive access. Hundreds of millions of children are enrolled in schools with huge class sizes, untrained teachers, few learning materials, and marginal facilities, where little learning takes place. Quality must be viewed multi-dimensionally in terms of providing sufficient resources, adequate inputs, professional processes, attaining satisfactory immediate outcomes (see discussion on learning below), and resulting in positive longer-term outcomes for employment, citizenship, and personal development. Quality must also be seen as equity in the sense that disadvantaged children should have access to education similar to that given to advantaged children.

4. Quality education requires quality teachers.

Teachers are the most important educational resource for students, yet they have been attacked, ignored, and disrespected since the 1980s. Governments and global agencies routinely blame teachers for poor educational results, dismiss teacher training as unproductive, and recommend the hiring of untrained and often barely educated teachers. This must stop if we are to turn education around. Teachers must be treated as respected professionals and given the training and support necessary. Post-2015 goals need to pay explicit attention to teachers.

5. A broad approach to learning is essential.

Much attention in post-2015 discussions has been focused on a narrow view of learning -- as testing in reading and mathematics. This is a mistake. First, as above, quality is much broader than immediate learning outcomes. Second, testing is only a thermometer. It can indicate an outcome failure but not the cause of the failure, which is wrapped up in inadequate resources, inputs, processes, and out-of-school inequalities. Third, testing inadequately measures reading and math learning achievement and neglects the many other dimensions of schooling. Other school subjects are de-emphasized, or sometimes eliminated, such as history, social studies, geography, health, art, music, recreation, or even math and science. We also need schools to foster many things: critical and higher order thinking, problem-solving, creativity, curiosity, civic-mindedness, solidarity, self-discipline, self-efficacy, compassion, empathy, courage, conscientization, resilience, leadership, humility, peace, and more. Selecting one or two outcomes, like reading, to emphasize and measure distorts education processes and leads to inefficient decisions. Learning to read is, of course, important but it must be approached in the context of local needs and the broad school curriculum. Moreover, assessment must be classroom-based and rely on the professionalization of teachers. If national testing in a few areas is deemed necessary, it should be done on a sample, not the population. There is no evidence that national testing has improved student performance. Further, it drains scarce financial resources and often results in changes in teaching methodology and content solely for the purpose of ensuring that students pass the test.

6. Improvement of adult literacy must be included.

Adult literacy is an EFA goal, but one where little progress has been made. Since the 1980s, we have engaged in global triage, privileging children over adults and disinvesting in programs for adults. This violates agreements on human and education rights.

7. Equity needs to be a central concern, with particular attention to gender and other dimensions by which people are marginalized.

Gender parity in primary and secondary education was an original EFA goal. The original target was for 1995. Dakar postponed it to 2005, and it will still not be achieved by 2015. More serious attention needs to be paid to gender parity across all the areas discussed above and to more substantive issues of gender equality that affect educational and social inequality. Moreover, the post-2015 goals have to pay attention to inequalities along other dimensions such as wealth, race and ethnicity, geographical, disabilities, etc.

8. Public education must be emphasized.

Since the 1980s, it has become fashionable to recommend the privatization of schooling. While I do not think it feasible to ban private schools on a widespread basis -- as has been the case with the very effective and equitable educational systems of Cuba and Finland -- I do recommend leaving private education unsubsidized. So-called low-cost private schools for the poor are increasingly subsidized by governments and touted as the answer to failing public schools. To the contrary, such public policies have resulted from and lead to the neglect of public schools. Focusing on improving public schools and leaving private schools unsubsidized will put these schools out of business, as they should be. It is unconscionable that public policy touts private schools for the poor. Requiring a fee for basic education from the poorest segments of the population is an explicit violation of all the UN agreements affirming the right to a free education. While it could be argued that paying such fees is voluntary, poor people are given little choice. While it also could be argued that public schools have fees too, these are considered wrong and are being eliminated.

9. Public-private partnerships are not likely to improve education.

As part of the privatization agenda and in recognition of major gaps in educational resources and results, public-private partnerships have been sold as a major source of system improvement. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the case. As a recent study found, corporate philanthropy in education provides relatively few resources, is uncoordinated, misdirected, and self-interested, and, thus likely to provide little contribution to improving public policy and public education.

10. The history of failure to achieve international education goals should be studied to provide lessons for the future.

While it could be argued that substantial progress was made on the UPE goal, less progress was made on other EFA goals. Moreover, if we consider the provision of quality primary education, progress has been minimal. And, more to the point, many of these goals, most particularly UPE, have been promised in international agreements since the 1960s. Why have we systematically and continually done such a poor job of attaining international educational goals? Is it resources? lack of educational knowledge? out-of-school inequalities? lack of seriousness of the effort? In order not to repeat the failures of the past, this history needs to be analyzed. It should be noted that extending these education goals over so many years makes their impact problematic if and when they are ever achieved. For example, by the time we finally attain UPE, primary education, which used to have a big payoff in employment and access to secondary school, will have little utility to the recipient in terms of employment and will only allow access to secondary education to a relative few.

11. No significant educational results will be obtained without serious attention to factors outside of education such as health and nutrition, and poverty and inequality.

The principal problems faced in education are the result of stark social and economic inequalities between and within countries. This does not imply that changes in education policy cannot improve education, but a co-requisite for success is social and economic improvement.


1. The principles are loosely based on the conversations held at the Ad Hoc Meeting of the Critical Friends Network on the Post-2015 Agenda on July 19, 2012, in Brussels, sponsored by Education International and the Open Society Foundation.


Steven J. Klees is the Howard R.W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland-College Park. 

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