Educational Unilateralism

In New York City this week, a special "plenary summit" of the UN General Assembly met to encourage the world to step up support for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) first okayed by the UN in 2000. These eight goals – which include slashing poverty, combating disease, fighting hunger, protecting the environment, and boosting education – had a 2015 target date for their achievement. Ten years on, the summit reviewed progress and urged participants to speed up the pace.While the eradication of disease and hunger was named as the key priority, the nations of the world also recognized the crucial importance of education. Goal 2 focuses on the right of all kids to at least a primary school education. Goal 3 promotes the right of girls to have the same access to education as boys – a major problem in much of the developing world. 

Although the U.S. is the world’s largest donor country, surveys show that few Americans have heard about it. President Obama, who during his campaign pledged to fund a $2 billion Global Fund for Education, has done little – what with the financial crisis and debates over both the means and ends of foreign assistance programs getting in the way. In the meanwhile, critics call MDG little more than a laundry list of needs, with no real strategy on how to achieve them. Still, the goals are well worth reading, if only as a reflection of what the world believes (at least on paper) are the rock-bottom problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

In the realm of education, the UN site presents a sobering picture, even a decade after work on the millennium goals began: 

  • More than 100 million children remain out of school (source: UNFPA).
  • 46 percent of girls in the world’s poorest countries have no access to primary education (source: ActionAid).
  • More than 1 in 4 adults cannot read or write: 2/3 are women (source: ActionAid).
  • Universal primary education would cost $10 billion a year (source: ActionAid). 
Nonetheless, it is in the field of education that the most progress has made, so much so that some argue that the education goals should be expanded to include secondary and tertiary education. 

For Americans, embroiled in an ever-nastier policy war over education, it is also interesting to read summit’s baseline education goals: 1) remove barriers to equal learning opportunities; 2) identify and eradicate the "root causes" of inequality in education; 3) provide "sustainable and predictable" levels of education funding at the national level; 4) boost the number of teachers in classrooms; 5) provide quality professional development; 6) improve the content and quality of curriculum; 7) provide a minimally decent physical environment. 

Anyone following the U.S. education scene couldn’t be blamed for viewing such recommendations as somewhat surreal. Nowhere does "fire more teachers" appear; ; instead, the recommendation is to hire additional teachers. A concern over teacher quality can be inferred from the strong emphasis on quality professional development, but nothing about performance pay or broom sweeping the hallways clear of the laggards among the teacher cadre. 

How can this be? Admittedly, this is the UN, and on any given subject, the sincerity of a significant number of member states is suspect. And, the summiteers do recommend eradicating "root causes" of inequality in education – and for a significant portion of U.S. education reformers, "root causes" would certainly imply teachers. But still… 

Well, enough of that. For me, non-expert that I am, the UN’s recommendations amount to an education agenda that is much more serious– and potentially effective – than our own. It recognizes that the responsibility (and thus accountability) for the welfare and educability of a community’s kids depends upon many, many factors and rests on the shoulders of many stakeholders, not just classroom teachers. Teachers are crucial members of this team, but we – the broader society – are its captains. 

This is just common sense and, I suspect, the life experience of most people. It’s odd to find common sense at the UN, so often the butt of jokes among the policy cognoscenti. This time, though, the UN got it right. We have it wrong.