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Learning Goals and the Global Agenda: Toward a Latin American Proposal

Photo credit: Sharing Skills, La Paz, Bolivia/United Nations Photo /Flickr.com/CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

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By Ariel Fiszbein and Eduardo Vélez Bustillo

The Millennium Development Goals endorsed by member countries of the United Nations in the year 2000 emphasized improving access to primary education. The targeted end date for these goals—2015—presents a clear opportunity to achieve a similar international commitment to improving learning for all children. 

The Report by the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, convened by the Secretary General of the United Nations, provides a very important step in this direction. It lays out an education objective that seeks to achieve not simply access, but learning outcomes. Indeed, the report proposes that the objectives be formulated in such a way as to ensure that all children, regardless of their circumstances, complete school having achieved a set of learning goals. The report also emphasizes the importance of improving measurement and monitoring systems, calling for a “data revolution.”

It leaves open, however, the question of what the specific learning goals should be. As is well known, “the devil is in the details,” so the progress we describe cannot be achieved without defining the goals more clearly.

The Learning Metrics Task Force recently published a document that recommends establishing goals in seven areas. From the perspective of learning goals, the document recommends measuring: (i) reading ability in third grade, (ii) reading proficiency at the end of primary school, (iii) math skills at the end of primary school, and (iv) math skills in middle school. It also recommends measuring early learning and development in children before they start school. In addition, it also includes other factors such as values and the ability of youth to become global citizens, and measurements of opportunities to learn in all of these areas.

These recommendations are an improvement in terms of solidifying what should be measured, but we must recognize that many details are still missing. At the same time, a proposal with such a broad set of goals (i.e., in seven areas) runs the risk of diluting the focus on basic measures of learning, and hindering the process of convergence over what will be measured.

So what should be done? Latin America has two basic options: sit and wait for some committee to make a decision, or take the bull by the horns and set its own goals, seeking to play a decisive role in the course of international discussions.

It is true that there are important technical aspects to goals and indicators. Indeed, this is a complicated subject. But it is also very simple. We must ask ourselves as a society: What do we want our children – all of our children – to achieve? Are we satisfied knowing that, at best, 67 percent of 15-year old students in Argentina and Brazil achieve the minimum score on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) examination, and that they cannot complete basic tasks in math, reading, and science? Or that less than 1 percent of students in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay, and Peru achieve the highest score on the same test? Or that more than 50 percent of students in second grade in Guyana cannot read a single word? Or that the probability that a child from a rural, low-income family in Nicaragua will complete primary school on time is only 10 percent, while that of a child from an urban, middle-class Nicaraguan family is 90 percent?

Suppose that we could hold a referendum in each of our countries in which voters must choose the educational standards to be expected of all primary school graduates and secondary school students. Do we believe that a majority would vote that most third graders be able to read at the proper level, or that most 15-year olds be able to perform basic reading tasks? Do we believe, for example, that a majority would be in favor of second graders reading 60 words per minute (fluency), a standard that is being used broadly of late? And that 15-year old students be able to master reading and identify interest and attitudes toward reading, as PISA does? Furthermore, suppose that we allow high school students themselves to vote, and we tell them what their peers in Shanghai or Vietnam (whose per capita GDP is less—much less—than that of all countries on our continent other than Haiti) know and are able to do. How do we think they would respond?

We ask ourselves, should we not ask political parties and presidential candidates to define their expectations for learning outcomes in their platforms so that citizens can vote knowing what their leaders think about the skills to which their students should aspire? Is it possible to implement the much proclaimed right to a quality education without including specific goals that serve as guarantees?

Our hypothesis is that in order to ensure that the education quality agenda receives the attention it deserves, the discussion of learning goals must be taken to the streets. In other words, we must reframe the debate in terms that are clear and motivating for citizens, not just the experts.

In the interest of being consistent with our proposal, we bring the following ideas to the table:

1) At the end of second grade, at least 90% of children should be able to read with fluency and comprehension. We propose using standards that are easily understood by the general public. An example would be the standard of 60 words per minute. It is worth noting that there is a high correlation between the ability to read 60 words per minute and performance on more sophisticated exams. We recognize that this is a basic standard and that more ambitious standards may exist in many countries of the region. The critical point is that this basic standard is met by all children!

2) Upon completing primary school, all children should be able to perform basic reading tasks. We propose using the methodology of OREALC/UNESCO based on learning achievements relative to curricula prevailing in the region. In particular, we propose that all countries commit to reduce the percentage of children at level 1 (or below) to no more than 7%—a percentage that has already been achieved by Cuba , the country with the best performance on this aspect of the test.

3) At age 15, just three years before acquiring voting rights in most countries of the region, all youth should be able to reach the minimum skills required to participate fully in modern society. The fact that more countries participate in each PISA exam indicates that it is practical to suggest that as the indicator to be used. In particular, we propose as a target that all countries commit to reduce the percentage of students with performance below level two to no more than 33%—a  percentage that has already been achieved by Chile, the Latin American country with the best performance in this aspect of the test.

The reason we propose focusing efforts on reading is because without an adequate level of reading from the earliest grades, students may show poor performance for the rest of their education. In part because students in Latin America do not seem to learn to read early enough (at a maximum, the end of third grade), in the short term, their results on national and international tests are very low. In the medium term, students do not acquire basic skills required by the labor market. In the long-term, they do not have a high quality of life. If we measure the reading levels of students early enough (and third grade is the limit) and at the end of primary school, we can take corrective measures in time to help increase the quality of education. Likewise, by measuring the accumulated value of education at age 15 when youth are closer to entering the labor market, we can evaluate whether they have acquired the skills necessary to continue learning for the rest of their lives.

In order to take the discussion of learning goals to the street, we are launching an online survey for the community of those interested in education issues, in hopes of identifying an outline of preferences of different stakeholders interested in the subject. The goal is to reach a consensus around indicators that the region can take to the United Nations in 2015, and thus gain the advantage over the experts that are proposing goals like those that they made at the turn of the millennium, when they did not take into account our opinion on the subject. We will publicize the results of the survey in order to generate a broad discussion on the topic.

Photo credit: Sharing Skills, La Paz, Bolivia/United Nations Photo /Flickr.com/CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michael #

    I love that you guys are putting these ideas out there, and I love the “putting it to the streets” idea (even if it is more like putting it to the geeks… :) .
    A question remains for me: is there any political incentive for politicians to do what you suggest? Doesn’t it make them look bad if they set a standard that they know they will likely not reach in their time in office, and doesn’t this incentivize them to either avoid standards or set lower standards?

    February 21, 2014
    • Ariel Fiszbein #

      Michael: there are few incentives for politicians to adopt standards of any type, other than when they seem them as a way of differentiating themselves from the crowd. Once a candidate accepts our challenge and civil society (and the press) starts asking others, will they be able to resist the pressure. Worth trying, I think! Ariel

      February 21, 2014
  2. Madalena santos #

    I love the idea that you are leading the discussion on the themes, Although Brazil is developing a lot of programs for improving reading at the right age and sestablishing standards for that ( ,meaning that all the children at 8 shoul be Reading and doing simple math exercises) However,, the discussion did not reach the streets yet and parents’commitment to support this initiative. Only then the program goals could be reached. I do support any discussion on these matteres.

    March 6, 2014

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