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Dear World, Your Grade For Educating Your Children Is ...

India is definitely making progress in getting more kids into school. This facility is in Bhubaneswar.
Biswaranjan Rout
India is definitely making progress in getting more kids into school. This facility is in Bhubaneswar.

It seems like a simple goal: All kids should go to primary school.

People began talking about it in the 1960s. And they kept talking about it. "Everyone thought it was pretty doable; it wasn't too big of a deal," recalls Aaron Benavot, director of UNESCO's Education for All Global Monitoring Report.

But for lots of reasons — cutbacks on government spending, no schoolhouse within an easy commute — it just wasn't happening. So in 2000, 164 nations got together and pledged "Education For All" by 2015.

It was an ambitious pledge. It not only called for universal primary education but added in early childhood education, secondary education, a reduction in adult illiteracy and equal school opportunities for girls and boys.

On Thursday, the report card came out. According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 58 million children do not attend primary school. As the BBC put it: "World fails to reach millennium education targets."

But did the world really fail? We spoke with Benavot about the progress that has been made and why there hasn't been more.

Why did people think it'd be so easy to get kids into school? And why is it so hard?

A lot of global leaders were convinced they could bring about massive changes in education, primarily because the use of target goals was something done in health: [goals] to reduce the number of kids dying from malaria, reduce childhood mortality and infectious diseases. There were case studies of how the world came together, identified a problem and by mobilizing, sometimes through private sector groups like the Gates Foundation, a very substantial change occurred very quickly.

Somehow this example was floated from the health sector to the education sector. It led a lot of people to think incorrectly — not based on real evidence — that the principles of bringing about major transformation in the health sector can be applied to education, and significant change can happen very quickly. There was a bit of misplaced optimism.

So should we be pessimistic?

There are at least two ways to look at this issue.

One is to say here are the targets — for example, a 50 percent reduction in adult illiteracy rates over 15 years. Has a country reached the target or not? But it's a fairly superficial way of saying countries have or haven't achieved [a goal].

Maybe it's better to say: Let's use a yardstick to figure out how much progress has been made. Has the pace of change accelerated from the 1990s to the period after 2000? And we have many instances where the evidence suggests the pace of change has quickened. Many countries have made substantial progress even if we haven't reached targets.

It's kind of the glass half empty vs. glass half full debate.

To somehow believe that countries would be able to fill their glass within 15 years was fairly unrealistic. When countries get together in fall of this year at the U.N. and decide on some new targets, which is what they're going to do, to say they'll reach the targets by 2030 — the probability of that happening is probably zero to nil.

Doomed to fail, eh?

I don't want to be sardonic. There are a lot of reasons why target goals encourage countries to make policy reforms, to go beyond what they typically would have done.

Can you give an example?

Afghanistan was under enormous pressure because of the conflict going on there for a long period of time. But in the last couple of years the situation for education has improved dramatically. External donors provided a lot of assistance, helped Afghanistan review its textbooks, encouraged [the country] to bring young girls into school and to provide education in a safe environment for young children who have experienced years of armed conflict and violence.

Who were the donors?

Most are big government agencies, who wanted to support the incipient democratic Afghan regime.

Other examples of progress?

Nepal went through a difficult violent period of conflict which subsided. They did a lot of focused policy to improve educational access throughout.

What does educational access mean exactly? Free education? Having a school nearby?

In India, access was being denied because of distance between where a child lived and a nearby school. India passed a law that there has to be a school within a kilometer and a half of most villages. One of the big reasons India has made enormous progress in reducing the number of out-of-school children is they built a lot of schools in rural parts of the country that never had schools before.

For the millions of kids who are in school, can we say: Everything's looking good?

Just because kids gain access to education doesn't mean they finish or complete the primary or secondary school cycle. Even countries that have done very well, like India, only made modest progress in ensuring that every child finishes the cycle. A lot of kids drop out for all kinds of reasons: they're poor, the distance to school is too great, their parents don't think they're learning anything, the teachers are not well-trained, the teachers are too absent from school. India and other countries have made significant progress, but there's a long way to go before the world can show evidence of really achieving this ambitious education vision [of education for all].

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.