We Need a Paradigm Shift in Education Data to Build the Learning Generation

By Bridget Crumpton, Senior Advisor of the Education Commission, and Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Ambitious goals demand more and better data, which is why the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators is meeting today in Ottawa. Experts from countries and international agencies including the UNESCO Institute for Statistics are once again reviewing the frameworks and work plans needed to help deliver on the pledges made for 2030.  The good news is that just about everyone agrees on the strength and value of the education indicators. The challenges lie in producing them and disseminating them in a way that they are actively used.

We couldn’t agree more.  As highlighted in the Education Commission report, Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on education cannot be achieved without solid evidence. To show the way forward, a new paper, prepared for the Commission by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) makes the case for a data revolution in education based on three pillars:

  • Create enabling environments in which communities, governments, and civil society use the data to take action and to foster accountability.
  • Produce high-quality internationally-comparable data by supporting the work of the UIS in developing the standards, methodologies and indicators needed to monitor progress globally while keeping governments, donors and stakeholders accountable.
  • Strengthen data dissemination and use by governments, communities and civil society to increase accountability through a range of mechanisms, such as open data practices, new information technologies for data storage and presentation, and greater data integration and systematic exchange of information between different levels of government and other institutions.

The Education Commission and the UIS also emphasize four areas in which better monitoring and accountability is needed.

 – All children must be made more visible in education statistics, including those who are not reflected by today’s data, such as children uprooted by war, those with disabilities, orphans and other vulnerable groups.

– There must be enough data to monitor progress towards SDG 4, particularly on equity. International household survey programmes should be harmonized so that comparable education indicators can be produced on school attendance, attainment, literacy, expenditure, equity and other key issues.

– Learning assessments must be reconciled within a common framework, and we need better coordination to reduce transaction costs. The paper argues for a participatory process that enhances and leverages results from sound national learning assessments, ensures their implementation through international technical guidance, and secures adequate external funding for international reporting of quality-assured assessment data.

– Data on education finance must cover all sources of funding. Together with the International Institute for Education Planning, the UIS has developed National Education Accounts (NEAs) as a methodology to cover all sources of funding. The challenge now is to help countries use this tool to track who is spending what on education.

What are the specific steps needed?

The first step entails sustainable funding and commitment to finding common solutions and methodologies. We need a transparent, inclusive and participatory approach to ensure the best possible monitoring of progress towards SDG 4, and that education data take their rightful place as public goods and policy tools.

We must also clarify roles and responsibilities on education monitoring, so that there is no overlap of functions and all actors are engaged to their maximum advantage.   At the international level, the UIS proposes that the Technical Cooperation Group on the Indicators for SDG4 ‐ Education 2030 (TCG) requires support to sustain its leadership in developing and applying the frameworks and indicators needed to monitor the education targets.   One task of the Group would be to revise national platforms for reporting to UIS to ensure the provision of data required to monitor SDG 4.

At the national level, we need improved statistical capacity, better coordination between regional and international agencies and alignment with national policies.    Governments and international agencies need to better support national capacity to collect, produce and disseminate education data.

At the private sector level, we need to mobilize the private IT sector to support countries. Equipping countries with the basic IT they need to collect, process and disseminate education data would cost just 0.002% of the total annual revenues of the 14 biggest IT companies.

For the UIS to fulfil its roles, we must also increase funding for the UIS, as the global source of SDG 4 data, as well as support the full monitoring capacity of the UN (such as UNESCO, UNICEF, the Global Education Monitoring Report, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN High Commissioner for Refugees). The Education Commission specifically calls on development partners to increase support for the UIS, which works on a daily basis with countries to help them implement the indicator frameworks and remedy setbacks in larger efforts to achieve the global education goal.

The vision set out by the UIS and the Education Commission is ambitious – there is no denying that improving education data is a gradual process that could take years. However, a radical shift is feasible if international organizations provide technical support, foster coordination and back the production of data as a global public good. Joint efforts can drive the change needed to foster the Learning Generation.

4 thoughts on “We Need a Paradigm Shift in Education Data to Build the Learning Generation

  1. I found this comment most interesting “The challenge now is to help countries use this tool to track who is spending what on education” . I reckon the main challenge here will be getting accurate data in the first place. Remember now tracking data while hungry is hard.


  2. Interesting blog. The authors are right in calling for more funding for the type of global public education goods produces by the UIS. The chronic under-funding of such goods reflects the need for much more global attention to more effective use of education aid. This includes concrete follow-ups to the Education Commission’s call for increased support for such goods.

    The authors are also spot on regarding the call to “Create enabling environments in which communities, governments, and civil society use the data to take action and to foster accountability”. There is little use producing better data if much of existing data are not used effectively for evidence-based decision making. A case in point: While almost half of adult women in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) — and more than half of the agricultural labor force in most SSA countries – remain illiterate, there is very little domestic and external funding for second chance programs. Where is the national and international outrage about this neglect, especially of the high level of female illiteracy? If present trends continue, more than one-third of children in SSA are likely to be born to illiterate mothers even beyond 2030. Thus, the current focus on improving learning of those in school (and the data needed to achieve this) must be coupled with increased attention to those who have already missed out on basic education and will continue to miss out during the period up to 2030.

    Most would agree on the negative impact that the neglect of funding of basic literacy and numeracy has on important goals such as greater equality, women’s empowerment, family health and welfare, and food security. Equally important: How can SSA countries expect to achieve the level of shared per capita economic growth required to generate the funding needed to reach SDG 4 if a high share of the 80% or more of their labor force engaged in the farm and non-farm informal sector remains illiterate even beyond 2030? I urge UIS to collecting and disseminating more data for SSA showing that large population groups — and the (by far) largest economic sector in terms of employment – now benefit little from domestic and external education funding. This must change.


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