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If you control a country's education, you control its future.

More children in school but learning less. The U.N. calls that a great success.

Here's an experiment: Pick a less-developed country anywhere in the world, perhaps one where you live or have a personal interest. Now try to find good data about whether children in that country are learning more — or less — than they did two decades ago.

We’ve tried this for a number of countries. In general:

Can you find good data about whether education in poorer countries is getting better or worse? We could not.

• We found lots of data about increased attendance and gender breakdowns.

• We couldn’t find even minimally comprehensive data about quality.

• Anecdotal reports, such as comments from educators and news stories, overwhelmingly indicate that education quality is getting worse.

Nor did we find there much discussion of the issue. NGOs were eager to claim success, but they had no good data.

In 2014 Time magazine ran a story: "More Children Are Going to School in India, but They’re Learning Less."(1) From everything we've seen and read, children are getting a worse education in poorer and mid-income countries around the world. Here's what we believe to be the major causes of the decline.

Too many cooks

You can’t cook dinner with 50 cooks, each of whom darts into the kitchen, tells you what to put into the pot because that’s what they like to cook with back home, and then rushes off to the next kitchen.

That's what happens in countries that get a lot of aid money. Driven by donors who want something new, a revolving-door staff, and lack of accountability for results, NGOs set up a new project in one region or district, then a few years later they leave and do something different, somewhere else. With each change comes new staff, and new ideas about what to do.

Health and education are two areas where donors are eager to help. As they move from one project to another, NGOs ensure their welcome by bestowing gifts on government officials. (We've described the process under a more accurate name: Bribes.) For local officials, coordinating all of this activity, keeping the NGOs happy, and keeping a sharp eye on the money stream, is far more lucrative than the focusing on education quality. The NGOs set the agenda, and the details keep changing but one thing does not: The foreign donors and their money are the focus of attention.

Too much money

"We're raising money to build a school in a poor country." Is there any endeavor more noble? Greg Mortenson became a minor celebrity, building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, writing books (Three Cups of Tea) and giving speeches about his inspiring work, until the truth came out: His story was a mix of exaggeration, fabrication, and self-promotion.(2)

Building schools doesn't improve education. But it's easier to do.

But even those who do build a school are misleading their donors when they suggest that these schools will improve education. Schools don't improve education. Right now, in many countries, new schools are making education worse.

A fancier school doesn't create more or better teachers. Yet the act of building comes with costs: It takes away public attention, funds, and government time that could be spent on quality issues. When the construction is finished, an opening ceremony draws government officials away from their jobs because that makes the NGO look more important to donors.

The wrong goals

In 2000, the United Nations kicked off the new century with its "Millennium Development Goals": 8 goals and 21 sub-goals on such issues as health, hunger, and education. The goal for education was that:

children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.(3)

The UN pushed for its goals — universal school attendance and gender equity — and ignored whether the education was any good.

It said nothing about at all the quality of education these children received. If schools got filled but students learned nothing, the goal was met. And as the UN stated: "What gets measured gets done."

Unicef focused on attendance, giving funds and advice to increase enrollment. Better quality wouldn't help them say "We met our goals!" Education officials trusted that the Unicef "experts" knew what they were talking about, despite signs that this approach was a disaster. In 2014 the New York Times reported that:

In Mali, 92 percent of children at the end of second grade were unable to read a single word, according to Unesco. In Zambia, 78 percent of third-graders couldn’t read a single word. In Iraq, 61 percent of second-graders couldn't answer a single subtraction question correctly.(4)

NGOs eagerly adopted the UN attendance goal as their own. It was far easier to get kids into schools (or at least get them to enroll), than to improve education. In doing so, the NGOs were supporting the international mandate for better education. What could be a better banner under which to solicit donations?

A stunning failure

But for children involved, it was a stunning failure. These countries didn't even have enough good teachers for the schools they already had. Now they had to produce more teachers. Rote education was already the norm in most of these countries; now it spread.

Students got promoted to the next grade, regardless of whether they'd learned anything. Otherwise they'd get discouraged and drop out. Besides, promoting everybody was the only way to make room for the new students.

We'd like to say they all studied their little hearts out, but the fact is, knowing they'd pass anyway, some students slacked off.(5) Meanwhile, poorly trained teachers had a new dilemma: A grade 5 teacher had some students who still needed to learn 1st grade skills, others who would have done better in 3rd grade, and yet others who truly belonged in grade 5. How do you teach to that class?

"What looks like an enormous improvement too often amounted to a stunning failure." –The New York Times

"Stunning failure" is not our term. A New York Times story in May 2015 looked at the evidence and concluded that:

a peek under the headline statistics suggests that much of the world has, in fact, progressed little. If the challenge was to provide a minimum standard of education for all, what looks like an enormous improvement too often amounted to a stunning failure.
"We've made substantial progress around the globe in sending people to school," said Eric Hanushek, an expert on the economics of education at Stanford University. "But a large number of people who have gone to school haven't learned anything."
...There is still very little information on how well — or badly — children around the world are doing at school in many countries. But a recent effort by the World Bank to measure the quality of education systems in some African countries painted a dismal tableau of what they are being offered.... In surprise visits to public schools [in Uganda], survey takers found that 27 percent of teachers were absent. Of those present, 56 percent were not in the classroom during scheduled teaching hours.(6)

The MDGs were supposed to end in December 2015 but the UN couldn't wait. By the middle of 2015 it issued a final report which said what self-reports by NGOs inevitably say: We have achieved great things, but there is still much to be done.(7) Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, announced that "The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the most successful global anti-poverty push in history."(8) The four pages about education offer facts, graphs, and charts showing growth in attendance and gender equity. Regarding the quality of that education, it says merely:

As the world looks beyond 2015, it is crucial to reflect on and address the root causes of limited progress in youth literacy in some parts of the world. It is also necessary to explore new approaches to directly assess whether children have mastered the skills they are taught and whether they are being taught the skills they need in the twenty-first century.

Apart from the inferences that might be drawn from this vague statement (and from the UN's desire to phrase it so vaguely), the UN report said nothing about the fact that many observers believed children were learning less under the influence of the UN goals, and that the UN should have paid attention to this.

Worse still, the UN plans to do it again: The new "Sustainable Development Goals" for 2015-2030 set the same goal for the secondary-school level that was done in primary schools: More attendance. Quality gets a mention this time, but attendance is the thing to be measured. And as the UN has already announced: What gets measured gets done.

Did education quality fall? Or... was it pushed?

It is bewildering. Why is quality so utterly ignored, in favor of a body count? In our opinion, what is bewildering at first makes perfect sense when seen as another aspect of karma colonialism. As usual, there's no conspiracy, no smoke-filled room, just a growing swarm of people doing what works for them.

Improving education takes hard work. Some teachers have gotten used to showing up only half the time, and considering what they are paid, and that the salary often comes late, it's no surprise that sometimes they go work on the farm instead. Improving education means dealing with that situation, and getting high-level officials to turn down the perks offered by NGOs which distract them from the real job. Improving education is not just a hard job, it will create hard feelings from entrenched interests.

And that's merely to clear the road. You still have to figure out how to get the real job done. With lots of Unicef and NGO money flowing in, sitting in new air-conditioned offices, occasionally visiting new schools built by NGOs, it's easy for local officials to accept what the NGO says: "Making good schools will take a lot of time and money. Fortunately for you, we know how to do it and we've got the money. You couldn't do it without us."

Bad schools work — for some people

If the rote, ineffective education that came out of this was a threat to the local elite, multinational corporations, and wealthy countries, they'd never put up with it. They do know how to look out for their interests. But it works fine for them. They want bigger markets. They want factory workers who show up on time to sew t-shirts and assemble circuit boards day after day without getting so bored that they walk off the job and return to the farm. They want to build large plantations on the land that these students, as they struggle to stay awake, are forgetting how to till.

International corporations do not want competition from a new generation of bright entrepreneurs in Uganda. They don't want high school and college students with the critical thinking skills to question a system in which Western interests are dominant.

No heavy pushing was needed. Foreign companies, the UN, NGOs, and foreign governments all pursued their agendas. They arrived with staff who needed to show that they were doing something. Their presence undermined the local community which once played a vital role in making sure their children learned the skills they would need. The UN and others didn't need to plan for schools to get worse. They merely needed to close their eyes and proclaim success.

Notes and Sources

1. "More Children Are Going to School in India, but They’re Learning Less." Time magazine, 8 July 2014. The story says "This decline in standards, experts say, is paradoxically because of the rush to build schools and bring back children to the education fold." We've reached a similar conclusion. (back)

2. Author and mountain-climber Jon Krakauer exposed all this in a short book called Three Cups of Deceit. (back)

3. United Nations MDG website (back)

4. These highlights from the Unesco report appear in Nicholas Kristof's New York Times, column of 14 July 2014. As a source, that column linked to Unesco's hyperactive Education for All Global Monitoring Report. In the time available, we couldn't find the source of this data within that jumbled site, but we trust it's there somewhere. Meanwhile, if you care to estimate what Unesco paid a well-connected technie to create this bells-and-whistles website, which makes it harder rather than easier to get real information, you'll have some insight into how the UN can spend so much money on "education" with no useful results. (back)

5. "...the fact is... some kids slacked off." Source: We ourselves were kids once. (back)

6. More in School, but Not Learning, by Eduardo Porter, the New York Times, 12 May 2015 (back)

7. "What self-reports by NGOs inevitably say...": Yes, that is indeed a sweeping generalization. Can you find an exception? If your goal is to get more donations, that's the only self-report you can make. (back)

8. MDG 8 Infographic. The 75-page "Millennium Development Goals Report 2015" can be downloaded from a link on that page. Many economists have challenged Ban Ki-moon's sweeping praise for his own organization. David Rieff summarizes in The Reproach of Hunger:

As William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo, and other free-market critics of development have rightly pointed out, three-quarters of the global decline in extreme poverty since 1981 occurred in China. Without that extraordinary accomplishment, the goal set out in the MDGs of halving extreme poverty by 2015 would not have been met. And yet the MDGs played no significant role either in China's successful strategy for reducing poverty at home nor in the way it has structured its overseas development assistance programs. In contrast, in Africa, where the MDGs have been and remain the dominant development paradigm, extreme poverty fell only 8 percent between 1990 and 2010. (back)