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SDG 4 Won't Tackle Learning Crisis

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A debate of what should be measured is frequent in addressing educational challenges. Should we measure enrolment or learning outcomes? But perhaps it’s not a trade-off between targets because improving learning outcomes does not mean the enrolment issue is abandoned. On the other hand, an increase in, say, proficiency in reading does not mean pupils are equipped to critically read texts that could inform how they see and become a part of society. What’s critical at the moment, with eight years into the completion of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is a clear direction for countries in ensuring children learn at school; yet that compass is unavailable.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are supposed to become a parameter of fair development outcomes. Over half of its 17 goals are qualitatively phrased – a signal of its idea that quality trumps quantity. But the bottleneck is on how these goals are translated into policy. And even with pre-specified indicators of each goal, the implementation is still going to vary.

SDG 4 “Quality Education” consists of ten targets which the United Nations (UN) considers will be achieved when 11 indicators are fulfilled. Despite its qualitative wording, SDG 4 merely aims for indicators that will hardly change and perhaps simply retain the current inequity. For instance, the indicator “percentage of teachers with the minimum required qualifications” is a goal with multiple meanings. In developing economies, teachers who hold the required ‘qualifications’ are increasing in numbers. Yet, many of them do not have the capability to undertake teaching roles. This is because qualifications in certain countries do not mean teacher qualifications; it simply means a university degree.

Increasing enrolment rates is another important agenda that constitutes SDG 4’s 11 indicators. Low-income countries do still need to catch up in terms of enrolment ratio in K-12 education which is significantly lower than middle to high-income countries, with the African region dominating the low gross enrolment ratio. But many developing countries already have over 100% gross enrolment ratio, even those that are documented to have a “poor education system”. So, what kinds of progress can we claim with high enrolment? Can we say that their pupils are learning effectively at school? Does attendance mean comprehension?

Catching Up on Learning Outcomes

One of the most internationally comparable outlooks of progress to quality education is PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) – a test of 15-year-olds’ students’ competencies in reading, mathematics, and science. There is no maximum score in PISA; its points are determined by the normal distributions. PISA allows for objective observation of a country’s progress to quality education which will help debunk inherent beliefs of Governments that their policy is working when in fact it is not helping students achieve their truest potential to gain knowledge and participate in society. PISA does not measure memorable information or knowledge but critical understanding of the assessed subject. PISA reading literacy, for example, measures “students’ ability to understand, use, reflect and engage with written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate in society.” Despite some problematic inclusion of data such as that of China which only included students from four major cities, B-S-J-Z (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zheijang), hence making China’s position as the 1st on PISA ranking questionable, PISA enables us to see how difficult it is to catch up on learning outcomes and to maintain quality education.



In order to catch up, countries that are lagging behind should learn from countries with successful strategies in maintaining and ensuring quality education. Estonia is a good example; its PISA score in reading literacy rose from 500.75 in 2006 to 519.14 in 2015. It is now considered as “Europe’s newest education powerhouse”. The country does many things right. Quality education – and not just ‘education’, is free. It has high spending on education relative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), its budget is allocated for the right resources such as ensuring affordability of learning materials, provision of school meals to all students with no differentiation between the rich and the poor kids. The school system also does not differentiate students based on achievements, hence contributing to a smaller gap between the rich and the poor. This is in contradiction with trends that translate studies that show how children from poor households underperform at schools into creating their segregated educational policy. Evidently, when the school system allows them to be seen as equals, there is no reason why they won’t succeed.

In Estonia, teachers have ownership in designing lessons. The country also embraces technology in its education system. Books are borrowed online, which enables pupils to access a wealth of materials at home. Its education also attempts to connect the lessons to real life, which is probably why it ranks high on the PISA board. There is, however, one thing that could backfire all the positive progress that has been made: the protection of teachers’ welfare. Teachers receive a relatively average salary with a very insignificant increase from time to time. This is in contrast with its neighbor: Finland – a Nordic country that has made teaching a desirable employment position.

Finland’s education motto is “learning for the sake of learning”. The education system does not provide students with report cards until the 9th grade. The education system prefers gradual progress in introducing students to education, which encompasses the school hours, study period, school days, assessments. But what enables students to learn effectively is the high-quality teachers. Only 8-10 percent of applicants are admitted to undertake teaching professions in Finland. The minimum requirement for teachers is a Master’s degree. Good rewards result in the positive positionality of teachers and the importance of education. This eventually results in a lower chance of teachers’ shortage, unlike Estonia, where the country is now struggling to refill the soon-to-be empty academic positions.

Yet Finland’s rank on the PISA board has been on a consistent decline since 2012. If we compare the two countries, there is one explanatory factor of why Finland’s performance is deteriorating: budget. Finnish Educator Pasi Sahlberg denoted that due to the economic crisis since 2008, the Government reduced spending on education, which resulted in an increase in class sizes, limited access to professional development and school improvement. Educational expenditure relative to GDP has been on a consistent decline from 6.1% in 2010 to 5.1% in 2019. This is also what happens with Australia and UK.

In eight years, we expect quality education in all parts of the world. Yet, as the data shows, even after 15 years, countries with low learning outcomes struggle to be on at least the average score. Looking at the distribution of students’ proficiency levels shows even more problematic progress in learning outcomes. In 2015, while over 35% of pupils in Germany acquired reading proficiency levels higher than 553, only 13% of pupils in Indonesia are on that level.

SDG 4 fails to incorporate effective budget usage in one of its targets or indicators to achieve quality education. If the country does not generate enough money or if it chooses to spend less on education, there is a big price that it must pay: a learning crisis. And it is precisely why low-income and some developing countries are struggling to catch up and why the countries that were known for their high-quality education dropped the PISA rank. To have a sustainable quality education, the economy must run well, and when the economy is performing, the Governments ought to be generous and effective in their educational spending. Some governments carelessly spend on education without sound monitoring and evaluation methods, and some governments think they spend enough but fail to utilize the funds for the appropriate issues.

SDG 4 is final but countries can add and reflect on its targets and indicators. Achieving sustainable quality education requires high quality teachers, student-centered pedagogies, and accessible educational resources. If one of these things is missing, it won’t be sustainable quality education. Investing in education improves the economy, as economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Wößmann found, hence there is no reason to object to more generous and effective spending in quality education.


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 01 — March 2022

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