This blog post is a shortened  version of a Brief prepared for the IBP by Ruth Carlitz

Although the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have come under fire for being overly ambitious or unfair, they have mobilized resources and helped to build political will to improve the education sector in countries around the world. Now, more than halfway to the MDGs’ target end date, concerns are being voiced that progress toward achieving the goals is off track, particularly in Africa. This has led to calls for increased foreign aid and greater local investment in education and other development priorities.

However, despite spending more on the education sector as a whole, governments inevitably have to make choices about what to prioritize within the sector. Unfortunately, it appears that in some cases additional spending to achieve the education MDG has been channeled disproportionately toward quantity (dramatically increasing enrollment), possibly at the expense of quality. It could be argued that this was caused by the education MDG’s emphasis on quantity over quality.

What happened in Tanzania

Tanzania is widely considered to be an MDG “success story.” For instance, at a media briefing on a recent meeting of the UN’s MDG Africa Steering Group, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited Tanzania as an example of progress on primary education.The World Bank has also highlighted Tanzania’s “impressive results” in boosting primary school enrollment.

However, Tanzania’s success masks some pernicious consequences of hasty efforts to boost enrollment and calls into question the longer-term impact of these reforms. An immediate consequence of increased enrollment has been overcrowded classrooms. While the government’s plans to address this problem include building classrooms and recruiting new teachers, pupil-teacher ratios remain high—an average of 54-1 in primary schools, and 37-1 in secondary schools.These averages, as high as they are, mask glaring disparities—particularly between schools in urban areas and those in more remote, rural places where teachers are often unwilling to be posted or fail to report for duty.

The impact of quickly expanding enrollment has been particularly hard on the secondary school system. With net enrollment jumping from 6 percent to 26 percent in just four years (2004 to 2008), there has been a scramble to accommodate the new primary school graduates, resulting in the recruitment of vast numbers of poorly qualified teachers.Barely out of secondary school themselves, and sometimes given just weeks of training, these teachers are providing instruction of questionable quality and, some argue, bringing down the prestige of the teaching profession.

What should Donors do?

Revising international goals for education could be an important step in creating incentives for quality. Donors might consider an alternative to the education MDG that has been proposed by the Center for Global Development. The CGD researchers suggest judging progress in terms of outcomes of the educational system, or the capabilities of all children in a given cohort. Assessing progress toward such a Millennium Learning Goal (MLG) would create incentives for improving quality in education, not just quantity.

In addition, this framework would address legitimate concerns that have been raised about a possible trade-off between quality and equity—in other words, increasing the quality, and consequently the cost, of education might lead to restricting enrollment. An MLG that is constructed to measure capabilities of children both in and out of school would create an incentive to draw more children into the formal schooling system, since such an action would presumably raise cohort learning achievement.

Donors might further contemplate the “cash on delivery” strategy, which has also been proposed by CGD.Under this approach, additional aid would be linked to evidence of progress already achieved on the ground, measured by independent assessment. Unlike traditional donor “conditionality,” aid would not be tied directly to the implementation of any specific policies or reforms. Rather, the means of achieving progress would be left to the discretion of the individual government.  “Cash on delivery” could be integrated into the MLG framework, with a given learning goal linked to aid payments for education.

What should governments do?

Planning and budgeting for increasing quality in education will require a fundamental shift from thinking about inputs to focusing on learning outcomes (what an “educated” person is able to do). Once they have identified their desired educational outcomes, governments should then work to determine the inputs needed to achieve these outcomes. Starting from inputs (simply directing more money to the education sector) will not guarantee improved outcomes. In particular, just increasing spending on physical infrastructure and other inputs has not been shown to lead to substantial increases in children’s competencies and learning achievement.

One input that flows more logically from a focus on learning outcomes is investment in teacher quality— one of the only school-related factors that consistently has been shown to influence student achievement. Many countries lag behind target teacher-to-pupil ratios and also suffer from chronic underinvestment in teacher training and professional development. Spending more on teachers implies a longer term view, as the benefits of such additional spending would not be realized immediately.  However, it could help to ensure that the newly constructed classrooms are not empty shells but, instead, fulfill their promise of expanding access to quality education.

Governments could also strengthen “value-for-money” auditing of the education sector to ensure that additional investment is having an impact.  Facilitating public expenditure tracking studies would also help to ensure that money spent on education is spent well.

And Civil Society?

In a few countries, civil society has started playing an important role in monitoring and measuring the impact of spending on education.

For instance, the Uganda Debt Network (UDN) has supported community monitoring groups to track the impact of spending under the country’s Universal Primary Education Programs.  The UDN organized citizens, empowering them to gather relevant budget information and monitor the quality of expenditure and new services. The groups then held public hearings to raise concerns about poor quality school construction and other misspending.

In Malawi, the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education has implemented public expenditure tracking surveys to monitor education spending at the district and school level.  The coalition’s efforts spurred the government to launch its own expenditure tracking survey and address issues raised by the coalition, such as the late or incomplete disbursement of teacher salaries. In Tanzania, HakiElimu has engaged in similar efforts through the development of a PEDP Monitoring Tool—a questionnaire that community volunteers implement at the school and local government level.

CSOs also can help to measure the extent to which children are learning and building cognitive skills. For example, the CSO Pratham in India produces an Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) that uses data collected by a huge corps of citizen volunteers that  is dispatched across India’s rural districts, where they administer simple tests to school-age children in basic reading, simple comprehension, basic math, and English. The volunteers also visit schools to gather information on enrollment and infrastructure and record other general observations.