Towards a right to learn concepts and measurement of global education poverty


The idea that children have a “right to education” has been widely accepted since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (United Nations, 1948) and periodically reinforced since. The “right to education” has always, explicitly or implicitly, encompassed a “right to learn.” Measures of schooling alone, such as enrollment or grade attainment, without reference to skills, capabilities, and competencies acquired, are inadequate for defining education or education poverty. Because of education’s cumulative and dynamic nature, education poverty needs an “early” standard (e.g., grade 3 or 4 or age 8 or 10) and a “late” standard (e.g., grade 10 or 12 or ages 15 and older). Further, as with all international poverty definitions, there needs to be a low, extreme standard, which is found almost exclusively in low- and middle-income countries and can inform prioritization and action, and a higher “global” standard, against which even some children in high income countries would be considered education poor but which is considered a reasonable aspiration for all children. As assessed against any proposed standard, we show there is a massive learning crisis: students spend many years in school and yet do not reach an early standard of mastery of foundational skills nor do they reach any reasonable global minimum standard by the time they emerge from school. The overwhelming obstacle to addressing education poverty today is not enrollment/grade attainment nor inequality in learning achievement but the fact that the typical learning profile is just too shallow for children to reach minimum standards.