The Consequences of Global Educational Expansion: Social Science Perspectives


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Emily Hannum and Claudia Buchmann
Universal Basic and Secondary Education

What would be the consequences if every child in the world received a primary and secondary education of high quality? On March 1, 2002, we had the privilege of participating in a discussion of a draft paper by Emily Hannum and Claudia Buchmann that addressed this important question. The revised paper, benefiting from the insights of that lively discussion, is published here.

Present at the workshop, in addition to the three of us and Hannum and Buchmann, were: Leslie Berlowitz (American Academy of Arts and Sciences), Henry Braun (Educational Testing Service), Oeindrila Dube (Brookings Institution), Tamara Fox (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), Elizabeth King (World Bank), Deborah Levison (University of Minnesota), Lant Pritchett (Harvard University), Francisco Ramirez (Stanford University), Gene Sperling (Council on Foreign Relations), Daniel Wagner (University of Pennsylvania), and David Weil (Brown University). We thank each of them for their guidance. The workshop was one in a series convened by the American Academy’s project on Universal Basic and Secondary Education (UBASE).

The UBASE project, which we are leading, focuses on the rationale, the means, and the consequences of providing the equivalent of a primary and secondary education of quality to all the world’s children. Our starting point is the observation that very large numbers of school-age children living in developing countries are not currently enrolled in school. The deficits are especially pronounced among girls, and they are concentrated in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Access to primary school has increased sharply in recent decades in most of the developing world, to levels that, in some regions, approach those in developed countries. But secondary school attendance, which has also risen rapidly, is still relatively low compared to that in the developed countries. The quality of the education offered, at both the primary and secondary levels, leaves much to be desired, as judged by examination of a wide range of inputs, outputs, and practices of educational systems in most developing countries.

None of these observations is novel. Representatives of 155 countries who gathered in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, noted a qualitatively similar picture, and pledged that they would achieve universal primary education by the year 2000. The world has not achieved that goal. The United Nations, in its adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, decided on a fifteen-year extension for the achievement of universal education. These goals have been accepted by the United Nations system and its member states as the central imperative and coordinating theme of all efforts at international development.

The central premise underlying these efforts is that universal access to education will promote economic development, improve health, expand political participation, reduce social and gender inequities, and diminish adverse human impacts on the planet.

Hannum and Buchmann provide a clear-eyed review of the research on the presumed consequences of primary and secondary education. They find substantial evidence that increased primary and secondary education is associated with improved health, greater economic opportunity, and lower population growth. But controversy surrounds the proposition that investment in education results in measurable increments to growth in gross domestic product. The evidence is likewise ambiguous on whether education reduces social inequality and promotes democratization. The summary by Hannum and Buchmann of what is known, and what remains to be determined, is critical for guiding future policy and research in this area, since the rationale for pursuing universal basic and secondary education must be clear if such education is to attract political support.

This paper is the first in a series of Occasional Papers of the UBASE project to be published by the American Academy. Forthcoming papers will examine related topics including:

  • basic facts about education, and the nature and quality of the data that underpin these facts;
  • the intellectual and programmatic history of efforts to achieve universal education;
  • the goals of primary and secondary education in different settings, and how progress toward those goals is assessed;
  • means of implementing universal education, and the uses of technology in delivering more and better education;
  • health and education;
  • the politics of, and obstacles to, educational reform;
  • the costs of achieving universal education, and the distribution of those costs among possible payers.

The complexity of achieving universal basic and secondary education extends beyond the bounds of any single discipline and necessitates disciplinary rigor as well as interdisciplinary, international, and cross-professional collaboration. By focusing on both primary and secondary education, paying attention to access, quality, and cultural diversity, and encouraging fresh perspectives, we hope that the UBASE project will accelerate and enrich educational development.

This project is supported by a generous three-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and by grants from John Reed, the Golden Family Foundation, Paul Zuckerman, an anonymous donor, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The project also benefits from the advice of a distinguished advisory committee, whose names are listed below.

As with all Occasional Papers of the American Academy, responsibility for the views presented in this paper rests with its authors.

Joel E. Cohen (Rockefeller and Columbia Universities)
David E. Bloom (Harvard University)
Co-Directors, Project on Universal Basic and Secondary Education

Martin B. Malin (American Academy of Arts and Sciences)
UBASE Project Staff Director

UBASE Project Advisory Committee:

Leslie Berlowitz (American Academy of Arts and Sciences), Nancy Birdsall (Center for Global Development), Joan Dassin (Ford Foundation), Howard Gardner (Harvard University), George Ingram (Academy for Educational Development), Kishore Mahbubani (Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations), Katherine Namuddu (Rockefeller Foundation), Kenneth Prewitt (Columbia University), John Reed (New York, NY), Jeffrey Sachs (Earth Institute, Columbia University), Gene Sperling (Council on Foreign Relations), and Paul Zuckerman (Zuckerman & Associates, LLC)