Four Ways to Solve the Education Crisis Facing Sub-Saharan Africa

The United Nations General Assembly will today meet to adopt its post-2015 development agenda, and one of the three resolutions it seeks to pass is resolution 65/1: Keeping the Promise: United to Achieve Millennial Development Goals. Though we have made remarkable progress towards these goals (as indicated by the most recent MDG report), this progress has not been uniform. Specifically, the world is far from achieving the UN's second MDG: universal primary education.

Although the number of primary school-aged children out of school has declined nearly 50% over the last 15 years (from 100 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2015), we have barely moved the needle on literacy. According to the World Bank's State of Education report, global youth literacy rates have improved by less than 7% since 1985. That's less than 0.25% per year.

This disparity is most pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN's report, Sub-Saharan Africa has a better record of improvement in primary education than any other region over the last 15 years, achieving a 20% increase in net enrollment. And yet, according to the World Bank's report, the youth literacy rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has improved by only 6% since 1985, 25% of primary school-aged children in the region are illiterate, and nine out of the 10 countries with the lowest youth literacy rates are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why do we see such a significant discrepancy? If we have cut the number of children out of school in half, why haven't literacy rates improved accordingly?

This discrepancy exists because we are focusing on quantity over quality. We are focusing on graduation rates, not literacy and numeracy levels. We are measuring success with enrollment rates, not educational outcomes. As a result, we are enrolling the poorest and most marginalized children around the world in school and neglecting to give them an education. What is the point of graduating from elementary school if one cannot read, write or do basic math? If one does not have elementary skills, is their diploma worth anything?

We have the responsibility to take action on this issue, which confronts both the impoverished children of Sub-Saharan Africa just as it confronts the impoverished children of the United States. Simply put, we need to improve the quality of education available to the poor and marginalized populations around the world.

How do we do this?

We have to invest in hiring young, well-educated teachers that are willing to pour their souls into their profession. We need to invest in their professional development - from pedagogy to technology - to ensure that they have the tools and the training to succeed in the classroom. We need to measure progress based on outcomes and international education standards in addition to enrollment and graduation by using tools such as the Brookings Institute's Global Learning Metrics Taskforce. We also need smaller classroom sizes to ensure children are getting the attention they deserve at an early age. And most importantly we need to reduce the stress factors that impact a child's ability to learn and retain knowledge by providing meals to combat lack of nutrition, providing school supplies, uniforms and healthcare.

These steps have already proved effective at a new school in Adama, Ethiopia, where we have seen the average literacy level of the student population accelerate well beyond national and regional levels. Taking these steps will enhance our pursuit of a quality universal primary education, which we have sacrificed for the sake of the quantity of graduates we produce. We need to focus on expanding these initiatives into existing educational systems, so that children around the world, rich and poor, can all receive a quality education.

I urge the members of UNGA to examine these dynamics as they move to pass resolution 65/1.