Teach the World

Why the UN Sustainable Development Goals Should Focus on Education

Students take an examination at an open-air playground at a high school in Yichuan, Shaanxi province, April, 2015.  Stringer / Reuters

In September the United Nations will finalize a new package of development goals that will guide the efforts of its member states to improve living conditions around the world. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are long on ambition—they intend to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030—but short on substance. Most importantly, the SDGs’ approach to education is insufficient. 

Expanding quality education is the only feasible way to generate long-term economic growth, which is why a strong and coherent emphasis on education is central to the success of the global development agenda. Unfortunately, the current SDG goal to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education” is too vague and provides no guidance for measuring increases in cognitive skill levels. The global development community can do better.


A growing body of research has emphasized the importance of cognitive skills, or knowledge capital, in driving economic growth. Over time, the knowledge capital of the nation improves as better-educated youth enter the labor force. A more skilled workforce leads to increased economic growth.

Recognizing the importance of education, the prior Millennium Development Goals included a target of reaching universal primary schooling by 2015. Although developing countries did, in fact, substantially expand access to schooling over the past two decades, many have still not translated increased education into economic well-being. The reason is that too many countries focused on increasing the number of children attending school rather than on educational outcomes.

Teacher gives lessons in Manila
A teacher gives lessons to second grade pupils during classes in a public elementary school in Quezon city, Metro Manila, October, 2012.  Erik De Castro / Reuters

Knowledge capital is not measured by school attendance, and increased access to schools alone turns out to be an incomplete and ineffective goal for development. In recent research, we have shown that even in middle-income countries, where the primary school completion averages just 75 percent, the economic gains from improving the quality of schools without trying to increase enrollment are three times as large as those

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