Submitted by David J. Barth, Director, Office of Education, USAID

I enjoyed following a webchat today sponsored by the Brookings Institute on achieving Millennium Development Goal 2: universal primary education. While I didn’t agree with everything that my friend David Gartner said, I agreed with most and it got me thinking about the progress that we have made and the prospects going forward. Universal primary education remains a central objective of US foreign assistance.

The USAID budget for basic education has risen almost tenfold since FY2000. This reflects a broad understanding that education is foundational to achieving all of our development objectives. Literate citizens have healthier families, are more productive farmers, participate meaningfully in their communities and contribute far more to national economies. Basic education is one of the most effective bulwarks against HIV and AIDS. But, as we applaud the world’s focus on getting children into school, it is vital that we not neglect the quality of the instruction that they get when in the classroom. Universal enrollment is not enough. We need to understand MDG 2 to be about universal access to a quality basic education.

The goal has to be literacy and numeracy, not just attendance. And while there has been substantial progress in getting children, especially girls, into school, I fear that we may be reaching a plateau. 72 million children do not have a chance to go to school. And these children are the ones who will be hardest to reach. These are the marginalized, the poor, the vulnerable and the disabled. These are kids displaced by war, natural disaster and economic necessity. We will know that we are really making progress towards achieving MDG 2 when we can show that our efforts are reaching the children who need us the most.