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Are the UN’s Millennium Development Goals missing the point?

By Susan Pick and Jenna T. Sirkin

In September, our world leaders met in New York for the Summit on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. They congratulated one another for lower child mortality rates, the increase in women’s empowerment and a reduction in the number of new HIV/AIDS cases; they lamented how far we are from reaching the eight goals we established ten years ago. But are they missing the point?

One of the Millennium Development Goals is particularly complex: achievement of universal primary education. We measure the progress made toward this goal with net enrollment ratios, the proportion of pupils who finish primary school, and literacy rates. We know that according to the UN’s 2010 report, “enrollment in primary education has continued to rise… But the pace of progress is insufficient to ensure that, by 2015, all girls and boys complete a full course of primary schooling.” Should we be encouraged? Should we be disheartened? Or should we question how telling these numbers even are? While enrollment is a crucial step toward the country’s overall social development, we have to look past the statistics and ask ourselves about the education itself.

With the numbers we are given, it is easy to speak of success when the graphs rise, and failures when the graph drops. It is critically important to see a rise in the number of boys and girls receiving primary education in the poorest countries. But what is this education we are providing them? Is it what our children need to succeed as productive adults and what a country needs to form responsible, competent and ambitious citizens?

Great thinkers have pondered this question. Brazilian educator and theorist Paolo Freire classified teaching methods as dictatorial or facilitative, the former depending on a hierarchical structure in which the teacher imparts knowledge to the student through memorization.  Where obedience is valued over analytical thinking. The facilitative method, on the other hand, values empowerment and intrinsic motivation. Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen writes that the opportunities created by an education system which reinforces freedoms and personal agency gives individuals the capabilities necessary to exercise their political rights and guarantees structural and psychological access to social services. It is this facilitative education that has been shown to make a powerful difference in poverty reduction and opportunity for people in developing nations.

Let’s take the case of Mexico, where there are various barriers to facilitative education. Government programs like Oportunidades have greatly increased school attendance with cash transfers to impoverished families, yet Mexicans still score below average on reading and math. A report from the Programme for International Student Assessment has documented Mexican students’ difficulty in analyzing data and experiments. And this despite the fact that the Mexican government has vastly increased its investment in education. Yet students’ poor performance is understandable given that two in three teachers in Mexico mainly use memorization to teach skills. The mere reproduction of knowledge and skills limits Mexicans in terms of their productivity in the job market and in other areas of their lives.

Training teachers in psychosocial life skills is the key to moving away from the authoritarian, didactic methods in Mexico. Educators must themselves have a strong sense of personal agency in order to then empower their students, and they must recognize the value of their students having such agency. And this must be the case in the home as well. At home, children are confronted with paternalistic cultural norms, meaning that blind obedience is encouraged and autonomy is discouraged. Research on family values indicates that many Mexican parents raise their children to expect discipline in the name of respect for authority figures. Therefore, shift in the exercise of control and communication within both the family and with educators is essential in sustaining a positive and participatory learning environment.

We have until 2015 to meet our deadline. As we consider our strategies for the decisive upcoming five years, yes, we must change the way we see change. We will strive for every child in every country to receive primary education. And we also need to ensure that the way in which we are shaping these children while they sit in school each day is giving them the skills to break out of the poverty cycle, and in doing so bring their countries in line with all eight Millennium Development Goal targets.

Susan Pick is a Professor of Social Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. She is author and coauthor of over 270 works, has received numerous awards, holds the highest level in the National System of Researchers, and is also the former president of the Interamerican Society of Psychology. She is author with Jenna T. Sirkin of Breaking the Poverty Cycle: The Human Basis for Sustainable Development.

Jenna T. Sirkin is currently a health services researcher and a doctoral student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University; and is also an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Doctoral Training Fellow. She has been employed and conducted research in the fields of public health, health services research and international development.

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