Twenty years ago when I was a relatively new economist at the World Bank, I was part of the Bank’s delegation to Jomtien, Thailand, where the heads of several multilateral development agencies, bilateral aid agencies, and leaders of 155 developing countries came together to declare their commitment to universal primary education .
I remember that the mood was upbeat—and not only because the venue was set along Thailand's sunny coast. There was a strong shared feeling that it was time to recommit to education as a basic human right, as highlighted by James Grant , the Executive Director of UNICEF at the time, and as a powerful instrument for reducing poverty and promoting development, as outlined by Barber Conable , World Bank President at the time.
I am in Jomtien again this week, with senior representatives of development agencies and high level officials of some developing countries, to "call for a scaling up of efforts—at the national, regional and global levels—to achieve the [Education for All] goals" at the High Level Group Meeting on Education For All (EFA) . Some things are the same, such as the warm hospitality of the Thai government (as the Kingdom of Thailand hosted the event), its royalty and its people. Some things are different. Pattaya, where Jomtien is, has many more high-rises and the streets are more crowded.
UNESCO is leading the conference, and except for Irina Bokova, UNESCO's Director-General, the highest officials of the development agencies are mostly absent. Only one-third as many countries are represented. It is a more modest affair than the first Jomtien conference, reflecting perhaps what I’ve heard from some development quarters: that education is now less important than it used to be in the development agenda. Is the appropriate word "urgent" rather than "important?" Is education now a less urgent issue in development? I certainly think that the answer to the question is a resounding "no."
But are we the victim of our own success? Where education-for-all has been reduced to schooling-for-all, success has been measured by the number of school-age students enrolled in school as a proportion of the total number of children of that age, or even as the number of students who complete primary school. By these indicators alone, many developing countries have declared success in their progress towards reaching the EFA goals. Indeed, even in low-income countries, the net enrollment rate at the primary level has increased from an average of less than 60% in 1990 to over 80% by 2008, and the completion rate, from 44% in 1990 to 63% by 2008. Over the past 20 years, these are what we have been measuring, and our ability to measure these numbers has improved.
But there is a real crisis in education. And it has to do with learning gains lagging far behind the rise in enrollment rates. Twenty years later, the first goal of the 1990 Jomtien World Declaration on Education For All  is still relevant and we are far from claiming victory:
Every person - child, youth and adult - shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs.
These needs comprise both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning. The scope of basic learning needs and how they should be met varies with individual countries and cultures, and inevitably, changes with the passage of time.
These learning goals have not been achieved. Educators, parents and civil society, employers and national leaders are increasingly aware of this. Because of failing public schools, even in poorer neighborhoods parents are moving their children to low-cost private schools they can barely afford. School administrators at secondary schools and tertiary institutions are deploring the level of preparedness of students who complete the primary level. At lunch today in Jomtien, I sat across from an education minister who had been a former professor of the top medical university in his country; he said that entering students could barely construct a grammatically correct sentence. I have heard a similar complaint in too many other countries, including my own country, the Philippines. National, regional and international test results attest to this (more at recent blog on PISA results ).
Last September, at the Millenium Development Goal Summit at the United Nations , we worried about not meeting the goal of universal primary education, of leaving millions more children out of school, by 2015. At some point, we will have to acknowledge that universal primary education is not only about getting children to school and that whether or not children learn is no different from achieving education for all.
The premise of this week’s conference is the same as 20 years ago. We uphold "that education is a fundamental right for all people, women and men, of all ages, throughout our world" and "that education can help ensure a safer, healthier, more prosperous and environmentally sound world, while simultaneously contributing to social, economic, and cultural progress, tolerance, and international cooperation."
How did we come to dissociate going-to-school from learning-in-school? Perhaps by looking back to the first Jomtien conference, we can rediscover that the Education for All agenda is really about learning for all. As they say in the Phillipines: a person who does not look back to where he/she started will not reach his/her destination ("ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi mararating ang paroroonan"). Let's not forget what brought us together in 1990 as we look to the future.