Exploring the Sustainable Development Goals
Accessible, High-Quality,Sustainable Education for All
By Allison Kooser
Originally published in 2017. Updated in 2021.
Imagine, for a moment, kindergarten.
Your days are full of finger painting, imagination and writing your letters and numbers. You learn to share, work with others and read.
Blink, and you’re in third grade.
Multiplication tables, spelling tests, and volcanoes made from baking soda and vinegar. The annual science fair. History lessons about the Oregon Trail and Abraham Lincoln.
Fast forward a few more years and you’re in high school, navigating first dates, college applications and the emerging independence of adulthood.
For many of us in the United States, our formative years were spent in school, learning to think, interact and discover. Through our time in the classroom, we received not only the academic and technical skills we needed to pursue careers and earn incomes, but also critical life skills that shaped how we treat other people, serve our communities and raise our families.
School served as the backdrop of our childhoods, and equipped us to achieve our goals as adults. It shaped us into the people we are today.
We know that education matters.
In the international development community, we agree that one of the keys to unlocking a brighter, more prosperous future for those living in extreme poverty is education. Education unilaterally improves economic productivity, health outcomes, family planning, gender equality, tolerance and peace building, among innumerable other positive outcomes.
It is the closest thing to a secret weapon that we have in the fight against poverty.
Despite remarkable progress over the past several decades, in 2018, 258 million children were out of school—and in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, that number skyrocketed to 1.6 billion1. In March 2021, almost half of the world’s children were not in school2—and millions are at risk of never returning.
Education is the most powerful tool we have to break the cycle of poverty.
Because education is so critical to progress, and because we have yet to achieve universal education, the UN established Sustainable Development Goal #4:
“Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.”3
As a global community, we want every single one of those children and youth who are not currently in school to receive a good education. Together, we are working to ensure all children can learn how to read, write and count; learn from high-quality teachers; and have the opportunity to pursue continued education at college or a vocational school. Together, we are working to transform education around the world.
We care about education because we know the more time a child spends learning in a classroom, the greater her chances of success are in nearly every facet of her life.
Put simply, education is the most powerful tool we have to break the cycle of poverty.
A child’s future wages increase up to 8-10% for every additional year of primary school she completes4, and, as of 2006, each year of education added 0.6 years to her life expectancy5. By staying in school, she reduces her chances of becoming victim to child marriage, teen pregnancy, HIV and other diseases.6 When she does have her own children, they will be 50% more likely to live past age five, and much more likely to receive a good education themselves.7 And she will gain more confidence and decision-making power in choosing her future spouse, as well as within her household to advocate on behalf of herself and her children.8 Each year of secondary education she receives reduces her likelihood of marrying before age 18 by an average of 5 percent.9
On a national level, when 10 percent more girls go to school, a country’s Gross Domestic Product increases by an average of 3 percent.10 And, “if all children in low-income countries completed their upper secondary educations by 2030, per capita income would increase by 75% by 2050 and advance the fight to eliminate poverty by 10 years.”11
Yet, despite our understanding of both the importance and power of educating young people around the world, countless hurdles remain in our way as we seek to achieve SDG4. To serve the needs of children around the world both today and in the years to come, schools must be accessible, high-quality and sustainable.
In order for kids to go to school, a school must first exist.
This means that physically, there is a school that children can get to—close enough to home that they don’t spend their whole day traveling, and a safe enough journey that parents are willing to let their children make it. For rural families especially, school infrastructure in and of itself presents a barrier to education. And for those living in conflict regions—which accounts for nearly half of the out-of-primary-school population—schools may simply be unavailable.
If there is a school within reach, it must also be financially accessible. Meaning, parents must be able to afford school fees and the associated costs of uniforms, books, and supplies. Those schools must also offer a valuable enough education that families are willing to prioritize education instead of putting their children to work to earn immediate income.12
Girls in particular face barriers to accessing education that stem from gender discrimination and cultural norms. In 2018, 5.5 million more primary-age girls were out of school than boys.13 And while gender parity in education has improved in the last few decades, “the average girls’ net enrollment rate in [developing countries] is [still] more than 5 percentage points lower than the average low-income countries, more than 16 percentage points lower than for middle-income countries, and more than 20 percentage points lower than for in high-income countries.”14 Despite what we know about the power of educating girls, they still face disproportionate barriers to starting and completing their educations.
Once a child is in a classroom, she must then be able to learn.
For so many students in the developing world, simply attending school doesn’t guarantee an education. Teachers are often untrained, and in crowded classrooms without sufficient materials and resources, even trained teachers struggle to teach effectively.
In the words of a parent in Nigeria, “The public teachers don’t feel obligated coming to school.”15 And the data supports him. A World Bank study found that public primary school teachers in some African countries were absent 11-30 percent of the time.16 As of 2013, “In one-third of all countries, less than 75% of teachers were trained according to national standards."17
When teachers do man their posts in the school, they often face classrooms crammed with children. Only 11 countries have fewer than 35 students in their middle school classrooms, on average—and in sub-Saharan Africa, the teacher-to-student ratio increased by 59% from 1990-2010.18
Kids are going to school; they're just not learning anything.Justin Sandefur, Center for Global Development
The result is a generation of children—even those who have attended years of school—who are illiterate. Over 100 million youth worldwide have not mastered basic literacy skills.19
In order to create lasting change in the education sector and raise up the next generation of young leaders, education must be not only available and high quality, but sustainable.
It is unsurprising that those countries most plagued with extreme poverty and political instability also struggle to keep their children in school. Without a reliable tax base or a corruption-free government, public schools fall prey to the same destruction as other state-driven entities. And unfortunately, building a stable government and economy takes time—time that today’s children simply don’t have.
Developing innovative strategies that make schools good, available and financially sustainable will open up the doors of education to millions of children, permanently.
Opportunity International’s response to Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to pursue, with fervor, one very simple goal: get kids in good schools as soon as it is safe to do so.
In order to achieve this goal, Opportunity has developed a number of targeted financial tools and services designed to serve the needs of school proprietors, parents and children and address the three-fold challenges of accessibility, quality and sustainability.
A critical first step in closing the education gap is growing the number of classroom seats available in underserved communities. Building or bolstering local schools that serve the needs of their neighbors make education convenient and accessible to more families. Through specialized education financing, Opportunity is expanding access to credit for school proprietors to increase the capacity of their local schools and for parents to be able to send all of their children to school when fees are due.
Opportunity’s School Improvement Loans allow school proprietors to invest in their schools’ greatest infrastructure of staffing needs, such as adding classrooms, textbooks and desks; installing running water or gender-separated bathrooms to ensure adolescent girls can continue attending school after puberty; or hiring additional teachers and support staff.
These improvements and expansions create more seats for more kids—ensuring children have a place to go to school.
Recognizing that education access is also inhibited by parents’ ability to afford school fees, Opportunity developed School Fee Loans. These loans help parents spread out the costs of their children’s education and thus avoid having to remove their children from school when money is tight. For families with seasonal incomes, these loans solve the problems created by inconsistent cash flows and empower parents to send their children to school without fear of having to pull them out because of budgetary constraints.
Improving infrastructure and hiring staff are just the first steps toward providing the best possible education to children. A school is only doing its job if it is actually able to teach its students well.
In response to this need, Opportunity launched its Education Quality services in 2015, working to build networks of affordable private schools and equip educators with the tools they need to work together, share ideas and improve educational quality within their schools.
These groups of educators, known as clusters, are able to collaborate and share best practices. Through relationships, they hold each other to a high standard of service and help one another improve. Opportunity is also able to work through these groups to provide training and resources, often employing specialized staff to serve school proprietors and encourage this unique group of entrepreneurs.
In addition, Opportunity has begun measuring school quality and quality improvements through annual assessments and surveys. These metrics enable proprietors to self-assess their school’s quality and identify areas they feel are most important to improve upon each year. And with support from Opportunity’s Education Specialists, they can identify concrete next steps their schools should take toward higher quality.
Opportunity International’s response to Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to pursue, with fervor, one very simple goal: get kids in good schools now.
No matter how promising these education initiatives are, they will not work in the long-term unless they are also sustainable. Opportunity invests in low-cost, privately funded schools, which means that their proprietors are entrepreneurs and their schools are small businesses. Because these private schools operate within the broader economy, school proprietors must respond to market needs and deliver desirable services to stay afloat. Research has found that “inspired entrepreneurs have fostered a marketplace that is accountable to student satisfaction and success. Enabled with the freedom to compete with one another, to utilize local knowledge, and with less government regulation, these entrepreneurs have achieved a truly remarkable outcome: affordable private schools that are helping the poor.”20
At Opportunity International, we have seen that sustainability extended to our Education Finance loans and tools. In 2020, we invested over $86 million in schools and families around the world to help students go to school and access quality education.
As we send our kids back to school this fall, take a moment to remember your own education—the years of schooling that formed you and grew you and shaped you into the person you are today.
And then remember the hundred of millions of children and youth who aren’t in school today. Who won’t be in school tomorrow. Or the day after that.
These kids are bursting with infinite possibilities, but need accessible, high-quality, sustainable education in order to unlock their full potential. They need an opportunity.
A school is only doing its job if it is actually teaching its students well.
At Opportunity International, we believe in the power of education. We seek to create opportunities for school proprietors, teachers, parents and students, ultimately enabling children to not only go to school, but to learn.
Together with the global development community, we are working tirelessly to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4—building an Education Finance program that advances our own initiatives, as well as the global development agenda. Through loans for parents, loans for proprietors, quality improvement and other targeted education tools and training, we address and contribute to SDG4 targets, including: helping improve access for boys and girls to quality education from early child development through to secondary; using financial education and training to help young people develop as workers and entrepreneurs; continuing to promote education for girls and marginalized children; helping nurseries, schools and colleges improve resources and facilities to be gender sensitive, secure and inclusive; and helping improve quality of teaching.
We are investing in the future of education by using financial tools and models that are sustainable and can be replicated time and again.
To learn more about how you can unlock infinite possibilities for children around the world by investing in education, visit opportunity.org/infinite.
Allison is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, and avid traveler. She spent the last year backpacking around the world meeting and interviewing incredible people with remarkable stories, eating amazing food, and climbing very scary mountains. Now, she lives in Chicago where she runs a small business helping nonprofit organizations identify, create, and share their stories, equipping them to better do the work they were born to do. When she's not working, you can usually find her reading a book, planning her next trip, or baking the best cookies on the planet.
Keep Reading our Sustainable Development Goal Series
Reducing Inequality and Remembering the Forgotten
As we make progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, we must remember to include all people in our initiatives, regardless of their race, gender, ability, location, or any other factor. Development must be inclusive and serve all people.
- Cutler, D. M. and Lleras-Muney, A. 2006. Education and Health: Evaluating Theories and Evidence. National Bureau of Economic Research. NBER Working Paper Series. http://www.nber.org/papers/w12352.pdf
- Basic Education Coalition. 2013. Teach a Child, Transform a Nation. http://www.basiced.org/wp-content/uploads/Publication_Library/BEC-Teach_a_Child-2013.pdf
- Global Partnership for Education. 2014. 250 Million Reasons to Invest in Education: The Case for Investment. http://www.globalpartnership.org/content/250-million-reasons-invest-education-case-investment
- UNESCO. 2014. Sustainable Development begins with Education: How education can contribute to the proposed post-2015 goals. Global Monitoring Report. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002305/230508e.pdf
- United Nations Foundation. 2016. Why Invest in Adolescent Girls. http://www.clintonglobalinitiative.org/ourmeetings/PDF/actionareas/Why_Invest_in_Adolescent_Girls.pdf