The calendar above my desk at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has, as you might expect, a number of upcoming events and meetings pencilled in. But none matter more than the upcoming United Nations summit in New York on the post-2015 development agenda.
The meeting – scheduled for 25-27 September – will see government leaders and representatives of civil society groups and NGOs attempt to finalise the set of global development priorities for the next 15 years. Looming large among issues such as environmental protection and promoting global prosperity is education, a fundamental human right for every citizen on our planet. Colleagues in New York are expected to pledge to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. But how are we going to measure progress towards this goal and its associated targets? Clear and accessible statistics will be crucial.
I became director of the UIS earlier this year, moving to Montreal from my home city of Buenos Aires. In my previous role I served as Director-General of Assessment and Evaluation of Education Quality at the Ministry of Education in Argentina. During my career at the ministry, which began in the late 1990s, I introduced a series of institutional changes and capacity-building initiatives; they were designed to strengthen independence and objectivity in the production of education statistics and the measurement of learning outcomes.
My mission was always the same: to produce robust and credible data for all the various stakeholders. So I led the creation of Argentina’s first comprehensive education quality index, enabling parents, teachers, principals and policymakers to truly see how our schools perform on a nationwide basis. It wasn’t a straightforward process, however, and – looking back – there are many lessons to be drawn from what I went through.
The first was the importance of explaining to everyone what we meant by ‘quality’ and making the numbers as clear and accessible as possible. Education, like many sectors, has a variety of stakeholders, all with differing perspectives and experiences, but what really emerged was the gap between those of us familiar with the use of data and those – the vast majority – who weren’t. I’ve been working with numbers my whole life, but there was a consistent misunderstanding about what the people who actually have to use the information know about data. Their experiences had not prepared them for the reality of dissecting statistics and evaluating key trends. The numbers we provide them with must become concrete tasks on their agenda.
This means that not only is it vital that we in the statistical community are not overconfident about how much teachers and parents understand, but we must also accept that we need to teach and help them interpret the latest data. This, in turn, will lead to stronger conversations, insights and public services.
I believe that, in many cases, citizens don’t press governments more insistently for better services because they don’t understand how quality is defined or measured and they don’t have access to information. Even if they have access to the data then they often don’t know to handle and interpret it, to what extent it will be useful, and how it can lead to better government services. So our role is really to help society understand and use the data and be more comfortable about doing so.
But it’s not just about how citizens use statistics. Policymakers, too, have much to do to really make the most of the information they have at their fingertips. For them, though, the priority is a change of mindset: to move from thinking of governments as the producers of data to being the users of data.
This is especially pertinent in the education sector where people need to use data in order to make the right decisions for their children. In Buenos Aires we created different tools and approaches to make data more available for different types of user, making it comparable to other data sets – particularly in relation to the performance of different schools. Sometimes it is tempting to focus on the technicalities of data (which is the easiest part) but less about how it could used to empower citizens, which is what public impact is all about.
Strengthening this link between increased statistical knowledge and public impact remains a work in progress, however. While we have made some good steps forward, there is plenty of room for improvement. Ensuring that data and information is usable and accessible remains an ongoing challenge. Leaders need to embrace, not hide from, the opportunity to make data accessible and shine a light on how their policies are performing. If they connect agendas, transforming data into concrete tasks, citizens and governments will reap the dividends.
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