Way back in 2000, the United Nations went through an elaborate process of setting “millennium development goals” for the world. To be attained by 2015, these were, of course, entirely laudable—e.g., “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” and “achieve universal primary education”—and they have definitely influenced the priorities of various UN agencies, other governmental and multilateral aid providers, and private philanthropies.

There’s been progress on several fronts—notably a big reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger—but none of these goals will have been achieved in full by next year, any more than the “goals 2000” project for American K–12 education met its targets (e.g., “first in the world in math and science”) by the stated end point.

How useful this kind of goal setting is may be debated, but the UN has never looked back. Rather, it’s busily updating its millennium goals for the period after 2015, and its “open working group on sustainable development goals” just held its thirteenth meeting, where it finalized a new list of goals and dispatched these for consideration by the Secretary General and General Assembly. You can find a description of this process here: You will also see that the United States shared—with Canada and Israel—one of thirty seats on this working group. (Never mind that the U.S. supplies 22 percent of the UN’s budget!)

The proposed new goals number seventeen, more than twice as many as in the last go-round, and 169 “targets” for the year 2030 accompany them. You can find the document here but I’ll reproduce the education section:

Proposed goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all

4.1 by 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes

4.2 by 2030 ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education

4.3 by 2030 ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university

4.4 by 2030, increase by x% [sic] the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship

4.5 by 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations

4.6 by 2030 ensure that all youth and at least x% [sic] of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

4.7 by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

4.a build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all

4.b by 2020 expand by x% globally the number of scholarships for developing countries in particular LDCs, SIDS and African countries to enrol in higher education, including vocational training, ICT, technical, engineering and scientific programmes in developed countries and other developing countries

4.c by 2030 increase by x% the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially LDCs and SIDS

You may gape, as I did, both at the UN speak and at the pie-in-sky aspects of this wish list. You may also find yourself wondering, as I did, just what difference any of this will make in the real world over the next fifteen years. (But what a politically convenient time-span! How many of the people who draft and enact these goals will still occupy “accountable” roles in 2030?)

What launched me on this eccentric inquiry was a major feature in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal by British journalist (and Tory peer) Matt Ridley that sought to advise the UN and others about which of these zillion goals and targets would have the greatest payoff. He wisely noted that even eight was too many, that the seventeen going to the General Assembly are vastly too many, that 169 is “absurdly long,” and that “the new list should have just five discrete, quantitative, achievable goals.”

To whittle the big list down, Ridley turned to an outfit called the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which enlists economists to undertake cost-benefit analyses of various development goals and then rates them from “phenomenal” to “poor” according to their estimated benefit-cost ratio.

When Ridley eyeballed that analysis in search of five targets that promise “phenomenal” returns, the one he came up with in education is “boost preprimary education, which costs little and has lifelong benefits by getting children started on learning.”

Indeed, the Copenhagen group gave its highest rating, among the education targets, to preschool, so I went in search of the evidence that led them to that conclusion. Here’s what I found:

Most evidence, including that of Nobel laureate [James] Heckman, shows that the benefits of acting early are very large, with relatively lower costs. Most of this evidence is from US studies, though there is little reason to believe that it would not also be the case in developing countries.

Think about it. Ridley is relying on the Copenhagen group, which relies mainly on Heckman and on U.S. data to devise development targets for the world. They are, in fact, relying on the same analyses as the universal pre-K crowd in this country cites, and if you reread the actual words of target 4.2, you will see that they are recommending truly universal (er, planetary) pre-K.

Think about it some more. Preschool is not like a polio shot or smallpox vaccination. It does not inoculate anybody against anything. It’s a stage in the education process. Properly done, it can be a valuable stage—readiness for Kindergarten does matter in relation to success in the early grades—and the right kind of preschool program can give a needed leg up to kids who aren’t getting such preparation at home.

But—and it’s a huge but—it’s only preparation for further education. The further education has to be waiting, and it has to be good education that takes advantage of what was accomplished in preschool.

That’s rare enough in the U.S., where Heckman gathered his data (and do keep in mind that he relies mainly on studies of high-cost “boutique” programs such as Perry Preschool, not the mass kind such as several states have mounted.) Most of the time, whatever boost was provided by preschool fades to the vanishing point during the early grades because the schools themselves fail to sustain it.

And that’s in a country with universal elementary education and compulsory school attendance.

Now shift that scenario to a developing land where many kids still lack access to functioning primary schools, the girls aren’t allowed to attend, the poorest kids are kept back to help in the fields or carpet factory, or the school is there and the child is there but the teacher isn’t present or isn’t properly educated herself.

What is the benefit conferred by preschool if there’s no school after the pre?

To which, you may respond, hearken back to target 4.1—which, if attained, would create a plausible argument for target 4.2, and that I do not deny. But how odd and dreamy it seems to single out preschool alone, as Ridley does (and as the Copenhagen group gives him a basis for doing) as having this fantastic benefit-to-cost ratio without considering the education continuum into which it must fit if it’s to make any lasting difference in the lives of kids—or, for that matter, the world.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2023 President & Fellows of Harvard College