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Foundational Learning in the Global Education Agenda

Over the past quarter century an effort to prioritize child learning outcomes and in particular literacy and numeracy—what we term the ‘foundational learning agenda’—has gradually gained traction in the global education field. Although seemingly uncontroversial, the foundational learning agenda has attracted criticism as being reductionist and insufficiently attentive to crossnational differences.

This study analyzes factors that have shaped priority for foundational learning among organizations involved in the global governance of education, with reference specifically to low and middle-income settings. We find that historically six factors have been especially influential.

Three have facilitated attention:


  1. Growing evidence of a global learning crisis and of a learning divide between and within countries, emerging especially from global, regional and national learning assessments;
  2. Emergent evidence on successful country strategies to promote and achieve literacy and numeracy for all; and
  3. Entrepreneurship by individuals and organizations that back the agenda.

Three have inhibited attention:

  1. The Millennium Development Goals’ (MDG) focus on achieving universal access to primary education and gender equity over other educational goals;
  2. Opposition from some individuals and organizations—particularly teachers’ unions—uncomfortable with the agenda’s thrust and/or of its implications for their own accountability; and
  3. Disagreements within the global education community on the content, merits of, and strategies for pursuing the learning agenda. The future agenda status of foundational learning will likely be shaped by several factors. These include the norm-shaping power of the Sustainable Development Goals; the nature and strength of opposition by teachers’ unions; and the ability of a foundational learning policy community to create strong internal governance mechanisms, transcend disagreements, forge a coalition, and build a common policy agenda based on evidence of what works to augment child literacy and numeracy.
Shawar, Yusra, Ph.D.
Shiffman, Jeremy , Ph.D.
Date Published: 
Monday, May 23, 2016