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166 U.N. Nations To Vote on Plan Ensuring Education for All

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Representatives from 166 countries will gather in Jomtien, Thailand, next month in an unprecedented effort to develop a global plan to provide all the world's citizens with a basic education.

Known as the "World Conference on Education for All," the meeting will for the first time draw together education experts, government leaders, international-development officials, and representatives of industry and civic and religious groups from each of the participating United Nations member countries.

The group will complete action on an ambitious set of goals for providing primary education to all children and reducing the adult illiteracy rate by 15 percent, both by the end of the century.

At the 10-day meeting, member countries will vote on a draft proposal--released late last month--that grew out of regional meetings held around the world over the past year.

The proposed plan includes a world declaration on meeting basic educational needs, as well as a recommended framework for action.

The meeting is being sponsored by four UN agencies: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank.

The meeting's organizers say the world's economic, environmental, political, and social problems will worsen unless a more global approach to education is developed.

According to unesco, worldwide about 105 million children ages 6 to 11 were not in school in 1985. Seventy percent of those children lived in the least-developed nations, and 60 percent were girls. If current trends continue, the agency predicts, the number of out-of-school children will nearly double to 200 million by the year 2000.

In addition, 960 million adults are illiterate, according to the agency, with 98 percent residing in the developing nations; more than half live in China and India.

While only 17 million illiterate adults are thought to live in North America and Europe, unesco documents note that such adults are particularly disadvantaged in such advanced societies.

Worldwide Similarities

American educators who attended the North American regional meeting in Boston last November said they were struck by the common concerns cited by each world region.

They also found similarities between global issues and those now being debated in the U.S. school-reform movement.

Among the issues discussed, which also are addressed in the draft proposal, were such familiar themes as early-childhood education, teacher empowerment, community and business partnerships with schools, outcome-based learning acquisition, and more equitable educational opportunities for all children.

Under the plan, each country would develop its own specific targets and initiatives following general guidelines. But another goal of the conference is to develop a worldwide network of resources to help meet individual countries meet their objectives.

Janet Whitla, president of the Education Development Center in Boston and a participant at the North American meeting, said, "If we can keep the North American perspective open and willing to learn from other countries--as well as give--there is a chance we can build on that experience."

Several who attended the regional meeting noted how well the broader objectives of the proposal fit in with the national education goals outlined by President Bush late last month.

"If we sent this plan over to the White House, they would think we were following them," said Nat J. Colletta, deputy executive director of the interagency commission organizing the conference. "But we came up with this idea long before [the education summit in] Charlottesville."

Some observers also predicted that a global perspective would lend new energy to this country's reform efforts.

"The U.S. already has an active process of introspection about education goals that is, to some extent, a model for other countries," said Frank Method, a policy analyst with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "But this will help us broaden the framework of our own debate, see things from a new point of view, with new players."

The Boston meeting was a diverse mix of two forces--domestic and international--according to Mr. Colletta, who predicted that "new alliances will be the hallmark of this whole project."

Draft Guidelines

Although some delegates at the North American meeting argued that more specific goals should be set, the draft document proposes very flexible guidelines.

Those guidelines are:

Every child and adult should have an opportunity to obtain essential learning tools, such as literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, for lifelong learning.

  • A recommitment to education should be based on an expansion of current practices.
  • Educational disparities should be removed among underserved groups, such as poor and rural populations, especially in countries where female literacy is low.
  • The success of basic education should be judged on measurable "outcomes" of student learning, not just time spent in school.
  • Learning should begin at birth. The main delivery system for basic education for children should be in primary school. Literacy in mother-tongue languages should be offered wherever illiteracy exists, and through all available communications systems.
  • Societies should ensure that proper health-care, nutritional, and physical and emotional needs are met, and that such considerations are included in parenting-education programs.
  • Partnerships should be developed at all levels, recognizing the role of teachers, the private sector, religious groups, and families.
  • Supportive policies should be developed in the social, cultural, and economic sectors.
  • Financial resources, both public and private, should be mobilized and reallocated.
  • The world community should develop an international solidarity, noting the special needs of least-developed, low-income countries. All nations should work together to create peaceful conditions for learning.

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