Council Commentary

Ensuring Equitable Education with Evidence: Insights from the World Education Forum

Today’s youth are the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen. For this group to build a more prosperous, equitable future, it’s essential that they are empowered by high-quality, inclusive education.

To advance global education, world leaders convened last month in Korea at the World Education Forum, seeking to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

However, we can only transform this rhetoric into reality if we inform decisionmaking with rigorous evidence, engage young people in the educational agenda, and recognize the intersections between education, health, gender equality and other critical development goals.


“We have to deliver for the poorest families using smarter and evidence-based solutions,” World Bank president Jim Kim told attendees at the opening ceremony. This point must not be taken for granted.

Thoroughly researched, evidence-based education policies and programs will best equip young people for their individual and collective futures. But it’s much easier said than done to balance the need for evidence with political goals, budget constraints, and the urgency for action.

While “the systematic use of evidence is in short supply,” as Julia Gillard of the Global Partnership for Education put it, there are key examples of what works.

In Malawi, the Population Council is researching the events in girls’ lives that have an impact on their education, effectively teasing out the relationships and sequencing of these events so that educators and governments can deliver better results for girls.

This has given policymakers, researchers, and the public a uniquely rich and broad picture of the relationships between schooling, educational outcomes, and HIV risk among young people. Data and evidence like this are crucial to better educational outcomes from Malawi to Manhattan.

“We must ensure policies and programs for adolescent girls are based on evidence, not intuition,” Population Council president Julia Bunting said during one of the thematic debates in Korea.


The successes or the failures of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be felt more acutely by today’s young people than by any other group. It’s their future, so youth must be engaged now in the decisionmaking process of the SDGs and education at large. Opportunity must not be squandered.

“There is no better time to be a young person,” said Chernor Bah, a Population Council associate and youth advocate at WEF. “We have the numbers—the demographic imperative. We are the most connected, most informed, most active, and most mobile group of youth in history. And the post-2015 goals will be delivered through young people.”

For sustainable success, young people should play a central role in both advancing educational goals and holding governments accountable in their implementation plans.


Education does not occur in a vacuum, so we should avoid treating the education SDG as if it does too.

SDG #4, “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” is intrinsically linked with other key development goals, from gender empowerment to health to economic growth and development. Educators, health professionals, and economists must not work in silos.

The Population Council works at the intersection of health, education, and poverty to find more effective policies, programs, and technologies that save and improve lives. At the WEF, Julia Bunting highlighted recent Council research that illuminates these education and health linkages.

For example, a study by Population Council senior associate Nicole Haberland shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs that focus on gender equality and power in relationships are five times more likely than programs that don’t to significantly reduce STIs and unintended pregnancies.

“Not all sex ed is equal so we owe it to young people to ensure that they are provided with quality teaching and learning based on what we know works,” Ms. Bunting said.


At the Forum’s opening ceremony, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that “education is not a privilege but a birth right.”

He’s absolutely right: Education is foundational and transformative. With evidence-based decisionmaking, youth engagement, and working at the intersections of education and other development goals, we can ensure that education is as transformational as it can be.