The bending arc of educational progress
Reflections on Europe’s recent educational past; how different it is from its present; how much progress has been made, globally, in education; and how this progress suddenly seems precarious.
January 04, 2017 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
14 minutes read
Children in a primary school in Kosovo on the first day of classes in the new school year. Photo Credit: Genti Shkullaku / World Bank

We all know countries like this: a post-war, post-dictatorship rural nation with few natural resources and little industry. Most of the population earns a living from subsistence farming and clings to their regional, versus national, language and identity. Less than 5% of the population has a secondary school degree. There is hope, however, that a series of new government reforms, one of which raises the school-leaving age to 14, may keep more children in school…

What country is this? It’s Italy. In 1962.

Last spring, I got to do something I rarely do—visit European classrooms. As I observed teachers and students, I couldn’t help but contrast these classrooms with places where I’ve worked—Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East—and think about Europe’s recent educational past; how different it is from its present; how much progress has been made, globally, in education during my lifetime; and how this progress suddenly seems precarious. These thoughts are the focus of this post.

Peripheral Europe

Fifty-five years ago, many parts of Europe were classically “underdeveloped.”  “Peripheral” Europe — Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Iceland — were poor, rural, dictatorship (Spain, Portugal, Greece), post-dictatorship (Italy), post-colonial (Ireland, Iceland) and/or post-civil-war (Ireland, Greece, Spain) nations.  

All were plagued with underdeveloped education systems, low levels of literacy (40% in Portugal in the 1950s), low school completion, and high rates of emigration to the US. My parents were among these emigrants.

Educational exclusion

Until the 1960s, most children in Europe’s periphery left school after completing their primary education (Judt, 2005).

Though compulsory in most countries, primary school attendance was weakly enforced.

Even when officially enrolled in primary school, the children of “peasants” in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Iceland, like my father and his 9 siblings, typically spent more time farming and fishing than attending school.  Education for girls was not required in Portugal until 1960.

Secondary education was still a privilege confined to the middle and upper classes—everywhere in Europe. In Spain, for example, even as late as 1965, only 38% of students were enrolled in secondary school (Solsten & Meditz, 1988). And in the continent that bestowed on the world some of its first universities, higher education in Europe until the 1960s was for the privileged few (Judt, 2005).

Fifty years later

Children in the East End of London in the rubble of what had been their home (1940)

Children in the East End of London in the rubble of what had been their home (1940)

Photo Credit: Photo from New Times Paris Bureau Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

By any measure, in approximately 50 years (the lifetime of this writer) educational attainment in Europe has been transformed.

By 1969, the number of Italian children in full-time schooling had doubled from what it was in 1962. Today 79% of Italians aged 20-24—versus 5% in 1962 — have completed secondary school (Eurostat, 2014).

More than half of Irish and 40% of Spanish and Icelandic 30-34 year olds have tertiary-level degrees (Eurostat, 2014). And while Italy and Greece lag behind the OECD average on science scores on the latest PISA, Spain falls within the average range, and Irish and Portuguese students perform better than the OECD average.

Looking backwards to look forward

Why dwell on Europe in a blog that focuses on the poorest parts of the globe? First, because we often regard Europe as sui generis rather than as a continent with its own recent under-developed educational and post-conflict legacy, we tend to miss important history lessons for global education progress.

A more nuanced understanding of Europe’s progress in time and space can deepen our understanding of other areas of the globe.

Next, along these lines, Europe’s recent history holds important lessons for global educational progress — suggesting the values and actions we should embrace and those we should eschew.

Beyond Europe

Educational progress is hardly confined to Europe. In less than 5 decades, Singapore, a tiny city state formed in 1965, sans natural resources, has consistently distinguished itself as the global model of educational excellence.

Nearby Vietnam, which just 30 years ago was one of the most impoverished nations on earth (Karnow, 1983:27), with a shattered economy and a destroyed educational system, can today boast of having students who “outperform the most advantaged students in about 20 other PISA-participating countries” (OECD, 2016: 4).

Across many part of the globe, the education narrative is similar. More primary age children are in school (92%) and more post-occupation, post-conflict countries—Peru, Estonia, Colombia, Georgia—have improved their education systems.

From Latin America to Sub-Saharan Africa, more students across the globe are in secondary school and going on to university (1).

Celebrating this progress is not meant to minimize the challenges associated with quality and equity in so many education systems or ignore the fact that millions of children in conflict regions are not in school. But from a global and historical perspective, we are moving in the right direction on education.

How did such progress occur?

First, policy was critical. Within the larger political and economic policy contexts, from Europe to Latin America to East Asia, governments enacted specific education policies that made secondary education compulsory and universal.

They invested in early education; built more schools; revamped curricula; and in many cases developed and enforced educational standards (from curriculum to teacher training.)  These policies were accompanied by commensurate investments of resources.

Critical for Europe, at least, was a shift in attitudes and consensus. Following World War II, the deadliest war in human history, much of Europe was annihilated, bankrupt, humiliated, and ethnically cleansed.

A killing field with millions of dead, displaced and wounded people, Europe’s economies and infrastructure were obliterated. In order to rebuild, and ensure that such slaughter never occur again, France and Germany wrestled with their historical animosities and nationalist divisions to develop shared institutions and integrate through a common market.

Post WWII Western Europe (and a post WWII United States) became more outward looking, more forward looking, more global and less nationalist in perspective.

Western Europe and the US united around common values and common narratives — one of which has been that without universal education everywhere there is no peace, prosperity, stability, or democracy.

Transnational organizations like the European Economic Community provided structural help to poorer European countries like Ireland and Spain, such as roads and electrification, which benefited not just the overall economy but the education system itself.

The European Union, with other post-war entities like the World Bank, USAID and the United Nations, provided structural and program support to education systems in Africa, Latin America and Asia to help newly emerging and/or post-conflict nations do things they could not yet undertake at scale or at all: build schools, train teachers, revamp curricula, and provide teaching and learning materials.

The hope of history

We can criticize aid for its inefficiencies, its project (versus systems) focus, and its maddening bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, education aid by the US and Europe has resulted in greater access, better infrastructure, more educational resources, and in some cases, better educational quality for many of the world’s poorest children and adolescents.  

We can argue about government investment in education, the pace of educational development, and about the challenges associated with educational attainment and quality.

But in the timeline of history, 1962 is not that long ago. The Irish classrooms I visited in 2016 are vast improvements from the ones I knew in 1968.

The growth in both access to and the quality of education within parts of the globe that were devastated by dictatorship, brutality, war and deprivation—all within a few decades—reminds us that the arc of history is long but with sustained focus, sufficient investments, strong leadership, and long-term expectations, we can bend it toward educational progress (2).

The rhyme of history

But this bending arc can be reversed. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain noted—and the current rhyme of history in many European nations and in the U.S. is indeed unsettling.

The current rhyme of history threatens the foundations of post war progress: cooperation; looking forward versus backwards; international engagement; supporting universal educational attainment; and the hard-won policies that provided the frameworks, organizations and programs to operationalize these values.

Foreign aid has often lacked a compelling narrative. This is the time to find our voice. As national and global citizens and as people who work in education development, we must communicate the message that investing in global education development is not a zero-sum game or some mercantilist enterprise.

Every country benefits when all children are educated—no matter where they live or their ethnic background.

An educated populace everywhere is not just good for employers; it is essential for a healthy civic life, the wellbeing of a country, and the peace and prosperity of our planet.

This is also the time to reacquaint ourselves with history. The lesson from Europe—historically the world’s most divided and violent continent and one with centuries of persistent regional underdevelopment—is that nations attain peace and prosperity, not when they sequester themselves from other nations, but when they transcend nationalist passions and work together in the pursuit of a common regional or global good.

It’s a historical lesson that seems particularly fragile right now, but it is one we must fight to sustain.


  1. Most dramatically in China: in 2016, 88% of Chinese secondary students went on to university, compared to just 46% in 1998 (Economist, 2016).
  2. This quote is loosely paraphrased from Martin Luther King who paraphrased it from the Boston abolitionist and minister, Theodore Parker.


  • Economist. (2016, June 4). The class ceiling. London, UK: Author
  • Eurostat. (2014). Population aged 30–34 with tertiary educational attainment (ISCED 5–8), by country. Retrieved from
  • Judt, T.  (2005). Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945. London, UK: Penguin Books.
  • Karnow, S. (1983). Vietnam: A history. New York, NY: Viking Press
  • OECD. (2016, November). PISA 2015: Results in focus
  • Solsten, E. & Meditz, S.W. (Eds). (1988). Spain: A Country Study. Washington, D.C: Library of Congress.
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Mary - Your article was even more welcome for its unexpectedness. A career in development can indeed make us forget about the extent of our progress, and the elements that have contributed to it. AND how crucial it is to ensure we continue the forward movement. Thanks for the insights -

In reply to by Carol A. Grigsby

Hi Carol,

I really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. We keep hearing about the "bending arc" of justice, progress, etc. as if it is historically determined and independent of the actions of human beings. I think I wrote this blog to exhort myself to not give up and stay engaged, especially now, when it is so difficult to do so. Your response helps with that.


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