There can be no question that education is a key ingredient in improving the lives of children, families, communities and nations. Those nations that attend to the well-being of their children are likely to improve their economies, their cultures and their societies over time. Those nations that fail to care for their young will experience economic stagnation, poverty and oppression. Education, in short, is a major element in economic and social development.

Any discussion of education must begin with the clear and evident truth that all nations must provide the necessary conditions in which children may be born healthy. All pregnant women should have access to high-quality prenatal care. The World Health Organization, the March of Dimes and nearly 50 other organizations produced a report in 2012 about the importance of prenatal care in assuring the health of newborn babies. In the absence of prenatal care, many babies will die, and many will be born with cognitive deficiencies due to poor health care and poor nutrition. Beginning life with a healthy start is crucial for all education that follows.

In addressing the needs of the world’s children, it is self-evident – or should be – that all children should have access to education, without regard to their gender, religion or disability. The most basic goal is universal access to primary education; once that goal is reached, it must be followed by universal access to secondary education. At the same time, nations must assure that teachers are well trained and well educated and that the physical structures in which schooling is conducted are sound, inclusive and well maintained.

Beyond the basic necessities of universal access, well-trained teachers, and appropriate physical structures, there are important international differences and debates about how best to improve schooling.

Today, there are two competing paradigms to address that fundamental issue. One focuses on meeting the needs of children and assuring that they have every opportunity to develop their talents, interests and their full humanity. The other focuses on testing, league tables, competition and choice.

“Testing is in no way a means to achieve equity. It is a means to measure inequity.”

Finland today is representative of a nation that exemplifies the first paradigm. Finland aims to provide a good school in every part of the country. Children do not take standardized tests until they complete high school and apply to enter college. Students may choose whether to enter an academic or a vocational programme, and maintain the option of moving between these programmes. The goal of Finnish education is the full development of all children.

The United States, among many others, is now pursuing a programme of testing and choice among schools. The goal of standardized testing is to rank and rate children, with the assumption that the publication of test scores will encourage educators and students to try harder and produce better results. In addition, the federal government requires schools to evaluate the quality of teachers in relation to the test scores of their students. This places even greater emphasis on standardized tests as instruments for ranking and rating not only students, but also teachers, principals and schools. The underlying theory of action is that competition produces higher test scores and better performance. Presumably, educators will work harder if offered incentives and threats, and schools will be encouraged to compete for higher test scores, prodded by the threat that the school may be closed if it fails to raise its test scores.

By now, it is clear which path is likelier to lead to equity for children.

The emphasis on standardized testing creates enormous disadvantages for children who live in poverty. A century’s experience of standardized testing has established that it reproduces and reflects the social order. Although there will occasionally be children of poverty who achieve high test scores by dint of their unusual intelligence or hard work or both, the results of standardized testing will invariably produce a bell curve in which the children of poverty are over-represented in the bottom half of test-takers, while the children who are well off are overrepresented in the top half of the distribution. Thus, testing is in no way a means to achieve equity. It is a means to measure inequity.

In 2001, the United States Congress passed a bill called ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB), which was signed into law in January 2002. The theory of the law was that annual testing in grades 3–8 would produce higher test scores and that eventually all children would be successful in school. Thus, if the law’s theory was correct, then ‘no child’ would be ‘left behind.’ The law mandated that 100 per cent of all children in grades 3–8 must be rated proficient on tests of mathematics and reading by 2014.

The law failed. Not one of the nation’s 50 states has achieved the goal of 100 per cent proficiency. Many schools narrowed their curriculum, eliminating the arts or other subjects, to devote more time to preparing to take tests. Literally, billions of dollars have been diverted from instruction to testing. There is more emphasis on preparing to take standardized tests than ever before, but there is no evidence that children are better educated, better able to think independently, more creative or better able to deal thoughtfully with life’s vicissitudes. Of course, it is important to point out that none of the indicators of better education, such as creativity and thoughtfulness, can be measured by a standardized test. Yet, the NCLB has been augmented with a new scheme, called Race to the Top, which also relies on standardized testing.

This much is clear: Standardized testing has done nothing to reduce inequity or to improve the lot of children and families who are impoverished. Family income and family education continue to be the surest predictors of scores on standardized tests.

Another strategy favored by the federal government is school choice. The goal is to encourage more students to attend publicly funded schools run by private corporations (these are called charter schools). Some states have endorsed school vouchers to allow students to use public funds to attend private religious schools.

School choice is a euphemism for privatization. The evidence to date is strong that privatization encourages segregation by income, race, religion and class. Although proponents of charter schools and school vouchers say that their goal is equity, this has not been the typical result. As the privately managed schools compete with public schools, they tend to skim off the most able students from the poorest communities, increasing the burden of the public schools. The privately managed schools tend to exclude the students with severe disabilities and students whose native language is not English, and they reserve the right to remove students who do not conform to their strict rules. In effect, this creates a dual school system, both funded by the public but operating under very different rules. The privatized sector is free to choose its students, while the public sector must accept all students, including those kicked out by the privatized sector.

The global path to a better life for all children is clear. Children need good health and nutrition. They need the opportunity to attend schools staffed by qualified teachers in physical conditions that are optimal for teaching and learning. They need to participate in a curriculum that offers them the arts, the sciences, mathematics, history, civic understanding, literature, foreign languages and physical education.

Education must be recognized as a public responsibility, not an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Just as the government is responsible for public safety and for protecting the air and water, it is responsible for assuring a sound education for all children. Governments must provide and protect and adequately fund public education, while working to improve the lives of families and reduce poverty. There is no other way to assure equity for children and societies.