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Knowledge for Progress

It has been suggested that the world is overestimating the role of education in economic development. But, while education is not a quick fix for slow growth, it is virtually impossible to name a country that has sustained an economic transformation without advances in education.

LONDON – Some 236 years ago, a young governor from the American state of Virginia broke the mold on education reform. In his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, Thomas Jefferson called for “a system of general instruction” that would reach all citizens, “from the richest to poorest.” It was the first step in the creation of the American system of public education – an institution that helped to propel the country’s rise to global prominence.

By the early twentieth century, the United States was a global leader in public schooling. Investments in education provided a catalyst for economic growth, job creation, and increased social mobility. As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have shown, it was American “exceptionalism” in education that enabled the country to steal a march on European countries that were under-investing in human capital.

As world leaders gather this week for the Oslo Summit on Education for Development, the lessons from this experience could not be more relevant. In fact, with the global economy becoming increasingly knowledge-based, the education and skills of a country’s people are more important than ever in securing its future. Countries that fail to build inclusive education systems face the prospect of sluggish growth, rising inequality, and lost opportunities in world trade.

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