Today, I had the pleasure of participating in a keynote discussion at the Education World Forum in London--a large annual gathering of education decisionmakers from around the world. We focused this morning on how to use and translate data generated by education systems into better policies and effective results.
My fellow panelists which included Baroness Lindsay Northover, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at the UK’s Department for International Development, and Professor Eric Hanushek from Stanford University, made excellent points about the link between education outcomes and economic growth. They also spoke about the ways to reach the 58 million children from marginalized communities who remain out of school.
I chose to focus on investments in the youngest children, from birth to age 5, before they even enter primary school.
early childhood development
Every mom wants a healthy baby. And in the early days of a child’s life, parents and doctors understandably focus on how the baby’s physical development—is she gaining weight? Is he developing reflexes? Are they hitting all of the milestones of a healthy and thriving child?
But along with careful screenings for physical development, there is an excellent opportunity to tap into those same resources and networks to promote early cognitive, socio-emotional, and language development. This helps children everywhere have a strong start in life, ensuring that they are able to learn as they grow and fulfill their potential throughout childhood.
The World Cup games being played in Brazil send a hopeful message that teams from Ghana, Nigeria, Ecuador and Honduras can qualify to play against much better funded teams from Europe and North America. Talent, hard work, ambition and years of building a team can make a winner of teams from poorer nations – at least, enough to feed the dreams of a boy in the favelas of Rio or the slums of Lagos.
The appearance of Vietnam last year in the PISA league tables with scores above the OECD average also sent a hopeful message that even those countries with less than half the average GDP per capita in the OECD countries can do well by its students. As with football or soccer, talent, hard work, ambition and effort at building a competent teacher force can improve student performance dramatically. If a country focuses on one education goal with the fervor that nations, teams and individuals devote to the World Cup, focusing their best talent and resources as needed, could it not achieve such an important goal by 2030?
Over the past several decades, developing countries have made remarkable progress in achieving quantitative education targets. Since the turn of the millennium, almost 50 million children around the world have gained access to basic education – and most are reaching completion. But as recent PISA data shows, this is not typically the case for qualitative improvements in education. A persistent learning gap remains for an estimated 250 million children who are unable to read and do math, even after spending three or more years in the classroom.
Spending a day at a kindergarten can be eye-opening for an adult. I’ll tell you why.
The school in question is what we, in the Russian Federation, call an inclusive school – where children with special needs are part of a regular kindergarten and participate in the same activities and programs as others. It works! This school was started in 2011 and does not distinguish between children with special needs and others. Both groups are part of the same class, sit at the same table, and participate in the same activities. Not many places in the world do this.
The inclusive model, while not unique, is still rare. But other than that distinctive nature, what’s so special about it?
Save the Children’s recent report, A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition, reminds us that undernutrition is not a new crisis—and that the crisis will deepen if the global community fails to take serious action. If current trends persist, 11.7 million more children will be stunted in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025, compared to 2010.
What can we do? Food is part of the answer, but it’s about the right food, at the right time—not just starchy staple foods that fill empty stomachs. According to Save the Children, more than half of children in some countries are eating diets of just three items: a staple food, a legume, and a vegetable (usually green leaves).
Availability of food and access to food are necessary but insufficient to ensure good nutrition. Insidiously, malnutrition (undernutrition) is not hunger, although malnourished children are often hungry. And undernutrition is frequently invisible, but increases the risk of child death; steals children’s growth; decreases cognitive potential, school performance, and adult productivity; and contributes to the development of non-communicable diseases later in life.
I travel to many developing countries in the context of my work for The World Bank. I visit schools that receive financial support and technical assistance from the Bank to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of students. Each time, I ask teachers in these schools what they think would make the biggest difference in the learning outcomes of their students. The most common answer is “better parents.” I often wonder if this response is, in some conscious or unconscious way, an excuse to help teachers explain the poor outcomes of their students (especially those from the poorest households) and their low expectations of what their students can achieve. However, both common sense and solid research indicate that parents matter.
Creating jobs and increasing productivity are at the top of policymakers’ agenda across the world. We heard this message during the World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings and during the UN General Assembly meetings in New York last month. We read about disaffected youth in rich and less rich countries who have university education but can’t find jobs. I’m not going to argue that education holds the key to these current issues. Undoubtedly, current high unemployment rates owe a lot to the ongoing global economic slump.
Nonetheless, the current economic crisis forces us to examine why too many workers are unprepared to meet the demands from the modern workplace, particularly in increasingly competitive economic environments. Evidence suggests that education systems in many countries are failing young people with respect to basic skills as well as high-level cognitive skills such as critical analysis, problem solving and communication.
Last week, the World Bank hosted the Washington, D.C., launch of The Lancet’s 2011 child development series, four years after the journal revealed that more than 200 million children under five in low- and middle-income countries were not reaching their developmental potential, due to (preventable) risk factors like stunting, iron and iodine deficiencies, and lack of cognitive stimulation. The latest research findings in The Lancet provide even greater clarity on the developmental inequality that continues to plague many millions of children.
In conjunction with the Ibero-American Summit this month, Pamela Cox, Vice President for Latin American and Caribbean, emphasizes the urgent need to focus on education quality in a recent op-ed that appeared in major news outlets across the region:
If education were simply a matter of attending classes, Latin America and the Caribbean would have already done its homework. Most regional countries have made enormous progress towards achieving universal access to basic education. There is also clear progress at the secondary and tertiary levels.
But more than access, the key goal of education is learning. Making sure that children and youngsters perform according to the requirements of the day is a necessary condition for the advancement of society. In that respect, the region still has some unfinished business.