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.
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.
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.
So much has been written recently about the individual, economic and social benefits of investing in early childhood development (ECD), that it is becoming a challenge to summarize these studies. However, ECD is an area that I’m increasingly involved in with my work at The World Bank. Among others, Nobel Laureate Economist, James Heckman and his colleagues have provided very convincing evidence of the benefits of early childhood interventions, including preschool education, on later individual and social outcomes (my colleague and fellow blogger, Jishnu Das looked at Heckman's work in his last blog post "Are Non-Cognitive Gains in Education More Important than Test-Scores?"). These benefits are substantial and varied, ranging from improved education outcomes for the individual, access to better jobs, higher wages, and even lower risks of engaging in criminal activities – which, of course benefits society as a whole. Moreover, investing early is a better investment than waiting until the child is older, because the costs of achieving comparable benefits through interventions later in life – remedial education in basic education, programs to target at-risk youth, and the like – are so much more costly and also less likely to have an impact.
Most educational interventions are widely considered successful if they increase test-scores -- which indicate cognitive ability. Presumably, this is because higher test-scores in school imply gains such as higher wages later on.
However, non-cognitive outcomes also matter---a lot.
As the World Bank's Annual Meetings met to discuss global development this October, the issue of jobs was front and center. The new Open Forum 2010 allowed leading thinkers and engaged citizens from around the globe to weigh in on the ultimate question of how to jump-start jobs, as well as cultivate economic stabilty for future generations.
Read the Human Development Network's Vice President Tamar Manuelyan Atinc's commentary, as she discusses the Jumpstarting Jobs session from the Meetings Center blog: