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Tackling the Learning Crisis: What if Everyone Would Simply Do Their Job?

Jaime Saavedra's picture
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Jaime Saavedra, center, surrounded by students during his visit to a school in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. World Bank/2018
Investing more in human capital, that is, investing more in people, is critical for development. This sounds almost cliché by now, which to a certain extent is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy because while it is true, many governments and societies are not acting upon it.

If you are ill and you don’t know about it, it is a bad thing. If you know about it and you don’t do anything about it, it is a tragedy. When it comes to education in developing countries, we know we are ill and yet we are doing little about it.

Yes, more children are in school, and that is great. But too often they are not learning or they are not learning enough. Looking at the most recent data, we know that half of children in primary schools across the developing world are not able to read or write a sentence, and cannot do a simple two-digit math operation. That is why, at the World Bank, we argue that we are facing a global learning crisis.

That is bad; but it is not uniformly bad. If you are a Minister of Education in an Eastern European country, you should be worried because 20 percent of your primary school students do not meet the minimum level of proficiency in math. If you are a Minister of Education in a Latin American country, that number is almost 60 percent, and you have an extremely serious problem. But if you are a Minister of Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, you have an overwhelming challenge, because the number of kids who are not learning is almost 90 percent.

Wait. But, then at least we know about our illness, right? Well, only up to a certain extent. Two-thirds of countries have decent data about learning in math and reading comprehension. One third of countries barely have any data. India, for example, does not participate in international assessments and has only scattered national data. Moreover, we know that learning is much more that reading, writing and math. It is science, history, geography; it is skills for life such as critical thinking, creativity, perseverance, and self-awareness. On that front, we don’t know how much learning is going on.

Wait again. But at least all kids are now in school, right? Well, not really. More than 260 million children of primary and secondary school age (about 6 to 17 years) are still not in school. In secondary schools, enrollment rates are at almost 70 percent but drop-out rates are high, particularly among girls. Only 50 percent of children of pre-primary age attend some form of formal early childhood education. And that number is not even a fifth in low income countries. We have a global learning crisis in the quality of education, but in addition, we have not yet solved the “quantity” problem, as access is far from universal.

What should we do to tackle this learning crisis? Surprisingly, huge progress could be achieved if everyone in the education system would just do their job. It’s that simple. This means that everyone must recognize that his or her job has a direct and profound impact on whether students learn. Students’ learning ought to be the objective of their work.

Pedagogical experts should ensure a curriculum that clearly defines the skills students should learn throughout the schooling process. The curriculum must constitute an effective and useful guide for teachers (not become an incomprehensible phone book that nobody uses, as you still see in some Latin American countries). Administrators need to ensure that the inputs needed for effective learning—from the textbook, the lesson plan, and the chalkboard to the tablet and the software that helps students learn at their own pace—are all there, on time, and available to all schools.

Teachers have, first of all, to be present at school. This is not the case in many countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Tanzania where 40 percent are absent from the school on any given day, or in Sindh, Pakistan, where until recently teachers working in Dubai—among other places—still collected a salary back home (the establishment of a school monitoring system fixed this). And when present, teachers must internalize that their job is not to passively teach, but to actively make sure that every student in the classroom learns (which is the case among successful systems in East Asia). And for the magic of learning to happen, teachers must be selected meritocratically (as in Finland or Singapore) and receive constant training, guidance, and feedback throughout their careers. Principals should be selected and trained to be managers of a complex institution that is the school, but they should also be pedagogical and institutional leaders who manage and inspire their workforce, with the end goal of making sure all students in the school learn. 

As the focus is on learning, the only criteria to select and promote teachers has to be related to how effective they are in ensuring learning (which sounds obvious but is not happening in education systems where promotions are mainly linked to tenure); and principals must be evaluated according to their ability to manage the institution effectively (which also sounds obvious, but is not the case when they are politically appointed and cannot be removed if ineffective). And given than in any country, the education “service” has to be provided every day, in thousands of schools, with tens of thousands of teachers and for millions of students—like a vast conglomerate with thousands of points of service—there has to be an institutional commitment to equip the education system with a highly qualified bureaucracy to run it. 

Huge progress is possible if everyone across the education system does their job, and realizes that their work has to be exclusively devoted to children learning the skills they need to have a happy and productive life. Is this possible? Absolutely. It has happened in many countries where society took the political decision of devoting the financial, managerial and human resources, with patience and perseverance, to learning.

Ultimately, it comes down to politics. As the mayor of Sobral, a small poor municipality in the State of Ceará in northeastern Brazil—which has moved from the bottom of the ranking to being number one in learning outcomes in Brazil—told me a few weeks ago: “The political decision we made 15 years ago was to keep politics out of education, and all the actors in the education system are here to ensure that kids learn, which means that they are simply doing their job.”