Just hours after the release of PISA test scores last week showed Finland’s students slipping in the international rankings from a ten-year perch at the top, a Finnish headline read “Golden Days Where Finland’s Education A Success Are Over". The Economist's headline was more concise: "Finn-ished." Is it time to relegate Finland to the dustbin of educational history?
The issue of inclusion was at the heart of the discussions around the World Bank's Education Sector Strategy 2020: Learning for All. One of the strategy’s main messages is that "there are indisputable benefits to ensuring that [...] disadvantaged populations have an equal opportunity to learn and excel in order for households, communities, and nations to prosper" and, therefore, the development of learning environments friendly to these populations is an essential part of our efforts to increase access to, and improve the quality of, schools worldwide.
The Bank is focusing its efforts on girls, ethnic minorities and disabled children. However, it’s also important for the Bank to look at the extent to which bullying, and homophobic bullying in particular, is a cause of exclusion and at ways to address it.
In the Nigerian state of Ekiti, my World Bank colleagues and I recently visited schools that had twice as many teachers as needed. In Bauchi, we saw rural schools that had only language teachers rather than those versed in science or mathematics. In Anambra, there was no single science or mathematics teacher in the rural schools we visited.
Why were these things happening? How can such issues exist within a vast and wonderful country that should have the potential of providing knowledge and expertise throughout the continent and the world? The Systems Approach to Better Education Results (SABER) initiative provided tools and analysis to help identify some ways forward.
The headlines started to stream as soon as the PISA results were in: “Asian countries top OECD's latest PISA survey.” “Poor academic standards.” “Students score below international averages.” It depends on the country, of course. A time to celebrate for some, a time to lament for others.
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Since the UN’s High Level Panel announced its vision for the post-2015 development agenda in May, much debate has centered on the absence of a goal for inequality among the panel’s list of 15 proposed goals. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, commenting on the goals in Jakarta last June, stressed that the principle of “no one left behind” was central to the panel’s vision, and that each of the U.N.’s goals focused on tackling inequality. The proposed education goals, in fact, include a commitment to ‘ensure every child, regardless of circumstance, completes primary education able to read, write and count well enough to meet minimum learning standards’.
I recently came across a report card from my secondary school days in Ireland. It was an interesting read. My progress in areas as diverse as mathematics, singing, Irish language, and physical education was reported on in the form of marks, grades, and narrative feedback. Some teachers provided little information on my learning. Others went into detail. I was impressed by the number of areas in which my progress had been assessed (less so by my lack of singing ability, which, evidently, had been spotted early on!).
Flash forward to 2013, and there is a conversation raging in the development community about how to measure and report on learning globally. A huge concern is the fact that too often children leave school without acquiring the basic knowledge and skills they need to lead productive lives. To make matters worse, there is a global data gap on learning that is impeding efforts to better understand this crisis and how to achieve learning for all.
Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, is gaining a lot of attention for the accessible way she demonstrates how high achieving countries got that way. While she provides useful insights into the usual suspects: Finland, Korea and Poland (a not so usual suspect), there are lessons waiting to be learned from other places, the least likely suspects, in other words, middle and lower income countries. While this analysis is useful, what policy makers in developing countries ask me is, “Why should we participate in international assessments?” They are concerned with being ranked at the bottom and having nothing to show for their efforts.
Wow. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in many impactful events during my years at the World Bank, but one of the most memorable will always be the conversation between 16 year-old girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim during our Annual Meetings last Friday, in honor of the International Day of the Girl Child.
What comes first to your mind when you think about girls’ education? There may be a good chance that you remember a particular girl you met who could not go to primary school. Or perhaps you will visualize one of those great pictures of smiling and studious girls attending primary school in a developing country thanks to a particular project or intervention.
Both pictures are correct, but they account for only a small part of the story.
One year ago, Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old student from Swat Valley, Pakistan, was targeted by the Taliban and shot as she was returning from school on a bus. She miraculously survived and today continues her inspirational campaign for girls’ education worldwide through the Malala Fund.