Bali was the scene for an exciting international event this week, as the World Bank launched the first phase of its flagship Systems Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results  (SABER) initiative in East Asia and the Pacific. Joined by education policymakers from 14 East Asian economies, we presented the first ever region-wide diagnosis of policies in place in East Asian countries and an assessment of how to improve their education systems.
The four-day conference  took stock of progress in student achievement levels in the region and beyond, documenting the policies in place in several education policy domains including – information systems, assessment, teacher policies, autonomy and accountability, information and communication technology (ICTs), vocational tracking and tertiary education systems – and compared East Asian education systems. Indonesia’s Minister of Education, Mohammad Nuh, opened the ministerial forum and was joined by education experts from the World Bank, UNESCO, the OECD, the Asian Development Bank, and AusAID, as well as experts from Australia, China, Colombia (represented by former Education Minister Cecilia Maria Velez, pictured above), Japan, Korea and Poland, all of whom shared lessons of successful education reform from their own country experience.
As organizers we hoped to demonstrate that while it is quite easy to rank education systems; more challenging is the task of identifying the policies that foster good performance and that provide for rich, rewarding learning experience for students. This event served as a launch for the multi-year SABER program to document the policies, structures and procedures of education systems across the world.
The success story of South Korea’s rise in education is well-known, as is Singapore’s and Japan’s. Also celebrated is the fact that at least four of the top five performers in the OECD’s international student assessment in 2009 were from East Asia. Less well known is that the top performer in all three subjects – reading, math and science – was Shanghai, China. East Asia dominates in international achievement tests rankings  – or benchmarks; other top performers include Canada, Finland and New Zealand.
Most countries in East Asia have made great progress in expanding access to schooling in recent years. However, there is a stronger need to make sure that young people also learn the skills that will help them meet the changing demands of the labor market. As countries such as Korea have demonstrated, the proper policy environment and stewardship of the education system can help countries improve their competitive edge in the increasingly complex and globalized world economy.
It is important to invest now in education, and to invest smartly, as suggested in the World Bank’s new Education Strategy . Studies show that spending on education leads to economic growth and poverty reduction. On average, an additional year of schooling raises earnings by 10 percent, and as high as 20 percent in lower income countries. For the nation, higher quality schooling raises earnings and productivity even more.
The costs of not investing in human capital are huge. The loss associated with one less year of schooling is around 16 percent of per capita income. To put it differently, a higher human capital level would enable middle-income countries to double their per capita income in five years. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD used his keynote address to extol the benefits of using international comparison to inform domestic policymaking. The conference provided a forum for building networks, partnerships, and alliances among East Asian education policy-makers who share common goals.
At the same time that East Asia has some of the best performers in education – and not coincidently in terms of economic growth – several middle-income countries in the region lag far behind; several others do not avail themselves of the opportunity to measure their system by participating in international student assessments. The lessons for policy makers from the success stories of the world are nearby in the same region. Moreover, some of the middle-income countries in the region are making progress in international assessments, including Indonesia in recent years in the OECD’s PISA tests; the Philippines in the IEA’s TIMSS tests from 1999 to 2003; and Thailand stopped the slide in test scores in the most recent PISA.
While test scores are a good proxy for measuring learning outcomes, decision makers need to know the policies, programs and institutions responsible for creating the education success stories and for the rapid increase in some countries. East Asia experience in Hong Kong (China), Korea, Japan, Singapore – and now China (Shanghai) – provides countries with information not just on performance, but the policies needed to achieve those results.
Photo credit: Hana Yoshimoto