These days, that title alone is probably enough to have most of you continue reading.
Pakistan's leap into international news headlines has mostly been a result of a series of unfortunate events. The global spotlight has also extended to Pakistan's education system, and the tone of that coverage has mirrored that of Pakistan’s other problems. A recent New York Times article described the growth of madrassas in southern Punjab, claiming that lack of access compelled citizens to turn to these schools as a last resort to educate their children.
Rather than contributing to this debate, I wanted to discuss education in Pakistan from a different angle by talking about the problem solvers. It seems like an appropriate time to write on these issues considering the recent World Bank approval of the Sindh and Punjab Education Sector Projects, two credits totaling over $650M to support the wide-scale education reform programs in these two major provinces.
Pakistan has embarked on some of the most ambitious and innovative education reforms across the globe. For example, initiatives to improve teacher quality, such as appointment of only teachers who pass an entrance exam in Sindh, would be an ambitious agenda for many countries globally, let alone in one with a history of patronage based appointments in exchange for political allegiance, favors or cash. And in Punjab, the government is committed to developing a teacher incentive program to reward the public school system’s top performers. This commitment is a sharp contrast with the reaction towards a performance based incentives system proposed by Michelle Rhee for the Washington DC school system.
In addition, both Punjab and Sindh have implemented cutting edge public private partnerships in education. Leveraging the private sector to provide high quality services to underserved rural areas, the government is providing a per-child subsidy to existing (in Punjab), and newly created (in Sindh) private schools, provided the schools continue to provide education free of cost and maintain a minimum level of quality, as measured by student learning. What will be the outcome of these reforms? Changing the quality of the stock of teachers and extending the reach of the education system to the underserved areas ultimately will affect the quality and supply of education in the country, bringing promising potential to improve child learning.
These programs don't simply build on previous reforms in the hope of continuing the progress achieved over the last five years (increase in net primary school enrollment from 42% to 56% nationally), but aggressively push them further. The above examples are just a few of the many innovative and ambitious initiatives that are being undertaken to increase school participation, reduce gender and rural-urban disparities in participation, increase progression and improve student learning in the country.
It would be naive of me to suggest that the solutions are close at hand or even that the progress made can definitively be projected to continue at the same pace. The focus now has turned to implementing these programs. The framework is in place, but without vigilance to adapt to challenges as they are uncovered, sustained championship, and determination, the progress can stagnate or even regress. But I hope that I can be afforded continued naiveté and get to work with the problem solvers to fight one of the most important challenges Pakistan faces.