This Children’s Day, I am thinking back to an event on the link between quality education and inclusive growth that we had last month in Lima, Peru. The event was memorable not only because of Eric Hanushek’s excellent presentation and the lively panel discussion that followed, but also because there were many students from Lima in the audience.
A month later, I still remember the young faces and how intently they were paying attention to everything that was being said about their futures. At the time, I thought, this is how it should be. There should always be children and youth involved and engaged when the discussion is about them.
It is 8 AM. The winter sun begins to appear over the gray-green mass of trees above the village of Tritriva in Madagascar’s central highlands. The courtyard of a stone church is already filled with women, many holding still-sleeping children in their arms. They have assembled for the first time in two months to receive a cash payment from the Malagasy state.
The women are poor and all live on less than $2 per day. The money they receive from the government amounts to about a third of their cash income for the two months in between each payment: it will go a long way in helping them support their families for the rest of the winter.
Initiated by the Madagascar government, with support from the World Bank, the payments are part of a new program implemented by the Fonds d'Intervention pour le Développement (FID) to combat poverty in rural Madagascar and provide sustainable pathways to human development.
At 9:00 am this past Monday morning, almost 30 people crammed into a small conference room at the World Bank in DC to talk about ... videogames. (A good number more were queued up online to join in, but unfortunately technical snafus prevented them from participating -- our continued apologies if you count yourself among that group.) The featured presenter at this discussion, my colleague Mariam Adil ("Meet the Woman Who's Shaking Up Pakistan's Social Gaming Industry"), the founder of GRID (Gaming Revolution for International Development), shared some of the interesting and innovative things she has been doing to help create and roll out a number of educational mobile apps, as a contribution to broader discussions on topics related to 'early childhood development' (ECD).
Providing children and their caregivers with access to quality pre-school education opportunities is a primary activity of the World Bank's work related to early childhood development. No one who participated in Monday's discussion expressed the view that 'technology is the answer to the challenges of ECD'. That said:
Are there approaches and activities related to early childhood development worth pursuing that can be complemented, and in some cases helpfully enabled by, new technologies?
As the related World Bank strategy states, "Investing in young children through ECD programs—ensuring they have the right stimulation, nurturing and nutrition—is one of the smartest investments a country can make to address inequality, break the cycle of poverty, and improve outcomes later in life."
Given the proliferation of mobile phones in communities around the world, there can be no denying that such things are increasingly in the hands of parents and caregivers (and, for better or worse in the hands of children as well, both briefly and for extended periods of time).
What are we learning about what is possible, and what is useful, to do with these devices that can complement and extend many ECD activities and programs?
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.
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.
Spending a day at a kindergarten can be eye-opening for an adult. I’ll tell you why.
The school in question is what we, in the Russian Federation, call an inclusive school – where children with special needs are part of a regular kindergarten and participate in the same activities and programs as others. It works! This school was started in 2011 and does not distinguish between children with special needs and others. Both groups are part of the same class, sit at the same table, and participate in the same activities. Not many places in the world do this.
The inclusive model, while not unique, is still rare. But other than that distinctive nature, what’s so special about it?
Save the Children’s recent report, A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition, reminds us that undernutrition is not a new crisis—and that the crisis will deepen if the global community fails to take serious action. If current trends persist, 11.7 million more children will be stunted in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025, compared to 2010.
What can we do? Food is part of the answer, but it’s about the right food, at the right time—not just starchy staple foods that fill empty stomachs. According to Save the Children, more than half of children in some countries are eating diets of just three items: a staple food, a legume, and a vegetable (usually green leaves).
Availability of food and access to food are necessary but insufficient to ensure good nutrition. Insidiously, malnutrition (undernutrition) is not hunger, although malnourished children are often hungry. And undernutrition is frequently invisible, but increases the risk of child death; steals children’s growth; decreases cognitive potential, school performance, and adult productivity; and contributes to the development of non-communicable diseases later in life.
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.