Education and economic development: Five reforms that have worked


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Education systems are simply not performing as needed; not as economies demand, and not as parents desire. Yet it’s important to celebrate and recognize the success of countries that have made significant advances. (Photo: Sofie Tesson / Taimani Films / World Bank)

Every sector is reforming to meet the changing demands of the global economy. Except one. Education remains a predominantly public service.  This is fine except that it means that this is also mainly publicly-provided, publicly-financed, and regulated. No public service agency is expected to do as much as we expect of education. How are education systems around the world faring?

In most countries, education systems are not providing workers with the skills necessary to compete in today’s job markets. Korea is an exception, having started its reform program long ago and raised student outcomes significantly.  Korea is praised for building a solid foundation in the early years and using the private sector judiciously to expand access and develop relevant skills.  The Education Commission – which includes heads of state, government ministers, Nobel laureates, and leaders in the field of education – praises the East Asian nation and urges other countries to follow the “progressive universalism” path exemplified by Korea.
As the recent release of international student test data (TIMSS and PISA) show, there is an urgent need for education system improvements in most countries.  This obvious in low performing countries, as well as in middle income countries trying to catch up. But it is also true for high performers because the nature of the economy is changing, and with it so too are the demands for skills propelled by what the World Economic Forum has coined as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Not only are education outcomes poor in many countries, but the gaps are high and increasing. This is now being reflected in increasing returns to schooling and rising income inequality. Education systems are simply not performing as needed; not as economies demand, and not as parents desire. Even in high-performing countries, the level of dissatisfaction is high.
It’s important to celebrate and recognize the success of counties that have made significant advances. Here are five:

  • Poland: A reform started in 1999 led to significant results.  By 2012, the OECD ranked Polish teachers among the best in world. Part of the reform was a restructuring of the education system which postponed early tracking in the system.  Research shows that these changes led to a significant increase in scores propelling Poland to the top of the rankings in PISA.
  • Vietnam: PISA results in 2012 and 2015 shocked the world.  A low income country surpassed most OECD countries.  Assessments and evaluations confirm that Vietnam’s primary schools are very productive: “Vietnamese students learned a similar amount per year at the simplest tasks (e.g., addition and subtraction) but much more in terms of applying these to more complex tasks (e.g., multiplication, division and applied problems)” compared to other countries (read more about it in this blog post).  In other words, Vietnamese schools are more productive at imparting learning.  This is also evidenced in the application of Escuela Nueva, an innovative education model from Colombia, in Vietnamese classrooms.

  • Pakistan: A public subsidy program to low-cost private schools in the province of Punjab, Pakistan known as the Foundation Assisted Schools supported by the World Bank.  The program is administered by the Punjab Education Foundation, a semi-autonomous intermediary organization, which leverages public financing to increase equitable access to schooling more efficiently than can be achieved through the province’s public school system.  Large positive effects are detected in terms of coverage, school inputs, teacher support and test scores in a series of papers and articles.
  • Mexico: A school autonomy component, part of a compensatory education project supported by the World Bank, empowers schools to support quality improvements by giving parents ownership, resources and voice, and has been subject to rigorous evaluation.  The first research project showed significant effects on reduced repetition and grade failure.  Subsequent research investigated whether giving parents more control over grants to support local schools could improve student learning, particularly in disadvantaged communities.  Preliminary results suggest that doubling grants to parent associations modestly reduced dropout rates and increased test scores.  However, after only one year, students in schools in which the parent association received training saw an average increase in test scores, compared to students in schools where parents did not receive training.  These increases would move the schools beyond the national average and edge closer to OECD scores.
  • Papua New Guinea: Early childhood development programs and early investments in reading are proving to be very cost-effective investments.  In fact, early reading must be a component of any serious effort to transform education systems.  In Papua New Guinea, an assessment of reading proved that too few school children were reading – at all – in the second grade.  A targeted intervention program in a World Bank-supported project significantly reduced the number of zero word readers in just on academic year.
This reading increase in Papua New Guinea – of about one full standard deviation roughly equal to about three years of schooling – was detected in a randomized trial in one province. If this program was generalized to the whole country, the system would be transformed.  We are getting such results for other countries – The Gambia, Tonga, Kenya, Liberia to name a few – and the news is encouraging.
Improving reading scores in the early years will help us ensure that all children are receiving their fair share out of the education system.  After all, those who cannot read in the early years can’t go on to learn math, science and other subjects, truncating their ability to realize the significant economic and social returns associated with education.  They certainly won’t be able to prosper in the digital economy.
These are some of the lessons of success, especially from East Asia, which we’ll be discussing over the next few days in a conference in Jakarta.
Follow Harry Anthony Patrinos on Twitter at @hpatrinos.
Find out more about World Bank Group education on our website and on Twitter.
Christine Wallace
March 22, 2017

Yes we should be celebrating successes whilst we bemoan the generally low levels of learning in the developing world. However your first two examples relate to system reform which has resulted in scaled improvements whereas your next three revert to discussion of project successes. Surely the real successes are where systems have changed.Taking project success to scale requires so much more than just scaling up the size of the intervention.

Harry Patrinos (Author)
April 03, 2017

Agree. But the three projects mentioned have the potential to be scaled nationally, or elements of them have already been scaled. But I agree that we need to do and say more about effective implementation of scaled programs.

March 24, 2017

In the Indian context, economic growth cannot be seen as synonymous with economic
development. For all but the most ardent believers in “trickle down”, economic growth will be seen at best as a necessary condition for economic development. Its certainly not sufficient.

Harry Patrinos (Author)
April 03, 2017

Good point, thanks for sharing. Growth is a necessary condition.

Gustavo Arcia
March 24, 2017

This is timely, as it suggests that we should have more countries adapting the Escuela Nueva model in combination with more school autonomy and accountability. Combining a more effective pedagogy linked to local cultural factors with autonomy and accountability seem to make a big differnce in the structure of educational incentives. This combination is also complementary with the incipient efforts for improving principal leadership and with increasing the content knowledge of teachers. Very good post.

Harry Patrinos (Author)
April 03, 2017

Thank you Gustavo. These are good points, and I agree. I think Escuela Nueva offers a useful framework through which to see 21st century skills. Incidentally, we will soon be published a major evaluation of the Escuela Nueva experience in Vietnam.