Should developing countries shift from focusing on improving schools to improving parents?

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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.

A new OECD study using PISA data highlights the important role of parents in the learning outcomes of students, and it has received broad attention from opinion makers (see Friedman's editorial in the Sunday edition of the NYT).  The researchers look into more than the widely documented impact of parental (especially mother's) education level and explore specific parental behaviors. They find that some types of parental involvement are more conducive to stronger learning outcomes in high school – for example, reading to young children and asking them about their school day, is related to higher learning outcomes (as measured by PISA test scores), but volunteering at school or participating in the PTA are not.

But what does this mean for policy makers? What does this imply for World Bank staff and others advising policy makers around the world? In my view, we need to do more from the school-side to counterbalance the role of parents. Because children do not choose their parental quality, in most societies the most disadvantaged children in terms of the households in which they live (poverty, low parental education, low parental involvement) also end up in the most under- resourced (both in material and human terms) schools.

Schools around the world continue to be life changing institutions. But in most countries, more needs to be done to attract the best into the teaching profession, prepare them with useful training and experience, monitor and support their work, and motivate them by rewarding excellent teachers. At the Bank, in the SABER-Teachers project, we are working hard to build new knowledge on what are the most effective policies to ensure that all children have access to great teachers. We are collecting data on the policies of a majority of education systems across the globe, and assessing their progress towards achieving 8 core teacher policy goals (setting clear expectations, attracting the best into teaching, preparing teachers with useful training and experience, matching teachers’ skills with students’ needs, leading teachers with strong principals, monitoring teaching and learning, supporting teachers to improve, and motivating teachers to perform). 

We know that few societies do this particularly well, and children around the world continue to have unequal opportunities to learn and succeed in life. Affecting the quality of parents is important and is a much more difficult task than to achieve large scale improvement in the quality of teaching and learning in schools. While the latter is also unquestionably very challenging, countries like Finland, South Korea, Singapore and Poland have shown that it is feasible to achieve this within a generation.


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