When It Comes To Learning, Education Systems Matter

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This morning I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote speech at the Education World Forum in London, a large annual gathering of education decision-makers from around the world. More than 80 ministers of education are attending the forum, plus many more high-level participants from donor agencies, private business and academia. I spoke about how much the global education community has to celebrate—the developing world has tripled the average years of schooling of an adult in just two generations, and in the past 15 years the ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education rose from 84 to 96 percent—but also about how much there is left to do less than a year to 2015.

We must focus not only on school attendance and average years of schooling but on learning, “learning for all.” Why? Because people start learning before we enter school and continue to learn after we leave school. And because schooling has not always resulted in learning. Despite significant progress in reducing the number of children not in school—57 million children today as compared with over 105 million at the turn of the millennium—learning levels even for basic skills are alarmingly poor. An estimated 250 million children around the world are unable to read and do math, even after spending three or more years in the classroom. And the greatest learning gaps are among children who live in extreme poverty, in slums and remote areas, in fragile and conflict-affected environments, children from ethnic minorities and lower castes, and children who have disabilities. These are the very children for whom we hope education could pave a way out of poverty and deprivation.

So, what will it take to move the needle on learning? Ensuring that schooling leads to learning for every child will require more than business-as-usual from our education systems.  I propose three directions for action:

  1. Use a systems approach to build a robust policy environment that promotes learning, because no single intervention on just one part of the education system will remedy low quality. Education systems are large and complex. In many countries, learning opportunities are provided and financed not only by the government but also by private individuals and enterprises, community and faith-based organizations. Education systems include not only education officials, teachers and school heads but also students and trainees, their families, and their communities. We often think that the solution lies in training more teachers and giving each student a textbook or a laptop to use in school or take home, but while these expand an education system’s physical capacity to deliver services, they do not guarantee that resources and inputs would mesh together effectively or efficiently so that students learn. Recognizing the importance of a systems approach, this week the World Bank is launching the Systems Approach for Better Education Results (or SABER) initiative, a groundbreaking open data tool to collect in-depth, comparable, and easily accessible information on education policies.
  2. Ensure that every classroom is supported to focus on learning, especially for the children from disadvantaged circumstances. A systems approach can lead to better education reforms and smarter investments, but success lies in whether these transform the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom. In the book Making Schools Work, three of my colleagues examine why it is difficult to specify in sufficient detail what makes for good teaching and learning.  There is no dearth of ideas on how to improve access to education, nor is effort lacking, but we must now learn and do much more to transform the quality of education.
  3. Measure and monitor learning in all countries. While there may be no simple formula for improving learning, information on learning results can be powerful enough to bring about change. Many countries are already building education management information mechanisms that monitor resource flows, school supply, deployment of teachers and student throughput. But most developing countries either do not measure even the basic skills of reading and math, or do not measure them on a regular basis, or do not provide the information to those who need them—the decision-makers, teachers, students.      
The rise of the middle-income countries, led by China, India, and Brazil, has intensified the desire of many nations to increase their competitiveness by building a more highly skilled workforce. The nature of work in our countries is changing and will continue to do so, because of technological advances, globalization, and demographic shifts. The nature of life in our societies is changing too. We are witnesses to these shifts.

For 2015 and beyond, we must commit not only to ensuring that the 57 million children out of school today attend school but also to ensuring that the many more millions of children who are already in school and those who will enter school receive an education that will prepare them to conquer the challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s world.  Our vision is that this should be the first generation in history in which every child, regardless of gender, country, and family circumstance, enters school and learns basic skills and more. Education, in its truest meaning, can be a powerful force for ending extreme poverty and boosting prosperity for all.

Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education



Elizabeth King

Non-resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

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