Why focus on learning?

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Changing mindsets


All societies must provide everyone the opportunity of a quality education. And many do. There are many countries where everyone receives a decent education no matter where the child was born or who are her parents. The methods, the way the education system is organized will vary across countries like Singapore, Canada, Russia, Finland, Japan, Ireland or New Zealand. While those systems are permanently trying to improve themselves, all, or almost all, receive a decent education opportunity. 

Why then are we living in a global learning crisis where 53% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple text? (what we define as Learning Poverty). This is an extremely high number. Why is this happening if clearly it is economically and technically feasible to educate all children? Actually, most of the children in these countries are going to school but are not learning. Why is it that those societies are not internalizing the need to do their homework and organize themselves to give a decent education to all? Some are in the path of doing so but are making slow progress. Other are not even on that path. The latest PISA results, which measure learning in early secondary education, show that in most middle-income countries which participate performances are stagnant, and there are only a few bright spots. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint the ultimate reason. It is akin to the reason why some countries are rich, and others are poor. But to make things more puzzling, many developing countries have shown the capacity to improve their service delivery and/or their capacity to regulate markets. Telecommunications and energy regulation have improved. Macro stability is now a feature of many countries. Vaccines have been effectively delivered, and diseases like polio and measles are close to being eradicated. 

Still, in many of those countries the quality of the education service is low, and uneven. Elites get a good public or private education, but the rest have to scramble. In many countries, where you are born and who your parents are define the quality of the education service you receive. The social contract clearly does not work for everybody.

Most likely, in those countries there is no internalization by the macro financial complex, the business elite, and the political leadership that providing a decent education service to all is an inescapable precondition for having viable economy and society. Maybe because the business and political elite have solved their own education problem and send their children to a private school. Maybe because the institutions of the state are still weak. Maybe because there is the idea among the policy circles that the problem is insurmountable and impossible to address from a financial and organizational viewpoint. Or maybe because a low-quality education is a silent crisis. The life of a child is dramatically wasted if she is exposed to a bad teacher in a lousy school. But it is a silent and slow process – no drama, no dramatic photo op. A life just slowly wasted. 

How can things change?

One key point is there must be political alignment around education reform so that student learning is always the sole focus of reform efforts. A system that is focused on having kids in school and learning sounds obvious, but it isn’t at all. The executive branch, public opinion, trade unions, media, teachers, business sector, parliaments, local authorities, and parents need to unify around the common goal of education reform that promotes student’s learning, something that still not happening in many countries. The World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise stated that sometimes, interests other than learning influence the behavior of different actors: some politicians might focus on providing benefits to special groups. If political favors have to be paid, it might be easier to appoint people to work as teachers or principals or local bureaucratic positions than to appoint them as doctors, nurses. Education is an easier political bounty. Trade unions might seek specific political objectives. Some bureaucrats might try to protect their power base or their jobs. Some teachers might be fixated on job security and might be worried about being evaluated or about any pay for performance scheme. Some service providers meanwhile, in their quest for profit, might push for solutions that don’t promote student welfare, or may be interested in providing well marketed low-quality service. Suppliers of textbooks, suppliers of low-quality universities, providers of private tutoring services that support rote learning and hence prefer an evaluation system that values memorization – Egypt in the last decades would be a typical case – all might be interested in maintaining the status quo, even if that means that children are not learning.  And in the budgetary process, education might be seen as consumption and not as an investment.

What is needed? 

First, data. One way of focusing on learning, is knowing if it is happening or not. Hence the importance of measuring learning. Learning Poverty stands today at 53 percent. That is an extremely high and tragic number. But this hides two positive things. First, that more children are in school, which is a start. Second, the fact that we can have that figure is an accomplishment. Many countries have scattered and low-quality data, but many others now do have good learning assessment data, enough to have a good idea of where we stand globally. That would have been impossible 15 years ago.

Second, extrapolating past trends, we can only expect to see Learning Poverty fall to 43% from 53% by 2030, a far cry from the stated SDG4 which calls for free quality primary and secondary education for all. That is why the World Bank has proposed a target for 2030 of reducing Learning Poverty by at least half in low- and middle-income countries. That is an ambitious objective as it requires doubling or tripling the rate of improvement observed in the past 20 years. Yet it is an intermediate target, as all countries should strive to take it to zero – and all children should be able to read by age 10 (which will happen if there is a decent primary education system). And even if it is only one of the many educational outcomes we care about, it is critical that we focus on an outcome that can drive social efforts.

Third, to move to improve an outcome, political alignment is critical – and must be forged around a reasonable political and policy strategy. Most likely, many countries need both short and long-term objectives. This two-pronged approach is needed because governments have to move quickly to put in place interventions aimed at improving service delivery for the students going to school and improving learning outcomes today (an 8-year-old already born cannot wait for pilots or long protracted policy changes). A service is being provided today, and children are going to class today (and those who aren’t, should). That service has to improve with a certain sense of urgency. But countries also will have to put in place the necessary systemic changes which may require design, evaluation, passing of laws, implementation and continuous learning to make those reforms permanent.

Interventions aimed at improving the experience of current students are critical. Interventions to foster short-term improvements include teacher guides, streamlined curriculums, coaching, making sure all children have a textbook, improvements in teachers’ human resources management, empowering principals, assuring teaching in mother tongue. All interventions that might have an impact in a few years.

But for these interventions to generate sustained improvement, systemic reforms are needed. These include reforms which may take a longer but have to be pursued with equal vigor – such as assuring a teacher’s profession is socially valued, or reforming the pre-service training system, improving the quality of the education bureaucracy, or reforming the tax base so as to increase tax collection to cover the minimum resources needed for minimum inputs in all schools. Sustained change will require profound structural reform.

Global average benchmarking 2020 world bank infrastructure

And sustaining reforms require political commitment. The learning crisis is a silent crisis. Solving it needs focus and persistence. And focus on learning requires that all actors involved in education define their actions around students learning. That requires, for example that all selection of teachers and principles has to be meritocratic, and focused on what is best for the student, never related to political criteria. That unions worry as much about the learning process as about the labor status of teachers. That all schools, public or private, operate with the obsessive objective of being a safe and joyful place for learning.

To put it simply, it requires everyone to do their job: make sure that students are learning and enjoy learning.


Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

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