Yes, Prime Minister. It's About Learning!

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Heads of State wave during the 2010 G-20 in TorontoLast week in Jomtien, Thailand, Ministers of Education and senior education officials from 34 countries, joined by supporters from dozens of international agencies and civil society organizations, reaffirmed their commitment to achieving Education for All by 2015.  This high level group was also commemorating the original launch of Education for All twenty years earlier, also in Jomtien.   But education leaders committing themselves to education is preaching to the choir. 

In my last post, 'Rockstars for Reading,' I argued that some of the most successful economies in the world are those that have invested most wisely in the education of their people.  So what are the education investment secrets of the most successful countries?  To put it another way, imagine if a finance minister from one of the most successful economies – such as Korea, Singapore, Brazil, or Mauritius -- were to assume the same post in another country.  What might he or she tell the head of state to encourage more and smarter investment in education?

These finance ministers will point out that high-performing countries that have invested in their education systems have done so with the goal of achieving "learning for all." They pursue the objective of improving learning—and not just access, enrollment, or even completion— because it is how successfully a country's students learn skills and knowledge that drive productivity, prosperity, and economic growth.  And such high-performing countries pursue the “for all" part of "learning for all" because, like flying a plane with poor quality fuel, the economy cannot attain lift if too many citizens suffer from the low productivity of the uneducated.

Cost-benefit considerations require that education investments generate learning for all. Schooling without learning is just a big sunk cost -- a drain on the budget that unrealistically raises the expectations among those students who have spent years at school learning too little of any real value.  Finance ministers don't need to remind their prime ministers or presidents how expensive the education sector is, or what a large share of the civil service their teaching force constitutes.  But they can remind them that with the right education policies, their countries may be able to sustain or even accelerate growth out of this substantial investment.

Enlightened finance ministers will also explain to their prime ministers or presidents that at the macro level, broad-based learning contributes to economic success.  High-performing economies are often those where students perform well on in national or international learning assessments and where the proportion of students who perform below standard is both very low and declining thanks to targeted education strategies, policies, and programs. 

We see evidence for this in the 2007 World Bank report on Education Quality and Economic Growth, by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann.  We also see it in the strong economic performance of countries like China, Brazil, Finland, Singapore, and Korea. This makes sense:  strong foundations of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving make workforces flexible enough to take advantage of technological change and new opportunities. By focusing attention on skills acquisition, learning for all allows countries to link their education investment policies much more directly to the macro and labor-market concerns of their finance ministries and other top policymakers.

These finance ministers will also help their prime ministers or presidents understand that at the micro level, educated workers with useful skills (and the flexibility provided by a good education) are much more likely to find and hold jobs, and their higher productivity typically earns them higher wages.  Labor-market woes cannot be blamed solely on the failings of education systems:  clearly, much of the unemployment and dissatisfaction with wages comes from economic mismanagement, rent-seeking, and corruption that reduce returns to even the best quality education.  But a lack of focus on useful cognitive and marketable skills also contributes to the problems associated with disaffected, educated youth.  Learning for all can help address those problems.

Finally, a "learning for all" focus inevitably leads Heads of State to better understand the roles of secondary and tertiary education (in addition to primary schooling).  It is much easier for prime ministers and presidents to get interested in improving learning for all, because the returns -- in terms of higher skills of school-leavers -- can start improving labor-force outcomes within just a few years. Supporters of education everywhere should rally behind education ministers who are passionately behind the noble goal of Education for All.  At the same time, they would be wise to listen to the quieter voice of finance ministers from successful economies who remind their heads of state that learning is the key to national prosperity.  

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


Robin Horn

Education Adviser

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