Essay 17

Taking Education Seriously

Jaime Saavedra

selective photography of green leaf plant


Girin Beeharry’s
essay in the International Journal of Educational Development gives us an opportunity to consider why we are failing to give children a good education, exactly who should be accountable for that failure, and what can be done.

The article is the result of many years of thinking and discussion, and, to certain extent, a level of frustration that I share. Frustration because progress in education is not fast enough. And frustration because what has to be done is not out of reach from a technical or pedagogical perspective. Yet at the same time, it often seems an intractable and unsurmountable challenge. It is a frustration I felt while dealing with education reform in my country, Peru.

Change is possible and children’s education experience can be improved quickly. Books can be put in the hands of children, teachers can be supported, principals can be empowered so that they can better run their schools. We know some interventions and practices that are impactful and have been successfully implemented by countries, particularly in primary education. The evidence on structured pedagogy, teacher induction and coaching, assessment for learning, and ensuring more time for instruction is solid, for example. But can these technical solutions be sustained and reach everyone, everywhere quickly? That is more difficult, but it should not be impossible. It is not rocket science. (And even if it were, programs were built in less than a decade to land men on the moon.) In this essay I discuss, in light of Girin’s paper, the challenge of education reform and how the international community—in service to national priorities—can better support countries to eliminate learning poverty.

Moving education outcomes requires more than technical solutions

So, if it is technically possible, why doesn’t it happen? Girin says that “moving education outcomes is incredibly hard.” Indeed, from a political perspective, it is incredibly hard. As Girin says, it also requires persistence, ingenuity, and political savvy. One way I like to put it is that change in education requires all players to understand that their ultimate goal should be an educated and happy child. It sounds obvious, isn’t. Frequently, interests other than a child’s education influences the behavior of different actors. Trade unions might seek political influence and can block reforms to make teachers’ careers meritocratic and professionalized. Bureaucrats might try to protect their power base or their jobs. Teachers might be fixated on job security and could resist evaluation. Service providers, meanwhile, in their quest for profit, might push for solutions that don’t promote student welfare. Suppliers of textbooks, suppliers of low-quality education, and providers of private tutoring services may all have an interest 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.

These entrenched interests of stakeholders make reform seem politically extremely challenging, and there is a sense of inevitability. Sometimes governments end up implementing marginal reforms without really tackling the real impediments to change. Only when the system puts politics and special interests aside and focuses on learning and the interests of the child is improvement possible. We need more than a technical design. We need implementation capacity. And we need political alignment. The executive, the president, and in particular, the minister of finance, must be convinced about the critical importance that investing in people has for the future of the country.

When more than half of all children are learning poor, we have a crisis on our hands

There has been a huge rise in schooling and most children (though not all, yet) go to school. That is progress. Simply going to school brings tremendous benefits to children. So, is Girin right that we are failing? Or are we just uncomfortable with the lack of relative progress in a development process that has witnessed impressive gains in human wellbeing over the last decades? The answer is yes—we are really failing. Given the level of wealth that exists in the world and the know-how we already have, it is morally unacceptable that more than half of all children cannot read a simple text by the age of 10 in low and middle-income countries. This—the share of 10-year-olds who cannot read and understand a simple text—is Learning Poverty, a concept we at the World Bank have proposed, to better quantify and communicate a real urgency to make progress on literacy and foundational learning.

Learning Poverty should be zero. It should be eliminated the same as extreme poverty or hunger. There are many reasons to place foundational learning at the heart of national education strategies. All kids should read because it is a prerequisite: you learn to read so you can use reading to learn other things. Literacy and numeracy are the building blocks of virtually every other outcome that we care about in education. And if there is learning at school and a fulfilling overall school experience, completion rates increase. Learning begets more learning. And systems that are institutionally and technically prepared to assure reading skills for all, are most likely able to deliver other competencies, at least in primary education.

And a simple concept like learning poverty facilitates the political visibility of the development challenge. That schooling is not always translated into learning is starting to be clear in the policy circles, but not necessarily in the minds of public opinion. And that change in mindsets, where societies, families, and parents care about learning, is essential.

As Lant Pritchett has insisted relentlessly over the last decade, schooling is not learning. And schooling is finishing too early for many, to a certain extent, precisely because of low learning quality. With half of children in low and middle-income countries not acquiring the foundational skills that are the basis for any future learning, and hence leaving the system totally unprepared for life, we are living through a dramatic learning crisis. Which has gotten even more serious with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Change starts with national governments

Who is failing these hundreds of millions of children? Is it the international community? National governments? Parents and families? Girin’s paper focuses on how the international community is failing to improve outcomes. But any discussion about what that community can do needs to start from one place: national governments. The solution to the learning crisis lies in what national governments can do. It is their job to solve it. Finland or Singapore or Korea never believed that the international community would transform their education systems.

In late 2012, one month after I started my three-year tenure as minister, we received the news that Peru came last in PISA. I knew that as a middle-income country with substandard educational outcomes, Peru was responsible for addressing its challenge. I never even remotely thought that solving that the crisis—suddenly discovered by so many of my fellow citizens in the newspaper headlines of that day—could be the responsibility of the international community. Except in extraordinary circumstances—for example, times of humanitarian crises—primary responsibility for providing children with the basic human right of learning lies with national governments. The role of national governments frames the role and the possibilities of the international community.

It might be possible to move the education community, step by step, toward a greater focus on foundational literacy and numeracy

Girin is wise and bold to say that to deepen the commitment to foundational literacy and to improve the effectiveness and increase the accountability of the international community, the right move is to leave the international aid architecture roughly as it is and make bold, incremental moves from there. Given the magnitude of the crisis, this may seem surprising, and one might have instead expected an urgent call for a dramatic shake up to the current structure. But changing the architecture will consume an immense amount of mental bandwidth and entail lengthy discussions about roles and organization. Strategically, a push for dramatic change like that could be a bad move. Huge strides can be made with more communication, coordination, and a sense of common mission. The seeds for that exist already and we can build upon them. As Girin says “small tactical moves…”. Small tactical moves may not be easy in large and complex organizations, but they are viable.

We must recognize that policymakers face many valid and competing priorities to foundational learning

I should clarify that I might put some caveats to Girin’s use of the verb “prioritize” referring to foundational learning. The paper suggests that all partners, and especially the World Bank because of its leadership role, must prioritize efforts on foundational learning. Prioritization of those areas implies that they will be deemed more important than other things. Prioritization does indeed de facto happen in real life, but it responds to political, financial, and social dynamics and, hopefully, also to evidence and technical considerations.

The international community can promote, support, and advocate for certain causes, and it can make a difference to national priorities. Stopping violence in and around schools, improving educational opportunities for girls, and ensuring that all children can read by the age of 10 are areas that deserve national and international attention and should be priorities. But it is impossible, from a political, human rights, and technical perspective, to cater to only the primary age children. Young people require education and skills-building opportunities (even more so if they went through a low-quality basic education system), pre-school-age children require stimulation and play opportunities. One demographic group cannot be prioritized over all others.

National targets and accountability for learning poverty are what matters

I agree with Girin’s urgent call for accountability. What might be needed is collective accountability. The World Bank and other partners in the education aid architecture could consolidate a nascent agreement on definitions, objectives, monitoring frameworks, and targets into formal accountability framework that we all sign up to in order to hold ourselves to account. The World Bank has proposed reducing learning poverty by half by 2030. We set that as an ambitious but feasible target. It is superior to the laudable SDG4 target—all children having quality primary and secondary education by 2030—because the SDG4 is -unfortunately- unachievable and hence is less useful to motivate concrete action. And as a global target, it is superior to setting input-related targets or setting financing targets. Yes, more resources are needed. But merely calling for more money is not enough. Committing and setting a target on learning is harder and riskier. It is not totally under your control. It is not about the political struggle around financial resources. It is not about accounting frameworks that count books, laptops, school grants, or boring teacher training days. Improving learning requires the tricky process of getting a lot of people to change their behavior.

But improving accountability within international organizations will be a futile exercise if it is not subsidiary to the accountability of national governments. On one hand, the education architecture can be accountable to provide all possible support. But, on the other hand, and more importantly, governments need to be accountable for setting up the social contract that will allow them to deliver quality education to all and reduce learning poverty. This means setting a national target on learning poverty. Pragmatically, a national indicator might be different to our global target—to reduce learning poverty by half by 2030. That doesn’t matter, as long as it is about learning. It can be called something different. Countries with very high levels of learning poverty might choose intermediate outcome measures, like word recognition. And countries can set targets that are higher or lower than “halving by 2030.” There is a parallel with poverty reduction. Countries can use a monetary poverty indicator (income or consumption), a basic needs definition, or a multidimensional poverty indicator. But what matters is that they monitor their progress in poverty reduction and they commit to its reduction.

Will all countries be willing to monitor learning poverty? To set targets and monitor progress? Will they have the political will to implement needed reforms? Many already do. I believe it will happen eventually in all countries, but might take some time.

Three ways the international community can support domestic efforts to improve learning

First, the international community has a role to play in promoting efforts to measure and monitor progress.

There has been a recent expansion in learning data. Enough to be able to assert that there is a learning crisis. But in many countries, data is sparse; specifically, in sub-Saharan Africa, where almost 50 percent of countries have no data at all on learning. The international community can support building national capacity to implement learning assessments, where needed, and it can foster regional and international comparisons, which have been useful to all countries as a way to benchmark their progress. The WB is currently supporting about 50 countries in improving their data on learning is working with UNESCO/UIS to expand coverage, improve quality and foster better use of the data for decision making at the school and the country level. We need to double down further on measuring more and better.

Second, the international community can help reduce the disconnect between globally available evidence and implementation at country level.

Countries can learn from each other and can be inspired by practices in other countries. The international community should be more effective in systematizing knowledge and practice and facilitate the flow of information and the diffusion of ideas, evidence, and policy options to countries. But more collaboration with practitioners and researchers at the country level is needed. There is support available in the form of technical assistance, although not to the extent needed; and that assistance should be reassessed and conceptualized as part of a process of sustained capacity building and joint learning. And the multilateral and bilateral organizations can work together with governments to be more effective in that process.

Third, the international community can support countries that show political commitment to education reform.

More knowledge, more tools or increasing the availability of technical assistance can support but will not trigger nor sustain reforms. Implementing reforms in a country depends on the willingness and capacity of a country to commit politically to put the outcome front and center, and commit the financial, technical, and managerial resources needed. Can the international community support that? Yes, it can. It can redouble efforts to support countries that show the political commitment to take bold action. Girin is also wise to suggest “working with countries and agencies already persuaded of the need to prioritize foundational literacy and numeracy.” We have examples of bold action and committed reform to learn from. In Korea since the 1950s, in Scandinavia and Singapore in the 1960s, in Vietnam in the 1990s, in Ceara, Brazil in the 2010s, and in Edo, Nigeria in the 2020s. This is why my team at the World Bank is collaborating with the Gates Foundation to support the Accelerator Program, partnering with UNICEF and USAID, in supporting countries who focus on the outcome of learning and show political commitment. It is about political will, it about a good technical design, it is about implementation capacity. It is happening in parts of the world. Should happen everywhere.