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Growing smarter in the region

Victoria Kwakwa / Khmer Times Share:
There is an effort in Cambodia to benchmark its education system against international standards and seek ways to improve performance in math, science and reading. KT/Mai Vireak

Education systems, with the right policies and practices in place, can lead to both better skilled and more equitable societies in the East Asia and Pacific region, writes Victoria Kwakwa.

Today, two in five students in the East Asia and Pacific region learn more than students anywhere in the world. This is an important achievement for these school systems but also a learning opportunity for the many others still struggling to provide quality education.

Sharing these lessons is the main motivation behind a new World Bank regional report on education to be launched today in Indonesia. “Growing Smarter: Learning and Equitable Development in East Asia and the Pacific” draws on lessons from successful education systems in the region to lay out a series of practical policy recommendations so that many more students acquire the necessary skills to succeed.

Less than two generations ago, most countries in East Asia and Pacific had low income levels and low educational attainment. Today, seven of the top 10 education systems in the world are in the region. In those Asian countries now considered high-income, students are more than a year and half ahead of their OECD peers in terms of learning outcomes.

But perhaps one of the most encouraging findings from the report is that this success is not limited to rich countries. In fact, in the OECD test for high school students in math, science, and reading called PISA, two of the region’s middle-income countries, Vietnam and China (specifically Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong), show scores above the OECD average, despite having income levels that would suggest much lower learning outcomes.

On average, students in the bottom 40 percent (socio-economically speaking) score above 500 on PISA tests in math and science – better than the average OECD student regardless of income. And this includes even students from the poorest households – clear evidence that education systems, with the right policies and practices in place, can lead to both better skilled and more equitable societies.

These important findings represent hope for the millions of students that today are affected by what the World Bank has identified as a global learning crisis. In the East Asia and Pacific region, they represent up to 60 percent of all students that are in school systems that do not perform to their full potential. In some cases, students in the region attend schools where no learning is taking place.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand had scores that showed students were more than three years behind their peers in the OECD. Some countries in this group perform at levels below expectations given their levels of economic development. Nonetheless, these countries commendably continue to benchmark their education systems against international standards, as they seek ways to improve performance.

Many of the smaller countries in the region do not yet participate in internationally comparable assessments or collect little reliable data on learning. Some have taken strides to measure learning in terms of reading abilities using Early Grade Reading Assessments. Some are preparing to participate in international tests for the first time.

Regardless of where they stand today, most systems feel the urgent need to do better. Our new report lays out options for them to move forward. Research summarised in the report shows that successful systems overlap in key policies and practices in five areas.

• Align institutions to ensure the basic conditions for learning, from providing school infrastructure to promoting consensus around the benefits of a better education for all.

• Concentrate effective, equity-minded public spending on basic education, prioritizing the use of public funds to first ensure good basic education for all, and then expanding opportunities at higher levels.

• Select and support teachers throughout their careers with salary and promotion policies that enable top teachers to flourish, and less-effective teachers to improve.

• Invest in early education, building the foundations for learning at an early age to ensure that children are ready to learn in school.

• Assess students to diagnose issues and inform instruction, developing new ways of using assessments as instruments to improve teaching, learning and education systems.

No country in the East Asia and Pacific region is without some success on some aspects of policies in these five areas, and no single country excels in all. Successful education reform is often the result of clearly articulated policies implemented consistently by institutions aligned towards the common goal of learning.

By contrast, many countries with disappointing results in education may have experimented with similar policies and practices, but without a coherent and aligned set of goals to translate reform efforts into improved learning outcomes.

The good news is that today we have a better sense of what has worked. And we owe the children in the region our concerted effort to ensure that education systems deliver on the promise that education holds for all of them.

Victoria Kwakwa is the World Bank’s regional vice president for East Asia and Pacific.

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