Time for a New Focus on What Works for Education Quality

Nicholas Burnett

Nicholas Burnett, the Managing Director for Education at Results for Development Institute, leads the Center for Education Innovations. This post was originally published on the ODI blog as a part of its national progress in education series.

We know how to expand enrollments, and politicians have been quick to do so in response to massively increased demand from parents. But we still don’t know enough about how to improve learning, relevance and equity in education.

Yet these topics are at the heart of the likely post-2015 education targets as recorded in the Muscat agreement. Not only do we not know enough about them, we also don’t know enough about how to sequence educational reforms, adopt innovations and improve accountability.

That’s what I take away from my review of ODI Development Progress’s four excellent case studies of country efforts to improve educational quality and expand post-primary education. In all four countries – Chile, Indonesia, Kenya, and Mongolia – education has been central to political debate and driven by parental aspirations for their children. Competitive politics has even created consensus around education, with parties competing to expand secondary enrollments in Kenya and sometimes a consensus on education has risen above party politics, as in Chile.

Almost everywhere, it seems, enrollments have expanded, but learning levels are inadequate, secondary education is not relevant enough to the needs of the labor force, and inequities have persisted and, in some cases, worsened.

Unless things improve, a political backlash is likely. Parents, with their massive ‘thirst for education’ as seen in Kenya and Mongolia, are going to protest that their children are now in school but aren’t learning the right things well enough. We can see the signs of discontent in rising private school enrollments and in the ever-increasing use of after-school tutoring, including among the poor. In India, 80% of urban children now go to private primary schools, and 80% of all slum-dweller children attend private pre-primary schools in the peri-urban slums of Accra, Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi. Tutoring represents an increasing share of what is spent on education worldwide, especially in Asia.

So how could things be improved? Two welcome trends are evident, at least in international education circles. First, there is increasing interest in results. Despite the risk of ‘teaching to the test’, this is an improvement on the past emphasis on access and enrollment. Indonesia, for example, is one of the very few countries that has improved its performance significantly over time, as measured by its scores in PISA. Second, there is a huge interest now in teacher issues, as exemplified by the most recent Education for All Global Monitoring Report and by Chile’s attempts to provide incentives to teachers linked to learning by children.

These new emphases, however, are too limited. They need to be seen in the context of education reform more broadly, the need to adopt innovations, and greater accountability.

The ODI Development Progress case studies illustrate a wide range of education reforms, from funding mechanisms to curriculum change and teacher incentives. The broad characteristics of education systems are now also being documented by the World Bank’s Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative, though none of the four case-study countries is yet included. Neither the four case studies nor the comparative country data tell us, however, in what order reforms should be carried out. In practice, as with enrollments, reforms to improve quality, relevance and equity will be driven, at least in part, by political imperatives, but they will stand a better chance of success if sequenced in the right order. The application of such systems thinking to education lags behind similar thinking on health, in particular, and is very welcome, but to be useful it must rise above mere comparative statics and description and explore the dynamics of change.

Most education systems carry within them the seeds of change: innovations that have the potential to improve learning, relevance, and equity and these are often found in the non-state sector. At Results for Development (R4D), we are documenting these innovations around the world at our Center for Education Innovations (CEI) and, together with UNICEF, are developing techniques to analyze their potential and how to scale them up.  And our recently completed work on skills for employability identified several key models that have elements appropriate for replication and scaling up. The integration of effective innovations into education systems as a whole is a crucial area that needs exploration as part of reform sequencing.

Finally, accountability in education is very limited. To exaggerate only a little, in many systems the only person held accountable is the child, not the teacher, the school, the district, the ministry or the politicians. Some interesting experiments underway to improve education systems’ accountability to society include the citizen-led assessments of learning, such as ASER in India, Uwezo in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Beekunko in Mali and Jangandoo in Senegal, which combine population-based learning assessments in front of parents with different techniques to hold authorities accountable. At R4D we are now evaluating these initiatives on behalf of their funder the Hewlett Foundation. Social accountability mechanisms are also being used to monitor such things as teacher absenteeism.

Broader accountability within education systems, rather than between systems and society, remains largely inadequate and needs more attention. Of relevance here are the effective monitoring and accountability systems put in place in Chile, as documented by its case study. More broadly, at the international level, the EFA Global Monitoring Report documents developments but is not accompanied by any accountability mechanisms to hold countries to their commitments.  This should be corrected in the post-2015 goals, possibly through peer review mechanisms, as Desmond Bermingham and I have argued.

In sum, the ODI studies are a great start in pointing towards what has worked, and what still needs improvement. Central to broader improvement are attention to results, teachers, reform sequencing, innovation, and accountability. Unfortunately, only the first two are receiving anywhere near enough attention at the moment.

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