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‘The world is facing a learning crisis’

  • Published at 01:07 am March 5th, 2019
World Bank Senior Director for Education Jaime Saavedra Courtesy

Jaime Saavedra, senior director for education at the World Bank, speaks with the Dhaka Tribune’s Saqib Sarker about the organization's aim to improve learning globally

What is your role as the senior director for education at World Bank?

My role is to set the vision and strategic direction for the World Bank’s work in the education sector. This is a great responsibility. We work with over 80 low and middle-income countries, each with their own educational realities and challenges. Thankfully, it’s a shared responsibility, as I work with a team of committed, dedicated and experienced staff, who work relentlessly to help our partner countries improve the experience of children in classrooms worldwide to ultimately improve learning. Supporting governments to work for those who need it most is also a great privilege.

You recently launched the “World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise” in Dhaka. Tell us a little bit about the aim, scope and finding of this report.

The World Development Report (WDR) is the flagship report of the World Bank. It covers a different topic each year. The one launched last week in Dhaka is a critical one; it is the first one for the bank to be entirely devoted to education. Our aim was to assemble the most cutting edge, evidence-based synthesis of where we stand globally on education – and how we can accelerate learning for all.

Our main finding is that, while counties across the globe have made tremendous progress in getting children and youth into school, the world is facing a learning crisis. What we unfortunately observe in many countries and classrooms, is that learning is not happening: children are leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy, let alone 21st-century skills. Conditions in schools don’t support learning, and at the system level, many barriers prevent serious action to promote learning and building skills.

The WDR lays out what it will take to really make learning happen and proposes three policy actions to address the crisis: We need to assess learning, to make it a serious goal; we need to act on evidence to make schools work for learners; and we need to align stakeholders to make the system work for learning.    

Transformational progress is possible – to make it happen, governments need to take action showing that learning really matters to them. All players in the system need to internalize that their responsibility is to make sure that all students learn. And they need to commit the necessary resources to assure that all children and youth have the opportunity to access education since the early years.

How is the report relevant in Bangladesh’s context?

Bangladesh is at a crucial turning point. It has succeeded in expanding access to education and in achieving gender parity in enrollment at all educational levels. But while education expansion is critical, it must be accompanied by improved learning outcomes.

On average, a child in Bangladesh can expect to complete 11 years of school by the time he or she turns 18. But if we consider the quality of learning, this number drops to only 6.5 years of schooling. Schooling is not fully translating into learning and a full 4.5 years are lost.

This WDR and the companion report that focuses on the South Asia region pose that for Bangladesh to realize education’s promise, the country needs to do four things: first, one of the biggest opportunities for improvement for Bangladesh is to invest in its young children. Expanding quality early childhood development programs will be crucial to increase learning, and this is a critical challenge for a young country like Bangladesh. Second, it needs more and better teachers. Third, it needs to provide relevant skills to its youth and adults by having training providers and industry partners, among others. Finally, it needs to promote research and innovation. And for all of these areas, Bangladesh needs more public financing for education.

Recently, the World Bank has launched Human Capital Project. What is its significance, and how does Bangladesh rank in the Human Capital Index?

The  Human Capital Project (HCP) is an ambitious effort to accelerate more and better investments in people. We want to create a world in which all children arrive in school well-nourished and ready to learn, can expect to learn in the classroom, and are able to enter the job market as healthy, skilled, and productive adults. 

The HCP includes a Human Capital Index – a summary measure of the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by age 18, given the risks of poor health and education that may exist in the country where he or she lives. 

Bangladesh has performed better than the South Asian average as well as the Lower Middle-Income average in all criteria except for stunting. With current education and health conditions, a child born in Bangladesh today will be 48% as productive as they could have been. And while the country performs well in gender equity – a girl has higher human capital than a boy – stunting and quality of education hold children back from achieving their full potential.

You were the education minister in Peru, and your tenure has been praised for achieving many successes. Tell us a little bit about that.

Let me just mention three key elements. Teachers are the fundamental factor to determine the quality of the system. So we approved and implemented a law that introduced meritocracy in the selection and promotion of teachers. We also introduced several mechanisms to be able to better monitor if learning was happening in the classroom. They included national assessments,  teacher coaches, and classroom observation tools.

Second, we put emphasis on the management of the system and of the school by introducing a new system to select and support headmasters.

Third, there was a huge need to improve the quality of the university system, which had grown rapidly but with many low quality institutions. So, a new regulatory framework and a new regulatory agency were established and are now operating. 

What is the relationship between democracy, good governance and ensuring good education?

Based on global evidence, this report finds that more educated citizens are more likely to believe that living in a democracy is important. Not just that – education increases trust, tolerance and civil agency. Education also makes institutions work better and improves public services. But the relationship also works the other way – when there are strong, well-functioning institutions, different actors are readily able to align towards the objective of learning. 

Globally, in higher education and research, English is the primary language. However, without careful planning, it may impact the native language. What are your thoughts on this?

Countries should cherish their culture, traditions and language. And countries should invest in having their people mastering their own language. But at the same time, countries are part of a broad international community, and the labour market is each day more globalized and interconnected. So, knowing English is a critical tool that allows people to also be productive citizens at a global scale. Knowing many languages should be natural. 

About the report, did you have good responses from governments? Did Bangladesh respond to your recommendations?

The responses from governments has been very positive. Most countries feel identified by the diagnosis of the report and compelled to take action. Both the recommendations of the WDR and the Human Capital Project have had overwhelming support of countries through the Board of the World Bank. More than 50 countries have agreed to be early adopters of the Human Capital Project.

Bangladesh has not been an exception, and the report has been well received from the government in general, and by the state minister for basic and mass education whom I met during my visit. The government’s commitment to education is clear – and there is a clear emphasis on ensuring improvements in learning. In fact, we are working with the government on transformational education programs which implement some of the recommendations from the WDR. These include areas like improving the process to select teachers, effective teacher professional development, examination and assessment reform, an increased priority on early childhood education, and increasing the support to children and youth who for different reasons are out of schools.

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