Improving learning outcomes key to achieving development aspirations in middle-income East Asia and Pacific countries

Despite significant advances in school enrolment, children in some countries and parts of some countries are not acquiring basic educational skills, according to a World Bank report.

The Nation

The Nation



Every year in 22 middle-income East Asia and Pacific countries, around 172 million children are enrolled in primary school. PHOTO: THE NATION

September 22, 2023

BANGKOK – Yet, despite significant advances in school enrollment, children in some countries and parts of some countries are not acquiring basic educational skills, according to a World Bank report, Fixing the Foundation: Teachers and Basic Education in East Asia and the Pacific.

In all countries covered in the report, the quality of education is much weaker in rural and poorer areas than in urban and richer areas.

Learning poverty – defined as whether a 10-year-old can read and understand age-appropriate reading material – is above 50 % in 14 of the 22 countries, including IndonesiaMyanmarCambodia, the Philippines, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the report says. In upper-middle-income Malaysia, learning poverty is above 40 %. In contrast, learning poverty is 3 to 4 % in JapanSingapore, and the Republic of Korea.

Failure to equip students with foundational skills jeopardizes their ability to acquire more advanced skills that will help them succeed in the labour market and escape poverty. Since learning is cumulative, many of these children will never be able to develop the more advanced skills needed for innovative manufacturing and sophisticated services, the productivity-boosting economic activities that could lift countries from middle-income to high-income status.

While multiple factors influence learning, including family income, health, and access to school materials, once a child enters school, teachers have the largest impact. However, data from several countries in the region indicate that teachers often have limited knowledge of their subject.

In Lao PDR only 8 % of 4th-grade teachers scored 80 % or higher on an assessment of 4th-grade math.

In Indonesia, similarly, only 8 % of 4th-grade teachers scored 80 % or higher on an evaluation of their Indonesian language skills. Data suggest that teacher absenteeism is also a problem in several countries in the region. The report, therefore, focuses on teachers and how support for teachers and teaching quality can be strengthened.

“The East Asia and Pacific region remains one of the fastest growing and most dynamic regions in the world,” said World Bank East Asia and Pacific Vice-President Manuela V. Ferro. “Sustaining this dynamism and allowing today’s children to enjoy better jobs and living standards as productive adults requires that children have access to high-quality teaching that builds foundational skills for lifelong learning.”

Since most existing teachers will likely still be teaching in 2030, the report recommends a focus on strengthening teachers’ capabilities. While data suggest that a significant percentage of the region’s teachers are trained each year, new surveys in Cambodia, Fiji, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Philippines, ThailandTimor-LesteTonga, and Vietnam indicate training programs do not employ practices linked to improved student learning.

For example, among the countries surveyed, there was a focus on subject content in only 14 % of programs, compared to 81 % of programs associated with improvements in student learning globally.

To be effective, training should bolster subject knowledge, offer opportunities to practice newfound knowledge among peers, include follow-up coaching and mentoring, and provide career incentives linked to promotion or salary. Teachers must also be rewarded for sustaining the quality of their teaching over the course of their careers.

Educational technology (EdTech) also has the potential to transform teaching and learning for students. Research shows that access to pre-recorded lectures by highly rated teachers has improved student scores and has also improved the performance of other teachers. However, EdTech works best when complemented with teachers trained in its use.

Support and political commitment from policymakers to raise learning outcomes will be crucial to ensuring that change takes place, the report says. New survey data from seven countries showed that policymakers underestimated the extent of learning poverty in their countries. Introducing successful measures to raise teaching quality and improve student learning, including effective training and EdTech, will require more effective spending of existing resources as well as the allocation of additional resources.

“Tackling the problem of learning poverty would brighten the futures of generations of children and the economic prospects of the region,” said World Bank East Asia and Pacific Chief Economist Aaditya Mattoo. “Fixing the educational foundation requires reforms and resources, as well as collaboration between all concerned:  the ministries of education and finance, teachers and parents.”

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