Schooling is not the same as learning

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

Dr. Jaime SaavedraDr. Jaime Saavedra leads the Education Global Practice at the World Bank Group. He served as Minister of Education in Peru (2013-2016). During his tenure, the performance of Peru’s education system improved substantially as measured by international learning assessments.  Dr. Saavedra, a Peruvian national, has led groundbreaking work in the areas of poverty and inequality, employment and labour markets, the economics of education, and monitoring and evaluation systems. He has held positions at a number of international organisations and think-tanks. Prior to assuming his role as Minister for Education of Peru, he had a ten-year career at the World Bank where, most recently, he served as Director for Poverty Reduction and Equity as well as Acting Vice President, Poverty Reduction & Economic Management Network. Dr. Saavedra holds a PhD in economics from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in economics from the Catholic University of Peru.

During a recent visit to Bangladesh, Dr. Saavedra spoke to Prothom Alo’s Ayesha Kabir, about various aspects of education in Bangladesh, including the achievements and the challenges. He stressed on the importance of good teachers, investment and both quantitative and qualitative improvements.

 Prothom Alo: How has your visit to Bangladesh been? What impressions are you taking back?

Jaime Saavedra: We met with several officials of the education ministry and we visited a polytechnic, a learning centre and a university. We met with a group of professors that are working in research projects supported by the Bank. It has been a short visit, but rich.

There is a lot to talk about in terms of basic education, technical education and universities. Let’s start with universities. There has been improvement in access to tertiary education, both public universities and private. In the last few years there has been an engagement of universities with the productive sector. We now have 200 projects in which researchers from both public and private universities are trying to find solutions for challenges that the productive sector has in partnerships between research universities and firms. That is a really groundbreaking development for tertiary education in Bangladesh. We saw innovations in non linear optics, in animal husbandry, in agriculture, in the apparel industry and the universities in partnership with firms in the productive sector. That is a very important development.

The other thing which is critical is the fact Bangladesh last year approved the accreditation act. That is a very important step forward. We see in this country very fast expansion in access to tertiary education. But there are very high quality and also very low quality universities. So the huge challenge for the government is how to start regulating that. You cannot afford to have low quality universities. If a young man or women does not get anything in terms of quality education, they will never get back those four or five years of their lives. It is very important that the country moves towards implementing a high quality accreditation system to know which the good universities are and which are the bad ones. And also, to close down those bad universities when needed. That is going to be a challenge because it is not easy to implement an institution that does quality assurance and accreditation, but that’s the way to go.

The other thing that is very interesting here is what is happening with technical education. A few years ago, only one per cent of who were enrolled in any education institution in this country were in a technical institution. That number has increased today to 14 per cent. I was lucky to visit a polytechnic institution called Dhaka Mohila Polytechnic. It was an all-girls institution, very impressive. The important point is that Bangladesh has been very smart in terms of increasing dramatically the public and private investment in technical education. There is still a challenge to break the myth that the only path to have a good job in the future is a university. That is wrong because those are two alternative paths. It could either be university or a technical institution. These two paths have to be interlinked, where there has to be transferability between the university path and the technical path. We are not there yet, but there has been progress in terms of investing more in technical education.

One innovation that is very interesting in the country is that there have been stipends for young people who want to pursue technical degrees. The important fact is that the stipends are biased towards women. In the case of a man, the stipend is according to socio-economic backgrounds. In other words, only if a student does not have enough resources, he will receive a stipend. In the case of women, the stipend is independent of the income of the family. If you are a woman, you will get a stipend. That implies that at the technical level there is a highest ratio of female to male, about 25 per cent. It should be 50 per cent, but it is much better than what is was before. So as regards technical education, the country is moving in the right direction. Still, the country is not where it should be and it needs more investment, more students, and more women in technical education.

Finally, in the case of basic education, there has been a very important improvement in terms of enrollments. The net enrollment rate is about 98 per cent. So there has been improvement in terms of putting children in school. But one of the main messages of the latest reports of the Bank, in particular the World Development Report which is the annual flagship report of the bank that this year was on education,  is that schooling is not the same as learning. It is true that there are more kids in school, but they are not necessarily learning. That is a huge challenge that we face globally and in Bangladesh as well.

One important thing in Bangladesh, though, is that we have national assessments that allow us to know that the country still has a learning problem.  Bangladesh has already taken the steps in having national assessment, so we know we have a very, very big problem in quality. In the quantity side there is a big improvement, but we still have a big challenge in learning.

Prothom Alo: The recently published World Development Report talks about this learning crisis. How can Bangladesh overcome this?

Jaime Saavedra: The challenge is improving the quality of the teaching and learning process. If you ask me to give one single line of work on which the countries have to focus in order to improve quality of education, it is the teachers’ career. That is the most important factor. The countries in which the teaching career is highly respected and highly valued, are the countries that make it in terms of education quality. Bangladesh has made some improvements, but obviously there still is a long way to go. The country has to make sure teachers are not only well paid, but well recognised socially, that the teaching career attracts the best students. It has to be a career in which performance is rewarded and also gives teachers professional development opportunities needed to improve themselves in their careers. That is a fundamental factor.

The other critical factor beyond teachers is the headmasters. Education is a human interaction intensive service. It depends a lot on people, on the quality of teachers, that teachers have the right incentives, that teachers are motivated, that teachers internalise that in their hands is the future of the 40 students that are in front of them. If you visit a school, you can see that depending on the attitude and qualifications and the motivation of the headmaster, the spirit of the school is different. It depends a lot on the headmasters that can motivate the teachers, organise their work, interact well with the parents and bring parents to be part of the school community.

Bangladesh has already taken some steps in terms of hiring headmasters through meritocratic processes. That is something that we don’t see in other countries, but more has to be done in terms of investing in those headmasters because they have to have a different set of skills than what a schoolteacher has.

The management at a school level is important, but also important is management at the systemic level. I have been minister of education so I can understand that the numbers that a ministry of education has to manage are mind boggling. You may have to manage around 90 thousand schools, half a million teachers that have to provide a service every single day throughout the whole country. And there are tens of millions of students. And you are responsible that the system has to work. So the bureaucracy, the machinery that has to make sure that those hundreds of thousands of schools work, has to be a very, very well qualified machinery. That an area where countries have to continue to invest.

Prothom Alo: Just over 2 per cent of the GDP in Bangladesh is spent on education. In Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan it is much higher. What would the ideal?

Jaime Saavedra: That percentage puts Bangladesh below other South Asian countries and below many other countries which are spending more in terms of percentage of GDP.  Definitely it has to be increased, no doubt. Bangladesh itself has put up a target of 4 per cent in the 1970s, so it would make sense to day let’s try to eventually meet that 4 per cent. That does not mean that will be the ideal number. Things change. It also depends on how much your neighbours are investing.

It is not only a matter of the percentage of GDP, but how many dollars per year you are investing per student. In Bangladesh it is around 200 dollars per year per student and that number is low. The number will have to increase. There is a very big movement globally of trying to push for more financing for education. It is not an issue of multilateral institutions investing more. That will be useful, but the main investment is domestic resources. That is the challenge for many countries, to invest more in education and to invest it well. Take the case for teachers, for instance.  In many cases, the bulk of expenditure is teachers’ salaries. We need to make sure those teachers are doing their job well. In many African countries we see very high rates of absenteeism. It’s a complex task in the sense that countries, including Bangladesh, have to put more money into education, but also have to make sure that the money is efficiently spent. That is a key point. Sometimes, for example, a typical investment is spending on hardware. Everyone says the way to improve quality education fast is information technology. So they buy computers, laptops and tablets. But that has to be accompanied by teachers that are digital citizens and are trained to be able to use the equipment in the classroom. If you do not do that, then that will be money wasted. More money has to go into the sector, but has to be done in an intelligent way.

Prothom Alo: World Bank is putting about 1.7 billion dollars into Bangladesh’s education sector. How do you ensure accountability?

Jaime Saavedra: Actually, that is a joint challenge with the government. It could be a loan from the Bank, but that is public money. We are not necessarily talking about corruption. We are talking about using it the right way. That’s why the example of investing in hardware. Whenever a country invests in hardware, if you don’t invest at the same time in teachers’ training, then those investments will just not be effective in terms of improving learning. So you have to make sure that whatever resources one puts will have an impact on the learning of the students, and that we have the mechanisms to know if the learning is improving. That is why it is very important that the country has put in place monitoring systems regarding learning. We have national assessments. That’s something that will have to continue. Through that mechanism you will know that an intervention is having an impact.

Prothom Alo: But there is the reality of corruption too.

Jaime Saavedra: I have been at the helm of a ministry and it is always a challenge. You might have the right policies, but you have to see whether the implementation of those policies is going through the right process or not. There is always possibility of corruption. One has to be relentless in fighting corruption. That is a challenge everywhere.

Prothom Alo: What about the challenge of equipping human resources with skills to meet the existing demands of the globalised world?

Jaime Saavedra: That challenge applies not only to universities, but to schools as well. The job that teachers have today is much more complicated than it was before. Before the challenge for teachers and university professors was about knowledge. Now it is not about that. Of course knowledge is important in terms of the specific subjects, but at the same time and more more important probably is learning the competencies, of how to learn permanently. Kids have to foster the competencies of creative thinking, of problem solving, of team work, of all those other socio-emotional skills that will allow them to perform well in their lives - discipline, perseverance, good communication skills. All these factors now are absolutely critical given a globalised economy where there is uncertainty about the requirements of the labour market in the future. There will be many jobs that will disappear, occupations that will disappear. There will be other occupations in the service sectors that will expand, new occupations that today we just don’t know, that will appear in the future. So we need to prepare our young people and our children for that uncertainty. The only thing that is certain is that there will be change. What is going to be the shape of that change, we don’t know. Ten years ago, the occupation of app developer didn’t exist. Now it is a profitable occupation. Maybe that occupation in 10 years will disappear and will be replaced by something else. We have no clue today. That has always been the history of the world, but the pace of the change is much faster. So you have to be prepared for that.

Prothom Alo: What are the challenges in Bangladesh’s education sector and the way ahead?

Jaime Saavedra: It is very difficult to prioritise in education, to say this is more important than that. There are very interesting innovations in this country. One thing is the stipends to incentivise girls to technical education. I visited a learning centre that gives a second chance to children who never went to school, or who were abandoned in second grade and after three years they now are brought back to school. This is called ROSC, reaching out of school children. That is very important because someone may drop out of school in third, fourth or fifth grade. What happens to that persons after 50 years with that low level of education, particularly in this world that is so uncertain. So these learning centres provide a second chance to kids who have left school for whatever reason or are entering school too late. So this is a very important programme that we need to make sure is available for any kid who is a dropout. There is still the challenge of dropping out in primary. It’s small, but still not zero, and still big in secondary, particularly for girls. That is a big challenge.

There is the challenge of quantity. More children in Bangladesh should finish the 12th grade. That’s a large challenge especially among girls. It is very good that gender parity has been achieved at the primary level, but in the secondary level we still see a higher dropout rate among girls than boys. That is something the country still needs to fight. There has to be the same opportunity for girls and boys to finish school and for tertiary education, both technical and in university. This has dramatically improved in technical education, but still is is 25 per cent girls and 75 per cent boys. It is a waste of human resources for a country like Bangladesh.

The main challenge, however, is quality. There has to be continued work on improving teachers’ careers and improving management of schools, the key elements that will make the education system a growth engine for the country.

Prothom Alo: Thank you

Jaime Saavedra: Thank you

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