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FEATURE STORY November 20, 2020

World Bank launches ‘Accelerator Program’ to improve global foundational learning


The world faces its harshest education crisis in a century as the COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools and record numbers of children fall behind in learning. As countries address the pandemic, they also have a unique opportunity to accelerate their own progress in building more equitable and resilient education systems.

In support of these efforts, during a World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings roundtable event, the World Bank, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), UNICEF, and USAID, launched the new ‘Accelerator Program’.

“We are risking losing a generation. While we are all focusing in combatting COVID and its direct health and economic impacts, we can accelerate our support to countries in their action to face this other, urgent education crisis.Axel van Trotsenburg, World Bank Managing Director of Operations, said at the event. “Beyond needed financing, innovation, such as the Accelerator Program, is key to making the leap in education to help as many children as possible to get a good education that will benefit them and their countries in the next few decades.”

Even before the pandemic, 53% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read and understand a simple story. Now that share of children in Learning Poverty could rise sharply, and about 10 million children could drop out of school permanently, potentially leading to lost lifetime earnings totaling up to US$10 trillion. And while the pandemic has affected students in all countries, those from poor families and other disadvantaged groups have suffered the biggest loss of learning.

Developed to demonstrate that strong political and financial commitment, sound policy design, and a relentless focus on learning outcomes can speed up countries’ progress in improving foundational learning, the Accelerator Program coordinates efforts across the partners to ensure that the countries in the program are showing improvements in foundational skills at scale over the next three to five years.

The Accelerator Program acknowledges a global cohort of countries or sub-national entities that 1) demonstrate strong political and financial commitment to improved learning, 2) are willing to measure and monitor learning outcomes, and 3) have an investment plan to reduce Learning Poverty. Under the program, each country will identify specific targets aimed at boosting children’s foundational skills and assess the interventions and capacity needed to achieve these targets. The goal is for countries to demonstrate significant progress towards their targets as part of a broader, longer-term effort to inspire more countries to tackle learning poverty.

The World Bank and its partners will align resources and expertise to help countries strengthen their implementation capacity to achieve their targets. UNICEF will contribute through advocacy, accountability, and provision of global public goods to support countries develop robust investment cases, feed into communications and advocacy campaigns, and strengthen capacity. The Gates Foundation is providing financial support in the initiative.

Mark Suzman, CEO of Gates, said, “The launch of this literacy accelerator program is timely and hearteningly collaborative. I know we will all learn a great deal as the World Bank reconvenes this group to track their progress and learn from one another over the next few years.”

Initially, ten countries or subnational entities are participating in the Accelerator program: Brazil (the state of Ceará), Ecuador, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria (Edo State), Pakistan, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Of these, Ceará and Kenya, which already achieved dramatic reductions in learning poverty over the past decade at scale, can provide useful lessons, even as they seek to build on their successes and address remaining and new challenges. More countries are expected to be added over time.

Education ministers from Accelerator countries joined representatives from the Bank and partner organizations in the Annual Meetings event to discuss what the key crisis-recovery strategies are, what is needed to build successful school systems of the future, and what the role of the Accelerator Program is. The pandemic has opened a window of opportunity by making evident the huge shortcomings in digital access, in teachers’ skills and preparation, in educational quality, and in support to the educational process from home. Taking advantage of this window of opportunity will be critical.

Edo State in Nigeria described how it has benefited during the pandemic from earlier education technology investments. Under its Edo-BEST program, teachers had received tablets for taking attendance, conducting assessments, and sharing daily lesson notes. During Edo State’s lockdown, they delivered learning through multiple channels, including interactive quizzes and lessons via mobile phone. “We have 7,000 WhatsApp classrooms created by teachers to ensure children keep learning,” said Executive Governor H.E. Godwin N. Obaseki.

“Technology can be our great ally to provide opportunities to all,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education. “But today, it is still a source of inequality of opportunity.  The crisis also underscores the need to close the digital divide. Despite the efforts of providing remote learning, effective learning is low and very, very uneven.”  

In fact, only about half of children in Latin America have Internet access. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is less than 10 percent, and data suggest half of Sub-Saharan Africa children have not received any education stimulus during the pandemic.

Girls represent another vulnerable group. “Without the right foundation, the poorest girls will drop out of primary school and the majority will fail to make it to secondary school,” said Baroness Sugg, the UK’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education. “Only by learning the basics will girls stay in school, learn while there, and reap the long-term benefits an education can bring.”

Sierra Leone, which reopened schools in October, is exploring partnering with an NGO consortium to support girls and children living with disabilities or in remote areas. Still, households have expressed concern their children may be falling behind. David Sengeh, Minister of Education and Chief Innovation Officer, hopes the Accelerator Program can support the country in fulfilling its goal of “radical inclusion” of all children in learning.

Julie Cram, USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment, said, “The Ending Learning Poverty initiative is in the forefront of global reading reform, something that USAID has championed for decades. Bringing together the key ingredients of country commitment, political will, private sector innovation, and community engagement will enable us to accelerate results and bring the joy of reading and learning to even more children and youth around the world. This is an effort of which we are proud to be a part.”

Countries and partners should also be prepared to learn from the past and course correct. When the pandemic shut Morocco’s schools, the government created virtual classrooms and distributed millions of tablets to students. But some rural families didn’t have Internet access, so Morocco recorded lessons and rebroadcast them on television. Still, an evaluation found the crisis had heightened disparities between poor and rich children.

“This created an electroshock on the education system,” said Saaid Amzazi, Morocco’s Minister of National Education, Vocational Training, Higher Education and Scientific Research. “It motivated us to come up with new methods of teaching to enable teachers to animate classes in a way that people understand better.”

UNICEF highlighted the importance of universal access to quality digital learning as a way to address the learning crisis and modernize education systems globally. Through the Reimagine Education initiative, the agency will connect 500 million children and young people to the internet, and to digital learning, in 2021 – and every child and young person by 2030.

“We have a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine education,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore said. “Reaching every child and young person by 2030 will require commitment and creativity. Most of all, it will require partnerships. UNICEF is excited to be working with the World Bank and other partners to support ‘Accelerator’ countries as they establish ambitious new reading targets and scale-up programs to build the foundational skills that children and young people need to realize their potential.”

“We must accelerate improvements in learning and center reforms around what is best for the student, giving children the foundational skills to become permanent learners and productive citizens,” said Saavedra.  “Countries have the opportunity through the Accelerator Program to build the foundations of the learning of the future.”