Investing in teachers today can help future generations thrive
WASHINGTON, September 20, 2023 – Every year in 22 middle-income East Asia and Pacific countries, around 172 million children are enrolled in primary school. Early investments in education were key to East Asia’s remarkable development. 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 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 percent in 14 of the 22 countries, including Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the report says. In upper middle-income Malaysia, learning poverty is above 40 percent. In contrast, learning poverty is 3 to 4 percent in Japan, Singapore, 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 labor 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 percent of 4th grade teachers scored 80 percent or higher on an assessment of 4th grade math. In Indonesia, similarly, only 8 percent of 4th grade teachers scored 80 percent 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, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, and Vietnam indicates 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 percent of programs, compared to 81 percent of programs associated with improvements in student learning globally.
To be effective, trainings 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. 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.”