Fixing the Foundation
Early investments in education were key to East Asia’s remarkable development. Basic literacy and numeracy equipped farmers to adopt new seeds and fertilizers and usher in the Green Revolution. The resulting increase in productivity allowed workers to move out of agriculture and use their basic skills in export-oriented manufacturing. This structural transformation boosted economywide productivity growth.
However, past successes risk obscuring educational inadequacies in today’s middleincome East Asia and Pacific. Despite significant advances in school enrollment and educational attainment, more than half of 10-year-olds in most middle-income countries cannot read and understand an age-appropriate text—a phenomenon known as learning 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 propel countries in the region from middle- to high-income status. Learning poverty in all the region’s middle-income countries is significantly higher than that in the high-income countries: Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore. But the challenges are even greater in lower-middle income Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), and Papua New Guinea. In all countries, the quality of education is much weaker in rural and poorer regions than in urban and richer areas. These persistent deficits in basic learning have been significantly exacerbated by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
This report, therefore, focuses on foundational learning—basic literacy and numeracy— which is necessary for the development of more advanced skills. The report focuses on public schools where most of the region’s students obtain their basic education. Finally, the report focuses on teachers, who are central to children’s learning.