Don’t Get Lost – Focus on Quality

Eric A. Hanushek, Stanford University.

UNESCO has done both a service and a disservice to those concerned about global development.  GMR 2012, Youth and Skills: Putting Education to Work, brings its analytical attention to bear on the relationship between skills and economic development.  The power of the idea of Education for All has been to underscore that improved education and skill represents the clearest, if not the only, path to economic progress in developing countries.  But GMR 2012, like the underlying idea of Education for All, provides a breath-taking journey through most of the improvement ideas and exhortations of the past two decades – resulting in a distinct lack of priorities.  The real path to development is an intense focus on quality and on broad cognitive skills.

To me, the evidence is very clear that economic growth is closely related to the cognitive skills of the work force. Skills in mathematics and science, as measured by the TIMSS or PISA assessments, track international differences in long run growth and are a good metric for judging the labour force of a country.  Thus, for example, the disappointing development histories of Latin America or of Sub-Saharan Africa can be accurately related to the fact that improvements in school attainment have not translated into achievement of students as measured by international standards.

The importance of quality has of course been recognized in Education for All and is part of the running commentary in GMR 2012.  The problem is not one of omission.  Instead it is burying the quality issue within a very wide array of alternative potential goals, of varying measures of educational processes, of data and comparisons about side issues, and of strong statements about what to do that lack credible support.  What is left is an ability to pick and choose different portions that can leave a country or a development agency too satisfied with progress.  Virtually every country in the world is progressing well on one or another of the items highlighted in GMR 2012, providing some solace even as economic development is stalled.

The first goal should be simply bringing the skills of the current students up to international levels.  This statement implies measuring performance on international scales.  It implies having a priority on schools and what is being learned.

A part of GMR 2012 is also devoted to issues of how to improve quality.  The emphasis is on the old bromides – increase funding, reduce class sizes, improve the training of teachers, and more.  It is remarkable how few of these standard solutions hold up to close scrutiny and evaluation.

Again, it is not omission but burying the evidence in chaff.  The one consistent story is that teacher quality is overwhelmingly important.  The problem is that teacher quality measured by effectiveness in the classroom is not consistently related to the training and backgrounds of teachers. Further, typical salary policies insure that salaries are quite unrelated to the effectiveness of teachers.  Simply pursuing the standard policies offers little hope.

My reaction to GMR 2012 is completely summarized by one overall message:  FOCUS!  The future development of the low-income countries of the world depends crucially on developing a skilled labour force – one that is internationally competitive.  This is a tall order for many developing countries, because currently available measures suggest a huge gap between the skills of those in developed countries and those in developing countries.  Getting there will require a strong commitment to improving the quality of schools and teachers – something that many countries find to involve difficult policy changes.  But the choice is simple:  Improve quality and reap the benefits of future growth improvements, or let the future get stuck with today’s outcomes.

This message is contained in GMR 2012.  It is simply not possible to substitute “easier” policy changes and to expect the same outcomes.

Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Email: hanushek@gmail.com

This blog post also appears in NORRAG NEWS 48, 2012: The Year of Global Reports on TVET, Skills & Jobs Consensus or diversity? (April 2013), available free online at www.norrag.org

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