Securing high-quality education for each child is an obligation and challenge faced by every government. In developed markets, schools are readily available, and students are enrolled in classrooms. Yet resources alone are insufficient. The quality of learning unfortunately varies across countries and contexts, and it is often woefully inadequate to prepare students for success. Emerging markets have resource constraints that further complicate matters. Across much of Africa and South Asia, nearly half of primary students fail to demonstrate minimum competency in math and English; the majority do not demonstrate proficiency. Results at the secondary level are even more discouraging. Meanwhile, quality education has never been more important to participate in the global economy. Those who fall behind on essential skills and cognitive development struggle to find prosperity; when this happens en masse, communities can become even more marginalized.
For public servants seeking to improve the quality of education, especially for low income individuals in their country, more of the same approaches will almost certainly fail. In our recently published report, Beyond the Mirage, my colleagues and I discuss alternate strategies, focusing on emerging solutions that can yield meaningful progress. These solutions require pragmatic leaders who have a clear vision for what better looks like, who maintain a strong sense of what is working and what is not, and who prioritize implementation based on evidence. Importantly, these pragmatic leaders leave ideology at the door and often embrace solutions that allow for, and directly engage with, the private sector. They will manage the private sector entities that take public funding the same way as they do those in the public sector: measuring results and holding managers accountable.
Engaging the private sector is vital for an education ministry. Many parents already vote with their feet, choosing to pay fees for private schooling. An overview of the emerging market education landscape suggests that low-cost private schools have, on average, significantly better teaching methods and better learning outcomes, even when controlling for selection bias. Pragmatic leaders have seen this dynamic not as a threat, but as an opportunity. They ask: How can we expand the supply of high-quality schools at an affordable cost?
Beyond the Mirage draws on case studies from South Asia and Africa to share concrete examples of ambitious ministers who have shown bold leadership, introducing innovative approaches that engage the private sector while focusing on measuring quality and ensuring accountability for results. In Pakistan, results included a 24-percentage point improvement in a quality assessment test after one year of implementation of the Public School Support Programme in 2016. In Liberia, while results are early, in the first-year students in partnership schools scored 0.18 standard deviations higher in English and math than students in regular public schools.
The critical lesson that emerges from each model and case study is that progress cannot be achieved without the relentless pursuit of results. Platitudes are plentiful, and policy can be debated, but a sustained focus on effective implementation is what makes all the difference. Pragmatic stewards of education systems highlighted in the paper exemplify this finding and exhibit a bias toward action. As George K. Werner, the former education minister of Liberia who spearheaded the Partnership Schools for Liberia, stated, “Education ministers around the world will require vision, courage, conviction, and political will to get beyond the polemic into the implementation. Mistakes will be made, but the biggest mistake would be to stick with an inadequately resourced and dysfunctional status quo for fear of change.”
This is by no means simple or easy. For one, leading an education system focused on learning outcomes requires a reliable data and monitoring system. Measuring progression and impact is incredibly difficult, no matter what the content, but it is especially challenging for emerging market countries, some of which struggle with maintaining basic facilities, relevant learning materials, and teacher attendance. Robust, regular, and reliable monitoring systems are essential for reformers seeking big, sustained progress. Building these systems will require investment and time – but, if combined with rigor in implementation, the investment will pay off.
Improving the quality of education will remain a constant challenge and critical to get right. If anything, the challenge is increasing, as little can be more important to individuals or communities’ futures than education and the benefits a well-educated citizenry can produce. And if implementation were easy, it would have been done already. No government has a perfect or complete data and monitoring system. Education systems embracing the private sector will require a long-time horizon and many years of iteration to yield rewards. Using new tools, learning the lessons from case studies around the world, and embracing change and innovation are a great first step. Every system must start somewhere. The key is to start today.
Katelyn Donnelly is an author of the Beyond The Mirage report and a founding partner of Delivery Associates.