Introduction and Overview
Education is a right with immense inherent value. As an essential building block for a country’s human capital, it is also a key driver of growth, competitiveness, and economic development. For societies to be inclusive and fair, they need to prepare all their children to succeed as citizens and give them the tools to participate in their countries’ development. This has become increasingly challenging, because students must have the skills and competencies to adapt and be successful in a rapidly changing, uncertain world, especially as the world grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, our understanding of how children best learn and what the most effective education delivery mechanisms are has grown. Armed with this knowledge, countries that are serious about living up to this challenge will invest in their people to build their human capital; take action to show that learning really matters to them; and commit not only the financial, but also the political and managerial resources necessary to build an education system that serves all with quality.
Urgent action is needed to realize a new vision for education: one in which learning happens for everyone, everywhere. Too many education systems are not delivering even basic skills for all children, let alone preparing them for the demanding world they will live in as adults. As the World Bank expands its support for countries to invest more, and more effectively, in education, it has developed a renewed policy approach to address the educational challenges of today while helping countries lay the groundwork to seize tomorrow’s opportunities. The Bank’s 2018 World Development Report urged action to address the global learning crisis and examined the policies needed to tackle it (World Bank 2018a). To support efforts to improve foundational learning, last year the Bank launched a global target: to cut the Learning Poverty rate—the fraction of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries who cannot read and understand an age-appropriate text—at least in half by 2030 (World Bank 2019a). It was also a recognition of the severity of the learning crisis that we are living through: that more than half of children lack these fundamental skills at the end-of-primary age shows that their future is at stake. And now the pandemic has generated a crisis within a crisis.
The COVID-19 crisis has further exposed the weaknesses of education systems around the world and underlined the urgency to act. As a consequence of the measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, education systems around the world are enduring the worst crisis of the last 100 years. Never before we have witnessed the twin shock of massive, lengthy school closures coinciding with the sharpest economic downturn of the last 100 years in most countries in the world. In this unprecedented shock, at the peak of school closures 1.7 billion children and youth had their classes interrupted, and even 7 months after the onset of the pandemic almost 600 million students still had not returned to school. Moreover, some education systems reopened but then had to close again at least partially and return to remote instruction (where that was available). This experience signals a protracted and uncertain process in which countries are still learning how to deal with the pandemic and at the same time trying to minimize learning losses. On top of this, the deep recession is limiting family’s capabilities to invest in education and is putting a strain in public budgets.
Learning losses and other negative impacts on education outcomes as a consequence of the pandemic will most likely be large. Simulations by the World Bank show that the learning poverty rate might increase by 10 points, from 53 to 63 percent, in low- and middle-income countries. This implies that 72 million more children might become learning-poor as a consequence of the pandemic. Estimates of dropout rates indicate that 10 million children may fail to return to basic education after schools reopen. And as a long-term consequence, the resulting reduction in human capital accumulation and productivity could cause this generation of children and young people to lose USD 10 trillion of future earnings (in net present value)—an amount equivalent to almost 10 percent of global GDP. To help avert this, the Bank has outlined a three-phase education policy response to the pandemic—with a coping phase, a phase of managing continuity and recovery, and a phrase focused on acceleration of learning (World Bank 2020a)— and increased its technical support to countries. Many countries are now in the second and third phases, as they manage a protracted process of returning children and youth to school. In many cases, this has opened a window of opportunity to rebuild more equitable, effective, and resilient systems that will shape the future of learning.
This report describes the World Bank’s vision for the future of learning and a strategic approach that lays out the lines of actions needed for education systems to move forward in accelerating learning improvement. When this report was written (as 2020 was drawing to a close), education systems were trying to provide education services in the midst of a protracted pandemic. But in many cases, the pandemic response has opened a window of opportunity for educational systems to move to a path of accelerated progress. It is now possible to bring forward to today elements that many would have thought are part of the future of learning. A vision of this future should guide today’s investments and policy reforms so that countries can lay the foundations for effective, equitable, and resilient education systems.
In the future, learning should happen with joy, purpose, and rigor for everyone, everywhere. Learners experience joy when their skills are stretched with challenging but possible tasks. Purpose is achieved when content, curricula and instruction are relevant, important and applicable to the lives and contexts of children. Finally, learning happens when there is rigor, as achieving mastery and excellence usually entails continuous practice and effort. Further, the future of learning involves everyone learning, everywhere. To achieve equality of opportunities and guarantee that the education system is resilient, the sharp differences in school and home environments need to dissipate. And this has to be part of public policy. Learning should occur for all children, and it should happen in school and beyond its walls.
A vision for the future of learning can be realized only by transforming the entire education system to prioritize and support student learning. Ultimately, delivering a high-quality education is about improving the learning experience of every child in every classroom in every school. The challenge is to make that happen in a systemic way for everyone. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to ensure learning continuity beyond school walls. To guide our policy advisory and operational support to countries, this report discusses policy actions that are needed to accelerate learning and that characterize the way many successful systems operate. These are presented within five interrelated pillars of a well-functioning education system that underpin the World Bank’s strategic education policy approach: learners, teachers, learning resources, schools, and system management. Countries can chart their own path with a political commitment to carry out investments and reforms in five pillars that ensure that:
Learners are prepared and motivated to learn—with a stronger emphasis on whole-child development and support to learning continuity beyond the school.
Teachers are effective and valued—and ready to take on an increasingly complex role of facilitators of learning at and beyond the school with use of education technology.
Learning resources, including curricula, are diverse and high-quality—to support good pedagogical practices and personalized learning.
Schools are safe and inclusive spaces—with a whole-and-beyond-the-school approach to prevent and address violence and leave no child behind.
Education systems are well-managed—with school leaders who spur more effective pedagogy and a competent educational bureaucracy adept at using technology, data, and evidence.
Investments and reforms in each of the pillars are needed today to lay the foundations for the future of learning. For some educational systems, the transformation of education delivery may seem far off and maybe unattainable in the short run. However, policymakers can implement key policy actions today to lay the foundations for the future of learning.
To engage learners, systems can ensure that children arrive at school prepared, supported, and motivated to learn. This involves providing high-quality early childhood development services, especially to the most vulnerable. It also involves removing demand-side barriers to getting all children into school and creating the conditions to keep them there (such as ensuring they acquire the foundational skills they require for further schooling). Finally, it involves bolstering the role of families and the communities while improving learning environments outside school.
To ensure a healthy teaching and learning process, countries need to make sure that the teaching career is socially valued and that teachers have the tools, support, and expectations they need to be effective. The teaching profession must be a meritocratic, socially valued career, where teachers are held to high professional standards. Training should effectively equip teachers to do their job; pre-service training needs to involve opportunities for extensive practice, and in-service training needs to be on-going, tailored, practical, and focused on improving the instruction-teaching process.
Students must have access to adequate and diverse learning resources, including an effective curriculum, useful assessments, books and reading materials, and education technology. The curriculum should be adjusted to the level of the students and the capacity of the system, written in a way that offers useful guidance for teachers. Where it is needed, providing detailed guidance to teachers, paired with interventions to target instruction according to students’ level of learning, can be a way to substantially improve learning, outcomes. Another important tool is a combination of different types of learning assessments to help inform policymaking, classroom instruction, and even teacher professional development. Children should have access to high-quality, age-appropriate books and other learning materials. Finally, teachers and school leaders should be able to access and effectively harness technology to achieve their learning objectives.
Safe, welcoming, and non-discriminatory learning environments are an urgent development objective. This entails ensuring that infrastructure meets basic school building standards that consider cost-effectiveness, climate resilience, flexibility, accessibility, and alignment with pedagogical plans. It also requires implementing measures to foster a positive school climate and safe learning, as well as taking a strong stance to increase the access to and quality of education for girls, for children with disabilities, and for those in settings of fragility, conflict and violence. Importantly, teaching students first in the language they use and understand is key to improve learning outcomes.
All of this requires institutions with effective leadership and management structures. The human resource function of education systems needs to be strengthened to professionalize school leadership. Principals should have tools to manage with autonomy and receive professional development opportunities to build their managerial, pedagogical, and leadership capabilities. And education systems need to develop strong bureaucracies to manage extremely complex service delivery systems.
The report also discusses core principles that should guide systemwide reform efforts so that policies within each pillar offer the greatest value for money and are scalable and sustainable. The experience of successful education systems shows that there is no single way to organize an effective education delivery system, but high-performing systems share some common tenets: pursuing systemic reform, supported by political commitment, that focuses on learning for all children; focusing relentlessly on equity and inclusion; acting on the basis of evidence and focusing on results; ensuring the necessary financial commitment; and making smart investments in education technology to harness its potential to improve learning.
Education reform cannot be piecemeal; it needs to be systemic. All inputs must be part of a coherent plan to increase learning, and all interventions should be aimed at permanently increasing the country’s capacity to deliver high-quality education. Even acknowledging that reform is complex, it is essential to work simultaneously in all pillars mentioned above. From a pedagogical perspective, a crucial step in this systemic change is crafting “instructional coherence”: coherence in terms of the curriculum, teachers’ pedagogical approaches, and assessment (how the system checks whether students are learning).
Political commitment and alignment around education reform is a precondition for ensuring that learning for everyone, everywhere is always the focus of reform efforts. Good technical design is critical for scalability and sustainability, but effective interventions require an enabling political environment in which all stakeholders are aligned toward learning (World Bank 2018a). That a system should be focused on ensuring that children are in school and learning sounds obvious, but it often is not. A typical example is teacher career reforms: shifting from a structure where appointments are politically based to one with meritocratic career paths is essential for a student-centered system, but also politically costly. Alignment should be forged around a political and policy strategy that commands a reasonable level of consensus and transcends political administrations. Political alignment around education requires a shared commitment to learning, so that all decisions are made with the objective of ensuring that all children and youth are in school and learn; making this happen is a highly political decision.
The pandemic has shown that successful systems focus on equity and has also shown that resiliency and equity are inextricably linked. Countries that invest successfully in preparing learners, in a strong teacher workforce, in effective pedagogical systems, in safe and inclusive schools and that pay attention to effective management at the school and system level are better placed to ensure that all students have the right educational experience beyond school walls. The pandemic has made evident the huge inequities in many systems. More than 135 countries implemented remote learning strategies, but the differences in depth and effectiveness along the income scales are extremely large. Most systems were not prepared: internet reach was low and unequal, and attempts to reach students through educational radio and TV have been useful but insufficient. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for resilient systems that ensure learning continuity beyond school walls. This learning continuity requires making sure that there are the right conditions not only in the school, which remains as the critical social education space, but also at home.
The pandemic is also offering important lessons about the need to close the digital divides, and about the critical role of teachers and parents. Despite decades of talk about the digital divides, the pandemic has shown that countries were largely unprepared for a crisis like this. Closing the digital divides will require investments in connectivity software, devices, and teacher professional development to ensure that technology can enhance the work of teachers and also facilitate managing the whole education process. And it can also support more resilient systems in the longer run, if public policy emphasizes connectivity and the availability of devices at home or at the community. This is a promising but complex agenda, as there is still a lot to learn about the effectiveness of specific technological solutions. Resilience also requires placing much more emphasis on the role of parents. The pandemic has made it clear how important support at home is, and how parents are key players in their children’s learning and their future. Public policy should internalize this and provide guidance, support, and counseling to parents so they can better fulfill this role. Thus, education systems must become more equitable and more resilient to realize the vision presented here on the future of learning, so that learning occurs for everyone, everywhere.
The use of data and evidence to improve design of education policies is critical. The crisis has created a wave of adoption of new technologies and new practices at an unprecedented pace in all systems of the world, and the speed of innovation might accelerate. This is a welcome development; however, implementation of proven technologies and methods in one environment does not ensure success in others, so constant monitoring, evaluation, and use of the evidence generated is essential.
This vision for the future of learning does not set out on a single model or path for all countries. It encapsulates the types of changes needed in the pillars of the education system—learners, teachers, learning resources, schools, and system management—and in the relationships among them. The experience of successful education systems shows that there is no single way to organize an effective education delivery system, although high-performing systems share some common features. For instance, they fully embrace equity as an overall guiding goal and principle of education policy. Some of these changes have already been made or are emerging in high-performing systems, and countries with underperforming systems can use these examples to guide their policy actions and investments. In some cases, those countries can move quickly to adopt similar changes and accelerate educational development, using insights from the science of learning to develop goals and teaching practices for schools, institutions, and programs. For instance, countries can strive to incorporate socioemotional learning into their curricula and teaching practices. In other cases, they will need to adapt ideas from high-performing systems to their own context. For example, some changes depend on strong implementation capacity in ministries of education, but there are few shortcuts for strengthening this capacity, so those changes may require more adaptation. This report examines the policies and programs that systems can adopt to move, along their own paths, toward the future of learning.
This report reviews the current learning crisis, including the extent to which COVID-19 has exacerbated it, and then lays out a vision, policy priorities and some principles for education policy reform. The first part describes our vision for the future of learning. The second examines the steps that countries can take today in terms of policy reforms and programs to realize and sustain this vision at scale, each charting its own path according to its own context. The third describes the principles that should be followed to ensure coherence and optimize the effects of policy reforms. Together, they address the following broad questions: “What are the main changes needed to strengthen the five pillars of an education system and realize our vision for the future of learning?” “What policies and programs should be prioritized and sustained over time to realize this vision? “How can the effect of investments and policy actions be optimized to achieve learning for everyone, everywhere?”