AS EDUCATORS and students celebrate the World Education Day this week, this moment provides an opportunity to reflect on the transformative power of education. And East Asian countries have a particularly relevant historical experience. The remarkable economic growth of this region since the 1970s, often called the “East Asian miracle,” was based on a combination of policies that promoted outward-oriented, labor-intensive growth while investing in education. This emphasis on literacy and numeracy has equipped countless people, from farmers adopting new agricultural technologies to workers thriving in export manufacturing, with the skills necessary for economic advancement.
However, the progress made in education in the region has been uneven. Recently released data from OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measured the proficiency of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science, shows large differences in the student performance across countries in East Asia, even though this region has the best-performing education systems in the world. While some nations have made significant progress, others are struggling with the basics.
In the Pacific Island countries, there are still too many children and young people failing to develop basic literacy and numeracy, despite high enrollment rates in primary and secondary education. Furthermore, according to a new World Bank report, “Fixing the Foundation: Teachers and Basic Education in East Asia and Pacific,” the roots of the problems observed at age 15 lie in the first years of schooling: more than half of 10-year-old children in most middle-income countries in the region struggle with basic reading and mathematics.
This gap in foundational skills is not just an education issue; it is an economic one. Most middle-income countries in the East Asia and Pacific (EAP) region aspire to grow faster and join the knowledge and technology-based economy. However, the lack of foundational skills will make it challenging for countries to develop graduates with advanced digital literacy and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Yet it is exactly these types of highly skilled graduates who are needed to incubate entrepreneurship and attract high value-added industries.
Because skills development is a cumulative process, there are no short-cuts for developing the more sophisticated skills that modern economies increasingly demand. Students need the ability not only to read and understand written texts, but to also evaluate information, make judgements about competing facts, and act. In addition, they need to develop the capacity to interpret and apply knowledge to everyday problems. These are the type of foundational abilities that people need to respond to unfamiliar situations and introduce innovations.
And how can countries tackle this challenge? There is good news: there is a growing body of evidence to illustrate that once children are in school and ready to learn, teachers have the greatest impact on the learning of these foundational skills. Countries could focus on three mutually reinforcing areas.
First, make teaching an attractive and selective profession, through reforms in salaries — particularly entry salaries —working conditions, and rigorous screening, as in Shanghai-China, Korea, and Singapore.
Second, improve teacher capacity through training and tools that improve subject knowledge and teaching skills. International evidence shows the most effective programs focus on content knowledge, provide opportunities to practice with colleagues, offer ongoing coaching support, and link training to career incentives.
Third, motivate greater teacher effort in areas like attendance and use of class time through accountability mechanisms and addressing poor and under-performance. Vietnam has achieved low absenteeism rates through teacher evaluations and accountability.
Countries will also need to promote the participation of industries in skills development. By involving leading companies from the manufacturing and services sectors in curriculum design, hiring instructors with practical experience, and providing work-based learning opportunities, countries can effectively align skills supply with demand. South Korea provides excellent examples of the role that leading companies played in establishing demand-driven programs in TVET and higher education institutions.
The World Bank has long supported successful EAP reformers, such as Vietnam, in strengthening their education and training system to achieve economic prosperity and learned from their success. We will continue to work closely with countries in the region to strengthen their education systems, focusing on foundational skills, teacher development, and industry-academic partnership. Together, we can unlock the full potential of education in the EAP region, fostering a future where every child can thrive in an increasingly complex and technology-driven world. The future begins right now by ensuring that all students attend school, learn, and achieve, and develop an ethos of responsibility and collaboration.
Alberto Rodriguez is the World Bank regional director for Human Development, East Asia and Pacific.