Monday, June 17, 2013

Educational quantity without quality is a hollow promise
By Editor
Sat 15 June 2013, 14:00 CAT

The zeal to expand access to education in Zambia is very clear.

But the current situation begs the question of whether the current approach will ultimately have the desired outcomes. Felix Mutati says the current education system in Zambia, which is focused on quantity, does not respond to the development challenges the country is facing. And Mutati says there is need for a shift from focusing on quantity to quality. We think the focus should be on both. We need both quantity and quality. We need a quantitative and qualitative change in our education.

It cannot be denied that effort is being made to improve the education sector. Resources are being mobilised and there appears to be political will to improve the education sector in our country.

And we shouldn't forget that commitment to universal primary education was made explicit as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. We are now more than halfway to the Millennium Development Goals date, and concerns are being voiced that progress towards achieving the goals is off-track. This has led to calls for increased investment in education. There is evidence that these calls are being met. There has been increased public spending on education since 2000. There is also evidence that the government is prioritising education spending.

However, spending more on the education sector as a whole, the government inevitably has to make a choice about what to prioritise within this sector. Unfortunately, it appears that additional spending to achieve the education Millennium Development Goal has been channelled disproportionately towards quantity, dramatically increasing enrolment, at the expense of quality. We have placed an explicit focus on increased access to education. Increasing access is being seen as a necessary prerequisite for improving quality.

We have made significant strides towards the access goal. We have boosted primary school enrolment rates dramatically. And the changes made in the secondary school system have achieved similar successes in terms of increasing enrolments.

But these successes mask some pernicious consequences of hasty efforts to boost enrolment and call into question the longer-term impact of these initiatives.

Perhaps as a result of the substantial donor presence, the Millennium Development Goals framework has come to play a significant role in how our education goals are measured and supported.
An immediate consequence of increasing enrolment has been overcrowded classrooms. While the government's plans to address this problem include building classrooms and recruiting new teachers, pupil-teacher ratios remain high. And when it comes to these ratios, there are glaring disparities between schools in urban areas and those in more remote, rural places, where teachers are often unwilling to be posted or fail to report for duty.

The significance of education for economic development is widely recognised and requires no further disquisition. However, a growing body of evidence indicates that simply spending more time in school does not necessarily lead to improved economic conditions. Rather, various studies show that educational quality - particularly in terms students' cognitive skills - is a much more significant predictor of economic growth.

Progress towards the Millennium Development Goal in education, however, is typically measured in quantitative terms - primary school completion - and thus may fail to capture the quality dimension. Indeed, the reality on the ground shows that progress towards the education Millennium Development Goal in our country has not translated into progress in terms of learning, and the majority of our youth are not reaching even minimal competence levels. And this is probably what Mutati refers to as "educated illiterates".

It seems that expanding access to education too quickly is putting learning at risk and we may not be able to deliver basic educational services effectively.

Given the significance of quality in education, it is important to develop accurate ways of monitoring and measuring it, particularly to strengthen incentives and enhance accountability. And rather than making the measurable important, a greater focus is needed on how to make the important measurable - that is, on creating incentives for quality.

We may also need to revise our goals for education because this may provide an important step in creating incentives for quality. It may be important for us to start judging progress in terms of outcomes of the educational system, or the capabilities of all children in a given cohort. In our view, assessing progress in this manner would create incentives for improving quality in education, not just quantity.

Planning and budgeting for increasing quality in education will require a fundamental shift from thinking about inputs to focusing on learning outcomes - what an "educated" person is able to do. Once we have identified our desired educational outcomes, we should then work to determine the inputs we need to achieve these outcomes. Starting from inputs - simply directing more money to the education sector - will not guarantee improved outcomes. In particular, just increasing spending on physical infrastructure and other inputs has not been shown to lead to substantial increase in children's competencies and learning achievement.

One input that flows more logically from a focus on learning outcomes is investment in teacher quality - one of the only school-related factors that consistently have been shown to influence student achievement. Our teacher-pupil ratios are very poor and we also suffer from chronic under-investment in quality teacher training and professional development. Spending more on teachers implies a longer-term view, as the benefits of such additional spending would not be realised immediately. However, it could help to ensure that the newly-constructed classrooms are not empty shells but, instead, fulfil their promise of expanding access to quality education.

There is need for us to revise our education goals in order to incorporate incentives for quality education. This, however, may pose a new set of challenges. Quality in education is a subjective concept. Even if we define "quality" in terms of certain learner capabilities - the skills and aptitudes that children develop in the education process - it is difficult to make a broad policy and budgetary prescriptions that will guarantee it. However, these challenges are worth addressing, given the significance of quality in education.

Educational quantity without quality is a hollow promise. Rather than rush to meet targets in a superficial manner, we should harness its collective imagination and devise policies and incentives that expand access in terms of both quantity and quality.

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