Education In Crisis: Bridging The Global Learning Gap

May 28, 2024


This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of Business Monthly.

In today’s increasingly complicated, uncertain and intertwining world, high-quality elementary and secondary education is vital. “In addition to preparing students for the workforce, education systems are increasingly being asked to participate in resolving broader societal issues,” said a McKinsey & Company report in February. Those issues include mental health challenges among young people, political polarization and climate change.

Despite their importance, education systems worldwide are noticeably deteriorating. “Student learning improvements are not keeping up with these demands,” the McKinsey report said. “More children than ever are in school, but many are not mastering basic skills.”

The decline is most evident in low and middle-income countries, where “seven in 10 students … are living in ‘learning poverty,'” said the World Bank’s Education Overview note published in October. “More than 90% of children live in countries where average educational outcomes are below poor, poor or fair.”

Additionally, the education gap between wealthy nations and the rest is vast. The OECD estimates most high-school students in emerging economies are, on average, “10 or more years behind their peers in Europe, North America and East Asia.”

Governments need to implement effective education reforms quickly to ensure economies and societies can meet future demands. “It is more important today than ever before to improve the quality equity of education systems around the world,” the McKinsey report said.

No progress?

“In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, student performance in most school systems globally stagnated or declined,” said the McKinsey report. “Of the 73 [surveyed] countries … over the past decade, only 23 managed to achieve significant, sustained and consistent improvements in student outcomes.”

According to the OECD’s 2022 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) questionnaire, student performance declined by half a year of learning or more in 17 systems between 2010 and 2020.

The research noted, “Every system that participated in the PISA shows gaps in performance correlated with socioeconomic status.” The McKinsey report said this comes despite “per-capita education spending … over the past decade … increasing in all countries of all income levels.”

That decline comes from “education not seen as a priority, resulting in an inability to raise … funds needed to deliver,” the McKinsey report said. “Goals are too numerous, too far out in the future and hard to measure, and there is a lack of coherence across the individual elements of reform.”

Meanwhile, if governments announce reforms, they “may falter [due to] pushback from communities and educations who don’t feel consulted,” said McKinsey. “Top-down policies may not actually work once they reach the classroom.”

The other issue is lagging implementation from “insufficient coordination and pace of change, limited implementation capacity, [operating] without sufficient data [and trying to] solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.”

COVID-19 “exacerbated these challenges,” the McKinsey report said. “Lost learning time widened equity gaps within and between countries, with students ending up, on average, eight months behind where they would have been absent the pandemic.”

The pandemic also accelerated demand for innovative digital services, resulting in a rising need for tech-savvy employees. “This created a scissor effect: learning losses colliding with an increased need for higher skills,” McKinsey’s report said.

Making it work

Several education systems “are beating the odds and producing meaningful gains in student learning year after year,” said the report. “They … exist on every continent and at every level of national development.”

Despite their diverse contexts, the McKinsey report highlighted common success factors. First, education leaders “choose evidence-backed strategies relevant to their starting position and prioritize foundational learning, particularly in systems with limited resources.” They also “focus first and foremost on teachers and the content they deliver.”

Successful education systems also create a “few cohort priorities, rallying stakeholders around them to ensure everyone — from system leadership to principals to teachers — is on board. They invest in authentic, two-way communication with families, educators, and communities to better design policies and build deeper buy-in.”

The report added that education system decision-makers need to “move quickly from strategy to implementation.” That happens by having “dedicated delivery teams” and systems that “rigorously measure… student learning outcomes and use transparent data to improve [government] interventions.”

The McKinsey report said those measuring systems help implement “tried-and-true methods while creating space for innovation and measuring what they innovate, [which] feeds back into the evidence base of what works.”

Tailoring solutions

The February McKinsey & Company report stressed that national and local school systems should not simply “lift and shift best practices from a system that operates in vastly different contexts.”

Factors to “consider [include] their starting student performance, their financial resources, and the capabilities of their teachers and school leaders.”

In advanced or developed countries, “increasing levels of school and teacher autonomy are possible, paired with effective accountability, capacity building and peer learning,” McKinsey said.

In developing low and middle-income nations, the “focus [is] on foundational literacy and numeracy, ensuring that instructional materials are available on a one-to-one basis, and scaffolding teachers through structured lesson plans and in-situ coaching.”

Meanwhile, low and middle-income nations whose education systems are improving “need to ensure the basics are in place [before] expanding selective earned autonomy, broader competency-based curricula tied to economic pathways, and incentives for teachers and school leaders to develop top talent.”

Once implementation starts, local education leaders must acknowledge that local “schools range from below poor to great.” That requires taking different approaches to improve schools based on their starting points. Education leaders also need to concede that “the journey is not perfectly linear for any system,” noted Mckinsey. “And there are multiple paths to system improvement.

Tech question

The McKinsey report stressed that unquestioningly adopting new technologies like generative artificial intelligence solutions is “not a silver bullet.”

Maximizing the benefits of technology in education systems requires “focusing on the ability of software to address specific use cases,” the McKinsey report said. Such cases need to “align with the existing curriculum, involve significant professional learning and support for teachers, and consider putting technology in the hands of teachers rather than just the students.”

Meanwhile, the 2022 PISA questionnaire results show that “while learning outcomes were often better for students who used devices in school for learning than for those who did not, the benefits were strongest for those who used their device for less than an hour a day.”

Give it time

The key to sustainable education reform is designing and implementing policies and institutionalizing reforms to outlast civil servants and political leaders. “True transformation can take a decade,” the McKinsey report noted. Education leaders need to “build a deep bench of talent at the central office, at the middle layer and across schools.”

Additionally, the report said education leaders must insulate education from politics by distancing the work from political structures, embedding them into difficult-to-reverse policies, or creating a greater ecosystem of experts who can support policy development and implementation.

Separating education reform from political systems might be difficult, yet governments have no other option. “If we do nothing,” warned the McKinsey report, “the implications for economic growth and political stability … will be tremendous.”