The issue of education in Pakistan rocketed to front page news after the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl who was targeted by Taliban assassins last October. Unfortunately, violence and attacks against education persist. At the end of March, Shahnaz Nazli, a 41-year-old teacher, was killed on her way to work at a girls’ school near the town of Jamrud in the Khyber tribal district. Five teachers were killed in January near the town of Swabi in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Acts of violence like these undermine an already weak education system where an estimated 30 to 40 percent of school-aged children are out of school. These enormous challenges are compounded by political uncertainties given the upcoming elections and denouement of the war in Afghanistan.
However, in the shadow of these difficult circumstances, progress is quietly being made in thousands of schools located in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. A recent report, The Good News From Pakistan, shows positive results emerging from a program that instituted a number of reforms to the education sector in over 60,000 government schools. Based on global evidence of what works in school system reform, the Punjab Education Reform Roadmap targets access, equity and quality, and uses an innovative monitoring tool that can be used to support and encourage policy dialogue. Over the past two years there have been increases in student enrollment, teacher presence and the availability of functioning facilities in the regions where the program has been implemented.
Student learning levels in Punjab have also improved. An independent, citizen-led household-based study, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), assessed over 60,000 children from all 36 districts in Punjab and profiled almost 2,000 public and private schools in the region. It reveals significant gains in learning outcomes for literacy and numeracy. Grade 4 English language learning levels have improved 12 percent since 2011; Arithmetic levels in Grades 4 and 5 have increased 10 percent. Perhaps even more remarkable, the study indicates that gaps between public and private education are closing. Whereas private schools have historically performed better in terms of teacher attendance rates and learning outcomes, now public and private school attendance rates for children (86 percent) and teachers (87 percent) are on par. Public school facilities are also improving. There are more functioning toilets and available drinking water in government schools, which has further reduced discrepancies in relation to private schools.
Something is definitely working. A critical component of the Punjab Education Reform Roadmap includes strengthening district administration by involving, incentivizing and holding officials accountable for progress or failure, as well as acknowledging them publicly. In addition, a culture of evidence-based tracking and accountability is growing throughout the Punjab districts. In particular, monthly monitoring and ranking based on a number of key indicators around governance and quality has helped to bolster the attendance rates in public schools.
The engagement of policymakers as well as citizens is essential to the success of any large scale public sector education reform. While the Punjab Education Reform Roadmap is involving high-level officials and community leaders, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Pakistan is doing its part to include citizens in the dialogue. Every year, 9,000 volunteers from across Pakistan work to collect ASER data that is then shared with the government, civil society organizations, media, bilateral and multilateral agencies and other stakeholders working in the education sector. This process supports the Right to Education (RTE) campaign that has collected almost 2 million signatures from in-school and out-of-school children in an effort to pressure the Pakistani government to implement free and compulsory education for all children aged five to sixteen. United Nations special envoy for Global Education and former prime minster, Gordon Brown, presented 1 million signatures from the RTE campaign to the president of Pakistan on Malala Day, November 10th, 2012, which lead to the ratification of the first RTE bill in Pakistan. Following the death of Shahnaz Nazli, Malala started a new petition in honor of the slain teacher, which continues to put pressure on the Pakistani government to end the killings and violence that deny children their right to an education–especially for girls.
These advances are important for the people of Pakistan and the 5.1 million children out of school throughout the country. But these efforts also offer lessons for the international community. The Punjab Education Reform Roadmap as well as the work of ASER Pakistan and courageous individuals like Malala and Shahnaz Nazli show that even in the face of daunting challenges and an uncertain future, ambitious goal setting, collaboration and the effective use of evidence can deliver impressive results in a relatively short amount of time. Governments and partners working to improve education systems everywhere should take note.
Esther Care, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, calls the A-F grading system “nonsense.” “Grades are mere proxies for what we value. What we actually value is our children being prepared for the future,” she said. “We need to find ways in educational assessment to convey information about the degree to which they are ready to venture out and to deal constructively with the huge challenges posed by our 21st century.