Jaime Saavedra: 'There's nothing soft about education reform'

Jaime Saavedra, head of education at the World Bank and former Peruvian minister of education. Photo by: Luis Ruiz / Prensa Minedu / CC BY-NC

OXFORD — When Jaime Saavedra was sworn in as minister of education for Peru in 2013, the country was reeling from the news that it had come last in the Programme for International Student Assessment tables, and many told him the education system was impossible to reform.

But just one year later, the country’s PISA scores showed the fastest improvement in Latin America, and the fourth-fastest in the world.

The impressive record was not enough to keep him in government, however. He was sacked as minister in 2016 over alleged corruption, although supporters say he was the victim of political wrangling.

Saavedra now heads up the World Bank’s global education practice, where he is hoping to use his experience in office to help the institution more effectively support education ministers in client countries to improve schooling.

His top priority is addressing the global “learning crisis,” he told Devex during last week’s annual RISE conference on education research. While school enrollment has improved dramatically in recent years, it has sometimes come at the cost of quality, leading to the realization that “schooling is not learning,” Saavedra said.

“The size of the challenge is something to be really worried about,” he said, adding that “we recognize that large investments in education … in the developing world implied a trade-off between quantity and quality.”

Between 2000-2017, the bank invested $45 billion in education, making it the biggest multilateral supporter of schooling. This financial year, it provided $4.2 billion in new lending and grants for education, its highest annual contribution since 2009, according to a bank spokesperson.

Improving learning in primary and secondary schools will continue to be the bank’s main area of focus. But Saavedra, an economist by training, said improving failing school systems will require a “large menu” of support from the bank, including doing more around early childhood development, and tertiary, and vocational education. Unless effort is put into these areas, countries could see another “trade-off” between access and quality, he warned.

Reforming tertiary education

“University and technical institutes are where a lot of innovations and solutions for development problems will have to come from,” Saavedra said.

“The only certainty we have is uncertainty in terms of the shape of the new labor market.”

— Jaime Saavedra, senior director of education at the World Bank

While countries are seeing a “massive expansion in access” to higher education, driven largely by private institutions, their quality is not guaranteed — something he cracked down on while education minister in Peru by introducing reforms to regulate universities.

“Families are willing to invest resources and the returns are high … but the expansion is heterogeneous in terms of quality … there [are] some extremely good institutions but also a lot of ‘diploma mills,’” he said.

Students finishing secondary school also need more options beyond technical training or university, and they need to be taught relevant skills for the workforce of the future. “The only certainty we have is uncertainty in terms of the shape of the new labor market,” he said. Education systems need to adapt to ensure children learn not only mathematics, literacy, and science, but also the “ability to learn permanently.”

This will also mean offering different kinds of qualifications. “We need to reform systems so ... you have all possible types of education, including microdegrees, nanodegrees, and certifications on specific issues which could be stackable,” and potentially turned into degrees, the education boss said.

However, making these changes will be difficult as long as ministries of labor and education are “not talking to each other,” which results in “people still pursuing degrees with relatively low value in the labor market,” he said. How to better integrate tertiary education with the labor market will be explored in the forthcoming 2019 World Development Report on the changing nature of work, he added.

Politics matter

Saavedra said that researchers and development actors, including the World Bank, often fail to appreciate the political constraints on education ministers and the fact that, despite good intentions, “there are things that cannot be done.” Better bridging the gap between research and policy was a key takeaway from RISE.

Resistance from teachers’ unions has long been presented as one of the biggest hurdles to education reform. While Saavedra said he did come up against opposition during his tenure, it was not a simple case of teachers versus government. Research presented at RISE by the Center for Global Development’s Agustina Paglayan also challenged the evidence that unions obstruct education reforms in both high- and low-income countries.

“Teachers need to internalize that your job is not just to show up ... those kids have to learn.”

Saavedra advised ministers to communicate with the unions, arguing that teachers are key to improving education quality. Reforms he introduced while in office to support them included pay increases; better linkages between performance and promotion; and sending ministerial and motivational messages to teachers by text.

“Education is a service intense with human interaction, so any improvement in quality will [come by] improving the quality of the interaction between teachers and students,” he said.  

In order to get the best from teachers, governments must create a “two-way relationship” in which they feel valued and “see themselves as key to the [education] solution,” responsible for learning outcomes, he said. “Teachers need to internalize that your job is not just to show up ... those kids have to learn.”

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Saavedra also said the bank, and others, need to change the way they talk to ministers about evidence. Instead of always talking about “best practices” and suggesting impact evaluations, they should offer more synthesized evidence about what works, what doesn’t, and why. This means putting a greater emphasis on “process evaluations,” rather than just outcome evaluations. Ministers needs to know “about all practices,” including the ones that failed, he said.

Asked about the bank’s controversial new human capital index, which will rank countries on outcomes in education, health, and social services, Saavedra said it will help “make sure human and physical capital are on the same footing,” and address the persistent misconception among politicians that human capital sectors are “soft,” which leads to them being underresourced and deprioritized.

“You still hear people say those are ‘soft sectors,’ but having been on the other side of table, there’s nothing soft about education reform.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.