Improving the Quality of Education in Pakistan: We Can’t Manage What We Can’t Measure


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Tanya Lone

Oxford Policy Management

Through my experience of working in Pakistan, I’ve learnt that there is an acute scarcity of systems for measuring progress on education quality and learning outcomes.

The launch of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals last year heralded the dawn of a global shift in education priorities. While the previous set of development goals focused on universal primary education – achieving historic accomplishments in this area – the post-2015 agenda takes this further, recognising the need to focus on the quality of that education. Achieving this will require the global community to address strengthening the quality of inputs, processes, outcomes and mechanisms of measuring progress.

Through my experience of working in Pakistan, I’ve learnt that there is an acute scarcity of systems for measuring progress on education quality and learning outcomes; this lack of systems of measurement weakens the evidence base for devising policies, and reflects the country’s policy priorities, which will need to change in order for Pakistan to give its young people the skills they will need to lead better lives.

Encouragingly, enhancing education quality is gradually being recognized as a national priority throughout Pakistan, and the concept is beginning to make its way into implementation plans. The subject has shaped policy discussions being held at various levels, and is being addressed head-on by national and provincial programmes that are experimenting with creative ways of delivering quality education. These include innovative, technology-based solutions originating from the Ilm-ideas programme, a platform for developing and scaling-up innovative solutions to education concerns and the Mera Sabaq, a digital learning platform to enhance learning.

Despite these steps in the right direction, measurement of education remains largely focused on indicators of access. Looking at some of the major sources of education data, for instance, the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM), an extensive survey of national economic and social indicators conducted annually from 2004 to 2015, measures education indicators of enrolment and basic literacy only. The governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have established monitoring units – the Punjab Monitoring and Implementation Unit (PMIU) and the Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU) in KP – that measure progress through monthly spot checks across all schools. However, the indicators measure teacher presence, student enrolment and attendance and basic infrastructure facilities – not learning.

While it is reasonable to focus on measurement of equitable access in a country where many children are not enrolled in, or attending school, it should not come at the cost of exclusion of other pertinent aspects of education: after all, as RISE research director Lant Pritchett succinctly puts it: “schooling ain’t learning.”

We know that learning assessments can and must be an important tool for measuring outcomes of quality education. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey is one such tool that has made great strides towards consistently measuring basic learning outcomes and making that information publically available. ASER, a citizen-led, household-based initiative, aims to provide schooling status and information about basic learning levels of children ages 3-16 in all rural and a few urban districts of Pakistan. The strength of ASER has been its capacity to introduce education quality indicators in the form of learning outcomes into the national debate.  

It’s still important to recognise, however, that no one survey is a silver-bullet solution that can provide all the data needed to improve policy. ASER illustrates this point, too; the scope of ASER tools is narrow, and requires further depth to promote meaningful learning.

This caution is echoed by the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning, which provides an important measure of education quality worldwide with its data tool – the Learning Assessment Capacity Index – that measures the extent to which countries have produced data on learning assessments between 2010 and 2015.  Pakistan receives a medium score on the index - highlighting that while some national-level assessments exist, regional or international learning assessments have yet to take place in the country.

Against this backdrop, the RISE Pakistan study emerges as an exciting opportunity for initiating meaningful debate on issues of quality in the education system throughout the country. The RISE research team is planning on conducting a broad set of studies over a six-year period that will focus on understanding current frictions in the market system and also on building capacity to enable continued monitoring for the long-term improvement of systems. By looking at the education system as a market with various actors operating under different incentives and relationships, the team will try to understand how changes in certain aspects of the system could affect overall system dynamics and, ultimately, student learning. This could bring insights that help us to understand how to improve education in Pakistan, and elsewhere.

The Education Sustainable Development Goals highlight the aspiration of providing inclusive quality education and lifelong learning to all – translating this into real policy change on the ground in Pakistan and in other nations that are struggling to improve student learning levels won’t be an easy ride, but with the support of international experts, local and national policymakers, we’re ready to face the challenge!

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