The World Bank (WB) is encouraging investment in human capital -- the collection of knowledge, talents, skills and abilities -- as a way to ensure a brighter future in Central Asian states.
Human capital is one of the largest components of the wealth of a nation, according to a January 2018 WB report, "The Changing Wealth of Nations". It accounts for 68% of the wealth of a developed country and more than 41% of a developing country's.
By building and fostering human capital and investments in this area, countries in Central Asia can bolster their wealth and grow stronger.
In light of the technological revolution, education is becoming even more important.
The emergence of robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning is transforming daily life and the skills needed for work. Some jobs will disappear and some that do not exist today will become commonplace.
What is certain is that education will be critical to succeed in the new reality.
Unfortunately students in many Central Asian countries often lag behind in such basic skills as critical thinking, reasoning and problem solving.
In Kyrgyzstan, for example, more than 80% of students scored below the basic level of competency in math and reading according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2010.
In Tajikistan, 77% of second graders could not meet the national benchmarks in reading fluency and comprehension.
In Kazakhstan, the results are mixed.
The PISA 2012 results show that Kazakh students are one year of schooling behind their peers in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states. At the same time, Kazakh students are doing well on mathematics and science, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) 2016 assessment.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have not participated in any international assessments, which makes it hard to benchmark learning outcomes.
Most Central Asian countries also face a huge gap in access to preschool education: coverage ranges from 58% in Kazakhstan to as low as 12% in Tajikistan.
While Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are investing in expanding access to early education, the majority of rural and remote communities still struggle to access preschool education.
Start early, gain more
In the World Development Report 2018 titled "Learning to Realise Education’s Promise", the WB identified key areas that can help tackle challenges in education.
Early investments in nutrition, health, protection and education are essential to produce good learning outcomes and strong human capital.
The foundations of brain architecture are set from the prenatal period to age 5, the report says. During this period the brain's ability to learn from experience is at its highest, but this ability decreases with age.
If this window is missed, skill-building becomes harder.
Children who are poorly nourished, who are stunted, and who do not receive adequate parenting or stimulation before their fifth birthday are likely to learn less at school and earn less as adults, perpetuating the cycle of poverty across generations.
Evidence suggests that an additional dollar invested in quality nutrition and preschool programmes will yield a return of between $6 and $17 to the national economy.
Thus, investing in human capital during the first years of a child's life is both the most cost effective and equitable investment that governments can make.
Teachers matter most
The quality of teachers is the single most important factor contributing to learning outcomes. For example, in the United States, replacing a low-quality teacher with an average one can add $250,000 to a child's lifetime income.
In most countries in Central Asia, governments struggle to recruit teachers.
Relatively low salaries and limited professional development opportunities make teaching an unappealing career path. Teacher training is also not customised to the teachers' specific needs and to the needs of the economy.
These deficiencies all lead to a lower quality of teaching -- and consequently to worse learning outcomes for students.
In Kyrgyzstan, recent efforts to introduce classroom observation and feedback mechanisms on teacher performance offer some promise. However, wider reforms in teacher education and professional development remain critical.
Measurement is key
Well-designed student assessments are important and can help guide teachers and students, improve management of education systems and focus greater policy attention on learning.
National assessment systems in Central Asia need improvements.
While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan participate in international assessments like PISA, TIMMS and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), other Central Asian counties do not.
As such, those countries are missing an important opportunity to benchmark their learning outcomes and to develop stronger national systems.
Without assessment, countries will not find out whether teaching is producing the needed learning outcomes.
Focus on results
Countries in Central Asia devote, on average, about 15-20% of government expenditure to education, which is generally on par with the OECD average.
Yet the outcomes are far less equitable, which means that there is a need to use funds more efficiently to ensure better learning outcomes.
Evidence from around the world shows that education standards can improve dramatically if countries make "learning for all" a national priority.
As countries prepare for a more technologically advanced and digitised global economy -- which will require news skills and significantly higher levels of human capital -- Central Asian states have an opportunity to overcome the challenges in their education systems and equip their young generations with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in this rapidly changing world.
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