By Lindsay Adams
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Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) is a recent initiative of the World Bank’s Human Development Network to characterize education systems, policies and programs across countries. Conducted in cooperation with governments, the initiative is a diagnostic tool that aims to assess a country’s current education system and identify areas for improvement. The Bank’s SABER work program covers more than a dozen policy domains that comprise an education system, of which early childhood development—known as SABER-ECD—is one.

The framework for the SABER-ECD approach was developed based on an extensive review of evidence to determine what policies matter most for young children’s development.  The framework identifies three policy goals that all systems should try to achieve: Establishing an Enabling Environment, Implementing Widely, and Monitoring and Assuring Quality.  For each policy goal, three policy levers are presented that can help achieve these goals.  These goals are, for Enabling Environment: Legal Framework, Intersectoral Coordination, and Finance; for Implementing Widely: Scope of Programs, Coverage, and Equity; and for Monitoring and Assuring Quality: Data Availability, Quality Standards, and Compliance with Standards.

Data are collected in country on the current status of these policy goals and levers through interviews with local experts; and reviews of laws, statistical reports, and other documents.  The SABER-ECD Team in the Bank’s Human Development Network Education Department (based in Washington) analyzes and disseminates these data.  Each policy lever and goal of the country’s system is benchmarked according to its level of development as Advanced, Established, Emerging or Latent.  This benchmarking allows for identification of possible areas for improvement as well as a country’s achievements.  The SABER-ECD classification system does not rank countries according to any overall scoring; rather, it is intended to share information on how different ECD systems address the same policy challenges and enable comparisons of systems across countries. The reports include case studies of successful programs and policies adopted in other countries that may offer useful ideas for governments facing similar challenges.

Country report findings capture the comprehensive nature of ECD systems, and offer recommendations that can be useful to government officials and development partners in developing and targeting their interventions.  For example, a country report may find that a country’s laws to promote the health and nutrition of women and young children are strong, but that the policy framework does not adequately promote preschool enrollment.  A country may have a wide range of nutrition, health, education, and social protection programs, but these programs may not be accessible to poorer citizens living in rural areas.   A country may have an evidence-based preschool curriculum in place, but may not collect sufficient data to monitor children’s holistic development. While a country report can offer much useful information, there are limitations to what it can do given that the current SABER framework focuses on policy intent rather than actual policy implementation.

Many governments are eager to implement the SABER-ECD tool in their countries, reflecting an increasing appreciation of the importance of strong early childhood systems for a country’s social and economic development.  Joan Lombardi, an international expert on ECD, says that:

SABER is a big step forward for the field of early childhood for at least three reasons.  First, it lays out a clear set of comprehensive policies that will improve conditions for young children and promote child development across sectors. Second, it provides a mechanism for collecting data about young children in a country and a systematic framework for policy analysis. Third, it establishes a process by which we can begin to look at policies across countries and learn from those most successful around the world.

Currently SABER-ECD is being implemented in more than forty countries around the world.  In the LAC region, SABER-ECD analysis has been completed in Colombia. Data collection has started in Jamaica and Belize. In 2011, the World Bank conducted a situational analysis using adapted SABER-ECD tools for Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Lindsay Adams is an early childhood education consultant at the World Bank.  Prior to the Bank she worked at foundations supporting social development and human rights in the Middle East.

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