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What does a high-performing education system look like? Reporting on the results of the first SABER pilot

“In their endeavours to boost the quality of education, countries are increasingly looking to complement traditional policy analysis with tools which can facilitate cross-country comparisons. Through this initiative, UNESCO, together with the World Bank, has aimed to trial such a tool in East and South East Asia; one which considers performance from a system-wide perspective. This pilot was but the first step in this important area of analysis and we look forward to building on it in the future to ensure that in their deliberations on how to improve educational outcomes, member states have access to practical, evidence-based policy tools.”

Mr Gwang-Jo Kim, Director, UNESCO Bangkok – March 2012

Last week, the World Bank and UNESCO Bangkok launched Strengthening Education Quality in East Asia, a joint publication that summarizes the findings of the first pilot of the System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results (SABER) project.  

At its heart, SABER is a diagnostic tool which aims to assess and benchmark education systems.  Designed as an instrument for policy-makers, it draws on the evidence of national policies and experiences in high-performing or promising education systems.  Crucially, the tool looks into the functioning of an education system as a whole and its capacity to deliver quality learning.  In this way, it acts as a complement to and looks beyond student learning assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by analysing enabling factors - policy domains - for quality learning.

The tool was piloted in East and South East Asia in 2011 and uncovered a number of interesting findings.  Fundamentally, the surveys suggest that it is not sufficient for economies to perform well in selected policy domains: high-performing education systems tended to have more coherent policies across most policy domains tested.  

The report aims to identify how each of the 14 education systems (Cambodia; People’s Republic of China (separate surveys were conducted for Hong Kong SAR and Shanghai); Indonesia; Japan; Republic of Korea; Lao PDR; Malaysia; Mongolia; the Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; and Viet Nam) measured up in a range of policy domains (information systems, student assessments, teacher policies, school autonomy and accountability, engaging the private sector, vocational tracking, ICT in education and tertiary education).  

While the surveys suggest high-performing education systems are advanced in the majority of domains, the same is not necessarily the case at the other end of the spectrum.  The surveys find, for example, that some developing countries are performing well in particular policy domains – indeed, even exceeding those of their wealthier counterparts.  While this is encouraging, the overall findings of this pilot nevertheless point to the need for consistency across multiple domains. 

The pilot exposed the utility of a framework for system-wide assessments, and the depth of interest from policy-makers in such an instrument.  With this as a first step, UNESCO looks forward to furthering work in this area, with the ultimate aim of assisting member states to boost the performance of their education system through comparative analysis and knowledge-sharing on best-practice in policy development and implementation.


Related links:

World Bank SABER Hub
Moving forward with SABER: Outcomes of the East and South East Asia Pilot – 21 June 2011


Download PDF


Strenthening Education Quality in East Asia (SABER: System Assessment and Benchingmarking for Education Results - EAST Asia Pilot)
World Bank; Bangkok: UNESCO Bangkok, 2012, 142 p.