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Education Without Learning?

Responding to the World Bank’s alert about a global learning crisis, a call for countries to prioritize knowledge, not just enrollment

March 16, 2018
Empty classroom desks

When the World Bank issued a report last fall that found that 60 percent of primary school children in developing countries were failing to achieve a basic proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics, it exposed a so-called “learning crisis” in global education, one in which children attend school for years but fail to learn. This “schooling without learning” is a wasted opportunity, the report argues — widening social gaps for already disadvantaged children, for whom the promise of education was meant to offer much greater access to good jobs, higher wages, better health, and lifelong security.

In the World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, World Bank researchers gather recent data from education systems around the world, finding, for instance, that more than four-fifths of students at the end of grade 2 in Ghana and Malawi were unable to read a single familiar word; just under three-quarters of third graders in rural India could not perform two-digit subtractions (and half could not do so in grade 5); and only half of grade 3 students in Nicaragua could correctly solve 5 + 6 when tested in 2011. Enrollment gaps are closing, the report finds — by 2008, the average low-income country was enrolling students in primary school at nearly the same rate as the average high-income country — but learning outcomes are dramatically different.

"The important objective of education is not the accumulation of years of education, but the generation of skills, knowledge, and abilities," says Felipe Barrera-Osorio, a developmental economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose work was cited in the report. "In terms of learning, countries are failing their students."

Governments can change these trends if they make learning a priority, the report says — by taking action in these three key areas:

  • Use well-designed assessments to measure the overall health of the system (not to reward or punish), and use results to drive policy and evaluate progress.
  • Act on evidence. Align reforms, interventions, and policies with the science of how people learn.
  • Align all the stakeholders in a system to create system-wide change that supports learning.

We asked Barrera-Osorio to dig into the report's findings. He's a former World Bank economist with a global research program that explores strategies to improve access and learning outcomes in developing countries.

What is your opinion of the report?

Regardless of the topic, the tasks of any World Development Report (WDR) are enormous: it has to synthesize a mounting amount of evidence; it has to provide a coherent framework of a critical policy area; it has to convene rigorous evidence for practical use in policy, using non-technical language; and it has to push the frontier of knowledge.

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The important objective of education is not the accumulation of years of education, but the generation of skills, knowledge, and abilities. In terms of learning, countries are failing their students.

This year’s WDR flagship on education certainly hits the mark. I believe it presents a compelling message of hope and urgency. Hope, because education is an active area of policy in several countries around the globe. Enrollment rates and school progression have been increasing at a fast pace in the last decades. Urgency, because the shift in policy is from enrollment/attendance to “learning.” The important objective of education is not the accumulation of years of education, but the generation of skills, knowledge, and abilities. In terms of learning, countries are failing their students.

When it comes to taking action in the three areas the reports recommends, many nations struggle. For developing countries in particular, what is the first step toward reform, and why?

One action that may be a low-hanging fruit for many nations is the generation of measurement. At the school level, measurement is important as a pedagogical tool; teachers can track the progression of students; they can know which areas need more work for each individual student. This idea links nicely with one of the fundamental themes of the report: the need of teachers to teach at the right level.

The report also stresses the idea that the quality of education in any system depends in a fundamental way on the quality of its teachers. Countries need to act in both the short and long term, providing policies that induce the best individuals to enter the profession, providing the best training in both content and pedagogy, keeping these high-qualify individuals in the system, and providing high-quality professional development. To make these policies right is very difficult and complex. It is a huge challenge.  

Struggling education systems lack one or more of four key school-level ingredients, the report says: prepared learners, effective teaching, learning-focused inputs, and the skilled management and governance that pulls them all together. How has your research sought to address one or all of those keys?

Some of my research deals with policies that directly intervene with families to guarantee, first, that learners arrive and stay in school; second, that families and students invest optimally in education (in terms of effort, time, even resources). As part of this agenda, and in line with the report, we are attempting to solve the problem of information in the system: families have imperfect information about the actual performance of their kids in the school.

The idea here is that families will act on the provision of information by investing more in education and by forming a stronger relationship with the schools. We are testing these ideas in Manizales, Colombia, with the help of the local government and the Luker Foundation.

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The report stresses the idea that the quality of education in any system depends in a fundamental way on the quality of its teachers. Countries need to act in both the short and long term to induce the best individuals to enter and stay in the profession, to train them in both content and pedagogy, and to provide high-quality professional development.

Another area of active research for me is the idea of teaching to the right level, an idea explored in detail by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. It’s a straightforward concept, but the nature of the problem is quite complex: a typical teacher observes a large dispersion of skills, attitudes, interests, and preparedness in students in the same class. Moreover, this dispersion is increasing over time in developing countries since, as the report shows, enrollments are growing and the marginal students entering the system come from lower income groups, and from marginalized populations.

In this context, the meaning of “teaching to the right level” has another meaning: The teacher needs to teach to the level of all skills. Teachers need to provide differentiated pedagogy, or we need to provide programs that allow this differentiation. In Cali, Colombia, we’re working with the Carvajal Foundation, a local NGO, on a pedagogy for students who are struggling with literacy and math in early grades. The intervention identifies students who are lagging and, during school time, provides teaching at their level for 45 minutes, two times per week. We’re training additional teachers in these approaches, too.

“Teachers are the most important factor affecting learning in schools,” the report states. What are some tactics developing countries can use to improve teacher quality, motivation, and development?

Policies on how to choose and prepare the best teachers are an important part of any discussion about making learning a priority. But let me concentrate on two dimensions of the problem for teachers already in the system: the generation of incentives and professional development.

The report seems to emphasize the link between measurement and teacher performance, stating that “Teacher motivation and incentives makes a difference, even with few inputs.” The typical incentive program for teachers is pay-per-performance: teachers are promised money if their students perform in certain ways on an exam.

But the evidence of pay-per-performance is nascent, with a handful of studies providing different conclusions. And another difficulty is that the vast majority of national measurements do not follow students on time; in other words, national assessment measures a cohort of students — students in a specific grade or grades. The design of pay-per-performance programs depends a great deal on the ability to measure, for the same student, changes in achievement. When national programs are linked to cohort data, the incentives are greatly diminished, and the design of the program extremely difficult, as I’ve shown in recent research on Pakistan.)

Finally, the perils of linking test scores to strong accountability policies are quite clear, both globally and in the United States, as Dan Koretz has recounted in his book The Testing Charade. Measurement per se is important; accountability is important; linking the two of them is difficult, and the technical details are quite complex. It is important that countries implement the right policies, with the right design, so they will not repeat the pitfalls of other countries.

Regarding professional development, the report does a terrific job presenting different alternatives. It is clear that professional development in the form of “seminars” of short duration (five days, outside the school) is highly ineffective. However, there are other programs — in the school, based on peer help, and of longer duration — that are very promising. The report describes several of them.

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