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.