Hardly a week goes by without someone pointing out that, despite being enrolled in school, many of Africa’s primary school-age children don’t seem to be learning very much.
Today’s salvo is from the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, whose Africa Learning Barometer estimates that 61 million children (half of the primary school-age population) “will reach their adolescent years without being able to read, write or perform basic numeracy tasks.”
Last week, my colleagues Elizabeth King and Ritva Reinikka  called on Africa’s education system to “put learning first for all students.” We have documented disappointing learning outcomes in Tanzania  on this blog. Despite being a middle-income country and having substantially increased public spending on education, South Africa’s performance  in standardized tests is below the average for African countries.
What’s going on here? Numerous studies document the proximate causes: teacher absenteeism (18 percent in Senegal, 23 percent in Tanzania, 27 percent in Uganda); neglect (when present, teachers are in class teaching about a quarter of the time); ignorance (only 11 percent of teachers in Tanzania had a working knowledge of language).
However, the underlying cause may be politics, and the international community may have to share part of the blame.
The fact is that public sector teachers (and where they exist, teachers unions) welcome campaigns for universal primary enrolment. They imply more jobs for teachers, and enrolment is relatively easy to achieve. But when there is a campaign to improve learning outcomes, there is often a protest—from the same teachers unions. Merilee Grindle  has documented these protests most vividly in Latin America. The reasons are two-fold. First, learning outcomes are much harder to achieve. Secondly, if the campaign calls for learning outcomes regardless of where the children are enrolled, there may be a shift towards private schools—and fewer public-school teaching jobs.
As usual, the international community continues to call for both quantity and quality in education. And in order to learn, a child must be enrolled in school. But as long as enrolment and learning outcomes are in the campaign, the focus will be on the former—because it is easier and politically popular.
Unless countries commit exclusively to a universal learning goal—every child will know how to read, write and perform simple arithmetic by age 12, say—Africa’s learning crisis may never get resolved.