Are Children Learning Anything in School?


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The total number of out-of-school children worldwide has declined from 108 million in 1999 to 57 million today.  While this is tremendous progress, a critical question remains:  Are they learning?  According to the latest estimates from UNESCO, more than 250 million school-aged children cannot read.

But there is some good news.  In a previous post I highlighted my recent paper with Noam Angrist, “An expansion of a global data set on educational quality: a focus on achievement in developing countries,” where we use existing sources of test score information to show that there are less-developed countries that have made major educational gains. In that post our comparison of test score gains from 1995-2010 for 128 countries gives the following list of top performers over the last 15 years: Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Trinidad and Tobago, and Tanzania, to name a few.

These are not your usual suspects, we argued, and give us hope that change can come from low- and middle-income countries.

We are now happy to report that in addition to the paper that summarizes the data, we have also released the data, conveniently compiled into five-year panels, which is downloadable from its own website:  The data are also available on the World Bank’s education data platform, EdStats, which makes it easy to download, analyze, and link with other databases.

The link between our Global Achievement data set and other data makes cross-country analyses possible.  For example, by analyzing the association between governance and test scores, we find that economic freedoms in society are associated with student learning gains when we control for macroeconomic factors such as GDP per capita, population and trade openness.  We find positive associations between indicators for globalization, economic freedom, and democracy on the one hand, and test scores on the other. 

Our results indicate that as economic freedom increases, so does people’s capacity to respond to shocks.  Thus the returns to education rise as families and students internalize the benefit of going to school. As a result, students invest more in their own human capital.

Access to comparable data can better inform what can be done to improve learning outcomes. We hope this data can help address some of the shortcomings to knowledge generation.  After all, we need to ensure that millions of children who have, and will have made, educational investments are actually learning something.

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Join the Conversation

Sigamoney Naicker
May 02, 2014

I think Harry Patrinos is accurate when he talks about economic freedom and the access to education. However, the problem lies in quality without diminishing the value of access to education. The problem in poor and developing countries is that a large number children are not socialised into a culture and language that the school demands. This is the major challenge developing nations face. Poor vocabulary development and oral language development results in many children gaining access to school but at some stage a substantial number become part of the attrition rate. Attrition in developing countries is considerably higher than developed nations. Several data sets confirm that there is a clear relationship between poverty and learning to read. The question remains, what can we do about this. Whilst ther are programmes such as Head Start and Smart Start in the US and UK respectively, it is important that there is some international push towards a curriculum or development such as those in the UK and US for the developing world. Given the fiscal austerities and the competing demands in developing nations, some work has to go into providing support or for some developmental work in this area. Leaving it to individual countries that are struggling with a number of issues, it is vital to improve quality of education in this way. Whilst we can celebrate quality we are not really making substantial progress with literacy, numeracy and throughput levels in the poor and developing world.