April 7th is World Health Day, a day to highlight emerging global health concerns. The focus this year is raising awareness on the diabetes epidemic, and its dramatic increase in low- and middle-income countries.
Citizen-led assessments (CLAs) emerged in India in 2005 as a way to raise awareness and advocacy around low learning levels, and to act as a force for bottom-up accountability and action that would improve education quality and learning. Thousands of volunteers traveled to rural districts and administered simple reading and math tests to the children in households they visited. The dismal results, published in the 2005 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), helped stimulate debate and prioritize learning in national policy.
While Brazil faces a difficult fiscal and economic situation right now, I would like to view national progress on employment and incomes from a long-term perspective, which is valuable when addressing Education and Human Development issues in a broader sense.
In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, the world undertook a massive push to increase enrollments for all children in primary school. This organized effort was successful in reducing the worldwide number of out-of-school children by 40%. Surely, for many, the hope (and even the expectation) at that time was for a fast-approaching elimination of this global dilemma.
So, what of our progress in the last seven years?
In the complex world of education policy, some experts comment that school-based deworming may be the closest we have come to finding a "magic bullet." In regions of the world with high worm burdens, such as Africa and South Asia, deworming children for mere pennies a year results in an incredible range of educational and social benefits, from higher school attendance rates to healthier children who are better able to learn in the classroom.
Globally, more than 1 in 4 people are infected by intestinal worms. In Sub-Saharan Africa high infection rates prevail, particularly among school children. Worms can cause anemia, stunting, lethargy and other problems that derail children's development. The positive impact of deworming on both health and educational outcomes is routinely cited as an example of aid effectiveness, including by Nicholas Kristof in the recent column “Getting Smart on Aid,” in the New York Times. Schools are also the best delivery mechanism for reaching children with safe, mass treatments.
While deworming has proven to be one of the most cost-effective interventions to get children into school, promising new research suggests that deworming children can also result in many long-term benefits, including higher wages, healthier individuals and stronger communities. The World Bank hosted a special panel on Rethinking Deworming this month, featuring guest speaker Michael Kremer, co-Founder of Deworm the World and Gates Professor of Economics at Harvard, who presented the new research findings of a study in Kenya.
When my wife and I were looking for where to live in Washington DC, an important part of the decision was the quality of the local public school that our children would (eventually) attend. But how to judge quality? Talking to lots of people was the first step. Taking schools tours was another. But researching test scores was a key factor. We wanted a school with a good learning environment, a sense that parents had a positive feeling about the place—but also wanted to know that the school had a track record of good learning outcomes. Thankfully, the performance of public schools in Washington DC is accessible online and can be compared across schools. This information was an important input into our decision. And it remains an important way in which we monitor school performance. We pay close attention to our own children’s academic development, talk to their teachers regularly, and try to be attentive to the many subtle indicators of the quality of education that they are receiving. But the annually released test scores provide an externally validated stock-taking of one aspect of that quality.
We usually think of schooling as a positive learning experience. However, sometimes this is not always the case. As recent news reports in the Hindu and on NDTV from India remind us, unfortunately for some children in low-income countries, schooling can be a nasty, brutal and short experience. They may suffer physical abuse, humiliation and be forced to endure the worst possible learning environments, while returning for the same punishment day after day after day.