There’s a crisis in learning. The quality and quantity of education vary widely within and across countries. Hundreds of millions of children around the world are growing up without even the most basic life skills.
The 2018 World Development Report draws on fields ranging from economics to neuroscience to explore this issue, and suggests improvements countries can make. You can get the full report here and to give you a flavor of what’s inside, I’ve pulled out a few of the charts and ideas that I found most striking while reading through it.
The report sets out several arguments for the value of education. The clearest one for me? It’s a powerful tool for raising incomes. Each additional year of schooling raises an individual’s earnings by 8–10 percent, especially for women. This isn’t just because more able or better-connected people receive more education: “natural experiments” from a variety of countries - such as Honduras, Indonesia, Philippines, the U.S., and the U.K. - prove that schooling really does drive the increased earnings. More education is also linked with longer, healthier lives, and it has lasting benefits for individuals and society as a whole.
In spite of these potential benefits, young people follow different paths in their education. In low- and middle-income countries, out of every 100 students entering primary education, 90 complete their primary education, 61 complete lower secondary education, and just 35 complete upper secondary schooling. Meaning, about a third of youth leave school between lower and upper secondary, many of whom are unprepared for further education and training.
It’s not just the quantity of education that matters, it’s the quality. It’s hard to measure learning in a way that’s comparable across countries, but the report draws on new studies which attempt to do just that. The recently updated “Global Data Set on Education Quality” suggests that more than 60 percent of primary school children in low- and middle- income countries fail to achieve a minimum proficiency in mathematics and reading. By comparison, in high-income countries nearly all children reach this level in primary school.
Not only are there disparities across countries, there are disparities within them. The most striking to me is largely a consequence of poverty. Almost 1 in 3 children under 5 in low and middle income countries are physically stunted, typically due to chronic malnutrition. This kind of deprivation - whether in terms of nutrition or unhealthy environments, has long-lasting effects on brain development. So even in good schools, children who are deprived (and are typically poorer) learn less, and breaking out of this pattern becomes harder as children age because their brains become less malleable, and learning new skills becomes harder.
It’s not just students who are failing in schools, schools are also failing their students. Across seven African countries, an average of one in five teachers was absent from school on the day of an unannounced visit by survey teams, and two in five were absent from their classrooms even though they were at school. In remote communities, these problems are even more severe. This kind of analysis is not intended to blame teachers, but to call attention to systematic issues of resourcing, management and governance which often undermine the quality of teaching.
To tackle the learning crisis, the report's first recommendation is to have more and better measurements of learning. While media attention and education debates often focus on the issue of “overtesting” and high-profile national examinations, a look at the available data suggests many countries lack information on even basic learning. A study of 121 countries found that 1 in 3 lack data on the reading and mathematics proficiency of children at the end of primary school, and even more lacked this data for the end of lower secondary school.
Countries are willing to invest in education but the report argues that governments don’t just need to spend more, they need to spend better, making sure resources are allocated more effectively and equitably. Most funding comes from domestic sources, and it typically absorbs the largest single share of a government’s budget, averaging about 15 percent of the budget across low- and middle-income countries. While this shows that governments recognize the importance of education, the report show that increased spending alone is not sufficient to improve learning.
In spite of all the challenges pointed out in the report, it’s worth taking a step back to recognize the progress the world has made in education over the last 200 years. Today, most children have access to basic education, and each new generation is spending more time in school than the previous one. The years of schooling completed by the average adult in a low or middle-income country more than tripled between 1950 and 2010—from 2.0 to 7.2 years. This rate is historically unprecedented. It took the United States 40 years—from 1870 to 1910—to increase girls’ enrollments from 57 percent to 88 percent. Morocco achieved a similar increase in just 10 years.