Is our Tanzanian children learning?


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I was reminded of former US President George Bush’s question about American children when I saw the results of a recent NGO-led survey of 40,000 children in Tanzania.  The picture is sobering: 

  • About 20 percent of the children who had completed seven years of primary school could not read their own language, Kiswahili, at the Grade 2 level;
  • Half of them could not read English, which is the medium of instruction in secondary education; 
  • And about 30 percent could not do a simple (Grade 2) multiplication problem. 


Interestingly, Tanzania has seen dramatic increases in primary school enrolments—so much so that the country won a Millennium Development Goals award for achievements in primary education. 

To better understand the relationship between these different findings, I interviewed Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza, the NGO that conducted the survey, on the margins of the Open Forum at the recent World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings.  

We discussed why and how they did the study, what the results mean, and what to do with them.

Shanta Devarajan interviews Rakesh Rajani Vimeo.


Download MP3


Shanta Devarajan

Senior Director, DEC and Acting World Bank Group Chief Economist

Join the Conversation

Rob Hiffy
October 13, 2010

We have seen time and time again throughout history how education is the key to lifting communities out of the dirt and to giving the dignity.
Lets keep on educating and following the the lesson learned by looking back.

October 15, 2010

The findings do not reveal anything unexpected or new. This is a common pattern in many developing countries - inflated enrollments and poor learning. If this is at all a surprise, it is because we are rarely honest - even if unintentionally, in our assessments of the position on the ground.

Jeanine Cooper
October 14, 2010

Two thins come to mind when I read the lead in to this interview:
1)Impact matters. Processes and programmes abound everywhere in Africa and everybody wants to help Africa achieve the MDGs or help allay the consequences of climate change but simple questions like those asked in this survey seldom form part of the planning. Why are we doing this project or putting in place this school? Why here? Why now? Why? Why? Why? Let's move beyond the what and how, please.

2) Whose impact should take precedence? After 2 years working on an MDG village, one senior advisor to the project boasted about its success by outlining how much they (the project staff and the MDG centre) had learned. And whatever happened to the villagers whose lives were to be transformed? Well, they got bednets; and the rates of malaria in that village stubbornly remain high. So impact for whom? The jet-setting global ambassadors earnestly selling their projects or the villagers faithfuly offering themselves up to help others learn?

Development planning needs...well, it needs to develop!

Nachiket Mor
October 16, 2010

In October 2009, ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth ( launched its new report, The Indian Public School System: Time for a Quality Revolution, which identifies a set of initiatives that will improve the quality of education in public schools across the country.

While a lot has been done to increase access to schooling in India, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a large number of India’s 200 million school age children are not receiving the quality of education they deserve. To develop sharp and pragmatic recommendations for improving the quality of India’s public schools, ICICI Foundation launched a 3-month effort, which involved researching existing material on the topic, conducting field visits, speaking to a range of experts across government, foundations, non-governmental organisations, academics and entrepreneurs, and intensive analysis. McKinsey & Company assisted us in this effort by providing global expertise and insights into the Indian education system.

The results of this effort are presented in the report, which describes the imperatives for India in providing high-quality education and finds that the following initiatives are must-dos for India’s public school system:

•Conduct annual, standardised assessments at a national level.
•Set up a comprehensive school performance management system.
•Strengthen in-classroom support for teachers.
•Develop headmasters to become school leaders.

We hope this report will be useful not only to policy makers but also to school administrators, NGOs, academics, funding agencies and entrepreneurs, all of whom can make a significant contribution to ensure that the children of our country receive high-quality education. To read the report:

Raj Raina
October 19, 2010

Greetings from NYC!

Given the complexity of the problem the results look quite good to me:

- About 80 percent of the children who had completed seven years of primary school could read their own language, Kiswahili, at the Grade 2 level;

- Half of them could read English, which is the medium of instruction in secondary education;

- And about 70 percent could do a simple (Grade 2) multiplication problem.

Isn't it better to get children in school first and than worry about the quality of the eduction? How would you know what is wrong with the system if you don't even have one in the first place?

Raj Raina
October 19, 2010

Some argue that it is better to get children in school first and than worry about the quality of the eduction. If you take this line of reasoning than the results below look quite good:

About 80 percent of the children who had completed seven years of primary school could read their own language, Kiswahili, at the Grade 2 level;

Half of them could read English, which is the medium of instruction in secondary education;

And about 70 percent could do a simple (Grade 2) multiplication problem.

The study conducted by Twaweza would not have been possible if children were not registered in school. i.e. how are we to know what is wrong with the education system if a system did not exist in the first place?

So congrats to TZ for receiving the award! Next it is time to improve the quality. One thing at a time.

Raj Raina
Columbia University

Shanta Devarajan
October 20, 2010

Raj: Thanks for your comment. While it is logical to argue that you need to get the children into school before they can learn, I would argue that a focus on enrolment can actually detract from quality. There are two reasons. First, it is much easier to get children enrolled than to ensure that they learn. So if the government sets enrolment as a target, everybody focuses on it, and achieves it. You rarely see governments setting learning targets. In fact, I can never get an answer to the question: "Who in government is accountable for quality?"

Secondly, in some countries, enrolment targets are embraced by public school teachers--because it means more jobs for them (again, because governments are pretty good at getting kids into achool). But efforts at introducing learning outcomes as indicators are often resisted by the same people. In Latin America, there have been protests in the streets when governments have proposed these indicators (see Merilee Grindle's book, "Against the Odds..."). The reason may be that learning targets can be threatening to public sector teachers. Private schools are often more efficient at achieving learning outcomes, and if the target is learning (say 90 percent of the children must be reading at a given level), then there might be more demand for private schools.

In short, if governments had only a learning target, we might make progress on both enrolments and learning (rather than only one, which is the case today). We also may be able to identify the person who is accountable for learning goals.

Rukmini Banerji
October 20, 2010

It was very good to listen to Shanta and Rakesh discuss the status of schooling and learning in Tanzania. The patterns and trends, the concerns and worries, seem to be similar in many other places as well.

For example: ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) started in India in 2005 and asked the basic questions - are children in school? are children learning? The answers are yes to the first question and not really or not enough to the second question.

We were surprised when people in other countries were curious about what we were doing in India. East Africans led by Rakesh were among the first to come and take a close look at our work.

The UWEZO reports from East Africa, like the ASER data from India and Pakistan, are very interesting. What UWEZO is showing in East Africa is very similar patterns - high enrollments and low learning. It will be interesting to watch these countries to see what changes in subsequent years. In India we are on the 6th year - every district in the country - a random sample of villages, households and children every year. 700,000 children each year. The story at the national level is unchanged since 2005.

In India as in other countries, inputs get attention but outcomes do not. If only 50% of children after 5 years of schooling in 5th grade can read at 2nd grade level then it means that that the whole business of education delivery needs to be done differently. People must know what is expected and demand that learning be guarenteed if children attend school regularly. ASER and UWEZO are both national efforts by citizens to figure out what is going on and what to do to educate our children more effectively.

I congratulate the UWEZO team in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya for completing their first year and I congratulate Shanta for supporting these efforts.

Raj Raina
October 26, 2010

Thank you for your response. It helps with my understanding of the issue.

I am currently pursuing Master in Development Practice at Columbia University. It is a cross-disciplinary graduate degree program that hopes to provides students with the knowledge and skills required to better identify and address the global challenges of sustainable development.

You blog and comments help with my understanding of various development issues in African countries.

January 04, 2011

In response to your question
"how are we to know what is wrong with the education system if a system did not exist in the first place?"

The failing education system in Tanzania is not the only education system to have ever existed. There are successful school systems that can be used as a template to model and shape an education system and curriculum as opposed to following the steps of systems that have failed. In a nutshell, there is no reason for why quality of education shouldn't be a priority in addition to giving more and more children the opportunity to be educated.

KK Lee
September 22, 2011

I do believe in order for education initiatives to achieve desired result, i.e. tangible outcome in term of student's performance, what we need is more than a good education system, the channel of delivery, the quality of the teachers, the environment surrounding the society,/family, the support, involvement and motivation from the parent/family of these children are equally important. Therefore, it is fair that we need more sometime to see the success in term of society's transformation before we can see higher percentage of successful learning.

Try to remember in certain society, parent still believe certain group of children need not go to school?
Therefore, I agreed that we should applause the success of the most important step : Getting the Children into the School. as long as parent and society acknowledge the important of sending the children to school and not doing something else, the battle is half won, while we continue to improve the impact and result


natasha kassam
June 23, 2015

what is your take on culturally relevant pedagogy? as Africans we have always adopted, borrowed and accepted programs that are not thought carefully about. we perceive a child in a certain manner forgetting the cultural aspect.
Today over 90% of the worlds children live outside the Euro-western minority world yet the vast majority of developmental and early childhood developmental literature and research comes from the minority world such as the US and UK and one of the profound challenges facing African nations is that the content and delivery mechanisms do not benefit the context and diverse African culture.Today African community is always expected to follow what are called the best practices in the field of early childhood development and care.
second area that is talked about is teacher preparation in the african world. how are these teachers prepared? the least qualified teachers are place for early childhood or pre-prmary schools? yet we talk about ECE as the foundation of every child?