Better data for boosting student learning

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Girl in a class room New data from Ethiopia shows how the Global Education Policy Dashboard can help provide useful guidance for policy making. Photo: Stephan Bachenheimer/ World Bank

In our previous post, we emphasized the need for rigorous data that can inform investment and guide policy making for education in low- and middle-income countries. This need has only grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sharply worsened learning outcomes while also tightening education budgets and in many cases forcing countries to do more with less. With so many pressing needs, how can we quickly generate data on students, schools, and system to help governments prioritize? New data from Ethiopia shows how the Global Education Policy Dashboard (GEPD) can help.

Tracking learning with timely data

A good place to start is with learning itself—because we need to measure learning to make it a serious goal. Ethiopia does this by administering a National Learning Assessment (NLA) in primary school and using it to report on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 4.1.1 (on education proficiency levels) and to monitor learning poverty. The results highlight a major problem: nearly 60% of students are below the basic proficiency in reading by age 11 using the NLA’s standards. Using the global benchmark set for the SDG tracking, nearly 90% of Ethiopia’s students are below the global minimum proficiency in reading. Data collected for the GEPD aligns with these results. Whereas fourth-grade students had mastered key skills like recognizing letters (79%) and numbers (85%), they struggled with more complex tasks like reading comprehension (around 40% showed adequate comprehension) and single digit multiplication (43%). Only 3% of students answered at least 80% of the GEPD assessment questions correctly.

But as useful as these learning results are for motivating action, they are not themselves actionable. To guide policies, policy makers need to understand the key drivers of learning outcomes. This means measuring the practices in schools, the policies that underpin them, the political environment that creates them, and the bureaucratic system responsible for their implementation.

Measuring critical drivers of learning

A first critical driver of learning is the learners themselves: are students arriving at primary school prepared and ready to learn? In Ethiopia, GEPD data collected through one-on-one assessments of first-graders show that only 35% of children arrive at primary school with the basic numeracy, literacy, and executive function and socio-emotional skills needed for learning. The GEPD also highlights factors outside the school that, if strengthened, could improve the readiness of young learners. For instance, early childhood education programs currently have limited reach, highlighting a possible area for action.

Another vital component is teaching: learning depends on having prepared, motivated, and well-supported teachers in the classrooms. The GEPD data highlights that in Ethiopia, teachers are absent from school 35% of the time. And when they are in the classroom, their teaching skills show ample room for improvement: only 19% demonstrate effective pedagogical skills, and tests show that only 6% have mastered fourth-grade content knowledge. Driving the low teacher presence is a perception that frequent absence has no consequences (e.g., 20% of teachers claim there are no consequences for being absent over 40% of the time), as well as a sense that it is acceptable to be absent so long as the assigned curriculum has been completed (14% of teachers claim so). Impacting teaching skills is the lack of support for teachers: only a third of teachers reported receiving any type of in-service training over the previous year.

A third school-level driver is how well-equipped classrooms and schools are to support learning. Are schools equipped with adequate water and sanitation infrastructure? Do schools have adequate teaching and learning materials? On this front, Ethiopia shows room for improvement, as enumerators found that large shares of schools lack critical infrastructure—electricity (30%), drinking water (31%), accessibility to students with physical disabilities (32%), functioning toilets (59%), and internet (84%). The shares are even lower in rural than in urban schools, suggesting a need for targeted approaches to infrastructure upgrading. Similar patterns are found for basic inputs like textbooks and key classroom resources.

And finally, schools need effective and capable school management to bring these other elements together. In Ethiopia, we find that principals do show mastery of key management skills, which makes this aspect one of the strengths of the system. However, as with teachers, the support system for principals is lacking. Although the de jure policy framework looks good, only half of the principals benefited from training when they first started working in their roles (50.2%), and less than half have access to mentorship (45.5%).

Assessing education policies and their implementation

All these school-level weaknesses are driven partly by problems with policies. GEPD data shows that education policies are often lacking in key areas—and equally important, that even when the policies look sound on paper, they often are not implemented as planned, according to principals and teachers. The gaps between the de jure existence of policies and their de facto implementation highlights the need to understand the bureaucratic system responsible for policy implementation. The GEPD measures this dimension through its Survey of Public Officials and reports on five indicators related to politics and bureaucratic capacity (see the top row in the picture). For detailed information on these indicators, and on all the data collected in Ethiopia, see the policy note.

Figure blog Better data for boosting student learning

Ultimately, to provide useful guidance for policy making, data needs to be comprehensive in two ways. It needs to signal key school-level challenges, but also to scan beyond the school to assess how the broader system—policies as well as the political and bureaucratic environment—influences what educators and students do. The GEPD implementation in Ethiopia shows how we can generate such data and then present it to policy makers in a focused way.

But Ethiopia is just one example. The GEPD website now includes data for a growing number of countries (with many more in the pipeline). How do all these countries compare? In a follow-up blog, we will describe what we are learning from cross-country comparisons. In the meantime, to explore the more than 200 sub-indicators for Ethiopia and other countries, please visit


Adrien Ciret

Research Analyst, Education Global Practice, World Bank

Halsey Rogers

Lead Economist, Education Global Practice

Brian Stacy

Data Scientist, Development Data Group, World Bank

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