Just about every article or report on education that we read these days – and some that we’ve written – bemoan the quality of education in low- and middle-income countries. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2018 devoted an entire, well-documented chapter to “the many faces of the learning crisis.” Recent reports on education in Latin America and in Africa make the same point.
But within low- and middle-income countries, not all education is created equal, and not all students face the same challenges. As Aaron Benavot highlights, “policies found to be effective in addressing the challenges facing ‘average’ or typical learners” will not necessarily be effective in addressing those “faced by learners from marginalized groups.”
Indeed, we know that within a given classroom, there can be massive variation in learning across students. As you can see in the figure below, from a group of students in New Delhi, India, in a 9th grade class you have students reading at the 8th grade level and at the 6th grade level. For math, they’re performing at the 3rd grade level and the 5th grade level. So if an intervention increases average performance, are we helping those students who were already ahead or those who are furthest behind? (In this case, no one’s really ahead, since even the top performers are way behind grade level. But the students in the bottom 25th percentile are doubly disadvantaged – behind in learning in a low-performing school system.)
Source: World Development Report 2018, using data from Muralidharan, Singh, and Ganimian (2017).