The World Development Report 2018, one of the flagship reports of the World Bank, focuses on the theme "LEARNING To Realize Education's Promise." The thrust of the report is that school enrollments are up dramatically in developing countries across the world, but in a disturbingly high number of cases, the larger numbers of children attending school are not leading to a similarly high increase in actual student learning.
For example, here's a figure showing rises in school attendance by region, over the long run. Primary school attendance has become almost (if not quite) universal around the world. Secondary school attendance is rising sharply in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
But as the report says at the very start (footnotes omitted):
"Schooling is not the same as learning. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, when grade 3 students were asked recently to read a sentence such as “The name of the dog is Puppy,” three-quarters did not understand what it said.1 In rural India, just under three-quarters of students in grade 3 could not solve a two-digit subtraction such as 46 – 17, and by grade 5 half could still not do so. Although the skills of Brazilian 15-year-olds have improved, at their current rate of improvement they won’t reach the rich-country average score in math for 75 years. In reading, it will take more than 260 years. Within countries, learning outcomes are almost always much worse for the disadvantaged. In Uruguay, poor children in grade 6 are assessed as “not competent” in math at five times the rate of wealthy children. ...
Although not all developing countries suffer from such extreme shortfalls, many are far short of the levels they aspire to. According to leading international assessments of literacy and numeracy—Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)—the average student in low-income countries performs worse than 95 percent of the students in high-income countries, meaning that student would be singled out for remedial attention in a class
in high-income countries. Many high-performing students in middle-income countries—young men and women who have risen to the top quarter of their cohorts—would rank in the bottom quarter in a wealthier country."
Here's one of many striking figures along these lines. It shows a share of second-graders who cannot read a single word of text, or who cannot subtract two-digit numbers. The footnotes warn that these figures draw upon individual studies, and the ones in India are focuses on rural areas, so the numbers should not be treated as nationally representative. But national data aren't available, and the evidence from the partial data is worrisome.
Of course, the educational system in any country faces difficulties that the schools alone are ill-suited to address. As the report notes: "[C]hildren often arrive in school unprepared to learn—if they arrive at all. Malnutrition, illness, low parental investments, and the harsh environments associated with poverty undermine early childhood learning. Severe deprivations—whether in terms of nutrition, unhealthy environments, or lack of nurture by caregivers—have long-lasting effects because they impair infants’ brain development. Thirty percent of children under 5 in developing countries are physically stunted, meaning they have low height for their age, typically due to chronic malnutrition.
These kinds of questions aren't wrong, or illegitimate. But they can very easily become an excuse for inertia. Only if a society is able to put the learning of children clearly first, in a way that makes flexibility and change imperative, will these kinds of questions turn into ways of usefully shaping new policies, rather than excuses for keeping the same system on track. The report notes various success stories.
"When improving learning becomes a priority, great progress is possible. In the early 1950s, the Republic of Korea was a war-torn society held back by very low literacy levels. By 1995 it had achieved universal enrollment in high-quality education through secondary school. Today, its young people perform at the highest levels on international learning assessments. Vietnam surprised the world when the 2012 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that its 15-year-olds were performing at the same level as those in Germany— even though Vietnam was a lower-middle-income country. Between 2009 and 2015, Peru achieved some of the fastest growth in overall learning outcomes—an improvement attributable to concerted policy action."
It's difficult to overstate the importance of education in economic development and growth. To put it bluntly, there are zero examples of countries in the modern world economy that have experienced lasting growth and development without a workforce of growing educational attainment and skills. The report includes various comments like this:
"When delivered well, education cures a host of societal ills. For individuals, it promotes employment, earnings, health, and poverty reduction. For societies, it spurs innovation, strengthens institutions, and fosters social cohesion. But these benefits depend largely on learning. Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice: the children whom society is failing most are the ones who most need a good education to succeed in life."
It's easy to skim over such statements, and to view them as just another dose of overbroad feelgood boilerplate rhetoric. Except when you read it slowly, it's all true.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.