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Learning Curve

To realize education’s promise, countries need to prioritize learning, not just schooling

Marie Boursiquot

Hundreds of millions of children across the developing world are shortchanged on their educational experience, reaching young adulthood without even the most basic life skills. Many grow up not knowing how to calculate the correct change from a transaction at the local market, how to read a doctor’s instructions, or how to interpret a campaign promise— even if they have attended school. In short, monitoring school attendance is a poor measure of what, if anything, a child has learned.

At the current rate of improvement, it would take 75 years for teenagers in Brazil to reach the rich-country average score in math. It would take them more than 260 years to do the same in reading. In 14 sub-Saharan African countries, the average sixth-grade teacher could read no better than the highest-performing sixth-grade student. In rural India, nearly 75 percent of third-grade students were unable to solve a basic math problem. This learning crisis widens inequality, because poor students suffer the worst learning outcomes. Malnutrition, high fees, and gender barriers fuel the crisis; so do absent, ill-prepared, and poorly supported teachers. What drives it all is a political system that doesn’t prioritize learning.

Delivered well, education—and the human capital it creates—has many benefits. For individuals, education promotes employment, earnings, and health. For societies, it drives long-term economic growth, reduces poverty, spurs innovation, strengthens institutions, and fosters social cohesion.

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2018 proposes a three-tiered approach to get a grip on this crisis. First, countries need to use learning assessments to shine a light on the problem of low learning. Second, they should leverage research on effective educational interventions. And third, countries need to prioritize learning, data collection, and reform at the national level.

After all, an educated workforce is critical to a nation’s future prosperity.

MARIE BOURSIQUOTis on the staff of Finance & Development.

Text and charts are based on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018.


Opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.