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In 2010, World Bank statistics report that Guinea-Bissau had a youth literacy rate of 72%.  That means seven in ten people aged 15-24 were estimated to be able to read and write a simple paragraph.  The estimate was probably made on the basis of that many kids having been in school long enough that they should have easily mastered such a basic skill.  The official net enrollment rate was 74% --about three quarters of primary-age kids were enrolled in school.

A recent paper by Peter Boone and colleagues sheds some light on how much that enrollment really is translating into skills like basic literacy.   Based on a survey of rural areas of Guinea-Bissau, they conclude:

Only 27% of children were able to add two single digits, and just 19% were able to read and comprehend a simple word. Our unannounced school checks found 72% of enrolled children in grades 1-4 attending their schools, but the schools were poorly equipped. Teachers were present at 86% of schools visited. Despite surveying 351 schools, we found no examples of successful schools where children reached reasonable levels of literacy and numeracy for age.

Most kids went to school.  Most found teachers when they got there.  But despite that, only one fifth of children in rural Guinea-Bissau aged seven to seventeen could read a single word.  Little more than a quarter could do a sum as simple as 2+2 = ?. 

Guinea-Bissau may be an extreme case, but it isn’t an isolated one.  A new CGD report Schooling is Not Education shows a shockingly wide gap between education inputs and learning outcomes across the developing world.  The report highlights the systemic nature of the learning crisis and calls for considerably enhanced assessment regimes as a tool to measure the learning gap, create pressure for reform, track progress and help in the effort to learn what reforms are working.

We’ll launch the report at CGD on May 9th (Register here)  Hopefully it will add to growing demand worldwide that kids don’t just go to school –they actually learn something while there.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.