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Primary school enrolment rates exceed 90 percent in many developing countries—getting children into school has been one of the success stories of global development. But many of these children are not learning.
A growing number of approaches to improve learning are being tried and tested since the global development sector has shifted focus to this global learning crisis—but these rarely reach scale. CGD’s research program seeks to understand what determines the success or failure of methods that aim to improve basic skills for children from all backgrounds.
Students around the world lack foundational literacy and numeracy skills at striking rates. This essay examines the potential channels by which FLN investments and skills—which most systems teach in the early grades of primary school—may impact later schooling and subsequent life outcomes and the existing evidence for each channel. We find suggestive evidence for widening trajectories in school between students who master FLN skills in early grades and those who do not, although other factors may also explain the widening gaps.
With abundant data, sound analysis, and first-hand experience, Lant Pritchett shows that the way to turn underperforming schools around is to allow functional systems to evolve locally out of an environment pressured for success. Schools systems need to be open to variety and experimentation, locally operated, and flexibly financed. The only main cost is ceding control; the reward would be the rebirth of education suited for today’s world.
Most of the world’s children now live in countries on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary completion by 2015. Countries have indeed made great progress getting kids in school, but behind that progress is a problem: many children are hardly learning anything in school. Some measures of learning are just dismal. In India, for example, only about one-third of children in grade 5 can perform long division. Nearly one-half cannot read a grade 2 text, and one in five cannot follow a grade 1 text.
What is to be done? Broadly speaking, schools, governments, and donors need to focus more on actual learning goals, not just filling seats. This report of the CGD Study Group on Measuring Learning Outcomes shows how to make some headway in that direction. Governments need to develop comparable, public learning assessments. Civil society should engage at the grassroots to demand accountability. Donors can play a secondary role by pegging funding to results or experimenting with different strategies. And the UN and other multilaterals should set global standards against which national efforts can be measured. One option is to establish a global learning goal as part of the post-2015 development agenda.
There are more schools worldwide than ever before, but are children really learning? Charles Kenny investigates the broken link between schools and learning and suggests some proven methods for improving outcomes in education.
"There are better ways to improve test scores," "food is expensive," "most kids would eat anyway," and other counterarguments contain some truth, but fail to overturn the basic economic logic of free, universal school feeding in poor countries.