One of the major aims – and indeed major successes – of the millennium development goals, has been to increase the number of kids going to school. At first glance, it appears wonderful that enrollment in schools went from 50% to 66% between 1995 and 2010. But the worrying thing is, that getting more kids into schools does not necessarily mean that they are learning more. In fact, a recent report from the Centre for Global Development reveals that the levels of educational attainment amongst children in developing countries are worrying low. The report draws on large global datasets but a few examples which stood out for me include:
- In India, 60% of grade 8 children are unable to use a ruler to measure a pencil while only 27% who finish primary school can carry out tasks (such as reading a passage of text and telling the time) that are expected to be achieved by the end of the second year of school.
- In Tanzania and Uganda, less than half of children aged between 10 and 16 have basic literacy and numeracy skills.
- In Malawi, almost 80% of sixth graders score below the international minimum standard for reading proficiency
- An average eighth grader in Ghana achieves a test score in maths and science which is equivalent to the lowest 0.2% of US students
I have worked in international development for many years but I still find these figures truly shocking. I can’t help wondering if a huge amount of the work we do in capacity building at organisational and institutional levels might be unnecessary if only people were getting a decent standard of education from the outset. I am reminded that at the International Conference on Evidence-Informed Policy Making in Nigeria last year, one of the main conclusions was that if policy makers are ever going to be able to make use of research evidence, they need to have much better levels of basic education.
So how can we improve learning? The report talks a lot about the use of assessment to improve educational outputs – not so much because assessment drives learning but because poor assessment results drive people to reform the system. At present it seems that many people in developing countries are not aware of how poor the education system is and are therefore not demanding reform (see for example the graph on the left – taken from the report). But precisely what type of reform would work is less clear.
There is evidence that teacher incentives can improve both attendance and effort – for example this systematic review suggests that having teachers on fixed term rather than permanent contracts increases attainment. However the results are patchy and a recent study from Kenya showed that contract teachers only improved attainment when they were hired by NGOs rather than the government. Of course, getting the teachers to actually turn up is important (!) but getting teachers to promote a friendly learning environment (e.g. encouraging kids to ask questions) is equally crucial and equally challenging. A number of studies (see for example here) have shown that changing the culture of teaching to a more learner-centred approach is very difficult. I have experience of this myself – I used to teach learner-centred pedagogy to capacity building trainers. The work was great fun, but hard; people’s experience of learning is very personal and deep-seated and it can be quite scary for people to break free from this.
Overall, my conclusion from reading this report is that we know shockingly little about how we can improve education. We have failed to invest in good quality research about how we can support people learn and academic pedagogy has been dominated by pseudoscience. Education research has lagged behind other areas of development research for too long and getting our kids to actually learn is just too important to neglect.