Simple, but not easy? Tackling the learning crisis

Originally published in The Davies Papers: Africa Series #8, May 2015.

Across the developing world, more children are in school. We should celebrate that and acknowledge that the job is not yet done: in Nigeria alone, 10.5m children are out of school.

Nevertheless, it is time to move beyond a focus on getting kids into school and start focusing on the quality of the education they receive when they get there.

The story of Mohamed, 13, one of my students in Sierra Leone, illustrates why. Mohamed’s father is an illiterate petty trader. Although he never got any school himself, he has always been determined that Mohamed should get a good education. When Mohamed joined us, we asked him, as we ask all our students, to complete a word reading assessment. The assessment, which we administer one-to-one in the child’s home, involves reading out a list of 90 words that increase in complexity and difficulty, and from the number and difficulty of the words read correctly an inference can be drawn about the student’s reading age based on UK norms.

Mohamed got stuck straight away. He barely made it past the first line or two — words like ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘cup’, ‘said’. Mohamed’s father couldn’t read but he could see that his son was struggling and did his best to encourage him. “Try your best Mohamed”, he said. And Mohamed did. He kept trying. But no matter how long he took he couldn’t recognise the words, and eventually we had to call time on the test.

Mohamed’s father was heartbroken. “I’ve paid all this money for school,” he said, “but his head is empty.”

Unfortunately, Mohamed’s story is far from unique. Across the world we face a learning crisis. 130m children are in primary school but failing to master the basics. 175m 15–24 year olds cannot read a sentence. In East Africa, 1 in 5 kids in grade 7 are operating at grade 1 level. In India 40% of kids in grade 3 can’t read a grade 2-level text. And in Sierra Leone, where I work, the number of students graduating senior secondary school with passes in English and Maths is 1 in 100.

When a child comes to school, we make them a promise. We tell them: if you come every day, if you work hard, if you try your best, then you will leave here with the knowledge and skills to make a success of your life. All over the world, we are breaking that promise, and it is people like Mohamed and his father that pay the price.

The frustration is that we know what works. A recent World Bank summary of 6 systematic reviews and 227 individual studies looking at the evidence on improving learning in developing countries found that it boils down to two main things: better teaching (in particular, teaching that is more differentiated to the varying ability levels of learners) and stronger accountability for performance.

But if the formula is simple in theory, applying it in practice is not. To understand why, we need to understand the politics of reform. Think about the politics of enrollment for a moment. Measures to increase enrollment create a lot of winners. More schools are built, more construction workers have work, more teachers are hired, more photo opportunities are created, fees are removed leaving parents with more money in their pocket. It is not that there are no costs — the surge in demand typically puts pressure on existing provision and drives up class sizes — but they are spread more thinly and are less visible than the benefits.

The politics of improving quality are almost the exact opposite: they create a lot of losers. Failing schools need to be shut. Bad teachers need to be fired. Accurate and transparent data on the scale of the problem can embarrass policy-makers and school leaders. Old assumptions need to be cast off. And while in the end everyone will benefit from a stronger education system, those benefits are thinly spread and will take many years of determined effort to materialize.

The result is that a great many otherwise laudable initiatives to provide extra learning materials or train teachers fail to deliver the expected benefit because they are attempted in a context in which the incentives to really improve are so weak.

What’s to be done? The evidence suggests that what you need to do depends greatly on the particular starting point of the system, but here are four ideas.

First, empower parents and communities through data and greater transparency about just how badly many of their schools are doing. In India, ASER’s community-based learning assessments have sparked a revolution in accountability that has now spread to East and West Africa and Latin America. Eventually, every developing country will have its own version of ASER, and not a moment too soon.

Second, encourage innovation. Forget the sterile debate about public versus private schools. The challenge at the moment is that there are not enough good schools full stop. We need more models with a proven capacity to crack the problem of poor teaching and with the potential to scale, and we can’t afford to be picky about where they come from.

Third, once we have more models that seem to be working, scale them up. Government will always have a critical role in education, shaping the overall strategic direction of the system, setting minimum standards, and addressing access and equity challenges. But none of those roles require it to be a dominant provider of education itself if there are others who can do it better. A number of countries have created innovative public-private partnership frameworks, as well as putting in place mechanisms that allow top performers within the public system to expand their reach through federations of schools.

Fourth, harness the power of cities. It is tempting to treat education as a national issue and of course it matters that we try to make things better for every child no matter where they live. But counterinsurgency manuals teach the practical importance of securing the big population centres, and education reformers might take a leaf out of the same book. In the UK, the London Challenge transformed the capital’s schools from some of the worst performing in the country to some of the best. In a country like Sierra Leone, where half of junior secondary students live in one of the four biggest cities, targeted approaches to drive performance in those municipalities would quickly start to move the needle nationally. That in turn would generate momentum for further reform and start to relax some of the binding constraints that make improving education in rural areas even more fiendishly difficult.

“There are no easy answers,” former US President Ronald Reagan liked to say, “but there are simple answers.” We know what it will take to address the learning crisis: make teachers and schools accountable for their performance (both from the top-down and the bottom-up), and provide teachers with the support and training they need to enable quality teaching and learning tailored to students’ ability levels. It’s not easy, but it is simple.