learning crisis

10 Reflections on the WDR

Last week, the World Bank published its latest World Development Report (WDR), the first dedicated exclusively to the topic of education. Learning to Realize Education's Promise may not be the punchiest title I've ever heard, but it's a really important piece of work.

wdr front cover.jpg

"Schooling is not the same as learning.

Education is an imprecise word, and so it must be clearly defined. Schooling is the time a student spends in classrooms, whereas learning is the outcome—what the student takes away from schooling. This distinction is crucial: around the world, many students learn little."

Here are 10 high level reflections:

1. Not new, but definitive. The very first sentence in the report is "Schooling is not the same as learning". This is not a new claim. Lant Pritchett literally wrote the book on this a couple of years ago; Pauline Rose took to Twitter to express her exasperation that anyone could ever have been presumed to think otherwise. But repetition is an under-appreciated tool in good communications, and often "about the time you get tired of saying it, they are just starting to hear it." In short, I don't expect the value of this report to be in its novelty but in its definitiveness. There's not much in here that hasn't been covered in some RISE paper or other. But the evidence is so exhaustive it should make the learning crisis the point of departure for every conversation about global education. 

2. o-LAY. That said, the report does include a couple of neat concepts I hadn't come across before. One that stood out was the Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS). Borrowing (presumably) from the concept of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) in health, which modify the simple measurement of life expectancy in years by how healthy those years actually are, LAYS account for the fact that the productivity of a year of schooling when it comes to actual learning varies wildly between countries and time periods. Since "years of schooling" still, regrettably, remains such a common metric, this feels like a helpful contribution.

3. Improving education isn't easy but it is simple. I've written elsewhere that the barriers to improving education are not, in themselves, that complicated. The report does a nice job of providing a framework laying out the 'proximate causes' of poor quality learning: unprepared learners, unskilled or unmotivated teachers, weak school governance and management, and misdirected inputs and resources. And, the report notes, we actually know a lot more about addressing some of these issues than we used to thanks to an explosion in the number of high quality impact evaluations. The problem -  the not easy part - is that these proximate causes persist because of deeper, more political challenges.

4. If you miss the politics, you miss the point. This will not be news to my former colleagues, but the report helpfully underlines the importance of understanding the political factors that allow the learning crisis to go unaddressed. Some of these are self-evidently malign things like corrupt practices diverting resources from where they are needed, or patronage allowing too many of the wrong people to end up in vital jobs. But the report also points to some of the less obvious things, like the fact that learning is just harder to 'see' than student enrolment, teacher hiring or other potential areas of focus for education policy-makers (echoes here of James Scott's Seeing Like A State).

5. What gets measured, gets managed. Or does it? This need to make the learning crisis more visible motivates the authors to call for a big push on assessing learning. Ideally, this would involve a global learning metric, an idea that seems obviously sensible and relatively straightforward to me, but which is universally regarded by those more knowledgable than I am to be a diplomatic conundrum more complex to resolve than the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Absent a global metric, the authors suggest, more investment in national learning assessments would still be better than nothing.

I'm conflicted on this point. On the one hand, investing in better data seems an absolute no brainer; the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem and all that. On the other hand, it's clear that even in countries where citizen-led learning assessments like ASER and UWEZO have taken root or where national Ministries have signed up to be part of regional exercises like PASEC, better data has not necessarily been the burning platform for which some might have hoped. It's hard not to conclude that you can equip Ministers with better data on the problem and more robust evidence on the types of policies that will and won't make a difference, but in the end whether anything changes comes down to finding reform-minded leaders with political courage, like Liberia's George K. Werner.

6. The power of And. I was pleased to see that the report tackled head-on the suggestion that more rigorous assessment of student learning necessarily involves a narrowing of focus to the exclusion of other things we might care about fostering in our young people, from character traits like resilience to the fuzzy but nevertheless crucial "21st century skills". To the extent that this argument has any merit in an OECD context (and I'm not sure that it does), it seems absurd given the scale of the quality crisis in the developing world and how intimately linked better teaching of the basics and improvements in some of these other areas are going to be. As the authors note: 

"Conditions that allow children to spend two or three years in school without learning to read a single word or to reach the end of primary school without learning two-digit subtraction are not conducive to reaching the higher goals of education."

The bottom line is that good schools can do both (one reason I'm glad our independent evaluators at Oxford are looking at both the cognitive and non-cognitive development of our students).

7. Forget about the price tag. The Report has been criticised from some quarters for saying too little about money, particularly when the ink has barely dried on Gordon Brown's Education Commission report calling for billions more each year to be funnelled into global education. Of course, the criticism of that report was precisely the mirror image of this: it provided highly detailed costings based on a series of assumptions about what will deliver quality education that had little basis in rigorous evidence. More generally, one of the problems with the discussion about resourcing is that more money is almost certainly both an input to and an output of more effective education reforms: if it were clearer that investments were delivering results, more money would flow into them.

8. Two sides of the same coin? Another criticism of the report is that it has relatively little to say about access, even though millions remain out of school and in some countries school enrolments appear to be dropping not rising. That said, the debate on access sometimes comes close to slipping into a kind of sequentialism - let's fix access, then worry about quality - and the report helpfully points out that they have to be addressed together (even if by different means). If students are not learning or are being asked to repeat grades, their (and their family's) motivation to stay in school falls.

9. Who benefits? In its discussion of fairness and equity, the report mostly focuses on within-country inequality, and the large gaps in access and achievement facing disadvantaged groups. Addressing these is clearly important, but I've noted elsewhere my concern that the lack of proper data on where most learners in developing countries sit in relation to a global 'cognitive poverty line' (analogous to the $1.90 a day global income poverty line) makes it easy to under-value the importance of improving outcomes for the millions of children who may be among the educationally better off in their own countries, but in global terms remain among the most disadvantaged in the world. One other comment on equity: the report usefully points out that fairness is not just about rich and poor students but about good and bad schools. An arresting statistic cited in the report is that in one study in Pakistan, the achievement gap on an English test between students in good and bad schools was 24 times bigger than that between richer and poorer students, even after controlling for student characteristics.

10. Private: no panacea? The report strikes a surprisingly cautious note on the potential contribution of private schools. Surprising in part because I had been reliably informed that the World Bank was secretly a vast conspiracy to push the privatization agenda of its paymasters in Big Edu(TM), but more because this seems to be one area where the Report seems to depart from what the evidence actually says. For example, the Report claims "there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools" and that such evidence as exists "may conflate the effects of private schools themselves with the effects of the type of students who enroll in private schools." Far be it from me to question the authors' interpretation of the literature (he says, preparing to do precisely that) but on the first claim it would seem that there is at least moderate evidence that private schools out-perform public schools, and that this performance advantage is mediated but not wholly eliminated when you control for observable student characteristics. But anyway, this minor quibble just goes to show that those of us who believe there is a complementary role for non-state school operators need to do a better job of building our evidence base. And the central claim of this part of the report - that "overseeing private schools may be no easier than providing quality schooling" - speaks to the fact that whether as a partner in initiatives like Partnership Schools for Liberia, or just as a regulator of private schools, we are talking about government as an enabling state, not a smaller state.

Simple, but not easy? Tackling the learning crisis

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.