28 September 2017
World Bank Report Warns of “Learning Crisis”
UN Photo/Gill Fickling
story highlights

The World Bank's World Development Report 2018 finds that millions of children, particularly in low and middle-income countries, attend school but do not achieve proficiency in reading, writing and doing math.

At the same time, the report stresses that, when countries and their leaders prioritize ‘learning for all', education standards can dramatically improve.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for increased and improved learning assessments and metrics, observing that only half of all developing countries have data to monitor the education-related SDGs.

26 September 2017: The World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) 2018 warns that millions of students in low and middle-income countries are “schooling without learning.” The report argues that, without learning, education will fail to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.

The average student in poor countries performs at a level 95 percent lower than students in high-income countries.

The WDR 2018, subtitled ‘Learning to Realize Education’s Promise,’ finds that the average student in poor countries performs at a level 95 percent lower than students in high-income countries. Many students in the top 25 percent in middle-income countries (MICs) would rank in the bottom 25 percent in a wealthier country. According to the report, 75 percent of third grade students in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda could read the sentence “the name of the dog is puppy” but did not understand what the sentence said. The report shares similar examples for students’ mathematics skills in rural India and math scores in Brazil.

The report identifies several factors that contribute to these learning shortfalls, from teaching and learning break downs to deeper political forces. The report further cautions that this learning crisis widens social gaps, leaving already disadvantaged students without basic life skills of reading, writing and doing basic math, which can then contribute to lost opportunities and lower wages later in their lives. According to the report, education disparities exist across and within countries, with deprived children learning less than their better off peers, even in good schools.

When countries and their leaders prioritize ‘learning for all’, the report finds that education standards can dramatically improve, citing examples from Peru, the Republic of Korea and Viet Nam. In the Republic of Korea, for example, the report highlights how the country transformed from very low literacy rates in the 1950s to universal enrollment by 1995 with the country’s young people performing at the highest levels on international learning assessments. The report also highlights countries such as Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Tonga that made substantial improvements in early grade reading within a very short time as a result of focused efforts based on evidence.

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim described the learning crisis as “a moral and economic crisis,” explaining that well-delivered education “promises young people employment, better earnings, good health, and a life without poverty.” He stressed, however that “these benefits depend on learning” and that schooling without learning represents both a “great injustice” and a “wasted opportunity.”

To address the learning crisis, the report makes three recommendations: assess learning so it becomes a measurable goal; make schools work for all children, including by reducing stunting and promoting brain development through early nutrition and stimulation; and mobilize everyone to advocate for education changes that champion learning for all. For example, the report finds that only half of all developing countries have metrics that measure learning at the end of primary and lower secondary school, including data to monitor the education-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The report argues that using stronger student learning assessments can help teachers guide students, improve management, inform national policy choices, track progress and focus societal attention on learning.

Also on the learning crisis, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS) released a report on progress towards SDG target 4.1 on relevant and effective learning outcomes. The data find that two-thirds of children who are not learning are in school but unable to meet minimum proficiency levels, which UNESCO suggests represents a “learning crisis”. [UN Press Release] [World Bank Press Release] [WDR 2018 Website] [World Bank Blog on WDR 2018 Data Charts] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on UNESCO UIS Report]

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