What did you learn in school today?

The happiest days of your life, they said
The happiest days of your life, they said

It’s probably safe to say that, in absolute terms, more children are now in school than at any other time in human history. Not just that, it’s also likely that a greater proportion of children – both boys and girls – are in school than ever before.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, just under three in five children of primary school age attended class at the turn of the century; today, that figure is above three in four, according to Unesco. Similarly, back in 1999 in the world’s developing countries, there were around ten boys in school for every nine girls; today, the ratio is close to parity. All this represents good progress for the Millennium Development Goals on education.

But here’s a question: What are all those children actually learning in school? Regrettably, in many developing countries the answer looks to be not much or, at least, not enough. It’s become increasingly clear that the progress developing countries are making in improving the quantity of education is not being matched by a rise in quality. The problem was described in stark terms last year by the Africa Progress Panel, which stated that many children in African schools “are receiving an education of such abysmal quality that they are learning very little. Far from accumulating ‘21st century skills’, millions of Africa’s children are emerging from primary school lacking basic literacy and numeracy.”

The problem is not confined to Africa. Despite a big rise in enrolments and numerous government initiatives, India, too, has many failing schools, as writer Rakesh Mani found when he arrived to teach at a school in Mumbai: “Only a handful of my third-grade students could read first-grade books, and almost all struggled with elementary arithmetic,” he wrote recently. “Despite this being an English-language school, few teachers – and fewer students – could speak the language at all. Indeed, most of my students were unable to recognize basic alphabets or perform simple addition.” The quality deficit in Indian education was also highlighted in an OECD report a couple of years ago, which noted that “barely over one-half of fifth-grade [rural] students demonstrated a sound ability to read a second-grade text”.

The reasons for all this are no mystery. In many developing countries, teachers are in short supply, while those who are available have often received little training and may rely on outdated techniques like rote learning. Teacher absenteeism can also be an issue. On the student side, malnourishment and sickness can hold back children’s learning – it’s hard to study when your stomach is growling. Families may also struggle to pay school fees and may take children – especially girls – out of school before they finish their education or for parts of the year.

So, if we’re to measure progress on education, it’s clearly not enough to look just at enrolment rates. We need also to examine quality in education – an idea that’s emerging strongly in the Post-2015 process of creating a new round of global development goals.

Of course, a number of models for assessing how well students are doing in school already exist, including the OECD’s PISA programme, which examines the performance of 15-year-old students in over 70 countries every three years. While most of the focus has been on the performance of developed countries in PISA, a growing number of developing countries have also been taking part in recent rounds of the three-yearly assessment as well as in follow-up rounds.

PISA’s role in development could be extended still further: “With increased numbers of developing countries participating in the PISA 2015 cycle this could potentially serve as a baseline for measuring progress by developing countries, including some of the least developed, towards a post-2015 education goal,” a recent paper from the OECD notes. Indeed, work has already begun at the OECD to make PISA more relevant to developing countries, with the aim – as a recent blog post noted – of ensuring the programme offers “developing countries more tailored and relevant policy analysis and insights”.

Useful links

PISA for Development

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

Brian Keeley

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