A Malala Day for learning

Pupils using flash cards in their classroom in Andhra Pradesh, India. Recent comparable data reports show that a number of children in developing countries who attend school may not be learning. Photo by: CC BY-NC-SA

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Malala Day, the U.N. General Assembly chief called the international community’s attention to the millions of children that are in school but not learning as much as the should. Lant Pritchett, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, discusses why education is not just about schooling and better data is needed on learning outcomes.

Malala Yousafzai’s story of overcoming the Taliban’s attempt to silence her is inspirational. Her speech at the United Nations Malala Day celebration, which I had the pleasure to attend, was impressive in every respect, including her commitment to her faith and the kindness she could show to her attackers. It moved the crowd to tears, and to its feet. When I compare what I was doing on my 16th birthday to what she is doing, well, it is pretty humbling.

There was another speech that day, less noticed in the coverage but equally impressive to me, by Vuc Jeremic, president of the U.N. General Assembly. While the gathering was focused on the 2015 MDG target for getting kids in school (universal primary completion), Jeremic pointed out that we also need to worry about the children who are in school but not learning the skills and capabilities they need to thrive in the 21st century. 

The report accompanying the Malala Day event estimates that in 2011 there were 57 million children out of school. The U.N. estimates that there 1.06 billion children aged 5 to 14 living today, which implies that a billion children aged 5-14 are in school. How many of them are learning? 

As I document in my forthcoming book ”The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning,” the expansion of schooling has been a well measured, well documented success, but the little we know about learning outcomes is deeply worrying.

Some facts:

  • Karthik Muralidharan has put together, for the first time, comparable data that track how much progress students in Andhra Pradesh, India, make between grades 1 and 5. He found that 40 percent of those reaching grade 5 were not even at a grade 1 skill level, and only 8.3 percent had attained a minimally defined grade 5 skill level.

  • A recent study in Nigeria found that only 55 percent of children aged 12–16 could read a single sentence — in spite of the fact that nearly all had attended primary school.

  • A recent (yet to be published) study in Bangladesh found that most children who had completed primary schooling could not answer simple mathematics questions (either oral or written).

  • In 2012, 60 percent of students who sat the secondary school examination in Tanzania failed — after completing not just primary school but four years of secondary school as well.

While school enrollment is tracked by countries and international agencies, there is little widely available comparable data on learning—even for basic skills like literacy and numeracy. The data that is available suggests that more than half of the children in the developing world are finishing primary school without even minimally adequate levels of learning.

Up to 57 million children who should be in school are not, and getting them the education they deserve should be a priority. But as many as ten times that number of children are in school but still not learning. As the world begins to focus on the post-2015 agenda, leaders need to pivot the focus from schooling to learning and ensure that all children get the education they deserve. With luck, more and more advocates as articulate and persuasive as Malala will speak out, not just for those not yet in school, but for those in school and not learning.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Center for Global Development. Read the original article.

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