World Bank says world is experiencing a 'learning crisis' for school leavers

Students at the Matunduzi School in Malawi. Photo by: Erik Törner, IM Individuell Människohjälp / CC BY-NC-ND

The world is experiencing a “learning crisis” with many poor and vulnerable children still being excluded from school, and many of those who do attend emerging with low literacy and numeracy levels that make it hard to find work, according to a forthcoming World Bank report.

Global educators were given a sneak preview of the upcoming 2018 World Development Report during a session at the Civil Society Forum, a series of side events part of the World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C. The report, titled “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise,” will focus on education for the first time in the history of the institution’s flagship study.

Researchers working on the report said they chose to focus on education because the persistent shortcomings they identify are largely going unacknowledged by governments and the development sector.

“We want to make it clear for the development community as a whole this problem of the hidden exclusion and education failing those who need the boost from education the most,” Halsey Rogers, co-director of the forthcoming report, said.

The WDR2018, which will be officially launched at the next set of World Bank meetings in October, will address what World Bank Senior Economist Shwetlena Sabarwal described as a “learning crisis” in low- and middle-income countries, where many students are leaving school with low literacy and numeracy levels and without the skills needed to get jobs, she said.

These deficits are likely to be felt even more keenly as markets continue to globalize and advances in technology and automation transform the workforce, making it even harder for students to catch up, Sabarwal said.

“What this means is that when students finish primary school, having spent 4 or 5 years at great personal and opportunity costs to attend school, they are leaving without literacy or numeracy skills. This is what we call the learning crisis,” she said.

For example, in Malawi and Zambia, more than 80 percent of students at the end of the second grade (aged 7) could not read a single word, while in India three-quarters of grade 3 (aged 8) students could not calculate a simple two-digit subtraction. Among older children across 10 Francophone African countries, studies reveal that nearly half of grade 6 students (aged 12) had only basic maths skills and 71 percent could only make basic inferences from reading, according to a concept note published in January.

Sabarwal also referred to “persistent gaps” between levels of achievement between rich and poor students and also between genders, so much so that in some cases “schooling exacerbates social inequity,” she said.

Middle-income countries are also experiencing the learning crisis, Sabarwal said, with attainment levels failing to keep pace with more developed countries. In some instances the highest performing students in middle-income countries perform worse than the lowest performing students in high-income countries, she said. For example, this occurs in Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Republic of Kosovo, and Tunisia, according to the concept note.

Talking about some of the causes of this learning crisis, Sabarwal referred to insufficiently prepared teachers and high absenteeism rates; education and training systems that are out of date and not linked to the needs of the economy; and funding that never reaches the classroom.

The forthcoming report will argue for an increased emphasis on measuring learning and data, drawing on lessons from within and outside the school system to improve education outcomes, such as looking at health and nutrition of the child and addressing technical and political barriers.

The report’s recommendations draw on new thinking, such as advances in cognitive neuroscience, which better our understanding about how children learn; innovative approaches to teacher management; and recent evaluations about education interventions, Rogers said.

The WDR2018 will emphasize the need for better information and metrics about education levels, saying that the learning crisis is currently not being acknowledged by many governments because of a lack of data — “very few countries have systematically measured learning before it’s too late,” Sabarwei said.

“Counties need to start acting as if learning really matters to them — systematically measuring learning and skills, which will allow them to track progress and find gaps,” she added.

However, focusing on measurement and metrics can actually work against school children as standardized testing and a push for results leads to scripted approaches to teaching and an excessive emphasis on examinations, according to Linda Odour-Noah, research consultant at the East African Centre for Human Rights Education.

Odour-Noah said she “did not see daylight” during her final years at school in Kenya due to the obsession with grades and performance.

“Too much of an emphasis on results can lead to schools engaging in teacher-centric approaches and scripted approaches, which don’t elevate needs for children,” she said.

She also criticized the WRD2018 outline for not focusing enough on financing for education, pointing to a “worrying trend of decreasing education budgets” in Kenya, which dropped from 22 percent to 16 percent over the past few years. “There is no chance we can assure accessible, quality education if we are not financing it sufficiently,” she warned.

Katie Malouf, policy advisor at Oxfam International, agreed that the report needs to focus more on financing. “There is a loud silence on the importance of financing for education and the relationship between financing and learning,” she said, pointing to recent research from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment showing a “clear correlation between expenditure on education and learning outcomes increasing.”

Devex is on the ground at the World Bank Spring Meetings April 18-22. Read our daily coverage and analysis and tune in for our Facebook Live series. Follow @devex, @Sophie_Ed1984 and @AlterIgoe for their live reporting.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.