Learning crisis

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Cultivating student learning

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The learning crisis is the reality that although most children around the world attend school, many of them are not learning.[1] The World Bank estimates that 53 percent of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple text by the end of primary schools.[2] Among these 10-year-olds who have not mastered foundational literacy, 4 out of every 5 are actually enrolled in school[3]—yet their education systems are failing to cultivate their learning. As stated in the UNICEF Education Strategy 2019–2030:

Schooling does not mean learning, and for the first time in history there are more non-learners in school than out of school (p. 14).[4]

Understanding the learning crisis

The learning crisis is severe. (i) At age 10, nearly half of all children who are attending school in low- and middle-income countries aren’t been supported to learn enough to meaningfully read a simple text (purple bar on the left). (ii) By age 15, many of those children will either have dropped out of school or will be very far behind their expected grade level (red bar on the right). (iii) Most children don't catch up over time—instead, more children fall behind (dark blue bar, comparing left and right). (source)

The main driver of the learning crisis is that many education systems do not adequately cultivate children's learning during their time in school. For example, across 51 developing countries in the Demographic and Health Surveys, half of young adult women who had attended school up to grade 6 were unable to read a simple sentence (e.g. "Farming is hard work") in a language of their choosing.[5]

Given the low quality of education in many countries, addressing other contributing factors may not resolve the learning crisis.

For example, the large number of children who are out of school—an estimated 263 children were out-of-school in 2014[6] a number has no doubt grown throughout Covid-induced school closures—represents a grievous global failure. Yet enrolling children in low-quality schooling will not lead to large learning gains. For example, simulations using MICS data for 18 developing countries found that ensuring that all children stay in school up to age 13–14 would only raise the average literacy rate from 49 percent to 54 percent.[7]

Additionally, despite the large learning gaps between more and less privileged children (such as the rich and the poor, ethnolinguistic majorities and minorities, boys and girls, urban and rural residents), these gaps are far smaller than the gap between average learning levels and targets for basic literacy and numeracy. For example, among seven middle-income countries that participated in the PISA-D assessment (Senegal, Cambodia, Zambia, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, and Paraguay), the median gap in mathematics scores between between children whose home language matched the assessment language, compared to those with other home languages, was 25.9 points. In comparison, the gap between the most advantaged children (i.e. those who are male, urban residents, natives of the country, who speak the assessment language at home, and who are at the top of the socioeconomic index) and the SDG 4 minimum proficiency target was 74.2 points, almost three times larger.[8]

The proportion of young women with Grade 6 education who can read all of a single sentence in their chosen language varies from almost all young women in Rwanda to only 12 percent in Nigeria (DHS data, analysed in Pritchett & Sandefur, 2020).[9]

However, the learning crisis is not inevitable. Although average learning levels are low in developing countries, there is a lot of heterogeneity across countries. In the Demographic and Health Surveys analysis mentioned above, the proportion of young women with grade 6 education who could read a simple sentence varied from just 12 percent in Nigeria to a full 97 percent in Rwanda.[5]

To overcome the learning crisis, education systems need to be coherent for cultivating student learning rather—rather than taking a logistical approach that emphasises enrolling children in school without paying adequate attention to whether or not their time in school cultivates learning.[1]

Open-access slides illustrating the severity of the learning crisis

For more open-access slides summarising key messages about education systems change, see the policy brief builder.

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Pritchett, Lant. The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain't Learning. Center for Global Development, 2013. https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/rebirth-education-introduction_0.pdf
  2. World Bank. 2019. Ending Learning Poverty: What Will It Take?. World Bank, Washington, DC. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/32553
  3. World Bank EduAnalytics. (2019). Tables and Figures for Learning Poverty technical paper. https://github.com/worldbank/LearningPoverty/blob/master/05_working_paper/053_outputs/LPV_Tables_Figures_PAPER.xlsx
  4. UNICEF (2019), Every Child Learns: UNICEF Education Strategy 2019–2030. https://www.unicef.org/media/59856/file/UNICEF-education-strategy-2019-2030.pdf
  5. 5.0 5.1 Pritchett, L., & Sandefur, J. (2020). Girls’ schooling and women’s literacy: Schooling targets alone won’t reach learning goals. International Journal of Educational Development, 78, 102242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2020.102242
  6. "How many children are not in school?". Our World in Data. Retrieved 2021-07-20. https://ourworldindata.org/how-many-children-are-not-in-school
  7. Silberstein, J. 2021. Measuring, Visualising, and Simulating Solutions to the Learning Crisis: New Evidence from Learning Profiles in 18 Countries. 2021/029. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2021/029
  8. Pritchett, L. and Viarengo, M. 2021. Learning Outcomes in Developing Countries: Four Hard Lessons from PISA-D. RISE Working Paper Series. 21/069. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2021/069
  9. Kaffenberger, M.2019.A Typology of Learning Proiles: Tools for Analysing the Dynamics of Learning. RISE Insight Series.2019/015. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2019/013.