Are Zambia’s Children Learning?

May 13, 2014

Are Zambia’s children learning? Policymakers, teachers, parents and administrators in the African country are asking this question with increasing urgency. Unfortunately, the answer, according to a 2012 National Assessment Survey on education, is…not really. Only about one-third of Zambian students demonstrate  basic literacy, numeracy and life skills by the time they are in Grade 5. That means, out of a classroom of 40 students, only about 14 can read.

Zambia’s push to improve learning will be showcased this week – along with examples from seven other countries --  at a high-level conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, organized by the READ Trust Fund. The conference’s theme of “Measuring for Success” resonates with many developing countries that have increased access to education in recent years but still struggle to improve quality.  

In  the past decade, Zambia introduced free, basic education up to grade 7, and  steadily increased enrollment in basic education. Additionally, the country increased the supply of qualified and motivated teachers. Yet, as the 2012 survey shows, students are not acquiring basic skills. 

“There is a conversation raging in the development community about how to measure and report on learning globally. A huge concern is the fact that too often children leave school without acquiring the basic knowledge and skills they need to lead productive lives,” said Marguerite Clarke, World Bank Senior Education Specialist.

In today’s global economy, simply attending school will not make a difference. Children must learn core subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science – but they must also learn how to solve problems, how to communicate effectively, and how to work in teams.

Why is it important to measure learning?

Measurement can play a critical role at many levels in improving education quality and learning. The National Assessment Survey is like a thermometer that takes the temperature of Zambia’s education system. It reveals the areas in which students are really struggling.

The survey, for example, identified that learners are particularly weak in phonics, reading comprehension, word recognition, fractions and problem-solving. These skills are fundamental to all areas of learning, critical for many everyday tasks, and give children the ability to make overcome challenges and make wise decisions. 

But learning assessments are not only a tool for policymakers. They also provide policymakers, educators, and parents with the data and tools to understand why children aren’t learning, how they can turn those results around, and to be able to routinely monitor progress.

According to Zambia’s Ministry of Education Permanent Secretary, Chishimba Nkosha, “In order to achieve high quality education, we need a collective effort. Everyone must be involved at all levels of our education system: teachers, head teachers, district and provincial officials, parents and the community-at-large.”   
“There are things we can do to help improve the education system and ensure that our children acquire the skills necessary to succeed in life. Zambia is definitely on the right track,” added Clarke.