November 8, 2019

Ending Learning Poverty: A Target to Galvanize Action on Literacy

A World Bank-implemented project is improving the quality of teaching and the learning environment at a school in Niger. "I love my school because it is here that I learned to read," says Mariama, 10. Photo by: Mouslim Sidi Mohamed

At a school in Malawi, students are enjoying play time at recess. Unfortunately, sometimes recess lasts all day because the teacher doesn’t come to work.

In a classroom in Armenia, students are receiving grades for their ability to repeat memorized text, with textbooks dominating the learning process rather than teacher instruction and innovation, leaving graduates unprepared for a competitive work environment.

In Bangladesh, despite improving enrollment rates, girls are still not learning as much as boys, and dropout rates are high – with lost years in schooling being attributed to child marriage, household responsibilities and other factors. 

Measuring ‘Learning Poverty’

Evidence reveals that we are in the midst of a global learning crisis that threatens countries’ efforts to build human capital – the skills and know-how needed for the jobs of the future. Attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is also at risk – including the goal to end extreme poverty.

To highlight the scope of the problem, the World Bank has introduced the new concept of learning poverty, drawing on new data developed in coordination with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

 This indicator brings together schooling and learning indicators: it starts with the share of children who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency (as measured in schools) and adjusts it by the proportion of children who are out of school (and are assumed not to read proficiently).

The And progress in reducing learning poverty is far too slow to meet the aspirations laid out in SDG4 – to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education. At the current rate of improvement, in 2030 about 43% of children will still be learning-poor. If countries reduce learning poverty at the fastest rates we have seen so far in this century, the global rate of learning poverty would drop to 28%.

This high rate of learning poverty and slow progress in low and middle-income countries is an early warning sign that all of the targets outlined in SDG4 are at risk – including the target to increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship.

Learning Target Launched

To galvanize action towards meeting global education goals and tackling the global learning crisis, World Bank Group President David Malpass announced a new operational global learning target to cut the learning poverty rate by at least half by 2030. Simulations show that this target, while ambitious, is achievable if all countries manage to improve learning as well as the top performers of the 2000-2015 period did—which means on average nearly tripling the global rate of progress.

Reducing learning poverty by half is effectively an intermediate target. Countries should define their own path (and intermediate targets) in terms of financing and implementation of reforms to make sure that all their children have an opportunity in life. In many countries, reaching this development objective might take some time, but the social contract in the country must be designed so that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background, race or gender, has access to a good quality education.

Why Focus on Reading?

In literate societies around the world, reading has for centuries been at the core of formal education. Parents and other stakeholders everywhere share an understanding that a school’s first task is to ensure that children can read proficiently.

Whether the child takes advantage of that ability will depend on many factors—including the quality of the school system in later grades—but failure to acquire reading proficiency would clearly hinder their ability to learn throughout their social and working life.

Reading proficiency also serves as a proxy for foundational learning in other subjects, in the same way that the absence of childhood stunting is a marker of healthy early childhood development.  The data bear this out: across countries and schools, proficiency rates in reading are highly correlated with proficiency in other subjects.

For example, a country’s reading score on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessment and its math score – measured by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) – are almost perfectly correlated. The cross-subject correlations within other assessments are strong too, as the Bank’s new report explains. Language development, which is enhanced by reading skills, is also nurtured along with the development of a child’s self-regulation, a fundamental socioemotional skill.

What Can Be Done to Ensure Children Learn to Read?

 For example, in Egypt, the government is implementing a reform program to change its curriculum and assessment systems so students are evaluated throughout the year, with exams that focus on acquiring skills, and teachers receiving coaching and peer-learning credentials. A key element of the reforms has been a shift toward learning, not to get a credential. And in Brazil, in states like Ceara, Espirito Santo, Acre, and Pernambuco, the quality of delivery of the education service is steadily improving, showing that change is possible. These are just a few examples; more are described in the new paper: “Ending Learning Poverty: What will it take?

Successful countries invest in shifting the mindsets of all actors of the education system to focus relentlessly on learning. They provide teachers with support materials, like teaching guides, that can facilitate their day-to-day work; provide coaching and feedback to teachers to improve their classroom practices; assure that all children have reading material; and assure a simple and effective curriculum to guide teachers. 

Systems with stronger institutional capacity increase their investment in quality early childhood education, implement structures that enable children to be taught at the right level, and strengthen the principals’ career stream. In all cases technology can make implementation of these interventions more cost effective – and measurement of learning is essential to monitor progress and guide system improvement. Although the type of assessment may vary, it is essential for assessment systems to have well-defined ways of feeding information on student performance back into the system to drive decisions.

To succeed and focus the whole system around student learning, countries will want to take a two-pronged approach, implementing short-term reforms today – as outlined in the Literacy Policy Package – that will improve service delivery for the students going to school now. At the same, they will want to establish systemic changes to improve how the education system functions over the long term. The Education Approach may include reforming the teaching career to attract and retain good professionals, reform preservice training, reform the management structure of the whole system, and expand infrastructure.

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Education Interventions Are Not Enough

Water and sanitation, transportation, cash transfer programs, health and nutrition, and civil service reforms—all are essential to improve learning. The World Bank Group’s Human Capital Project recognizes the need for a whole-of-government approach to improve human capital. Reducing the rate of learning poverty  is also going to require renewed attention to the role that families and communities play in building the demand for education, creating the right environment for learning, and creating social demand for the right education reforms.

Join Our Movement to End Learning Poverty

As a way to engage on what it will take to end the learning crisis, our new global campaign, Literacy Makes Sense, offers ideas to key stakeholders in the education community – such as parents, teachers, principals, education officials, and employers – on what actions they can take to engage on this issue and help end learning poverty.

Join us and be part of the movement to end #LearningPoverty, because literacy makes sense! Everyone has a role to play.