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BRIEF July 1, 2021

Ending Learning Poverty

Kids Reading. Copyright: / Shutterstock

Learning to read is a milestone in every child’s life.  Reading is a foundational skill. All children should be able to read by age 10.  Reading is a gateway for learning as the child progresses through school – and conversely, an inability to read constrains opportunities for further learning. 

Beyond this, when children cannot read, it’s usually a clear indication that school systems aren’t well organized to help children learn in other areas such as math, science, and the humanities either.  And although it is possible to learn later in life with enough effort, children who don’t read by age 10 – or at the latest, by the end of primary school – usually fail to master reading later in their schooling career.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted education systems around the world, it was clear that many children around the world were not learning to read proficiently. Even though the majority of children are in school, a large proportion are not acquiring fundamental skills. Moreover, 260 million children are not even in school. This is the leading edge of a learning crisis that threatens countries’ efforts to build human capital and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Without foundational learning, students often fail to thrive later in school or when they join the workforce. They don’t acquire the human capital they need to power their careers and economies once they leave school, or the skills that will help them become engaged citizens and nurture healthy, prosperous families. Importantly, a lack of foundational literacy skills in the early grades can lead to intergenerational transmission of poverty and vulnerability.

As a major contributor to human capital deficits, the learning crisis undermines sustainable growth and poverty reduction.  The Human Capital Project is raising awareness of the costs of inaction. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average Human Capital Index (HCI) score across countries was 0.56 – this means that by the age of 18, a child born today will be only 56 percent as productive as a child would be under the benchmark of a complete education and full health. And shortcomings in the quality and quantity of schooling are a leading contributor to this human capital deficit. 

To spotlight this crisis, the World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics jointly constructed the concept of Learning Poverty and an accompanying indicator.  Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. This indicator brings together schooling and learning indicators:  it begins with the share of children who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency (as measured in schools) and is adjusted by the proportion of children who are out of school (and are assumed not able to read proficiently).

COVID-19 is now wreaking havoc on the lives of young children, students, and youth.  The disruption of societies and economies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is aggravating the global learning crisis and impacting education in unprecedented ways.  Before the pandemic, 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school. In poor countries, the level was as high as 80 percent. The dual shocks to education systems – school closures and the ensuing economic crisis – have only deepened this crisis.

With more than a complete year of schooling lost in many parts of the world, learning poverty is estimated to rise to 63 percent in developing countries. The pandemic runs the risk of eroding hard-won achievement in access to schooling and learning. Moreover, such high levels of illiteracy are an early warning sign that all global educational goals and other related sustainable development goals are in jeopardy.

Progress in reducing learning poverty is far too slow to meet the SDG aspirations:  at the pre-pandemic rate of improvement, about 43 percent of children will still be learning-poor in 2030.  Even if countries reduce their learning poverty at the fastest rates we have seen so far in this century, the goal of eliminating learning poverty will not be attained by 2030.

There is an urgent need for a society-wide commitment to invest more and better in people.  If children cannot read, it is clear that all education SDGs are at risk.  Eliminating learning poverty is as important as eliminating extreme monetary poverty, stunting, or hunger. To achieve it in the foreseeable future requires far more rapid progress at scale than we have yet seen, especially now after COVID-19.

Countries need to act today to accelerate learning and build back better. Even though country challenges vary, there is a menu of options that have been proven to work to strengthen the education systems and minimize learning losses. Change is possible and children’s education experience can be improved quickly. However, moving education outcomes requires technically correct answers, as well as persistence, ingenuity, and political savvy.

To galvanize this progress and strengthen its own efforts, the World Bank set a new operational global learning target to cut the Learning Poverty rate by at least half before 2030.

Simulations show that this target is ambitious yet achievable if all countries manage to improve learning as well as the top performers of the 2000–15 period have done, which means, on average, nearly tripling the global rate of progress. The Future of Learning Report affirms that with COVID-19, countries need to urgently accelerate progress to unprecedented levels as school closures have significantly exacerbated the learning crisis. 

Three key pillars of work are available to support countries to reduce learning poverty:

o   A literacy policy package consisting of interventions focused specifically on promoting acquisition of reading proficiency in primary school. (infographic)

o   A refreshed education approach to strengthen entire education systems so that literacy improvements can be sustained and scaled up and all other education outcomes can be achieved.

o   An ambitious measurement and research agenda to close the data gaps and continue action-oriented research and innovation on how to build foundational skills. A partnership between the World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics aims to help countries strengthen their learning assessment systems, better monitor what students are learning over time and in internationally-comparable ways, and improve the breadth and quality of global data on education. Furthermore, the World Bank’s new Learning Assessment Platform aims to enable countries to evaluate student learning more efficiently and effectively.

The fight against learning poverty will require an integral, multi-sectoral approach supported by actions beyond the education sector, that is, in all the other areas essential to improve learning. For example, ensuring that all children can learn requires better water and sanitation, improved health and nutrition, better social protection for disadvantaged populations, civil service reforms, and strengthened management and financing of public services. All of this requires a whole-of-government approach to better learning outcomes. 

Beyond this, renewed attention is needed to the role that families and communities play in building the demand for education, creating the right environment for learning, and supporting the right education reforms.

Countries have a unique opportunity to accelerate their own progress in building more equitable and resilient education systems.  In support of these efforts, the World Bank, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), UNICEF, and USAID, launched the Accelerator Program.

Developed to demonstrate that strong political and financial commitment, sound policy design, and a relentless focus on learning outcomes can speed up countries’ progress in improving foundational learning, the Accelerator Program coordinates efforts across the partners to ensure that the countries in the program are showing improvements in foundational skills at scale over the next three to five years.

Last Updated: Oct 20, 2021