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BRIEF October 12, 2022

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).

The disruption of societies and economies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the global learning crisis and impacted education in unprecedented ways.  Before the pandemic, 57 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school. In in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate was 86 percent. The dual shocks to education systems – school closures and the ensuing economic crisis – have only deepened this crisis.

The State of Global Learning Poverty:  2022 Update (recently launched by the World Bank, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in partnership with UNESCO) shows how large the cost has been.  Globally, in the first 2 years of the pandemic, education systems were fully closed for in-person schooling for about 141 days on average. In South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, children lost on average 273 and 225 full days of school, respectively. Because remote learning was often ineffective, simulations indicate that the school closures have likely caused a sharp increase in global learning poverty, to an estimated 70 percent, and exacerbated inequalities in education. This would mean that all of the gains in learning poverty that low- and middle-income countries recorded since 2000 have been lost during the pandemic. 

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 recover and accelerate learning. 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.

From a technical perspective, the RAPID framework highlights what countries must do – and what many already doing – during the next few years to recover and accelerate learning. 

  1. Reach every child and keep them in school:  Use back-to-school campaigns, family outreach and early warning systems, elimination of school fees, cash transfers, and school feeding programs to keep children in school.
  2. Assess learning levels regularly: Measure children’s current learning levels after their return to school, to help teachers target instruction in the classroom to each child’s starting point – which will usually be much lower due to the school closures.
  3. Prioritize teaching the fundamentals: Learning recovery efforts should focus on essential missed content and prioritize the most foundational skills, particularly literacy and numeracy, that students need for learning everything else.  Help teachers teach these skills. 
  4. Increase the efficiency of instruction: Adopt effective teaching practices that support teachers cost-effectively in their immediate classroom challenges – practices like structured pedagogy programs and tools to target instruction to students’ current learning levels.
  5. Develop psychosocial health and well-being: Ensure that schools are safe and that children are healthy and protected from violence and can access basic services – such as nutrition, counselling, water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

To lead to broad, sustained acceleration of learning, these short-term interventions must be implemented at scale, and this implementation must be part of a national strategy of structural reforms over the longer term.

Beyond that, an ambitious measurement and research agenda is necessary 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 also 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. 

But even more is needed.  Recovering from this massive shock, and then turning the tide against the longer-term learning crisis that predated COVID, will also require broader national coalitions for learning recovery and acceleration – coalitions that include families, educators, civil society, the business community, and other ministries.  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 12, 2022