Learning Gaps Across Countries

Charles Kenny’s latest Bloomberg Businessweek column addresses what he calls “the learning crisis in developing-country schools,” and he proposes a potential remedy:

There’s no single cause behind the learning crisis in developing-country schools. Students who are poorly nourished and come from homes without books or literate parents have a tougher time learning. Teachers who don’t turn up, don’t care to teach, or don’t understand the material are all too common. The lack of books and supplies makes the job of teaching a lot harder. But it isn’t just an issue of resources: From 2007 to 2011, India increased its per-student expenditure on elementary education by 80 percent while student learning outcomes were declining.

One underlying factor is that parents simply don’t know how little their kids are learning in school. Across the developing world, all too few countries carry out and then publish student assessments. Take Uganda, where more than two-thirds of recently surveyed adults suggested that the government was addressing educational needs “fairly well or very well.” Subsequent assessments by a civil society group, however, found that less than one-fifth of fourth-grade students passed literacy and math tests designed to evaluate second-grade competency. If countries began to regularly, independently test learning outcomes and publish the results down to the school level—and then gave principals and teachers the flexibility to improve outcomes—that could help create the momentum for reform and improvement.

Testing is cheap—reviews of experience across countries suggests that an assessment system rarely costs more than 0.3 percent of the education budget. And countries that have introduced testing as part of a school reform effort have shown real results. Brazil and Chile have both introduced all-student testing regimes alongside accountability and autonomy reforms over the past few years, and both have seen better performance in international student assessments—Chile improved student learning at the fastest rate worldwide from 1995 to 2011.

Kenny draws on “Schooling Is Not Education!,” a new report from the Center for Global Development, which includes shocking findings about learning outcomes in poor countries:

Internationally comparable mathematics tests under the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) suggest that the average eighth grader in Ghana has a test score that would place her in the bottom 0.2 percent of US students. Even in considerably richer developing countries, the learning gap is large: the average Chilean student would be in the bottom 6.4 percent of US students, based on TIMSS scores. Figure 4 presents average TIMSS scores for a range of developing countries expressed as a percentile rank on Danish students’ TIMSS performance.

Keep in mind that US students fare poorly relative to their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world. The CGD has emerged as a leading institutional champion of less-skilled immigration from developing countries to developed countries as a poverty alleviation strategy. Interestingly, its new findings reveal that the learning gaps between less-skilled U.S. workers educated and less-skilled workers from developing countries might be even larger than we thought, as a given amount of schooling translates into different amounts of learning across countries. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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