Last year, the World Bank issued a report that found 60% of primary school children in developing countries were failing to achieve a basic proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics.
This exposed a serious issue, known as “schooling without learning”, which widens social gaps for already disadvantaged children.
Felipe Barrera-Osorio, a developmental economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that the important objective of education is not the accumulation of years of education, but the generation of skills, knowledge, and abilities.
“In terms of learning, countries are failing their students,” Barrera-Osorio told Harvard University’s Grade School of Education.
According to the World Development Report 2018 report, titled: ‘Learning to Realize Education’s Promise’, the learning crisis has three main dimensions.
The first dimension is the poor learning outcomes themselves. The second dimension is its immediate causes, and the third dimension is its deeper systemic causes.
However, the report said governments can reverse these trends if they prioritise learning and take action in three key areas.
The first of these is using well-designed assessments to measure the overall health of the system (not to reward or punish), and use results to drive policy and evaluate progress.
The second is to act on evidence by aligning reforms, interventions, and policies with the science of how people learn, and the third is to align all the stakeholders in a system to create system-wide change that supports learning.
According to the report, the learning crisis has three main dimensions: the first dimension is the poor learning outcomes themselves; the second dimension is its immediate causes; and the third dimension is its deeper systemic causes.
Barrera-Osorio said the report also emphasises the link between measurement and teacher performance, stating that “teacher motivation and incentives makes a difference, even with few inputs.”
The typical incentive program for teachers, he says, is pay-per-performance: teachers are promised money if their students perform in certain ways on an exam.
However, the evidence of pay-per-performance is nascent, with a handful of studies providing different conclusions.
“Another difficulty is that the vast majority of national measurements do not follow students on time; in other words, national assessment measures a cohort of students – students in a specific grade or grades,” Barrera-Osorio said.
“The design of pay-per-performance programs depends a great deal on the ability to measure, for the same student, changes in achievement.”
Barrera-Osorio said that when national programs are linked to cohort data, the incentives are greatly diminished, and the design of the program extremely difficult.
“Finally, the perils of linking test scores to strong accountability policies are quite clear, both globally and in the United States,” he said.
Barrera-Osorio pointed out that while measurement per se is important, accountability is also important, but linking the two of them is difficult and the technical details are quite complex.