[op-ed snap] A learning crisis in the developing world


Mains Paper 2: Governance | Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes; mechanisms, laws, institutions and Bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of these vulnerable sections.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Very important. The article talks about a serious issue. UPSC is known to ask questions on such types of issues.


  1. The failure of children to achieve minimum proficiency levels despite attending school is an economic and ethical crisis

Not just an Indian problem but a global epidemic

  1. We have known that an unacceptably large number of Indian children are attending school but not learning enough
  2. Now, research shows that this is not just an Indian problem
    New estimates from the Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS)
  3. Estimates shows that about 617 million children are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, around the world
  4. It threatening, several low- and middle-income countries across the globe

Region specific data

  1. In sub-Saharan Africa, according to UIS data, about 88% of children are not able to read properly or do simple math by the time they finish middle school
  2. South and central Asia comes a close second, with 81% of children in the region not learning the basic minimum

Level of crisis in India

  1. In rural India, the latest edition of the “Annual State of Education Report” (Aser) shows that only 47.8% of class V students can read a class II-level text
  2. And only 43% of class VIII students can do class V-level arithmetic
  3. This learning crisis comes at a time when enrolment levels have increased across the board.
  4. India has achieved near-universal enrolment and, globally, the gap between children attending school in developed and developing countries is closing
  5. So, access to education has improved but the quality of education hasn’t

Comparison between countries

  1. The World Bank describes the above issue as not just a “learning crisis” but a “moral crisis”—abmplifying inequalities between and within nations
  2. International assessments of literacy and numeracy have consistently shown that students from low-income countries perform worse than those from high-income countries
    For Example:
  3. Indonesia has significantly improved its performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) over the last 10-15 years
  4. But still, according to the World Bank report, with this rate, Indonesia will still take another five decades to reach the developed world’s average score for mathematics and another seven decades for reading
  5. It is tempting to blame this on lack of resources but post-war South Korea, or of Vietnam and Peru, Malaysia and Tanzania have only recently improved learning outcomes

Why do some countries succeed while others fail? 

  1. Essentially, because the latter aren’t able to effectively integrate their key elements
  2. The World Bank lists four such elements—students, teachers, school administration and school infrastructure
  3. If any one malfunctions, the entire system is threatened
    (1) Students
  4. If children come to school sick or hungry, or if parents aren’t able to care for them, not just after birth but also in the womb, then their learning levels will be adversely affected
    (2) Teachers
  5. The importance of teachers’ skills and capabilities should require no elaboration
  6. Yet, they receive little attention
  7. Most developing countries struggle to attract the best and the brightest to their schools even when pay is competitive
  8. Teachers, once hired, are given almost no training or professional development support, leaving them ill-equipped in the classroom
    (3) School administration
  9. A 2015 study by Stanford University’s Nicholas Bloom and others on management practices across 1,800 high schools in eight countries, including India
  10. This study showed that better management produced better educational outcomes, and schools with greater autonomy did especially well
    (4) School Infrastructure
  11. The relationship between learning levels and learning aids and tools such as laptops and laboratories is often overemphasized
  12. Several studies have shown that similar investments can produce vastly different outcomes, depending on how the investment is utilized
  13. For example, one assessment of Brazil’s One Laptop Per Child scheme showed that more than 40% of teachers rarely used the devices in classrooms

The way forward

  1. A disproportionate focus on such inputs, and inadequate attention towards outcomes, is one of the most important reasons why India’s right to education legislation has performed below potential
  2. For there to be a shift in policy and practice, one has to start with assessing outcomes
  3. This is the World Bank’s top recommendation for making education systems more effective
  4. Assessing, measuring and benchmarking performance is the first step
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