7 September 2012

Africa's Future Earnings Will Come From Better Learning


"As the development of a new global policy framework in 2015 approaches, a unique opportunity exists to celebrate the achievements in increasing access while stretching to the next and crucial frontier; better learning for all."

Steady economic growth with shared benefits across African society will not be achieved without ensuring that children in school are learning fundamental skills. This means not just more schooling and certainly not just more schools, but better teaching within environments that lead to better learning outcomes. To get there requires a shift from counting children in school to assessing the schooling in children.

Thanks to a tremendous effort to expand school enrollments over the past two decades, supported both by government policy changes and donor funding, many African children enroll in school. Since universal primary education was established as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals in 2000, on average African countries have increased net enrollments from 65 percent to 83 percent in less than ten years. With elimination of school fees, increased spending on education and greater demand by parents, a majority of countries in the region now have primary enrollment rates that exceed 75 percent.

Enrolling in school does not equal getting an education, however. Far too many of those children leave early because the quality of schooling is so poor. Many parents who can barely afford school uniforms pull their children out of school if they see no results. Even children who attend for many years typically do not acquire basic skills. In some African countries, for example, four out of ten children who go to school for a full five years, starting around age 7, are unable to read, write or do simple sums. A school survey in Mali found that only two out of ten second graders could read a single word in any language.

Learning, not just school enrollment or attendance, drives social and economic returns to investment in education. The learning outcomes of education, measured by student achievement test scores, are strongly correlated with increases in individual wages and economic growth. One study of 50 countries found that in the aggregate an additional year of education in a population boosts national income by 0.37 percent annually. When learning outcomes are also improved substantially, national income is increased up to 2 percent.

Quality education and the learning it produces has lasting impacts on public health, and may be a necessary condition for safer, more stable societies. Literacy skills, rather than conventional years in school, are strongly cor related with subsequent lower fertility rates and better child health, including reductions in infant mortality rates. A child born to a mother who can read, for instance, stands a 50 percent greater chance of surviving past age five.

With a new understanding that school enrolment alone does not guarantee the acquisition of key knowledge and skills, the global education community is recognizing the need to tackle the learning crisis. This recognition must be shared and reinforced by economic decision makers, as well, who may be banking on the imagined returns from getting children to go to school. The answer does not lie only in greater budget allocations to education, but on better measurement of what counts.

It is time for national and global communities to make learning the metric of success for education. Establishing a learning goal, rather than just a goal related to school access and completion, would focus attention on what matters most. It would turn policy debates away from excessive attention to inputs - how many schools built, how many teachers trained, how many books purchased. It would induce use of a growing body of evidence about what works in education, and development of locally-responsive ways to improve reading, writing, math, and other critical social and analytical skills among young children. As the development of a new global policy framework in 2015 approaches, a unique opportunity exists to celebrate the achievements in increasing access while stretching to the next and crucial frontier; better learning for all.

Ruth Levine, PhD, Director, and Chloe O'Gara, Phd, Program Officer, Global Development and Population Program, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

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