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Lant Pritchett

The Millennium Development Goal of universal primary-school completion has been successful. By 2011, 90 percent of countries had already met the goal; only 19 of 212 countries are unlikely to meet it by 2015.

That is good news for international campaigns and government efforts to get more kids in school. But meeting enrollment targets does not necessary improve education. In many countries on target to meet the schooling goal, only a small percentage of students actually meet minimal competency levels in reading, math, and science. As a result, many in the international education community—and some country policymakers, too—are beginning to shift their focus from getting kids in school to making sure they learn while there.

My guest on this week’s Wonkcast is CGD senior fellow Lant Pritchett, co-author with Amanda Beatty of a new CGD working paper, From Schooling Goals to Learning Goals: How Fast Can Student Learning Improve?  The paper documents the current (slow) rate of improving on learning assessments and demonstrates that with business-as-usual progress developing countries would need a century or more to reach education attainment levels currently common in the high-income countries.

The paper provides the basis for a chapter in Lant’s forthcoming CGD book, The Rebirth of Education: From 19th-Century Schooling to 21st-Century Learning, which I recently read in draft. In it he describes visiting a village in India where an NGO was carrying out learning assessments and watching as a fourth-grade boy fumbled with a piece of paper on which a simple story was printed, unable to determine even which edge should be the top of the page.

“It was one of the most poignant things I have ever seen in my life,” Lant tells me. “The boy and his parents were doing what everybody told them. They said: send your child to school and he'll have more opportunity in life. And it just wasn't true. He really wasn't gaining opportunity in life, the opportunity to change his life chances through a real education were slipping away even though he was sitting in a school.”

Worse, when confronted with the lack of learning the school headmaster said it wasn’t his fault: the children and their parents, he said, were “donkeys,” too stupid to learn.

As Lant documents in the paper, sadly that village was not an extreme exception in India, nor is India necessarily alone in having very low educational attainments. Available assessments of learning in many developing countries suggest that the problem may be widespread, although the focus on measuring enrolment rather than learning means that “shockingly, in many cases we just don’t know,” Lant adds.

On the bright side, he says, Brazil has begun to measure learning attainments and initial low levels are now improving quickly.

Towards the end of the interview, I ask Lant whether establishing an international learning goal, as some have proposed, would help fix the problem.

“Let’s be clear: a global learning goal set by the UN and its agencies isn't what is going to make change” he emphasizes. Change will come from within societies as parents, civil society groups, and enlightened educators push for change, he says. However, an international learning goal can help to empower these efforts, he adds.

For more on the process of setting the next round of development goals, see Charles Kenny’s recent blog: “Post 2015: Pruning the Spruce.”

My thanks to Alexandra Gordon for her production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and Sonia Niznik for drafting this blog post.