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Even if the education gap between rich and poor kids in the developing world was completely closed, many students still would not be proficient in basic math and reading, according to a new study from the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme.
The researchers examined data from households in India, Pakistan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania and found that while there is a significant achievement gap between poor kids and rich kids, learning levels are so low across-the-board that even the best-off kids are far from mastering basic math and reading by age 12.
“Instead of bringing poor kids up to the still-not-adequate learning levels of rich kids, we need to raise learning standards across the board,” said Maryam Akmal, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Center for Global Development. “In a system where basically no kids can read or write—no matter what their schooling—a focus on equality isn’t going to change outcomes. Everyone needs to be better across the board. We can't set a target for mediocrity and then put all our effort into making sure everyone meets it—that's selling kids in developing countries short. Real educational equity means making sure that every kid is able to read or do basic math.”
In Pakistan, for instance, the study found that barely two thirds of kids from the richest households—the wealthiest 20%—can read by age 12. And poor kids are even worse off.
“A big focus in the development world has been on closing the gap between poor kids and rich kids, but even the rich kids are far, far behind where they should be. Targeting vulnerable groups is absolutely important, but the primary focus has to be on raising learning levels across the board—or we're going to end up with a whole generation that can't read or do basic math.”