Press Release

Schooling Ain’t Learning – And What to Do About It: New Book Exposes Education Failures around the World

September 27, 2013


Schooling Ain’t Learning – And What to Do About It:
New Book Exposes Education Failures around the World


Washington, DC – A global push to get all kids enrolled in school has been largely successful—most countries will meet or nearly meet the Millennium Development Goal that each child “complete a full course of primary schooling” by 2015. But a new book by Lant Pritchett from the Center for Global Development documents a deeply disturbing reality: for millions of children in the developing world schooling is not producing “education” in any real sense.

Consider these examples from the book, The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning:

·        In India less than half of children surveyed in grade 5 could read a grade 2 level story, one in four could not read a simple sentence, and only slightly more than half could do subtraction.

·         In Tanzania six-out-of-ten students who took the 2012 examination for secondary school completers failed.

·         In Pakistan a child who enters fifth grade not knowing how to do simple division has only a one-in-six chance of learning in an entire year of schooling.

·         Pritchett not only sounds the alarm. He goes on to diagnose these failures and propose a potentially transformative new approach to education.

The result of years of research, including time Pritchett spent studying schools in India, the book offers shocking new analysis and data about the current state of education in developing countries and a trenchant critique of the global focus on enrollment rather than learning.

“We often see education as one of the most powerful tools for escaping poverty,” says Nancy Birdsall, president of CGD. “In this important book, Lant Pritchett reveals the great divide between schooling and learning and reminds readers that our goal is not to get students into classrooms but rather to prepare young people to become productive members of the community.”

Pritchett begins his book with a story from India. In 2006, MIT researchers conducted a rigorous evaluation of schools in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, only to discover that many fifth-graders could not read a simple story, do basic division, or even recognize letters of the alphabet.  At a village meeting Pritchett listened as the father of a boy who was unable to read rose to address the school principal:

“You have betrayed us. I have worked like a brute my whole life because, without school, I had no skills other than those of a donkey. But you told us that if I sent my son to school, his life would be different than mine. For five years I have kept him from the fields and sent him to your school. Only now I find out that he is thirteen years old and doesn’t know anything. His life won’t be different. He will labor like a brute, just like me.”

The principal responds: “It is not our fault. We do what we can with your children. But you are right, you are brutes and donkeys. The children of donkeys are also donkeys. We cannot be expected to teach your children. They come from your homes stupid and you cannot expect that they will be home from school anything other than stupid.” 

India is not alone. Even in middle-income countries with high average years of schooling, between one-third and two-thirds of 15-year-old students do not meet even the most basic math, reading, and science learning goals. In Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico, over 50 percent of 15-year-old students with over five years of schooling do not meet math goals. When compared to their counterparts in rich countries, the educational divide is even clearer: 15-year-old students from Thailand, Mexico, Mauritius, and Chile fall below the 20th percentile of students in Denmark. Students from Qatar, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and El Salvador fall below the 5th percentile when compared to their counterparts in Australia.    

“This problem couldn’t be more important,” says Pritchett. “A child who finishes school at age 15 this year and plans to work until age 65 will be in the labor force until the year 2063. These children are emerging from primary schooling or even secondary schooling with so few skills that they are unprepared for today’s economy, much less for the economy of 2030 or 2063. Their lack of basic education is a burden they will bear for decades.” 

Part of the problem is the emphasis on inputs instead of outputs. Desks and chairs, pencils and textbooks, students and teachers may look like a school but they don’t always add up to learning. Pritchett borrows a term from biology, “isomorphic mimicry,” to describe this phenomenon of looking like something else without acquiring the core functions, as when a non-poisonous butterfly evolves to look similar to a poisonous species to avoid being eaten by birds.

In describing education systems, Pritchett borrows from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. In many countries, Pritchett says, the schooling system is controlled by a large government-owned, top-down bureaucracy – a “spider.” This spider dictates everything: which schools get built, which programs get funded, which teacher gets assigned to which school. Despite the bureaucracy’s extensive reach – the spider’s web – all decisions are made in one centralized location – the spider’s brain.

The Uttar Pradesh school principal’s rebuttal reflects one of the problems of the spider school system, Pritchett observes. In a top-down system, all the power rests with administrators. But educating children requires a system far more complex and flexible than a top-down bureaucracy, what Pritchett calls a “starfish system.”

A starfish, unlike a spider, is a radically decentralized organism – some species of starfish have no brain at all and a starfish’s parts are loosely connected and controlled by local actions. Pritchett praises starfish systems for being locally operated, performance-driven, and open.

The problem is that form follows function. Instead of focusing on what education should look like Pritchett urges a renewed focus on what schools are meant to do. This can only be achieved by encouraging school systems to measure learning outcomes – and allowing local schools the freedom to create schools that best meet learning goals.

He makes clear that there is no single solution that will solve the problem for all schools. Rather the “pivot to learning” he advocates will require school systems that are more like starfish and less like spiders: open, locally operated, performance-pressured, professional networked, and technically and financially supported.

The Rebirth of Education has received wide praise:

“With abundant data, experience, and clear thinking, Pritchett makes a compelling case for why more of the same won’t cut it anymore, how we need to think deeply about how change happens and who can drive it, and why we need to be suspicious of experts and blueprints,” says Rakesh Rajani, founder and head of Twaweza, a Tanzanian NGO.

"Lant Pritchett's path-breaking and courageous work exposes the scandal of education policy in development, which contents itself with achieving quantitative targets on student enrollment even when no real education is happening,” said William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University. “Nobody reading this book will ever think about education the same way again."

“Lant Pritchett’s recommendations will disappoint both orthodox economists and orthodox educators since they do not reinforce any of the standard recipes. But those willing to be convinced by Pritchett’s logic and the particular blend of caring and impishness that characterizes his writing will be justifiably alarmed, then enlightened, and finally filled with hope,” says  Luis Crouch, chief technical officer, International Development Group. “I urge all my colleagues to read it immediately.”

The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning will be released on Monday, September 30 at an event hosted by the Center for Global Development. More information about the book and the launch event can be found on the CGD website.


Notes for Editors:
Members of the media interested in attending the launch event should contact media relations associate Catherine An by calling 202-416-4040 or emailing The book launch is slated for Monday, September 30 at 4 pm at the Center for Global Development.

About the Book:

The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning may be ordered through Brookings Institution Press. ISBN: 978-1-933286-77-8.