The Rebirth of Education - Lant Pritchett

October 29, 2013

My guest on this week’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast is CGD senior fellow Lant Pritchett, whose new book, The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning, was released last month and is now available on Kindle. The book addresses a fundamental problem in education: despite great progress to meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goal target for primary school completion, students the world over are leaving school having learned very little. “They need to be in school and learn,” Pritchett says. “If you create systems where the only measures of schooling are kids in seats, you’re going to get measures of time served rather than learning gained.”

Lant tells me a story from his book about his visit to the state of Uttar Pradesh in rural India with an NGO that conducted testing among students in their homes. “It was a very simple test to determine if children could even read a modest paragraph,” Pritchett says. “I went around during the day watching the testing being carried out, I saw 11- and 12-year-old kids who were in the third and fourth grade who literally couldn’t even recognize letters or tell the direction of a text.”

Later, there was a meeting for parents, local officials, and a school principal to discuss the results and learning outcomes of their children. Lant tells how a man stood up during the meeting and indignantly said, “You betrayed us! I worked like a donkey my whole life because I had no education and no skills, and you told me if I sent my child to school his life would be different. Now he’s in the fifth grade and he doesn’t know how to read. He’s not going to be different, and he’s going to have to work like a donkey too.”

The school principal was not sympathetic: “He stood up in front of 100 people and said, ‘well, of course your child’s a donkey. You’re a donkey. If you send your stupid kids to school, it’s not our fault if we can’t teach them. It’s your fault.’”

Improvements in Uttar Pradesh education only began when its cash-strapped government began hiring teachers for one-year contracts at one-fifth the salary of the permanent civil service teachers, but with rigorous learning evaluations. Turns out “kids learned twice as much with the contract teachers than the civil service,” Pritchett explains.

Abysmal learning outcomes are not unique to India. “We have similar studies coming out of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and even East Africa, which is typically better performing. We’re finding we’ve had lots of kids in school for lots of years, and they’re just not mastering even the rudimentary basics of literacy, much less the conceptual mastery of things, such as being able to read with critical skill, or use math and apply it to a problem.”

I ask Lant what he proposes for education reform in developing nations. “My basic proposal is to move away from the strongly top-down, centralized bureaucratic systems that attempt to turn schools into factories,” he explains. “This is the metaphor for the rebirth of education: go back to when schooling was more locally controlled but add performance pressure and flexible financing.”

Lant closes the Wonkcast on a hopeful note. Listen to the Wonkcast to hear his response to my question about prospects for improvement ten years hence.


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