The WDR 2018: Learning for All, All for Learning

September 26, 2017

As Yogi Berra said, “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” It is true some things are hard to predict, even as they are about to happen: few in 1988 predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall; few in 2009 saw the Arab Spring coming; few in the midst of the Cultural Revolution predicted the incredible economic rise of China. But we do know something about the quite distant future. We know exactly the state of basic education of the future generation. Why? Because what 50-year-olds in the far distant year of 2055 learned in elementary school is happening now. Our global future is being forged today in classrooms around the world. 

The release of the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) is a milestone in the struggle to prepare the youth of today for the challenges of the world they will face. The report focuses on both the need to “get education right” and how to reform education systems to meet the challenge of preparing today’s youth to be tomorrow’s citizens, parents, community members, workers, and leaders.

As we outline below, the WDR and our RISE programme share many core themes.

There is a learning crisis and business as usual will produce more of the usual

The WDR starts with the key premise that “schooling ain’t learning.” Following the global commitments to universalize education—starting with the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948—there has been massive success in expanding schooling. There are more children getting into school and staying in school for more years. But schooling is an instrument to achieve education. The WDR, like RISE, marshals the increasing sources of evidence that far too many children go through too many years of schooling without gaining even basic literacy and numeracy skills. Recent RISE research using two new sources of data (the Demographic and Health Survey and the Financial Inclusion Insights data) shows that in many developing countries, less than half the women who completed primary school can read a single sentence. Paradoxically, if you want to find an uneducated child in today’s world, you can find them in school. 

Even where children are learning the basics, very few—even in many upper middle income developing countries—are getting to the advanced analytic and problem solving skills needed for work and life in the 21st century. A recent RISE blog post showed that college graduates in Jakarta, Indonesia had fewer functional literacy skills than high school dropouts in Denmark—and the skills gap between Indonesia and the OECD is even larger among the younger cohort than the older cohort.  

More of business as usual will not help resolve the learning crisis. While many countries have increased spending on schooling and have attempted a variety of policies and programs to improve learning, evidence on the improvements in learning per year of schooling suggests that progress is mixed, at best. While some countries have shown impressive improvements, many others are stagnating, and some even appear to have been moving in reverse. In India, data from ASER and now government sources show deterioration in the learning of fifth graders in spite of massive increases in spending per pupil.    

We have to think about systems

As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To accelerate gains in learning, the WDR emphasizes that it will not be enough to have piecemeal policies and programs or just more of the same. Rather entire education systems as systems need to pivot towards alignment around progress in learning.

There is an old saying: “Just because the tire is flat doesn’t mean the hole is on the bottom.” While it is a truism that what happens in the classroom matters for learning outcomes, the WDR emphasizes that if there are problems in the classroom it is not sufficient to only study the proximate determinants of learning without understanding the deeper system determinants of poor learning. Even interventions which can be proved to work “in principle” with rigorous evidence cannot be scaled up and produce ongoing overall gains unless social, political and organizational forces are aligned with learning.  To get to “learning for all” will take getting to “all for learning.”

We applaud the WDR’s core messages to think beyond business as usual and the recognition that solving the learning crisis will require education systems aligned around learning—“all for learning.” 

The RISE programme will contribute to this shift with our research into how to take the recognition of the need for system reform and flesh that out with specific, practical, granular evidence about what works to produce effective education systems. RISE and the WDR recognize that the ability to address the challenges we know the world faces—and the challenges the future will pose that we cannot even predict—depends on urgent action to promote learning for children today.

This is one of a series of blog posts from “RISE"—the large-scale education systems research programme supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Experts from the Center for Global Development lead RISE’s research team.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Social Media image by Maria Fleischmann / World Bank