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Which African country is making the most progress in teaching kids to read by the time they reach third grade? Which language-of-instruction policies are most effective in early literacy teaching? Which country is getting the most children to complete primary school equipped with basic literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills? The answers? We don’t know because there is no way to know. Comparable data on learning outcomes over the past 10 years in sub-Saharan Africa simply does not exist.
Josef Ritzen, the Netherlands’ education minister for eight years before he joined the World Bank, once told me: “The view of a prime minister is that an education minister only brings problems. There’s nothing he or she can do to improve quality that has a political upside. So, most ministers try to do nothing.” Ritzen’s recent successors have learned this lesson the hard way with public outcry over heightened math admission requirements for teacher training colleges that have led to a teacher shortage and larger classes. So far, the government has stood firm, convinced that students cannot truly master math without excellent teaching. But the education reform shoe is pinching.
An article of faith among development economists is that “evidence-based policy” holds the promise of faster progress. Barbara Bruns set out to find a rigorously evaluated pilot whose evidence had led to a program at scale. It wasn’t easy.
Three years after the SDGs were adopted and established goals for education focused on learning, rather than enrollment, there is still no solid global baseline against which to measure progress and 100 countries still do not measure learning at all.
We need an international assessment that will pinpoint educational challenges by providing consistent information on the status of all youth, not just those who have somehow stayed in formal schooling into adolescence. Think of a universal test of nine-year-olds in basic math, reading, and problem solving skills.
Is big money really necessary, or even sufficient, to improving learning outcomes for children in the developing world? CGD’s background research submitted to the Commission has convinced us that the key to faster progress is not incremental money; it is focused action in two critical areas. The first necessary, unavoidable step is for political leaders, education officials, and parents in low-income countries to recognize the depth of the problem (children’s lives and public money wasted) in their country, and have the information to design and implement local solutions. The second is to shift education funding to paying for results, rather than inputs and plans.