Using the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data on the ability of women at various levels of schooling attainment to read a simple sentence, we show that reaching universal completion of grade six among girls would not bring the world anywhere close to the goal of universal female literacy. These calculations are based on the empirical relationship between grades completed and ability to read, a descriptive ‘learning profile.’ The large literature on schooling and life outcomes suggests simple correlations are a reasonable guide to causal effects, and the typical concern is over-estimation of the true return to schooling—implying our calculations using a descriptive and not causal learning profile are a best-case scenario. This best case is often not at all good: the learning profile is so weak in Nigeria that even if all women had completed grade six, adult female illiteracy would only have fallen from 58 percent to 53 percent. In contrast, children in many other countries do learn to read in much higher numbers and enrolling out-of-school girls would dramatically reduce illiteracy. For instance, in Ethiopia the same calculations yield a reduction in illiteracy from 82 to 25 percent. But across nearly 50 developing countries with available data our calculations suggest 40 percent of women would be illiterate even if all women completed at least grade six. Achieving new Sustainable Development Goal targets of universal literacy and numeracy will require both achievement of universal schooling and dramatic improvements in the learning profile in most developing countries.
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