First-of-its-kind database reveals global ‘learning crisis’ threatening economic development

March 19, 2021
Failing education could jeopardize world economies. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Failing education could jeopardize world economies. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

A globe-spanning database sheds light on the scale of an education crisis that jeopardizes economic growth in developing economies, underscoring the need for education policy focused on giving children the skills and knowledge they require to build much-needed human capital.

In an article published March 10 in Nature, researchers using globally comparable data on test outcomes from 164 countries found that despite increases in schooling across much of the world, students aren't making measurable gains in learning itself.

The new Harmonized Learning Outcomes database, which brings together learning data from countries representing a combined 98% of the world's population from 2000 to 2017, sheds light on the complex challenges facing countries aiming to build economic prosperity through investments in education.

"Although recent modeling suggests that the world is on track to achieve the goal of universal primary [school] enrollment by 2030, if learning continues to stagnate, this achievement will mean little," authors Noam Angrist, Simeon Djankov, Pinelopi Goldberg and Harry Patrinos wrote.

The researchers built their novel database to enable deeper insights into the link between education and economic development in countries around the world.

That link is widely thought to be mediated through the formation of human capital, a concept that refers to the stock of knowledge and skills needed for economically productive labor. Education is crucial for giving individuals — and ultimately their societies — the know-how that spurs economic growth and development, according to mainstream development economists.

Tracking human capital development around the world has proven tricky, the researchers wrote, noting prior research showing that using schooling as a stand-in for human capital often masks students' actual learning outcomes.

A 2017 report from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics found that 60% of adolescents worldwide can't meet basic proficiency levels in mathematics and reading, for example. Those deficiencies are driven partly by student outcomes in countries where many or most kids are in schools, the researchers said, laying bare the "learning crisis" — that while students are in school, many aren't learning enough.

The gap between schooling and learning has prompted scholars to challenge frameworks that treat human development largely as a function of a country's schooling levels rather than its students' learning outcomes. Their stance has been bolstered by evidence that when measured in terms of learning, human capital is more strongly associated with growth, according to the researchers.

The move toward learning-based measurements of human capital has been limited in scope, they wrote. That's because it has been hard to gather relevant data that can be compared across high-income countries, where standardized tests are relatively common, and low- and middle-income nations where existing assessments don't allow for straightforward cross-national comparisons.

Developed with support from the World Bank, the HLO database aimed to facilitate accurate analyses of human capital across borders. 

By including three international tests, three regional standardized achievement tests and the early grade reading assessment — a tool developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development based on recommendations from international reading and testing experts — the researchers developed harmonized learning measures for students around the world and from across the development spectrum. The database includes 2,023 country-year observations from primary and secondary schools between 2000 and 2017.

The database adjusts for differences between the international and regional assessments, converting previously incompatible scores into a unified scale that uses 300 as a low-performance benchmark and 625 as a high-performance benchmark.

Comparing learning outcomes to adjusted enrollment ratios at the primary school level, the researchers found "a clear trend towards increased schooling while learning progress appears to be limited in many cases" between 2000 and 2015.

For example, while enrollment rates in the Middle East and North Africa rose from 95% to 99%, the researchers found that learning levels hovered at a relatively low score of 380 over the 15-year span.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the picture is arguably bleaker; while primary school enrollment rates jumped from 80% in 2000 to 92.3% in 2015, learning outcomes as measured by the database barely budged from 345.

Even in countries where enrollment rates are consistently high, including in Latin America and the Caribbean, comparably sluggish learning progress suggests that the learning crisis isn't simply a matter of lower-performing students entering the system.

From North America to Asia, Africa and Europe, a regression analysis of primary school learning outcomes on primary enrollment rates found that getting students through the schoolhouse door had no statistically significant link to better learning outcomes.

Particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic pressures and widespread lockdowns could exacerbate the learning crisis that the HLO database captures, Angrist told The Academic Times. Still, there are steps governments can take to improve education quality.

"While learning has not improved even as enrollment rates have, and learning is hard to budge, it is possible to improve learning," he added, noting that more than 150 impact evaluations over recent decades have pinpointed promising avenues for tackling the learning crisis.

Some of the most cost-effective tactics include targeting instruction by learning level rather than grade level, structuring lesson plans with linked student materials and implementing teacher professional development and monitoring. 

Angrist and other World Bank researchers found that these and other programs "deliver the equivalent of three additional years of high-quality schooling … for just $100 per child — compared with zero years for other classes of interventions."

The research should ultimately spur policymakers to implement evidence-based reforms targeted at the roots of the learning crisis, they said.

"The learning crisis will deepen, and government budgets are being reduced, so cost-effective approaches are needed more than ever," Angrist said.

The article, "Measuring human capital using global learning data," published March 10 in Nature, was authored by Noam Angrist, World Bank and University of Oxford; Simeon Djankov, London School of Economics and Peterson Institute for International Economics; Pinelopi K. Goldberg, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Yale University, Harvard University, Centre for Economic Policy Research and National Bureau of Economic Research; Harry A. Patrinos, World Bank.

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