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Basic literacy and numeracy are foundational skills needed for children to progress through school. In particular, when children cannot read, it is unlikely that they will be able to learn in other areas. Some 260 million children of primary and secondary school age remain out of school, and many more children who are in schools are not learning enough to achieve basic literacy by age 10. This is referred to as learning poverty.
Learning poverty is widespread especially in low and middle income countries. This is the case not only for children out of school and those in public schoools, but also for students in private schools including Catholic schools. There are however a number of "smart buys" or recommended interventions that can be implemented to reduce learning poverty. This page provides resources from the World Bank related to learning poverty and its prevention.
This page provides (1) a brief introduction to learning poverty and its measurement; (2) a summary of "smart buys" or cost-effective interventions that can be implemented by public or private school networks to improve learning globally; and (3) a summary of key links to resources related to learning poverty. These various resources are especially relevant for low and middle income countries, but some of the underlying principles are also relevant in high income countries, especially for better serving vulnerable groups.
In October 2019, the World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics introduced a new measure of learning poverty defined as being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. The indicator begins with the share of children in schools who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency and is adjusted by the proportion of children who are out of school and assumed not able to read proficiently. Based on available data at that time, estimations suggested that 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries may be learning-poor. In low-income countries, the level was as high as 80 percent. At current rates of improvement, in 2030 about 43% of children would still be learning-poor. To accelerate progress, a target of reducing learning poverty by at least half by 2030 was adopted. Three key pillars were suggetsed to achieve this target:
A literacy policy package consisting of interventions focused specifically on promoting acquisition of reading proficiency in primary school;
A refreshed education approach to strengthen entire education systems—so that literacy improvements can be sustained and scaled up;
A measurement and research agenda—to close data gaps and promote action-oriented research and innovation on how to build foundational skills.
Beyond education initiatives, the report also noted that fighting learning poverty will require a multi-sectoral approach including better water and sanitation, improved health and nutrition, better social protection for disadvantaged populations, civil service reforms, and strengthened management and financing of public services.
Cost-Effective Approaches to Improve Learning
In October 2020, recommendations for cost-effective approaches to improve global learning were made by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel. This panel was convened by the World Bank and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. It is hosted by the Building Evidence in Education Global Group. Its mandate is to provide succinct, usable, and policy-focused recommendations to support policymakers’ decision-making on education investments in low- and middle-income countries. In its first report, the panel identified several classes of interventions:
Great buys—the most cost-effective interventions, like providing families with information on education returns and quality;
Good buys—other highly cost-effective interventions, such as: structured pedagogy combined with teacher training and learning materials; programs to teach children at the right skill level; and pre-primary education;
Promising but low-evidence interventions—programs that appear to improve learning cost-effectively, but where more rigorous evidence is needed, like providing early stimulation to young children and involving communities in school management;
Bad buys—interventions that (as typically implemented) have repeatedly been shown to be either not effective or not cost-effective; these include investing in computer hardware or other inputs without making complementary changes (like teacher training or better school management) to use those inputs effectively.
Links to Useful Resources
Learning poverty webpage at the World Bank.
Learning poverty country data at the World Bank.
World Development Report on the learning crisis (2018).
World Bank report on Ending Learning Poverty (2019).
Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel note on cost-effective interventions (2020).
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