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CGD's work in this area seeks to better understand the sources of global learning gaps and to identify solutions to help close these gaps.
While primary school enrolment levels have increased dramatically in recent decades, this progress has not been matched by equivalent gains in learning. Millions of children in the developing world leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. CGD seeks to better understand what causes this learning gap and to identify policies and ideas to help end the global learning crisis.
This blog post was drafted before a US appeal court denied a Department of Justice request to restore President Trump's immigration order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. It analyses what the ban, as proposed by the Executive Order, could mean for international students as well as for the US economy.
Several recent articles about President Trump’s executive order on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries have looked at how it affects thousands of international students all across the US. At stake here is not only their ability to benefit from a US education, but also how the US benefits from having students from those countries at American institutions, in terms of revenue, future productivity, and jobs. My own research, using both administrative and survey data, shows that the costs of this ban to the US will include costs to public universities and lost global talent from abroad.
The US is the largest "exporter" of higher education services, and the ban could hit universities with a revenue loss of around $200 million a year, with larger impacts on the local economies around campuses. In addition, full-fee paying international students allow state universities to “keep the doors open for in-state students.” More worryingly, students from the affected countries are often large contributors to US growth down the line as they are more likely to major in engineering and other STEM fields, with some staying on to work in the US IT sector, fueling innovation and productivity growth. Such innovation benefits not just consumers but other US workers as well.
There are currently 17,354 students from these seven nations studying in the US, a number that has grown rapidly from about one-fifth that number at the turn of the century (Table 1). While these numbers pale in comparison to the one million international students in the country, students from such countries have significant impacts on the US economy and the education sector. In response to the ban, university presidents have expressed alarm and have released detailed statements vowing not to release the immigration status of their students.
In previous research with John Bound, Murat Demirci and Sarah Turner, I show that international students from around the world contribute substantially to the growing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce in the US, and are far more likely to major in STEM fields than their American counterparts. Of all the main sending countries, students coming from Iran stand out as the most likely to be engineers—in 2015 alone, 54.4 percent of them majored in engineering, as opposed to just 36 percent of students from India and 18.6 percent of students from China. Indeed, more than half the students from these seven specific countries majored in STEM fields, and were more likely to be here for a graduate education (Table 1)—89 percent of the students from Iran were pursuing their graduate degrees (as opposed to Bachelor’s or Associate degrees), and five of the six most popular majors were in engineering or computer science (Figure 2).
Why is it important that these students are in STEM fields? Scholars from abroad often transition to the US labor-force, and have fueled the expansion in the US IT sector. About 14 percent of students from these seven countries in the last five years are now in the Optional Training Program (OPT) that allows them to work for a year in the US, and many others can transition to high-skill work visas. Immigrants have consistently helped to drive the innovation boom in science and eEngineering (S&E), with CEOs of large tech companies like Microsoft and Google amongst them. In addition to being high level managers, immigrants also patent new technologies that spur such innovation. This IT boom affects the larger economy in many ways, most importantly by facilitating US productivity growth.
Foreign-born scholars also play a large role in keeping college affordable for in-state residents. Over the last decade, international students have become a substantial revenue source for universities—especially for public universities looking to recover lost funding (appropriations) from state governments. In other research with John Bound, Breno Braga, and Sarah Turner, I show that public universities enroll more full-fee paying international students when they lose appropriations from governments facing tight budgets. Often their American counterparts pay in-state tuition amounts and cannot generate as much revenue for the institution. The growth in the international student body, including students from these seven countries, coincides with a period of large cuts to state funds (Figure 3). As we show in our paper, this allows state schools to continue offering favorable tuition-rates for in-state students and helps them avoid cutting necessary expenditures.
Students from these seven countries are more likely to be enrolled in public than private universities, especially public research universities (Table 2). The US currently has the largest number of high-quality centers of higher education, making education one of its valuable "exports." Given limited options in their home countries, international students seek out US universities for a quality education; the schools in turn attract highly qualified students willing to pay full-tuition, which cross-subsidizes American in-state students.
Table 2: Student Visas by Type of School (2010-2015)
How large, then, are the revenue gains from these students? Using student visa data, I find that between 2010 and 2015, a typical student from these countries paid approximately $16,000 a year in tuition. For the group of 17,354 students from these countries in 2015-2016 alone, this amounts to $278 million. Many students did receive some funds from the school, including on-campus employment—in 2016, approximately 30 percent of students from these seven countries received funds from their universities. This means that a conservative estimate of the net revenue gain is approximately $194 million in 2015-2016 alone. This revenue helps recover a portion of the lost appropriations while preventing otherwise-necessary hikes to in-state tuitions and cuts to expenditures.
Impacts on the entire local economy around college campuses are even larger. For instance, one estimate of revenue increases due to international students' tuition, room and board, books, and other local expenditures puts this number close to USD 700 million. This estimate, however, does not net out financial aid. Another estimate of the total economic impact, which includes effects on local jobs, from the US Department of Commerce and cited by the Wall Street Journal, puts this number closer to USD 556 million.
Future pitfalls: trade wars with China and Mexico, immigration wars with India
While barring entry to students from these Muslim-majority countries could adversely affect the US education sector and economy, there are certain larger pitfalls in sight. The countries that sent the highest number of international students in 2015-2016 include certain regions that may soon have fraught relations with the US. These large senders include China (328,547 students in 2015-2016) and Mexico (16,733), which have been contentiously re-evaluating trade with the US. Also on the top-senders list is Saudi Arabia (61,287), another Muslim-majority nation that offers a generous King Abdullah Scholarship to students who want to study abroad. And India (165,918), from which many students come to the US for Master’s degrees, creating an important pathway into the US IT sector. Restricting H-1B visas, as a new draft of a bill proposes, would not only affect the US tech industry, but also the Indian tech sector and the flows of students from India.
Students from these countries make up more than half the entire international scholar body in the US and are more likely to be in public universities, far more than students from more developed regions like Western Europe and the UK (Table 3). And unlike students from Europe, they are less likely to receive funding from their universities, making them a larger source of revenue for their universities. As our research shows, students from China played a significant role in ameliorating the budgetary shocks that hurt state schools.
Table 3: Student Funding and US Destinations (2010-2015)
% in Public Universities
% of Expenses Covered by School
Western Europe and the UK
Protecting US exports
Whether to restrict international travel from abroad is a complicated foreign policy question. National security concerns are first and foremost in the administration’s intentions—although no student from the banned countries was involved in recent terrorist activities on US soil, some Saudi nationals directly responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks entered America on student visas. However, as this blog highlights, travel restrictions also come with costs that cannot be ignored. International students, a large fraction of whom will be affected by this and potentially other restrictions, play a large role in benefitting large parts of the American economy, keeping the tech sector booming and college affordable. It is important to proceed with caution with respect to the proper implementation of the policy and take these factors into account.
Restricting the movement of students or workers fundamentally changes the cost-benefit calculations made by students around the world in their decisions to pursue degrees in the US. For many students, the benefits of a US degree lie not just in high-quality education, but also in the option value of joining the US labor market. The possibility of moving to the US may also encourage students to invest in skills and human capital that are valued abroad. Raising the costs of migration will cause such talent to move to other regions like the UK, Canada, Australia, or Western Europe. Given that the US currently has a comparative advantage in "exporting" high-quality higher education to the rest of the world, such restrictions would impede this advantage.
The "arbiter of value" is a key concept in Mark Moore’s RISE working paper: "Creating Efficient, Effective and Just Educational Systems through Multi-Sector Strategies of Reform." This concept, which he brings to the education sector after decades of experience in a variety of public sector organizations (his 1994 book Creating Public Value is a classic in the field), helps understand the industrial organization of basic schooling and why schooling is mostly publicly managed around the world—and even why a failed political coup affects who can teach school in Turkey.
Moore points out that the standard economic approaches to industrial organization cannot explain why the public sector manages schools at all, much less their scale or scope. In most economic approaches the consumer is, if not king, as least treated as a sovereign and the ultimate arbiter of value. Typically if a policy analyst wants to know whether the market for athletic shoes or sunglasses or haircuts or piano lessons or dentistry is working well or not, they take the preferences/wishes/wants of individuals as the sovereign arbiter of what is valuable for them. That is, no one analyzes the industrial organization of haircuts on the presumption there is a uniformly best haircut and judges the market for haircuts on the basis of whether or not everyone got that same best haircut. There is no such thing as a public or social arbiter of value for haircuts—people get (or try to get) the haircut they want and the result is judged on the basis that each person is the best arbiter of value of their own haircut.
Markets can of course have what economists call "market failures" of various types due to the structure of markets (e.g. markets in products with massive economies of scale can end up with natural monopolies that charge prices that are inefficiently high) and of course markets may fail to produce equality (or equity). But outcomes are still normatively judged relative to the consumer as arbiter of value and, in a market economy, the scale and scope of organizations is ultimately determined by how well these choices of organization structure allow organizations to meet consumer needs.
Professor Moore’s key insight about education systems is that the positive explanation of widespread public management of basic education around the world and of the scale and scope of existing public education systems is not that there are the standard "market failures" or even desires for equality or equity (in the usual sense). But rationales for public engagement in schools "take aim at the core normative idea of market economies which is that individuals are the only appropriate arbiters of value in the society" (pg 12). That is, the state as an actor is deeply engaged as an actor in education because the society, as a social public, plays a direct role as arbiter of value in adjudicating the performance of education systems.
That is, education is, in his view, a "public good" not in the sense of the economists’ definition as a good that is non-rival and non-excludable (like, say, national defense) but in the sense that the arbiter of value of what is "good" is the "public." His Table 1 (below) provides an array of what is more and less "public" in two senses. One, to what extent is the "arbiter of value" purely private versus public. Very few modern societies would think to dictate what haircut a person should have or what style of shirt they should wear simply because "we" have preferences the individual doesn’t—hence this is the least public cell (individual arbiter of value, material welfare).
But few people are willing to adopt the view that the sole arbiter of value of their own (or their child’s) education is the person or parent. Most societies regard formal basic education as fundamentally a process of the creation of public value. Some part of this is the production of cognitive skills and some part of the publicness is a sense of concern for the welfare of others and of duties to others. But what "public value" means in this context is deeper and includes some definition of "the public" as the arbiter of value of the beliefs and attitudes and dispositions that are transmitted through the schooling process.
This combination of the role of "the public" as an arbiter of value and the informational structure of skills versus beliefs explains the industrial organization of schooling and why public management dominates basic schooling around the world (chapter 5 of my book The Rebirth of Education argues that beliefs are not justiciable, so there cannot be third party contracting for instruction in beliefs).
The role of government as the "arbiter of value" in the education system influences the scope of the possible in the construction of a learning performance oriented education system. Governments will be more open to "private" schooling depending on what "private" means and how they stand vis a vis the desired socialization of those private schools. In Indonesia the government financially supports private Islamic schools; in other countries madrasas are seen as a security threat. Even if schools are producing demonstrably superior learning of literacy and numeracy, governments will object to schools promoting ideologies that threaten their legitimacy or stability—as the recent events in Turkey, where the government purged its education system of tens of thousands of ministry workers and teachers, clearly illustrate. National governments will be more open to "community" schools or "local" control in part depending on the political and ideological nature of the communities or local governments that control schools.
One important part of achieving education systems coherent about learning is to produce an arbiter of value that values learning as strongly as it values other dimensions of schooling.
Table by Mark Moore
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.
Why do some governments provide more public goods than others? Focusing on the case of public education, this article challenges the centrality given to the role of democracy and mass pressure for redistribution; and posits an alternative explanation rooted in the role of internal political disorder. The paper begins by documenting that, historically, in the vast majority of Latin American and European countries, public education systems emerged and achieved considerable expansion during non-democratic regimes and in the absence of popular demand for education. Why did political elites have an interest in setting up these costly systems in the absence of electoral incentives to do so? Based on historical evidence for select cases, Paglayan posits that instances of widespread internal political disorder such as civil wars propelled elites to use mass education as a means to instill values that would help prevent future rebellions against their authority. The statistical tests for this argument focus on assessing how a legacy of civil war impacts post-war investments in education provision. In analyses that exploit the regional concentration of civil war in Chile during the mid-nineteenth century, she shows that in the aftermath of the 1859 civil war—the causes of which had nothing to do with education provision—the central government made an unprecedented investment in mass schooling, and the expansion was greatest in those regions that had rebelled against the government. She also shows the generalizability of this argument with original data on education enrollment rates and civil war for Latin American and European countries beginning in 1830. Overall, the paper conceptualizes mass education less as a service for ordinary citizens and more as a tool used by political elites to consolidate power.
We respond to critics of our evaluation of Liberia’s “partnership” school program, distinguishing legitimate concerns about the charter-style program itself—which can be turned into testable hypotheses—from methodological limitations to what an impact evaluation can show.
The three of us are running a randomized control trial of the "Partnership Schools for Liberia" (PSL) program, which is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's effort to introduce something akin to American-style charter schools or the UK’s academies to Liberia's underperforming education system. Charter schools are controversial almost everywhere, and in some circles, so are randomized trials.
Recently, two advocacy groups—Action Aid and Education International—circulated a call for proposals offering researchers €30,000 to "conduct an in-depth qualitative investigation" of the partnership school program. The document explicitly seeks to dismiss the RCT results before the study has been concluded, asserting that "there are serious concerns over whether the evaluation of [the program] can be truly objective or generate any useful learning."
Of course, we object to this blanket dismissal of evidence, and below we offer a point-by-point response to the criticisms. Unfortunately, Action Aid and Education International have drawn their policy conclusions before collecting data. Their call for proposals notes that the research they fund will inform a "campaign against the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of education" and that "the report will be used for advocacy work… to challenge privatisation trends." We agree that what these organizations describe is advocacy not research, as their conclusions are openly advertised in advance.
We also agree with Action Aid and Education International on more substantive matters. The partnership school initiative may fail. And many of the criticisms raised below rest on sound factual premises. The key difference is that we do not read these points as criticisms of our study. Rather, many of the points below are concerns over the program itself, many of which we share—and we believe Liberia’s Minister of Education, George K. Werner, shares them as well, which is why he commissioned a randomized evaluation. We would reframe these concerns as hypotheses that we have explicitly designed the randomized evaluation to test. In some instances, the "criticisms" restate the core motivation for the RCT.
Here are Action Aid and Education International's criticisms, verbatim and unedited (though re-ordered to group similar comments together), with our responses.
1. Partnership schools are very expensive to run
"PSL schools are receiving significantly more funding ($50 per child enrolled) than the government control schools against which they will be compared."
"PSL schools receive significantly more political and managerial attention from the Ministry."
True! Unlike normal government primary schools, the Ministry decreed that PSL schools must be free at all grade levels, including early childhood education. Providing free services costs money, as do all the books, teacher training, and other things PSL provides. Crucially, so far all of the extra money spent on the program has been paid by philanthropic donors, not the Government of Liberia.
The fact that the program costs money is not, in and of itself, a failing of the RCT. If a clinical trial of a new drug that costs $1,000 per patient reduces the incidence of heart disease by 20 percent, we wouldn't declare the study a failure. Rather, we would evaluate the drug based on its comparative cost-effectiveness. Are there cheaper ways to achieve the same 20 percent reduction in heart disease? If so, doctors should prescribe those instead.
The same logic applies to partnership schools in Liberia. Even if the RCT shows learning gains, it remains to be asked whether the gains justify the cost of the program.
Two complications arise in our case. First, very few alternative "treatments" to increase learning in Liberia have been rigorously tested. In a perfect world, we could test alternative interventions head-to-head with partnership schools as part of our evaluation. If other aid donors who are spending heavily on Liberian education would like to subject their programs to that head-to-head comparison, we would love to include them. (Seriously, USAID, EU, and GPE: call us.)
The second complication is that measuring the costs of this program is very tricky. Philanthropists have poured millions into these schools, on the (somewhat optimistic) assumption that these costs will be amortized over many years and held constant under a hypothetical expansion of the program. In economics terminology, donors agreed to pay for long-term investments that represent fixed costs for PSL regardless of its scale, and operators claim their per pupil operating (or variable) costs are quite low. As evaluators, we are reluctant to take implementers' word at face value when they report very high fixed costs and claim very low variable costs, just as we would not take their word at face value if they claimed big benefits from their program without proof. More to come on this in the coming months.
2. Private operators may (illegally) try to exclude slower students
"PSL schools have been allowed to cap class sizes at 45—so have smaller classes than control schools (and many children previously enrolled—probably those from more disadvantaged backgrounds—have thus been excluded at short notice)."
"There is some evidence of providers being selective of children: those enrolled came on a “first come first served basis” but information available to parents is asymmetrical (better off parents get there first). All children in Bridge schools were also assessed and potentially re-graded."
It is true that Bridge International Academies, which runs 24 of the 94 PSL schools, has special permission to cap class sizes at 55 (not 45) pupils, while other operators may cap classes at 65 pupils—though some allow larger class sizes in practice.. To be clear, selective admissions based on fees or academic aptitude are explicitly forbidden by the PSL rules, and enrollment should be on a first-come-first-served basis.
Are operators abiding by these rules, and are poorer kids really getting equal access? This is one of the core concerns that the RCT was designed to address; and we would argue this issue highlights a strength rather than a weakness of the evaluation.
The key to our strategy here is something called intention-to-treat analysis. The basic idea is to track pupils who were in a given school before it was known whether the school would be part of the PSL program. That means we follow pupils who stay in school as well as those who leave or get kicked out. All of those kids who were in a PSL school last year count as part of the treatment group for the evaluation. So any operator who thinks they can boost their evaluation performance by rejecting weak students is woefully mistaken. It also means that we can track exactly who gets included and who gets excluded, and test whether poorer or slower pupils lose out, as alleged.
What we know so far is that despite the enrollment caps in PSL schools, they have boosted enrollment significantly relative to regular government schools. Free tuition seems to be popular, and there was apparently some excess capacity in government schools that could be filled once PSL started.
It remains to be seen in ongoing analysis of our data whether the new students flocking to PSL schools are (a) richer or better prepared, and (b) whether they were previously unenrolled, or are transferring from other public schools.
3. This model can't scale
"Some providers have been allowed to set conditions on which schools they would take over (e.g. Bridge insisted on schools on accessible roads, in clustered locations with electricity and good internet connectivity. Such conditions are highly atypical)"
”There is also evidence of selectivity of teachers and principals (with providers being allowed to remove those they do not consider good enough (who are transferred to other public schools)"
This is the first we've heard about demanding electricity in advance, but the other points are correct—particularly the demand for 2G internet connectivity in Bridge schools (as well as Omega schools) and reassignment of teachers. All of the private “partners” in the Liberia program had some say about where they would operate, and all had some ability to re-assign teachers who were unable to pass a Ministry test. Note that all partnership schools in Liberia take on the unionized, civil service teachers already working in the school, and those teachers cannot be fired.
The RCT is internally valid in that it will provide a reliable estimate of the effect on learning outcomes for a given population of students of converting a normal public school into a partnership school during the 2016/17 pilot. This in and of itself is policy-relevant information. The pilot is small (less than 3 percent of public schools), yet over 18 percent of the population is within 5 KM of a PSL school. But the bigger policy question in Liberia is whether converting even more regular government schools into partnership schools would raise scores.
The schools in the pilot have had a leg up because they could re-assign underperforming teachers and recruit new teachers from among recent training college graduates. We will continue to track teacher re-assignments through the evaluation, but data from the baseline shows that on average only one teacher per school from the 2015/16 teacher roster has been re-assigned to another location, and this number is the same in both treatment and control schools. Bridge (representing just over a quarter of total treatment schools) is the exception here, having on average 3 re-assignments per school.
Much like the issue of their funding advantage, the question is whether this privilege could be extended to many more schools if the program was expanded. If this is a zero-sum game of shuffling under-qualified teachers around the country, that's cause for concern—an issue we have planned to measure in the evaluation.
Similarly, if partnership schools simply picked the low-hanging fruit this year by working in easier environments, that also bodes ill for any future expansion. In reality, this is unclear. Some operators, like Bridge and to a lesser extent Omega, strongly insisted on working in a narrow range of schools with high infrastructure demands. But other operators volunteered to work in more remote areas with fewer resources at baseline (In all cases, treatment schools were randomized among a final list of eligible schools). The map below shows the distribution of partnership (i.e., treatment) and traditional public (control) schools across the country.
Overall, Liberia's partnership schools are not a random sample of the country, and they took over public schools which were somewhat larger and had better infrastructure than the national average. However, they are spread across 13 of Liberia's 15 counties, and are disproportionately concentrated outside Monrovia in poorer rural counties, so the pilot evaluation should give a good idea of whether this model can succeed in difficult environments.
4. Partnership schools will teach to the test
“The indicators used in the evaluation (likely to be variations on the EGRA / EGMA - Early Grade Reading / Maths Assessments) to measure literacy and numeracy are likely to be predictable to the private providers but less so to government schools (so there is a risk of distortion through teaching to the test)"
Teaching to the test is a valid concern in general, but not a serious concern for the evaluation for two reasons. First, we disagree that teaching to the test is a risk that is unique to partnership schools. There is little reason why private providers would be more likely than public school principals to conclude that the tests they'll be given for the midterm evaluation in 2017 might look similar to the tests they were given during the baseline survey in 2016. That said, we have explicitly reserved the right to change the learning assessment before then, or add entirely new modules, just to keep everyone guessing.
To sum up, we share many of the questions that have been raised by critics of Liberia’s partnership schools initiative. Indeed, the core concerns raised by advocacy organizations are a rephrasing of the central questions for the evaluation: is this model cost-effective relative to other possible education interventions, will these schools favor richer or better-prepared students, and how much value do these schools really add once we account for any differences in student composition? Our first round of follow-up survey data will be collected in June, and we can begin to answer those questions.
In the meantime, President Sirleaf and Minister Werner deserve credit for committing publicly to delaying any major expansion of the program until the evaluation is completed. Minister Werner said in a recent op-ed “…these are early days for PSL. While I believe it holds great potential, my team and I are clear that the program will not be scaled significantly until the data shows it works and we have the capacity within government to manage it effectively.”
We are not naïve enough to think that any kind of data will placate all critics of charter-style initiatives like this, but we do look forward to an ongoing debate that is increasingly disciplined by facts as data comes in from these pilot schools.
While working to establish the EFA Fast Track Initiative 15 years ago, one of us (Barbara Bruns) remembers asserting that MDG 2—achieving universal primary completion—was implicitly about education quality, and not just access. Countries might be able to achieve universal enrollment without achieving a basic level of quality, but they would not achieve universal completion this way. Why? Because given the opportunity cost of children’s time, as well as some direct costs of schooling such as uniforms, parents would not keep children in school if they were not learning.
Barbara was wrong. Fast forward to 2016, and the evidence is irrefutable—hundreds of millions of children across the developing world sit in school for five or more years but on “completion” cannot read a paragraph. That is a key message of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chaired by Gordon Brown.
CGD’s background research for the Commission: two priority actions
The Commission report released in September is impressive, starting with its title: A Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World. It starkly depicts a “global learning crisis.” The SDGs, unlike the MDGs, set explicit goals for learning: by 2030 all children in every country should master the skills equivalent of a lower secondary education. But the Education Commission predicts that if current trends continue, only 1 child in 10 in low-income countries will be on track to achieve that goal. And 69 percent of children in these countries will leave school without mastering even primary level skills, leaving them deeply unprepared for empowered, productive lives in a global economy.
The Commission makes 12 sensible recommendations in four big areas: performance, innovation, inclusion, and finance. But the biggest change it calls for is more funding: a near tripling of developing countries’ own education spending (from an estimated $1 trillion to $2.7 trillion per year) and a 400 percent increase in donor support, from $13 billion today to $49 billion per year by 2030.
Is big money really necessary, or even sufficient, to get the ball rolling? 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. Specifically, we propose:
A global measure of early learning (we make the case in a new CGD policy paper) that comes at a tiny cost (about $10 million) compared to the billions called for in the Commission’s report.
Paying for progress through a Global Offer for Learning (read the full proposal).
A global measure of early learning
School systems across most of the developing world today have no signal of their widespread learning failures in the first years of primary school. This is needed to drive reform. Most low-income countries have no tests of any kind in the early grades of school; where reading and math assessments have been used, they are not comparable over time or globally-benchmarked. As a result, children waste years in school without learning and governments and donors waste billions of dollars annually on schools that don’t teach. Parents lack the information to demand better education, governments cannot track progress, and the global education community lacks comparable, cross-country data for research on what works.
The technical challenge of creating a robust test of basic skills for 9-year-olds that could be used across the developing world almost immediately is no barrier. There are high-quality regional tests for children in early grades used in West Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean to build on, as well as good tests used for fourth graders (9-year-olds) in rich countries.
Following the example of the OECD’s influential PISA test of 15-year-olds and focusing the early learning measure on an age group—experts suggest 9-year-olds—would de-link the test from a specific curriculum and increase the transparency and global comparability of the results. The estimated cost of developing this test is $10 million, almost rounding error in the Education Commission’s overall price tag. But donor leadership is needed to get different testing agencies to contribute jointly to the creation of a new global public good—a quality test of basic literacy, numeracy, and reasoning skills that can be used across countries of widely different income levels to generate globally benchmarked data.
Nothing is more important than ensuring that all children master literacy and basic numeracy during their first two years in school—the essential foundation for all further learning. Educators across the world need to know how they are doing, compared with other countries, to put urgency behind reforms that are not politically or bureaucratically easy. All countries do need to develop national assessment capacity and our paper (see here) proposes donors dedicate modest resources ($200 million over 10-15 years) for this task, as well. But proceeding in parallel with a test of basic skills for 9-year-olds is the smart way to lower costs and speed up progress.
A global offer for learning
Despite increased donor talk about results, 99 percent of education aid continues to fund inputs: buildings, books, teachers, and training. And even “results-based programs” pay out for sector plans, enrollment increases, or activities such as teacher training—not for any measure of whether children are actually learning. Linking funding for the first time to measured and independently verified progress on learning would powerfully reshape the global education landscape. Our proposed Global Offer for Learning (GOL) (also endorsed in the Commission report) would channel predictable, untied funding to low-income countries that take the first step: testing 9-year-olds and reporting the results. It would create healthy competition among low-income countries for what would be a single, limited pot of donor money: $1 billion over 10 years (small beer in the Commission’s proposal to increase donor support from $13 billion today to $49 billion per year by 2030). For more details, see this blog post by our colleague Bill Savedoff. Only changed incentives, through a program like GOL, can ensure that future dollars invested by both countries and their donors result in learning.
Our two-pronged strategy of a new measure of early learning combined with a new financing channel to reward learning measurement and progress clearly nests within the Commission’s framework. But it also argues for donor financing to focus, first and foremost, on two specific actions that can kick-start progress—and move the road to SDG attainment out of the rut of business as usual.
Harmful cultural practices and norms—even the seemingly non-violent ones that consign girls to bear the brunt of household labor—have consequences for nutrition, health, educational achievement, sexual abuse, and child marriage. Accordingly, it is critical to develop a research agenda that places girls aged 0 to 10 at the center of policy to address harmful practices. Both as an issue of gender-based violence and as an impediment to girls reaching their potential, we need greater commitments to country-level data, informed and enforced legislative action, and innovative methods to challenging and shifting socially shared definitions of girlhood.
Internationally comparable test scores play a central role in both research and policy debates on education. However, the main international testing regimes, such as PISA, TIMSS, or PIRLS, include very few low-income countries. For instance, most countries in Southern and Eastern Africa have opted instead for a regional assessment known as SACMEQ. This paper exploits an overlap between the SACMEQ and TIMSS tests—in both country coverage, and questions asked—to assess the feasibility of constructing global learning metrics by equating regional and international scales. I ﬁnd that learning levels in this sample of African countries are consistently (a) low in absolute terms; (b) signiﬁcantly lower than predicted by African per capita GDP levels; and (c) converging slowly, if at all, to the rest of the world during the 2000s. Creating test scores which are truly internationally comparable would be a global public good, requiring more concerted effort at the design stage.