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Strengthening Education: Approaches that Work

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June 2007

Achievements and gaps in education

Much has recently been achieved in education in developing countries. UNESCO reports that the number of out-of-school children fell by 21 million between 1999 and 2004, and in two-thirds of countries, girls now attend primary school at the same rate as boys do.

But major gaps and deficiencies remain, particularly in educational opportunities for girls or children from disadvantaged groups, and in shortfalls in learning outcomes. Understanding, measuring, and figuring out how to address these deficiencies is critical.

Insights from recent education research: What works

Researchers in the World Bank’s Development Research Group provide rigorous new evidence that enrollment can be encouraged by transferring financial resources to households on condition that ‘target’ children (for example, girls, or child laborers) are sent to school.

They have also found that public access to information on education financing and quality can help communities to hold teachers and others accountable for widespread absenteeism and other gaps in education delivery – but that the context for this to work is crucial.

The private sector plays a growing role in some countries like Pakistan and India, where researchers find that learning is much faster in private schools and school quality is higher by some measures, despite teachers in rural areas being paid far less than what their public school counterparts earn.

Progress in primary education



The global primary education completion rate increased from 78 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2005, with exceptional progress in North Africa, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa...




...but major gaps still remain in enrollment and schooling quality.

For more information, see the section on education in the World Bank’s
Global Monitoring Report 2007

“Policymakers who seek to strengthen education policy and deliver better results need to be keenly aware of existing shortfalls and approaches that can help to resolve them,” said Elizabeth M. King, Research Manager for human development and public services at the World Bank.

Who is less likely to make it to school?



In Mali, 12.9 percent of children from the poorer half of the population are in school, compared with 40 percent of those from the richer half —a gap that grows over the school cycle.

In the developing world, 17 percent of children do not complete primary education. Using household surveys, Deon Filmer finds that children from poorer families are systematically less likely to attend school.

In many countries in Central and Western Africa, South Asia, and North Africa he documents that girls aged 6 to 14 remain less likely than boys to attend school: On average in these regions, boys’ enrollment rates exceed girls’ by 25 percent or more.

Filmer also finds that children with disabilities are far less likely to go to school.
Detailed research| Educational Attainment website

Groups facing multiple disadvantages progress the slowest, say King and Dominique van de Walle, citing Laos, where steady gains in educational attainment over 40 years have mostly benefited women from a majority ethnic group.

Rural women from minority groups in Laos hardly benefited during this period. The attainment gap between them and majority-group women has actually widened, as has the overall gap between rural and urban females.

What are children learning – or not learning – in school?

Filmer and co-authors call for “Millennium Learning Goals” to add value to the Millennium Development Goals on primary completion. Even in countries meeting the primary completion target, most youth do not reach minimal competency levels, they note in a recent paper.

For example, while Brazil is on track to the meet the target, an estimated 78 percent of Brazilian youth lack even minimally adequate competencies in mathematics and 96 percent do not reach a reasonable standard of adequacy.

“While most countries’ education systems are expanding quantitatively, too many are failing in their fundamental purpose of imparting learning,” said Filmer, citing hiwork with Amer Hasan and Lant Pritchett.

In the absence of data from international PISA student assessmentsfor many poorer countries, Jishnu Das, Priyanka Pandey and Tristan Zajonc have carried out independent research in rural Pakistan, testing random samples of children themselves, with equally discouraging results.

“At the end of third grade, just 31 percent of children we tested in Pakistan could correctly form an Urdu sentence with the word “school” in it,” said Das. Detailed research

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Early nutrition and cognitive development

Norbert Schady and Christina Paxson find that when children from poor families in Ecuador arrive at primary school, they have already fallen far behind their peers from better-off families (shown in graph below).

WDR inequality (Schady graph)

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Nutritional interventions need to happen very early in life to ensure good cognitive development

Alderman and King review a growing body of evidence.
Detailed research

One reason is that poor children lack the good nutrition (as measured by higher hemoglobin levels) that improves cognitive development, as measured by a child’s test performance. Detailed research

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Cash transfers keep children in school

Cash transfers have a dramatic positive effect on girls’ schooling in Cambodia...



...and in Ecuador,
where Bono de Desarollo Humano, another cash transfer program, strongly affected enrollment and child work among poor children.

Research confirms that targeting financial resources at certain groups encourages school enrollment and attendance. Filmer and Schady assess the effects of new programs in Cambodia and Ecuador that were inspired by successful programs in Mexico and Bangladesh.

In Cambodia, they find that a scholarship program to help girls make the transition from primary to secondary school had dramatic results. The program increased the enrollment and attendance of girls by 30 to 43 percentage points on average. The effect was also largest for girls from the poorest families (Decile 1 in the graph below). Detailed research

Cambodia attendance

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In Ecuador, Schady and Maria Caridad Araujo found that a cash transfer program increased school enrollment by about 10 percentage points and reduced child labor by about 17 percentage points. Detailed research

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Information can help hold service providers accountable in some contexts

High levels of teacher absence [see box] are likely to be symptoms of other quality control and accountability issues that need to be tackled urgently.

Ritva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson find that increased public access to information can serve as a very effective tool to improve accountability and reduce corruption and inefficiency.

In the late 1990s, the Ugandan government initiated a newspaper campaign to help monitor local officials’ handling of a large school-grant program, because many of the grants were disappearing before reaching the schools.

The results were striking: leakage of these public funds was reduced from 80 percent in 1995 to less than 20 percent in 2001.
Detailed research

But more investigation on how and when public access to information improves service delivery is needed, because the effectiveness of this approach varies greatly with the political and social context.

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Measuring service delivery

It is not enough to get children to enter and remain in school. What matters crucially is how effectively children are being educated once they are in school and how effectively resources are being used to promote learning.

A major focus of World Bank research, building on World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People, has been on measuring and improving the quality of service delivery.

One glaring indicator of poor efficiency in education service delivery is teacher absenteeism. Governments and donors may construct school buildings and supply textbooks, but if teachers are repeatedly absent, students are unlikely to learn.

Researcher Halsey Rogers and co-authors set out to quantify the often-reported problem of teacher absenteeism in six countries—Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Peru, and Uganda—in the first project to measure absence directly using a common approach across multiple countries.

Survey teams found that, on average, about 19 percent of teachers were absent from their school on days when they should ordinarily be working.

Detailed research

Cambodia large

School children in Uttar Pradesh, India

Recent research by Stuti Khemani and others in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh makes this point strikingly.

They find that Village Education Committees (VECs) – community groups that in theory can hold schools accountable – are doing very little to improve the low level of basic education quality found in the state.

“This may be partly because parents do not know that a VEC exists, sometimes even when they are supposed to be members of it”, said Khemani. Detailed research
(See graph below)

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Further, parents and other education stakeholders consistently overestimate how much students are learning.

  • Percent of kids who can read...and what the village believes [graph]
  • Percent of kids who can do simple math...and what the village believes [graph]

Cambodia large

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The role of the private sector

Most research on schooling quality in the developing world has focused on the public sector, but in some countries, private schooling is increasingly being seen as a preferable alternative at the primary and secondary levels, even by poor families.

South Asia is one region where this shift is occurring. Jishnu Das and others have studied the rapid rise of private schooling in Pakistan, a country that is seriously behind schedule in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. They show that an increasing segment of children enrolled in private schools are from rural areas and from middle-class and poorer families.

With the low cost of hiring teachers in rural private schools (who in India receive just one fifth the wages of public school counterparts, for example), these schools allow savings to be passed on to parents through low fees. Private schools also offer better performance on at least some key measures of schooling quality. Rogers and his co-authors find that in India, teacher absence is one-third lower in private than public schools. Detailed research

Das and his co-authors find that in Pakistan, student learning is much faster in private schools: for example, the gap between students at public and private schools in mathematics is eight times the gap between children with literate and illiterate fathers. Detailed research

Research feature contributed by Halsey Rogers, Senior Economist, World Bank

For more information contact research@worldbank.org




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