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Knowledge in Development Note: Education

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Education (2009)
What we know about education challenges
What we know about increasing quality and access
New research areas 

There have been real achievements in education in developing countries in recent years. For example primary completion rates in Sub-Saharan Africa rose from 51 percent to 60 percent between 1990 and 2007, while in South Asia they rose from 62 percent to 81 percent.[1]  But two important issues loom large on the agenda: how to raise education quality, which is now generally very low; and how to bring the “last 10 percent” of children into school. 

What we know about education challenges

Levels of learning achievement in developing countries remain very low—not just in poor countries, but even in relatively well-performing, middle-income countries 

Until now, the international community has focused heavily on getting children to enter and stay in school. This is essential, but it is increasingly clear that greater attention needs to be focused on what they are learning—or not learning. Results from Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally comparable test of skills of 16-year-olds, underline just how far children in developing countries lag behind their OECD counterparts. Students from the richest 20 percent of even middle-income countries like Brazil, Thailand, and Indonesia perform no better than those from the poorest 20 percent in the United States—which itself lags well behind the highest performers, such as Korea. And Mexico has reached the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary completion, but 50 percent of youth are not even minimally competent in math, while 91 percent do not achieve a reasonable global standard of math skills.[2]  

For most low-income countries, the learning shortfall is even greater—but harder to measure since few poor countries participate in these international assessments. For example, test scores from a representative random sample of students in rural Pakistan indicate that at the end of third grade, barely half the students have mastered the mathematics curriculum for Grade I. They can add double digit numbers and subtract single-digit numbers but they cannot do much more. Similarly, only 31 percent can correctly form a sentence with the word “school” in Urdu. Students in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh show similarly poor results.[3] Because inequality in learning is quite high in some poorer countries, these abysmal results can coexist with high achievement by other (typically wealthier) students—a tantalizing reminder of the quality improvements that could be achieved.[4

The quantity of education matters—but education quality is key to economic growth

Almost all studies find that education has high private returns in labor markets. In addition, education brings many social benefits, such as lower fertility rates among more educated women and lower child mortality and better child health among children of better-educated parents.[5]  

PISA 2006 test score: mathematics
Source: Analysis of PISA 2006 Database. Countries ordered by per capita GNI.
There has been controversy about the relationship between education and growth—with studies finding that the average number of years of education in a country’s workforce does not predict growth well. The latest research suggests strongly that what matters is education quality, that is, what children learn in school.[6]

Poor learning outcomes typically reflect the low quality of schooling, which depend in part on an inability to hold teachers and administrators accountable,[7]  how many resources are devoted to education, and how effectively those resources are being used to promote learning.[8]  

One indicator of low efficiency in education service delivery is high levels of teacher absence. Direct measurement (through surprise school visits) in six countries—Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Peru, and Uganda—found that on average, 19 percent of teachers were absent from their school on days when they should ordinarily be working.[9] Within India, 25 percent of teachers were absent from school, and the state absence rates varied from 15 percent in Maharashtra to an astonishing 42 percent in Jharkhand.[10] Moreover, tracking of absence over the past several years in the state of Andhra Pradesh finds no improvement on average, despite increased attention to the issue.[11]   

Youth who remain out of school are disproportionately from poor or marginalized groups

The children who do not complete primary education come disproportionately from certain hard-to-reach groups: Children from poor families on average face the largest enrollment gaps. In Mali, for example, only 5 percent of children from the poorest 50 percent complete grade 5, compared with 31 percent from the richest 50 percent.[12] Girls remain significantly less likely than boys to attend school throughout Central and Western Africa, South Asia, and North Africa—on average, boys’ enrollment rates exceed girls’ by 25 percent or more.[13] Indigenous or minority children typically lag well behind other students. For example, education in Laos has increased steadily over the past 40 years, with especially large gains among females, but rural minority non-Lao-Tai women are far behind urban majority Lao-Tai women.[14]  Children with disabilities are enrolled at rates that are roughly 20 to 70 percentage points below their peers’.[15]  

What we know about increasing quality and access

Empowering communities with information about schooling can improve accountability in education—but involving communities isn’t enough on its own

Providing more information about education financing and quality to parents and communities help hold providers accountable. In the late 1990s, the Ugandan government initiated a newspaper campaign so that parents could monitor better local officials’ handling of a large school-grant program. The results were striking: leakage of public funds was reduced from 80 percent in 1995 to less than 20 percent in 2001, and careful evaluation shows that the campaign was responsible for the gains.[16]  

Empowering communities is not always easy, however, especially if it runs counter to a history of unresponsive bureaucracies and politicians. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Village Education Committees (VEC)—community groups that could in theory hold schools accountable—do very little to improve the quality of schools. Parents often do not know that a VEC exists, even when they are supposed to be members of it.[17

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There can be large gains from improving the accountability and effort of teachers, who are essential to schooling quality

Recent experimental evidence from India shows that by providing the right incentives for teachers and monitoring their performance, it is possible to improve quality significantly. In Rajasthan, teachers were paid bonuses for better attendance (independently verified)[18] , while in Andhra Pradesh, they were rewarded for more rapid learning by their students.[19] In both cases, learning achievement improved substantially, relative to control schools. Other mechanisms to provide better incentives for teachers have also shown promise, though the details of the programs matter greatly.[20]  

Contract teachers are often thought to face stronger performance incentives than civil-service teachers, because their contract renewal can be linked to results. Even though they often are less educated and receive much lower pay, new research shows that in experiments in Kenyan and Indian schools, at least, adding contract teachers has been able to improve learning at relatively low cost.[21] The Kenyan evidence suggests that parental involvement in their hiring decisions may improve incentives further.

Private schools have a role to play in basic education too—as a means of compensating for shortcomings in the public system

Private schools are becoming a means for families to escape low-performing public schools in many settings. For example, even youth from rural areas and from middle-class and poorer families are increasingly enrolling in private schools in Pakistan, a country with serious access and quality problems in public schools. Math test scores suggest why: the gap between public and private schools in math scores is eight times that between children with literate fathers and children with illiterate fathers.[22

Private schools are viable even in poor and rural communities because they can deliver better performance at low cost. Teachers outside the civil service can be quite inexpensive. In India, for example, they receive only about one-fifth the wages of public school counterparts, and accountability for performance may, in fact, be greater: teacher absence is one-third lower in private than public schools.[23

The private sector can also supplement public schooling, rather than replacing it. Private tutoring is a large and growing segment of the education system in many developing countries. A recent review showed that in 23 countries, including Egypt, Kenya, Turkey, and Vietnam, between 25 and 90 percent of students at certain levels of education had recently received private tutoring.[24] Governments can use tutoring to meet quality and enrollment shortfalls of the public system, especially for students from poor households.

Demand-side incentives—that is, payments to families—are often an effective way to bring the poor and marginalized into school

One approach to improving enrollment and attainment for underserved groups is demand-side interventions—providing grants to encourage school participation. Inspired by the successes of the well-known PROGRESA/Oportunidades program in Mexico and the secondary-school girls’ stipend program in Bangladesh,[25] a number of countries have been implementing such policies.  

In Cambodia, for example, an evaluation shows that a scholarship program has boosted the secondary-school enrollment of girls by 20 to 40 percentage points (depending on the type of school). Moreover, the effect was largest in the case of girls from the poorest families.[26] In Ecuador, evaluation of the Bono de Desarrollo Humano (BDH), a cash transfer program, concludes that it has increased school enrollment by about 10 percentage points and reduced child labor by about 17 percentage points,[27] and that the program’s effects come from allowing the credit-constrained poorest families to invest in education.[28] In the case of Ecuador, the transfers have their largest impacts at ages and on groups most likely to leave school and start work.[29

To be fully effective in improving knowledge and skills, however, these programs will need to be complemented by higher quality education: a major recent review shows that higher school enrollment has not translated into better performance of beneficiaries on learning tests in Mexico or Cambodia.[30

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Closing schooling gaps for disadvantaged children also requires making sure they are well prepared for primary school

Shortfalls in learning and attainment often have their roots in deprivation very early in life.[31] By the time children from poor families arrive at primary school, they have already fallen far behind their peers from better-off families, suggesting that nutritional and educational interventions need to come in the pre-school years.

These early investments in cognitive development pay high dividends. Among pre-school children in Ecuador, better nutrition improves children’s test scores, and this effect is larger for older children (ages 4½ and older) than for younger children (ages 3 to 4½). The result suggests that the association between nutrition and cognitive development becomes stronger as the child matures.[32]  

Newer research areas

Improving quality and making schooling universal will depend on learning much more about what works via rigorous impact evaluation research

A 2002 review of research on education in developing countries concluded that little was known with confidence about what policies and interventions are most effective in improving learning outcomes.[33] Since then, the field of impact evaluation has exploded, both inside and outside the World Bank, as reflected in a recent review.[34]  

Impact evaluations often focus on one or two interventions in a very specific setting. What is critical is to learn about what interventions work and under what conditions. A “meta analysis” which compares and contrasts findings from a variety of interventions in a variety of settings is necessary. One such study, recently completed, focuses on the effectiveness of demand-side conditional cash transfer programs (CCTs).[35] Another, currently underway, is about approaches to enhance accountability—school-based management, the dissemination of information to promote transparency and stimulate demand for change, and the provision of performance-based incentives.

Success at expanding primary education has raised the demand for secondary and tertiary education—and also for good research aimed at post-primary levels

Advances in technology globally have increased the stakes of getting post-primary education right. Both low- and middle-income countries are finding that industrial development and export competitiveness are becoming more closely keyed to the level and quality of technical skills. Production techniques are becoming increasingly skill-intensive, and technology transfer from abroad and its adaptation to local circumstances require a minimum level of research and development capability. In this milieu, universities have a critical role in training workers and are emerging as important centers of basic research, of upstream technology development, and of consulting and extension services. Some universities, notably in China, are engaging directly in the commercialization of technology by incubating and spinning out high-tech firms.[36]  

Contact: Halsey Rogers,, 202-473-6292

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Most World Bank research documents cited in this summary are available through the World Bank’s research archives at or the Bankwide archives at  The word “processed” describes informally reproduced works that may not be commonly available through library systems.

1.   World Bank. 2009. “Averting a Human Crisis During the Global Downturn: Policy Options from the World Bank’s Human Development Network.” Conference edition report 48512. Washington, DC: World Bank.

2.   D. Filmer, A. Hasan, and L. Pritchett. 2006. “A Millennium Learning Goal: Measuring Real Progress in Education.” Center for Global Development Working Paper 97, Washington, DC.

3.   J. Das, P. Pandey, and T. Zajonc. 2006. “Learning Levels and Gaps in Pakistan.” Policy Research Working Paper 4067, World Bank, Washington, DC.

4.   J. Das and T. Zajonc. 2008. “India Shining and Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement.” Policy Research Working Paper 4644, World Bank, Washington, DC.

5.   A. B. Krueger and M. Lindahl. 2001. “Education for Growth: Why and for Whom?” Journal of Economic Literature 39(4): 1101–36.

6.   Hanushek, E. A., and D. D. Kimko. 2000. “Schooling, Labor-Force Quality, and the Growth of Nations.” American Economic Review 90(5): 1184–1208.

E. A. Hanushek and L. Woessmann. 2006. “The Role of Education Quality in Economic Growth.” Policy Research Working Paper 4122, World Bank, Washington, DC.

Krueger and Lindahl ibid.

7.   World Bank. 2003. World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press for the World Bank.

8.   E. A. Hanushek. 2003. “The Failure of Input-Based Schooling Policies.” Economic Journal 113(485): F64–F98.

World Bank. 2003. World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press for the World Bank. 

9.   N. Chaudhury, J. Hammer, M. Kremer, K. Muralidharan, and F. Halsey Rogers. 2006. “Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20(1): 91–116.

10.  M. Kremer, K. Muralidharan, N. Chaudhury, J. Hammer, and F. Halsey Rogers. 2005. “Teacher Absence in India: A Snapshot.” Journal of the European Economic Association 3(2-3): 658–67.

11. K. Muralidharan and V. Sundararaman. 2009.  “Teacher Performance Pay: Experimental Evidence from India.” Working Paper 15323, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge Mass.

12. D. Filmer. 2005. “Gender and Wealth Disparities in Schooling: Evidence from 44 Countries.” International Journal of Educational Research 43(6): 351–69.

13. Filmer ibid.

14. E. M. King and D. van de Walle. 2007. “Schooling, Poverty, and Disadvantage in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.” In Exclusion, Gender and Education: Case Studies from the Developing World, ed. M. Lewis and M. Lockheed. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.

15. D. Filmer. 2005. “Disability, Poverty, and Schooling in Developing Countries: Results from 11 Household Surveys.” Policy Research Working Paper 3794, World Bank, Washington, DC.

16.  R. Reinikka and J. Svensson. 2004. “The Power of Information: Evidence from a Newspaper Campaign to Reduce Capture.” Policy Research Working Paper 3239, World Bank, Washington, DC.

R. Reinikka and J. Svensson. 2004. “Local Capture: Evidence from a Central Government Transfer Program in Uganda.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 119(2): 679–705.

17. A. Banerjee, R. Banerji, E. Duflo, R. Glennerster, and S. Khemani. 2006. “Can Information Campaigns Spark Local Participation and Improve Outcomes? A Study of Primary Education in Uttar Pradesh, India.” Policy Research Working Paper 3967, World Bank, Washington, DC.

18. E. Duflo, R. Hanna, and S. Ryan. 2008. “Monitoring Works: Getting Teachers to Come to School.” DP6682, Centre for Economic Policy Research, U.K.

19. Muralidharan and Sundararaman ibid.

20. F. H. Rogers and E. Vegas. 2009. “No More Cutting Class? Reducing Teacher Absence and Providing Incentives for Performance.” Policy Research Working Paper 4847, World Bank, Washington, DC.

21. E. Duflo, P. Dupas, and M. Kremer. 2009. “Additional Resources versus Organizational Changes in Education: Experimental Evidence from Kenya.”  J-PAL, MIT, processed.

K. Muralidharan and V. Sundararaman. 2009. “Teacher Performance Pay: Experimental Evidence from India.” UC San Diego and the World Bank, processed.

22. T. Andrabi, J. Das, A. Ijaz Khwaja, and T. Zajonc. 2005. “Religious School Enrollment in Pakistan: A Look at the Data.” Policy Research Working Paper 3521, World Bank, Washington, DC.

Das, Pandey, and Zajonc ibid.

23. Kremer et al ibid.

24. H. A. Dang and F. H. Rogers. 2008. “The Growing Phenomenon of Private Tutoring: Does It Deepen Human Capital, Increase Inequality, or Waste Resources?” World Bank Research Observer 23(2): 161–200.

25. T. P. Schultz. 2004. “School Subsidies for the Poor: Evaluating the Mexican Progresa Poverty Program.” Journal of Development Economics 74(1): 199–250.

S. R. Khandker, M. M. Pitt, and N. Fuwa. 2003. “Subsidy to Promote Girls’ Secondary Education: The Female Stipend Program in Bangladesh.” World Bank, Washington, DC (August), processed.

M. Kremer, E. Miguel, and R. Thornton. 2004. “Incentives to Learn.” NBER Working Paper W10971, Cambridge, Mass.

26. D. Filmer and N. Schady. 2006. “Getting Girls into School: Evidence from a Scholarship Program in Cambodia.” Policy Research Working Paper 3910, World Bank, Washington, DC.

27. N. Schady and M. C. Araujo. 2006. “Cash Transfers, Conditions, School Enrollment, and Child Work: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Ecuador.” Policy Research Working Paper 3930, World Bank, Washington, DC.

28. H. Oosterbeek, J. Ponce, and N. Schady. 2008. “The Impact of Cash Transfers on School Enrollment: Evidence from Ecuador.” Policy Research Working Paper 4645, World Bank, Washington, DC.

29. E. Edmonds and N. Schady. 2008. “Poverty Alleviation and Child Labor.” Policy Research Working Paper 4702, World Bank, Washington, DC.

30. A. Fiszbein,, and N. Schady, with F. Ferreira, M. Grosh, N. Kelleher, P. Olinto, and E. Skoufias. 2009. Conditional Cash Transfers: Reducing Present and Future Poverty. Policy Research Report. Washington, DC: World Bank.

31. H. Alderman and E. M. King. 2006. “Investing in Early Childhood Development.” Web Research Brief, August 28, Development Research Group, World Bank.

N. Schady. 2006. “Early Childhood Development in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Policy Research Working Paper 3869, World Bank, Washington, DC.

32. C. Paxson and N. Schady. 2005. “Cognitive Development among Young Children in Ecuador: The Roles of Wealth, Health and Parenting.” Policy Research Working Paper 3605, World Bank, Washington, DC.

33. P. Glewwe. 2002. “Schools and Skills in Developing Countries: Education Policies and Socioeconomic Outcomes.” Journal of Economic Literature 40(2): 436–82.

34. P. Orazem and E. M. King. 2008. “Schooling in Developing Countries: The Roles of Supply, Demand and Government Policy.” In Handbook of Development Economics, Volume 4 ,ed. T. P. Schultz and J. Strauss. North Holland.

35. Fiszbein et al., ibid.

36. S. Yusuf and K. Nabeshima, eds. 2007. How Universities Promote Economic Growth. Washington, DC: World Bank.

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Last updated: 2010-01-21

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