Raising the Floor on Learning Levels: Equitable Improvement Starts with the Tail


Learning levels among the vast majority of children in developing countries often do not meet the expectations of national curricula, nor the much more basic levels of competence tested in citizen-led assessments (e.g., ASER, UWEZO). Moreover, the median level of achievement in many developing countries equates to approximately the 5th percentile of the distribution in OECD countries; a level at which OECD pupils may be expected to receive remedial intervention. The scale of this ‘learning crisis’ has been well documented; while the nature of the systemic failures that explain the prevalence of poor learning outcomes remains a key area of study, not least by RISE.

While in many developing countries a tiny group of pupils reach learning levels comparable to OECD norms, de facto exclusion of most children from minimum acceptable learning competencies represents not only a major failure of education systems, but also an ‘equity crisis’ on a global scale. Poor learning among most children, especially where it is a result of poor quality education, is inequitable not only because it contributes to massive global (North-South) inequality, but also because the failure to develop and realise the talents of all pupils is in and of itself unjust. This latter form of inequity is not so much a distributive concern per se, but is linked to absolute notions of right or entitlement; or perhaps in Sen’s terms, to rights to opportunities to develop valuable human ‘capabilities’ and ‘functioning’, in whose pursuit education plays a key role. It is on the development of such capabilities, rather than ‘schooling’ in a narrow sense, that the right to education enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elsewhere is founded. More recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent an opportunity to focus on learning and its distribution. These goals, which replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), are much more focused on learning than the MDGs were and are concerned with a minimum-proficiency approach (increasing the percentage of children reaching at least a minimum level of proficiency) and inequality, which is consistent with the empirical patterns and themes documented in this note. 

Educational inequalities in developing countries are typically very high (higher than income inequalities in some cases), but average performance levels are very low (striking examples include South Africa and India). OECD evidence tends to suggest that educationally high performing countries on average are those with lower levels of inequality, i.e., higher average learning levels are associated with lower inequality in learning levels. But whether higher average learning levels are most readily reached specifically by reducing inequalities; or whether reduced inequalities are the likely result of more general efforts to raise learning outcomes, is an important empirical question. We consider the potential benefits of a path ‘through the middle’ whereby attention to the left hand of the learning distribution, namely the poor-performing students and schools, may serve to both improve outcomes as a whole and to reduce inequality; thereby serving two equity goals. 

Raising achievement across what is, in many countries, a large bulge of poorly performing students and schools at the left of the distribution, may be an efficient strategy for raising learning outcomes as a whole. While it is an empirical question whether this is feasible, or is in fact what successful countries tend to do, it would by almost any standard be an equitable thing to do.