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Building classrooms does not equal learning

Kenyan primary school students, in class.
Kenyan primary school students, in class.
Tom Murphy

Amid UNESCO’s jaw-dropping report on the immense challenge to education around the world is an important fact: Some 37 countries are losing half of the money they invest in primary education because students are not learning.

Even when children go to school, they are not learning. That is in part reflected in the statistic that an estimated 175 million young people cannot read a full sentence.

This problem is reflected in the language of the report and its accompanying release. The problem is learning, not education. Despite that knowledge, there is still attention on the basic goals of teachers and schools.

“We need 5.1 million teachers to be recruited by 2015, and we need to work harder to support them in providing children with their right to a universal, free and quality education,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

It is held that education is an important step of development. However, the evidence that spending money on education will not lead to job growth. Economist Francis Teal determined that more graduates is well and good, but they have nowhere to go if there are no jobs. Some may argue that better education can lead to the creation of working opportunities, but it appears to be that it is more about investing in connections to global markets.

Whether or not education can lead to income growth, the issue does not matter if students are not learning while they are in the classroom.

Mohammad Niaz Asadullah and Nazmul Chaudhury recently tested children in Bangladesh between 10 and 17 years old to see the impacts of public education. The results were stunning. Children in school did not improve all that much from year to year. Even more surprising, is that they did not perform all that better than the children who were not going to school.

“Taken at face value this suggests that five full years of primary school taught less than 1 in 10 children how to do simple math,” said the authors.

Harvard professor Lant Pritchett has a new book dedicated to the issue, The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning. He has been working with other researchers to determine what is actually happening in schools around the world. The results are concerning.

“We’re finding we’ve had lots of kids in school for lots of years, and they’re just not mastering even the rudimentary basics of literacy, much less the conceptual mastery of things, such as being able to read with critical skill, or use math and apply it to a problem,” said Pritchett on the Center for Global Development podcast.

The UNESCO report noted that Rwanda succeeded in reducing the number of children out-of-school by 85% in the span of 5 years. More school buildings and children in the classroom has not translated to improved learning outcomes, reported the Guardian. A 2012 report from the UK’s Department for International Development said that expanding enrollment has come at the cost of education. There were not enough highly qualified teachers, so Rwanda had to find ways to fill in the gaps. The exact same problem was found to have happened in Tanzania and Ethiopia, in the report.

Attention was paid to the book Three Cups of Tea when famed aid worker and activist Greg Mortenson was exposed for lying by journalist Jon Krakauer. There was significance to the fact that Mortenson had made up and misrepresented parts of his own story. He used that story to raise money for the Central Asia Institute and his own bank account.

What was overlooked was the fact that the schools he was building were not being used. People fell for the charismatic guy with a heartwarming story and never bothered to ask whether what he was doing actually helped education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. School buildings can only do so much when a country is unstable and opportunities for learning are hampered.

His mea culpa on NBC’s Today Show did not touch on the issue of what the Central Asia Institute does. A sympathetic Tom Brokaw (he donated to the organization and also lives in Bozeman, MT) gave Mortenson the chance to explain what he learned from the scandal and clarify why he had to fudge his story. Whether or not the organization changed its programming was not discussed.

“I’ve been given the privilege to come back again and be committed to this and do it in a more humble and — understanding way,” Mortenson said. “I’m gonna try as hard as I can never to make the same mistakes again.”

In the case of Mortenson and the education sector, the same mistake would be talking about education in terms of teachers, classrooms and pencils.

The solution to the problem is not so simple. Pritchett argues that countries should encourage experimentation of learning. Just because the public education system used by the US and UK worked for the two countries does not mean it is right for Kenya. For the part of financing, donors and governments need to be willing to allow for education to evolve in order to find out what works best.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]