The UN calls Universal Children’s Day a day “to defend, promote and celebrate the rights of children”. And the key to this is the right to education. On the surface, states have made great strides in ensuring this right. Decades of school enrollment campaigns have resulted in around 90 percent of children of primary school age going to school.
But to have meaning, the right to education must ensure learning. For most children around the world, including Kenya, this is not the case.
According to development economist Prof Lant Pritchett, director of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) program at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, such a catastrophic scenario exists because, unbelievably, many education systems simply do not prioritize learning. “They exist for a variety of purposes,” says Pritchett.
“They push children through the schools, they expand the school systems, they advocate for school attendance. You agree to be included. You are committed to the insignia of it. But they have no clear, motivated purpose, no driving commitment to learning.”
UNICEF estimates that two out of three 10-year-olds worldwide cannot read a simple sentence. Hundreds of millions of children around the world go to school but learn nothing. Your right to education is hollow.
Africa faces a particular challenge, a new UNESCO study of basic learning in Africa finds: “Children in Africa are seven times less likely than children in the rest of the world to be future-ready and five times less likely to be future-ready in math be.”
But such a frightening situation is also increasingly inspiring action by many African governments with the aim of boosting economic development by unleashing the latent potential of so many of their young people. The government of Rwanda is one. Its RwandaEQUIP program describes itself as: “A transformative program to make the country’s basic education system globally competitive.”
RwandaEQUIP is underpinned by data-driven technology, quality learning materials and ongoing training and coaching for government teachers and school leaders. NewGlobe is the technical partner of the program. Teachers are supported with tablets to create customized lesson plans optimized for their students; They also provide a feedback loop of data. Without them, measuring and driving improvements is impossible.
In southern Nigeria, the EdoBEST educational transformation program has been running in the state of Edo since 2018. In its first phase, it covered 1,000 elementary schools and has expanded to junior secondary and progressive schools – those in hard-to-reach communities – with the strong support and financial support of the World Bank.
“In Nigeria, EdoBEST is doing so well by helping improve basic learning. World Bank management believes this is a model that can be replicated in other states in Nigeria,” Senior Economist Gloria Joseph-Raji said during a state visit in October.
There is overwhelming evidence that such a data-driven, evidence-based focus on driving learning outcomes works. An independent study led by Professor Michael Kremer, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, used a randomized controlled trial to measure the impact of NewGlobe’s teaching methods in schools in Kenya – the same methods used by RwandaEQUIP, EdoBEST and similar programs in Liberia, Lagos and Kwara underpin states in Nigeria and Manipur in India.
It found learning benefits “among the greatest in the international educational literature, particularly for a program that was already operating on a large scale”. It is crucial that the greatest learning successes were achieved in the early years. After two years of participation, preschoolers were nearly a year and a half ahead of their peers at other schools in learning. Elementary school kids were nearly a year ahead. First-grade students in NewGlobe-supported schools—typically ages six or seven—were more than three times as likely to be able to read as their peers. When the Edo State Government commissioned an academic study of learning gains as part of EdoBEST, they found that students learned as much in one semester as they did in an entire year.
The economic case for bridging the gap between education and learning has been analyzed in a new study co-authored by Yidan Prize winner Professor Eric Hanushek: “According to our projections, based on historical patterns of long-term growth, the world would gain $718 Trillions in additional GDP over the remaining century if it achieved global universal proficiency. This is more than five times the current annual world GDP.”
Given such an overwhelming economic case for learning, why are so many education systems still broken? One reason highlighted in the same UNESCO study of basic learning in Africa is the current inability of so many to collect accurate data detailing what students know and how they progress to make good policy decisions:
Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu emphasizes the importance of data collection for his education transformation program EKOEXCEL. “We can check on the tablet what attendance we have in our schools; which teacher came in and what the lesson notes are. You can design the same curriculum no matter what part of the state the schools are in. So you can have the same quality in terms of input and expected outcome of education.”
The theme of this year’s day is “Inclusion for every child”. But to advance development and economic prosperity for all children, their communities and their countries, we must see the day when the right to education is coupled with the right to learn. This will be a world children’s day that needs to be celebrated even more.
The author, Reuben Wambugu, is NewGlobe’s Africa director.