schooling is not learning

Many years ago I came across a book reporting an evaluation of children who completed primary school (grade five) in Pakistan (or perhaps it was Bangladesh) compared to classmates who had dropped out of school in their first or second year. The results were very clear: there was no difference between the two groups. Many students were warming seats in the classroom, but were not learning anything. Actually, the dropouts managed to out-perform graduates in mathematics. Apparently it is important for street kids to learn math, so that they can make change when selling products. I don’t recall the name or author of the book, or even what country I was in. I only remember that I read it in a library, and was unable to borrow or copy it. Sadly, I did not take notes because I was not working in the field of education at the time. Some day, I hope to find the book to refresh my memory of it.

This introduction is to explain why I was excited to discover a World Bank working paper that examines schooling in terms of what is learned (examination scores) rather than years spent warming a classroom seat. The researchers assess the effect of spending on access to schooling and learning outcomes, using the World Bank’s new measure of outcomes, known as Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS). Previously, it was common to rely on years of schooling, with no attempt to measure what, if anything, might have been learned.

From the abstract:

[G]lobal spending on education has risen significantly over the past two decades, although spending as a share of gross domestic product has remained relatively unchanged, at about 4.5 percent. However, … [i]ncreases in public education spending did not generally result in major improvements in average education outcomes. … [A] doubling of government spending per child led to an increase in learning-adjusted years of schooling of only half a year. Preliminary findings also show that countries with lower efficiency and spending are expected to get the most from increases in spending in improved education outcomes. The paper … underscores the urgent need to improve data on public education spending and education outcomes, to extend this analysis to cover a wider set of countries and increase the robustness of country-level benchmarks.

Al-Samarrai, Samer and Cerdan-Infantes, Pedro and Lehe, Jonathan David, “Mobilizing Resources for Education and Improving Spending Effectiveness: Establishing Realistic Benchmarks Based on Past Trends” , World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 8773 (March 2019).

The three authors explain their methodology in some detail on p. 26:

The LAYS measure is made up of two components:

  1. Expected years of schooling. This measures the number of years of school a child born today can expect to obtain by age 18. It is based on age-specific enrollment rates between ages 4 and 17 and has a maximum value of 14.
  2. Harmonized measures of learning from global and regional learning assessments. Relative scores for learning are calculated for each country by dividing its harmonized score by 625, which corresponds to the “advanced” benchmark on the TIMSS and PIRLS learning assessments.

These two measures are multiplied together to arrive at the expected learning-adjusted years of schooling (LAYS) we use as our measure of education outcomes. For example, if a country had 10 years of expected years of schooling and an average test score of 500 (80 percent of 625), then its LAYS would be 8 years.

A crucial benefit of the LAYS measure is that it captures changes in both educational attainment and average learning outcomes. If a country maintains its average learning levels while increasing enrollment rates, our measure will increase since the average levels of learning of the population are now higher. […]

[We] measure spending as total expenditure per child calculated as total spending in primary and secondary education divided by the total number of school-aged children in the country. This captures how much a country is spending on the population that it needs to serve (not just the population that it is currently serving). Thus, if a country is spending a lot on its students, but enrollment rates are very low, the country would effectively be spending too little on the population that it should be serving.

The two international tests they refer to are those of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy study) is an evaluation of reading comprehension by fourth graders. IMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) examines levels attained by 4th grade students in mathematics and science.

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