Essay 6

Finding Room for Optimism on Foundational Learning

Luis A. Crouch

selective photography of green leaf plant


Girin Beeharry’s essay, with its rousing call to action and accountability, is both wise and shrewd. It is wise in that it focuses on the strategic issue of foundational learning, arguing that it is a war worth fighting. But it is also shrewd in being tactical, acknowledging that some of the battles in the war may not be worth fighting.

Here’s how Girin puts it:

I would passionately like my pessimism to be proven wrong. In the meantime, my proposed solution is to cut the Gordian knot by building on what we have, inviting tactical shifts by a few actors, leaving the architecture as it is, and side-stepping the vexing prioritization issue by simply working with countries and agencies already persuaded of the need to prioritize [Foundational Literacy and Numeracy, or FLN]. The opportunity is seeing greater convergence of late of a few major actors around FLN as a priority objective: the World Bank’s Foundational Learning Compact (FLC), seeks to support ‘accelerator’ countries in their bid to improve FLN; USAID has been the agency most sharply focused on ‘all children reading’ in the last decade and continues to be a prominent investor in this area; UNICEF launched a ‘mission-approach’ to FLN. There is also the cumulated knowledge of many local and international NGOs which have worked on this particular problem for a decade or more. While the FLC is a promising nugget to build from, it will require the same ingredients of maintained focus, performance monitoring and accountability structures to motivate real progress.

The wisdom of fighting the war is the point of Girin’s essay, so I won’t expand on it. The shrewdness is in his suggestion to leave the architecture as is and to work by building on what we already have. The toughest bit, where the tactical merit and hence the shrewdness is perhaps open to debate, is “inviting tactical shifts by a few actors.”

In this essay, I point out the bits of pessimism that I share with Girin, but I also debate him where I think there is room for some optimism.

The attraction of the lowest common denominator

I’ll start with an issue on which I share Girin’s pessimism but that I also believe may not be tactically worth the fight: inducing even marginal, but meaningful, tactical shifts by some of the relevant international agencies. I won’t name names, but many agencies just have too much of a political responsibility, and maybe a legitimate one, to be all things to all people, even if it means doing only the simplest, least risky things. Or things that sound daring but are vaporous enough to require little effort to achieve (if they are achievable at all). Why work hard at painting the air a promised beautiful color given the vaporousness of such a goal? Generic calls for lofty but distant and vague action, or generalized calls for more resources, may be all one can expect from certain quarters. Is it worth it to spend efforts bringing along people who have a strong structural incentive to stay at the lowest common denominator? I have to wonder.

Grounds for hope

Now let me get to my reasons to be somewhat more optimistic than Girin.

Learning improves completion of primary, and completion is an already-accepted goal

First, I’m optimistic because learning improvements—a right and end in themselves—are instrumentalist in terms of future incomes and social development. But they are even more instrumentalist in making more access, later in the grade structure, more likely and more affordable. Even the lowest-common-denominator countries and agencies, for instance, accept the need to improve completion rates. Well, it so happens that many countries that are favored by donors and have received money more or less as water from a firehose are at such low rates of completion efficiency that it will be hard to expand access beyond primary at anything like a reasonable cost. And these are the countries doing worst on foundational learning.

Three cases in point make the stylized fact. The data in the figure below show for three more or less typical countries along a progression, two variables: learning levels in Grade 2 as proxied by the percentage of children who cannot read a single word, and the “efficiency of completion,” namely the completion ratio divided by the gross enrollment ratio. This latter should ideally be 1. The data on this are not available for a lot of countries. And strict causality is hard to prove, but if I were a betting man, I would bet there is something real going on here. Malawi shows huge numbers of kids not reading (90 percent) and an abysmal completion efficiency of 30 percent or so. Tanzania, on the other extreme, has about 27 percent of kids not reading and a completion efficiency of 90 percent—almost the exact opposite. Uganda is in the middle. If these efficiencies are not improved, by getting the foundations right, then improving completion and throughput, in countries such as Uganda and Malawi, given those inefficiencies, will be extremely expensive.

Furthermore, at some point those in control not of education but of money in general are bound to ask themselves what is going on with the funding and trends in learning that countries produce in exchange for the funding. In six countries with some of the worst completion efficiency issues (Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Uganda, and Malawi), the completion rate in the last five years or so has averaged 50 percent, and has been increasing at about 1.2 points per year: 25 more years to get to even 80 percent completion. So, it is not just learning goals that some could consider abstract and long-term that are being stymied, but the very concrete ones of retention in school and school completion—and they are constrained now. Further, these are countries that have been highly favored by development partners, receiving upwards of US$6 billion, collectively, over the past 15-20 years (my estimate).

While we do not have strict causal evidence, we have a pretty good clue as to why all this happens. In household surveys, when parents are asked why their children do not finish primary school, the first answer is typically economics, but the second is typically some variant of “they are not learning much.” This manifests through parents and teachers often making kids repeat Grades 1 and 2 even in systems where there is supposed automatic promotion. In Uganda, schools report about 10 percent repetition in Grade 1 to authorities but the parents and teachers of 40 percent of Grade 1 children see them as repeaters. And when asked why their kids repeat, the reason most often given by parents is that they are not learning enough. In many cases the repetition is somewhat definitional as Grade 1 is used in lieu of pre-primary—but in either case, children are unprepared to learn, do not learn, gum up the system, and years of their lives are devalued. Eventually—but only after trying a good bit—they drop out before completing. There were fears that countries and parents and teachers would, if faced with a social goal of improving primary school completion rates, start to “socially promote.” But it may be that even in countries that have reified promotion and made it automatic, in various ways teachers and parents go against it, and kids repeat, sometimes massively and without being reported as repeating (given a policy of automatic promotion), sometimes again and again, until they get tired and finish before completing and before learning all that much. (This is not to question automatic promotion. Repetition does not generally seem to increase achievement.)

In this sense, not minding foundational learning will tend to stymie even an expansion of access itself, by making it inefficient and expensive. One can perhaps be at least somewhat optimistic that the right authorities both in countries and internationally will come to understand this point. It seems too glaring to ignore, but perhaps I am being naïve.

Donor agencies do know the issue

The second reason to be a bit more optimistic is that I think most serious sectoral managers at a certain level that is quasi-political may want to be all things to all people, and prioritize all goals equally, but they know this is not possible. They may not admit it in public (because how often does one find a politician who can?) but they know it. And the evidence is piling up that foundational learning is the easiest entry point into improving all other things, for several reasons. It is still hard, as Girin says, but among all the hard things one could do to improve learning, foundational learning is the easiest.

Why is that? First, because it is where there is the clearest technical evidence about what methods to use, and which inputs are the most useful. There are always doubts and controversies, but the preponderance of the evidence now points to a few replicable ideas. Second, there are some success stories of organizing systems to improve foundational learning. Some of these cases are even exogenous to development agencies and international NGOs. Some have worked at scale, some have worked as large pilots. Third, because the lessons derived from improving foundational learning will generalize up to, and apply to other subjects and later grades, more easily than improvement lessons from those later subjects and grades will generalize down. Finally, while there are powerful development partner coalitions in a few areas that are more about access than learning stricto sensu, such as girls’ education, if there is one focus area of learning around which a coalition could be formed, it would be foundational learning in, presumably, reading and mathematics.

A hard but not impossible road ahead

One last reflection. I think one reason, even if not maybe the most powerful reason, why leaders in development agencies and in countries do not take on the learning task is that they see it as very difficult, either technically or politically/managerially. We in the development agency community may have promoted that view to some degree. Even Girin’s essay emphasizes this difficulty: “moving education outcomes is incredibly hard…,” “improving the quality of basic education is very hard…,” “betting any of the SDG 4 objectives accomplished will be extraordinarily difficult.” The reasons for doing this are understandable. One would not want to enthuse countries and actors to embark on something that turns out to be very difficult just to meet with disappointment. On the other hand one does not want actors to be paralyzed by fear. Perhaps the points raised in the paragraph above are germane here. Yes, it is very hard to improve all learning outcomes in all grades, but starting with foundational learning is relatively easy (for the reasons noted above), though hard enough that one cannot be complacent. But there are agencies that are ready to help. They could get better organized, but there is readiness—at least in some.