All children should be able to read by age 10. Reading is a gateway for learning as the child progresses through school—and conversely, an inability to read slams that gate shut. Beyond this, when children cannot read, it’s usually a clear indication that school systems aren’t well organized to help children learn in other areas such as math, science, and the humanities either. And although it is possible to learn later in life with enough effort, children who don’t read by age 10—or at the latest, by the end of primary school—usually fail to master reading later in their schooling career.
In recent years, it has become clear that many children around the world are not learning to read proficiently. Even though the majority of children are in school, a large proportion are not acquiring fundamental skills. Moreover, 260 million children are not even in school. This is the leading edge of a learning crisis that threatens countries’ efforts to build human capital and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without foundational learning, students often fail to thrive later in school or when they join the workforce. They don’t acquire the human capital they need to power their careers and economies once they leave school, or the skills that will help them become engaged citizens and nurture healthy, prosperous families.
As a major contributor to human capital deficits, the learning crisis undermines sustainable growth and poverty reduction. The Human Capital Project is raising awareness of the costs of inaction. The average Human Capital Index (HCI) score across countries is 0.56; this means that by the age of 18, a child born today will be only 56 percent as productive as a child would be under the benchmark of a complete education and full health. Shortcomings in the quality and quantity of schooling, which have been summarized as a learning crisis, are a leading contributor to this human capital deficit. Poor education outcomes have major costs for future prosperity, given that human capital is the most important component of wealth globally. Indeed, its importance grows as countries become more prosperous: while human capital makes up 41% of wealth in poor countries, in high-income Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, human capital makes up over 70% of wealth.
To spotlight this crisis, we are introducing the concept of Learning Poverty, drawing on new data developed in coordination with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. This indicator brings together schooling and learning indicators: it begins with the share of children who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency (as measured in schools) and is adjusted by the proportion of children who are out of school (and are assumed not able to read proficiently).
Currently, 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school. In poor countries, the level is as high as 80 percent. Such high levels of illiteracy are an early warning sign that all global educational goals and other related sustainable development goals are in jeopardy.
Progress in reducing learning poverty is far too slow to meet the SDG aspirations: at the current rate of improvement, in 2030 about 43% of children will still be learning-poor. Even if countries reduce their learning poverty at the fastest rates we have seen so far in this century, the goal of ending it will not be attained by 2030.
There is an urgent need for a society-wide commitment to invest more and better in people. If children cannot read, it is clear that all education SDGs are at risk. Eliminating learning poverty is as important as eliminating extreme monetary poverty, stunting, or hunger. To achieve it in the foreseeable future requires far more rapid progress at scale than we have yet seen.
Global Learning Target
To galvanize this progress and strengthen its own efforts, the World Bank is:
1. Launching a new operational global learning target to cut the Learning Poverty rate by at least half before 2030
· Simulations show that this target is ambitious yet achievable if all countries manage to improve learning as well as the top performers of the 2000–15 period did—which means on average nearly tripling the global rate of progress.
2. Using three key pillars of work to support countries to reduce learning poverty.
· A literacy policy package consisting of interventions focused specifically on promoting acquisition of reading proficiency in primary school
· A refreshed education approach to strengthen entire education systems—so that literacy improvements can be sustained and scaled up and all other education outcomes can be achieved
· An ambitious measurement and research agenda—to close the data gaps and continued action-oriented research and innovation on how to build foundational skills. A recently announced partnership between the World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics aims to help countries strengthen their learning assessment systems, better monitor what students are learning over time and in internationally-comparable ways and improve the breadth and quality of global data on education. Further, the World Bank’s new Learning Assessment Platform aims to enable countries to evaluate student learning more efficiently and effectively.
Education initiatives alone are not enough. The fight against learning poverty will require an integral, multi-sectoral approach supported by actions beyond the education sector, that is in all the other areas essential to improve learning. For example, ensuring that all children can learn requires better water and sanitation, improved health and nutrition, better social protection for disadvantaged populations, civil service reforms, and strengthened management and financing of public services. All of this requires a whole-of-government approach to better learning outcomes.
Beyond this, renewed attention is needed to the role that families and communities play in building the demand for education, creating the right environment for learning, and supporting the right education reforms. The Human Capital Project recognizes the need to work across sectors, taking a whole-of-government approach that brings together all the actions required to improve human capital.
Below you will find our Country Learning Poverty Briefs, which highlights learning poverty and its accompanying indicators in more than hundred countries. This version includes the latest available data on learning poverty.
Country Learning Poverty Briefs