Deepening Evidence and Developing Tools for Global Progress in Education

Students at the government primary school at Kothwa village in Danapur, Bihar, India.

The world has made tremendous progress in education over the past 15 years. The number of children and adolescents out of school has been cut almost in half,[i] such that 90 percent of primary-aged students are in school today.[ii] Importantly, girls are attending school in increasing numbers, and the gender parity index has improved.[iii] This is not to invite complacency: progress is uneven and access to school, in particular for girls, is an unfinished agenda, particularly in low-income settings.

Attending school, however, is not the same as learning. Millions of students are now in school but learning very little.

In low- and lower-middle-income countries today, fewer than one in three pupils in late primary school achieves minimum proficiency levels in reading, and fewer than two in five in mathematics.[iv] This is important because students who cannot read by the time they enter third grade often have no opportunity to catch up.[v]

Leaving these students behind amplifies inequality as the learning deficiency is largest among the poor. The learning deficit is also at the root of what worries many governments: a poorly skilled youth population. The 2018 World Development Report says of the learning crisis that it “severely hobbles and disadvantages youth who most need the boost that a good education can offer,” and the resulting “lack of skills reduces job quality, earnings, and labor mobility.” We agree. Education is an investment in the future, and a necessary building block on the path to greater well-being for families and countries. We see this up close for ourselves. Our work in global health and development brings us in daily contact with people and economies held back from achieving their full potential because of the lack of quality education.

From our work in the United States, we have learned that improving education is incredibly difficult and complex. We also know that schools in the United States and ones in low- and lower-middle-income countries face fundamentally different challenges that require unique solutions. We set out to learn more, and to determine how we could make a meaningful difference globally.

My small foundation team and I listened to and learned from several dozen people deeply engaged in education around the world — students, teachers, academics, bureaucrats, non-governmental organizations, multilateral partners, parents, entrepreneurs, and others working at the global level. We visited classrooms in Ethiopia and Nigeria, met with dedicated organizations in Pakistan, Uganda, and Kenya, and listened to leading academics in India and in the world’s best research centers. We have probably spoken to you! We learned about the ways that school systems are making progress. And we heard questions that did not have clear answers:

How can we track global progress against SDG4 if we lack an ability to measure and compare how and what pupils are learning across countries? How is it possible for millions of children to attend school for many years, and yet fail to achieve even minimal reading competencies? Which developing countries have bucked this trend and what can we learn from them? Why do so many effective interventions work in one setting, but not in another? Faced with limited resources to improve learning, what paths should countries follow? Which classroom practices best help learning? When teachers are faced with classrooms with great disparity in learning levels, how do they ensure all children learn? What is the true potential of technology to assist teachers and students in low-income environments? What explains gender differences in schooling attainment?

To help address some of these challenges, we’re announcing our new Global Education Learning Strategy. We’ll invest $68 million over four years to provide education systems with better information, evidence, tools, and approaches to improve teaching and learning.

We are still formulating our specific investments, but we will work with partners at the global and country levels in India and a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa to deepen the evidence and develop tools and approaches, with an emphasis on foundational learning — such as reading and mathematics in primary grades. We are acutely aware of the need for each country to devise its own pathway to improvement, but hope that some of the resources we develop in one context will be useful in others.

Our strategy has four pillars. At the global level, we will support efforts to make data about learning outcomes comparable so progress can be tracked over time. At the country level, we will work closely with partners to better diagnose the root causes of poor performance and help develop approaches that are best suited to address their specific circumstances.

Ultimately, any effort to improve teaching and learning implies changes in classroom practice. We will work with partners to identify and apply evidence-based strategies and tools that support quality teaching and student learning. As part of our foundation’s commitment to helping empower women and girls, we want to better understand the access barriers that keep too many girls from completing secondary schooling.

The global movement to ensure more children are in school has been remarkable and unprecedented. The new challenge is to make sure all children — no matter where they live — have access to a quality education. We are grateful for the guidance and commitment of those who have been working on these challenges for decades, and we are eager to be part of that community working to find solutions so that all children can succeed.

[i] UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). Policy Paper 32 / Fact Sheet 44, “Reducing global poverty through universal primary and secondary education” Figure 1

[ii] Ibid, Table 1

[iii] Ibid, Figure 3

[iv] World Development Report 2018, “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise.” Figure O.5

[v] Ibid, Box 3.1