Submitted by: Rebecca Winthrop
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Universal Education, The Brookings Institution

On the occasion of International Literacy Day and USAID’s Education Week, I wanted to address the fact that so many school children in developing countries are not learning to read in the vital first few years of primary school.  Failing to acquire basic literacy skills in the early grades holds them back from staying at and succeeding in school. Tragically, there are even a number of children, who spend four, five, or even six years in school and cannot read simple sentences. While this is clearly a crisis for the families whose children are struggling to acquire even the most basic literacy skills in the classroom, collectively it also spells a major crisis for the ability of the world’s poorest countries to improve economically and provide a better quality of life for its citizens.

Conventional wisdom in international development held that increasing a population’s average years of schooling would spur economic growth.  We now know that increasing economic growth has much less to do with just the number of years spent in school and much more to do with the knowledge acquired and skills developed while in school.  And while it took the work of several skilled economists to develop the evidence base for this claim, we should not be surprised by their insight.  It is not rocket science to understand that a student who spends four years in school learning to read, calculate, and problem-solve is in the end going to be more valuable in the labor market than someone who spends six years in school not learning to do any of those things.

While simply attending school has some benefits for students (e.g. developing essential non-cognitive skills such as motivation and persistence), we know that the potential of education to help women have healthier pregnancies and children, to increase personal lifetime earnings, to reduce HIV transmission, and to strengthen democratic participation will likely not be fulfilled if students are not developing cognitive skills and capacities.

Learning to read is the fundamental first step in harnessing this power of education. Yet at the global policy level, the importance of learning has been lost.  The world’s attention on the Millennium Development Goals and its two education goals – gender equity and universal primary completion – has eclipsed the more comprehensive set of 6 Education for All goals from 1990 that articulates the importance of quality learning.

Thus, for the past decade, policy, resources, and action have centered on expanding school enrollment, with great success but often without the necessary investments and supports to ensure that quality learning goes along with it.  When heads of state gather at the UN MDG Review Summit later this month to assess what progress has been made, there will be little to no attention on what children are learning. Success in the education sector will be measured by schooling access and persistence, and leaders of countries where children attend school year after year without learning to read undoubtedly will focus on how well they have done in enrolling more students in school.

Enrollment without learning was never the intent. Education comprises two of the eight MDGs because it is fundamental to development and to creating a better quality of life for the world’s poor. The true intent of the global education goals is, I believe, to promote equitable learning opportunities.  There will always be pockets of education excellence accessed by elites and the true task of education all is to broadly extend access to high quality education.   Acquiring basic literacy skills is one of the core first steps for doing so.