Priority #2: Improve the Quality of Learning

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0151/Soko - Boys who have been displaced by inter-ethnic violence attend an English class in South Sudan.

School attendance should open pathways of learning and discovery, but too often it does not. Millions of children go through school and come out without basic literacy and numeracy skills. Education is ultimately judged by what people learn. Many students around the world are banking their futures on poorly trained, weakly motivated teachers without enough books and other basics to facilitate their learning. This is a grave disservice not only to the students themselves but also to the parents who sacrifice to support them and the countries whose futures depend on them. While we strive to boost school attendance, we must ensure that our schools are engines of opportunity and not just idle warehouses. 

Barriers to quality learning

Shortage of qualified teachers. Education systems are complex and are influenced by numerous actors. But no education system is better than its teachers. Globally, we need an additional 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015. The shortage of teachers, combined with absenteeism and the lack of qualifications, is a major barrier to learning. We need a strong cohort of both female and male teachers who are paid well and respected in their communities. This is not always the case. Teachers should also have opportunities for continued professional development and growth.     

Lack of learning materials. Outdated and worn-out textbooks are often shared by six or more students in many parts of the developing world. Workbooks, exercise sheets, readers and other core materials to help students learn their lessons are in short supply. Teachers also need materials to help prepare their lessons, share with their students, and guide their lessons. The persistent digital divide and uneven access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) have severe implications for education. ICTs can transform not only instruction but also the learning process. They empower both teachers and learners.      

Weak foundation for early learning. A significant proportion of young children never benefit from early childhood education programs, compromising their cognitive development and their preparedness for school. Those who do not learn to read or write in their first few grades carry a handicap as they try to progress to higher levels, where literacy and numeracy become tools for learning rather than ends in themselves. They struggle in school for many years and some simply quit. Around the world, primary schools give more attention to later grades, in large part to prepare students for high-stakes examinations. It would be more effective to deploy the most qualified teachers in the first four years of school when students establish the foundation for success in later years.

Challenging family environments. Challenging living circumstances affect a child’s learning in many ways. When families lack electricity at home, particularly in rural areas, children have fewer hours available to study and learn. When their homes lack books and other reading material, they practice less and forget more during school breaks. And when parents themselves lack literacy and numeracy skills, they are less able to reinforce what children are learning in school. Other factors, such as a stressful or violent home environment, can also highly impede a child’s learning.

Mismatch of skills and today’s livelihoods. With more than 1.2 billion young people in the world today, our youth have the potential to alter our course in history. Yet, in many countries, education systems have not caught up to the 21st century knowledge-based economy. Teaching by rote curtails creative or divergent thinking. It is rigid and is not tailored to individual needs or talents. This form of learning is widespread. There is a mismatch between the competencies needed in today’s world and those acquired through the current education system. Too often technical and vocational education is specific and narrow thus limiting job opportunities as skills become quickly obsolete in a dynamic and rapidly changing world.

Language barriers. The language of instruction strongly influences the ability of children to comprehend and learn. Yet an estimated 221 million children are being taught in a language other than their mother tongue. Many of them drop out or repeat grades—an experience that can damage self-esteem and raise the cost that parents must shoulder. Studies suggest that children fare better if they can acquire basic skills in their home language before trying to master a second one.

Hunger and poor nutrition. The impact of hunger on education systems is gravely underreported. Evidence from Latin America finds that being stunted at age 6 was equivalent to losing four grades of schooling. Far too many children are reaching school damaged by malnutrition. Around 171 million children in developing countries are stunted by hunger by the time they reach age 5. When children are hungry during lessons, they have trouble concentrating. Providing school meals and social protection programs focusing on the needs of children can insure that no child is hungry at school.

Ineffective systems to evaluate the performance of students. We cannot readily improve students’ progress without measuring it. Education systems need to closely monitor how well students are learning in order to offer the correct support before it is too late. Additionally, testing is too often inappropriately used to influence major financing decisions such as closing schools or firing teachers or eliminating students who cannot progress to the next level rather than as a means to identify ways to help students improve their learning. We must have better ways to take stock of whether children are learning and use the information to direct support and resources for effective solutions.

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