Video: Teach a Girl to Read, and Improve Her Well-Being for a Lifetime: Evidence from 54 Countries


Image of Yue-Yi Hwa

Yue-Yi Hwa

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

RISE team member Yue-Yi Hwa recorded the following presentation for the World Literacy Summit in 2020. The conference moved to an online platform following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presentation overview

The overwhelming majority of research on the positive impacts of education in developing countries focuses on the relationship between years of schooling and later-life outcomes. Yet the same duration of schooling can translate into very different levels of learning. How much of the impact of education is actually due to the learning acquired, including basic skills such as literacy? If literacy accounts for a large portion of the impact, this would suggest that education systems should prioritise learning improvements rather than simply raising schooling attainment.

Drawing on data from 129 rounds of Demographic and Health Surveys, covering 54 countries, this study uses new approaches to estimate the impact of girls' learning during primary school on their well-being in adulthood, as measured by fertility, child mortality, and empowerment. By looking not only at schooling attainment but also literacy, and by using an instrumental variable approach to correct for measurement error, this paper improves on typical estimates of the impact of education. It finds that the impact of girls' basic education—i.e. completing 6 years of schooling and achieving basic literacy—on subsequent well-being is three to four times bigger than the typical analysis would suggest. It also finds that literacy accounts for between 30% and 80% of the impact of education. Thus, this paper adds valuable evidence to the case for ensuring that all children achieve mastery of foundational literacy.

This analysis was conducted under the RISE (Research on Improving Systems of Education) Programme, a multidisciplinary research programme addressing the crisis of low learning levels—despite rising school enrolments—in many low-income countries. RISE is building a cross-country, systems-level evidence base on "what" education systems should focus on (universal basic learning), "why" learning levels are so low in some contexts, and "how" these systemic issues can be remedied.

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