Have Rapid Increases in School Enrolment Led to Lower Quality?


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Lee Crawfurd

Center for Global Development

There has been big success in expanding access to school around the world, but too many children are still not learning basic skills. The majority of children who can’t read are now in school, not out of school. Are these two facts related? In his working paper for RISE, Caine Rolleston discusses what we can learn from his experience working with the unique longitudinal Young Lives survey, one of very few surveys with test score data from the same children calibrated to be comparable both across time and across countries; Ethiopia, Peru, Vietnam, and India.  

In theory, we might have expected a trade-off between quantity (increased enrolment) and quality (reduced learning). As countries have rapidly increased access, weaker students have entered the system and resources have been spread more thinly. Perhaps it is only once a plateau of high overall access has been achieved, that an education system can be able to refocus on improving quality? 

Looking at the population studied by the Young Lives surveys, all four countries have seen rapid increases in enrolment since 1990, particularly so for Ethiopia. However over a similar period, spending per pupil has either remained constant or increased. So no big tradeoff in inputs there.  

As for learning outcomes, according to the Young Lives data, performance worsened between 2006 and 2013 in India and Ethiopia (where access increased), but improved (slightly) in Peru and Vietnam. Although we only really have a sample of 4 “systems” here, there doesn’t seem to be any clear relationship between changes in access and learning outcomes. It seems there the trade-off isn’t there.  

All four countries have managed to achieve the transition from low to mass enrolment (at primary level), but only Vietnam has achieved mass learning. And the comparison between Vietnam and the other countries, particularly the relatively wealthy Peru, suggests a huge difference in the efficiency of different systems, in terms of how they convert spending and resources into student learning.  

One hypothesis from Lant Pritchett's latest RISE Working Paper is that maybe Vietnam is the only system that is focused on and coherent around actual learning as a goal of the system. That remains to be seen - and even if true, only raises the next question - how do you get a system to cohere around learning in the first place? Which brings us to the political economy of education systems, a topic for a future paper.   

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