Working Paper


Aiming Higher: Learning Profiles and Gender Equality in 10 Low- and Middle-Income Countries


Image of Michelle Kaffenberger

Michelle Kaffenberger

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Image of Lant Pritchett

Lant Pritchett

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Published journal version*


Global education goals have many aims, among them universal basic schooling, universal literacy and numeracy, and gender equality. We use unique, nationally representative data on adult learning outcomes to examine the link between schooling and literacy in ten low- and middle-income countries. We simulate scenarios of increasing school grade attainment, increasing learning per year, and achieving gender equality, and examine learning outcomes in each. In six of the ten countries only about half or less of younger adults (aged 18-37) with primary completion as their highest schooling can read a few sentences without help. Simulations show that achieving universal primary completion would still leave many adults functionally illiterate: in India nearly a third of adults would still be unable to read. Our simulations further show that, while achieving equality of schooling attainment would produce improvements in women’s literacy, in many countries this would still leave a third of women still unable to read. Gender equality of learning per year produces very little gain as, once in school, girls' learning nearly matches that of boys. In nearly all countries steepening the learning profiles for all students to the best-performing of the ten countries would lead to greater gains in literacy for women than achieving gender equality in both schooling and learning. Achieving learning for all will require both eliminating gender gaps but also improving how much is learned while in school.


*This paper was previously published on the RISE website under the title, “More Schooling or More Learning? Evidence from Learning Profiles from the Financial Inclusion Insights Data” on 11 May 2017. The updated paper was published in the International Journal of Educational Development in volume 79, 2020 under the DOI:


Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2021. Aiming Higher: Learning Profiles and Gender Equality in 10 Low- and Middle-Income Countries. RISE Working Paper Series. 17/012.