The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning by Lant Pritchett (Center for Global Development 2013), 288 pages.
This book, which indicts centralized state schooling in the developing world, engages you from beginning to end. Examples from Pritchett’s own experiences in India and his use of Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s spiders and starfish tropes to differentiate centralized from decentralized organizational structures set up the foundation of a really interesting, well-thought-out read and argument. The book is not only well written, but every chapter is interesting, specifically targeted to consider a problem. The use of extensive examples backed up by data from many sources allows Pritchett to formulate a solid and convincing argument.
The centralized spider organizational structure is one that is typically seen in education today. A spider uses its web to expand its reach, but with every vibration, the information needs to be processed, acted on, and relayed back so that the spider’s brain at the center can decide the action to be taken. The spider system grew out of the highly decentralized starfish system, which existed in early centuries. However, when a spider system breaks down, as is currently the case in developing countries, parents move their children to low-cost private schools in a parallel starfish system.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in this book. An adult in the average developing country in 2010 had more years of schooling than the average adult in a developed country in 1960. And policy changes (such as conditional cash transfers and the elimination of user fees) over the last few years has gotten children into school.
The bad news is that learning has not improved now that they are there.
Pritchett points out at length that it isn’t the amount of time one spends in school that is important, but the learning that goes on there. There is indeed a very nice quotation at the end of chapter one which states that “time served is how we characterize prison terms, not education.” Taking data from India and Pakistan, Pritchett shows how “flat” the learning profile of developing countries can be. For example, according to data from the Annual Status of Education Report in India, half the children who could not do a math problem in second grade still cannot do the problem in fifth grade! Three years on, half the children have made no progress.
Using data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to compare how children in developing countries perform shows that in some states in India, children do not even attain the minimum score to get them on the standardized scale of 1–6. Children cannot answer enough questions to be placed on the scale. They receive a zero! More statistics and data are given to illustrate flat learning. The point is made that these scores are bad, but they don’t even include children who have dropped out of school or do not attend school at all. Testing typically focuses on enrolled students rather than on the age cohort. So in reality things are even worse.
There is a slow pace of learning in the developing world. Completion of primary education provides very few children with even the most adequate of skills. School is not preparing children for life.
So what to do? Pritchett believes that asking for more schooling is generally the solution offered for the problem of too little learning. That’s the easy answer, but it’s the wrong answer.
“More” is not the solution when learning remains flat. The data show that if a country has a shallow learning profile, expanding the years of schooling will move the children forward only very slightly. Again, that is expertly illustrated by using household surveys, international tests such as the TIMSS and PISA, and learning-pace calculations.
So more “schooling” is not the answer. How about “more” inputs — teachers, desks, books, toilets? More inputs need more funding, which some argue implies more quality. However, the learning gap cannot be filled with inputs. In chapter three Pritchett looks extensively at the literature to address this issue and states that over a 10-year period, children’s scores would increase by only one-tenth of a standard deviation. Increasing resources such as desks, smaller class sizes, teacher training, diplomas for teachers, textbooks, and electricity, per se, have very little to no statistically significant impact on measured learning outcomes. Expanding inputs and spending alone cannot be the centerpiece of a strategy to improve learning
Pritchett uses rigorous evidence to illustrate the idea of “camouflage” and how the spider can make it look as though changes are occurring. As he puts it, “Buildings that look like schools but don’t produce learning are a façade that deludes children and parents into believing they are getting an education while depriving them of real opportunity.” This camouflage allows a failing spider system of education to continue. When there are threats to the status quo, the spider avoids change by showing that it is pursuing simple, cosmetically attractive camouflaged objectives. How long can it continue? How many more children will leave school without an education? Without learning?
It’s now time to stop the camouflage and instigate the rebirth of education.
The system needs to be fixed
It is the system that needs reforming. We need schools that create viable opportunities for children by promoting learning. That can best be met by decentralized starfish systems. The system design needs to promote appropriate scaling up by looking at the how, who, what, and why. According to Prit-chett, basic education needs to be an open, competitive, locally controlled, performance-pressured, professionally networked, and inclusively supported starfish system. When the system is right, learning can take place.