The second Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of achieving universal primary education by 2015 has largely been accomplished. Only about fifty-five million of one billion school-aged children worldwide are not in school. However, poor educational quality means that many students in developing countries are entering the workforce at a disadvantage and governments are unable to realize the productive potential of their populations. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 250 million children are failing to “make it to grade 4 or do not reach the minimum level of learning.”1 This is a “stylized fact” according to Luis Crouch, who prefers the more accurate statement: “At minimum 200–300 million children [are] in school but learning almost nothing.”2 In any case, it is time to shift our focus from universal schooling to universal education.
In his book The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning, Lant Pritchett lays out the evidence that in many countries, students in school are simply not learning. He cites data from the 2009 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) showing that in India, of five students who enter the fourth grade not knowing how to read, only one will learn that year.3 At a meeting of parents and educators that Pritchett attended in Uttar Pradesh in 2006, a father accused his son’s school principal of betrayal: “Without school, I had no skills other than those of a donkey. But you told us that if I sent my son to school, his life would be different from mine. …Only now I find out that he is thirteen years old and doesn’t know anything. His life won’t be different. He will labor like a brute, just like me.”4 In Malawi, 83 percent of children have completed primary school but only 34 percent of children are actually numerate.5
Pritchett argues that these dismal learning figures exist—and are allowed to persist—because of the structure of education systems. He adapts [End Page 179] the “spider versus starfish” metaphor for organizations from Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s 2006 work, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.6 In spider systems, “all information created by the vibrations of the web must be processed, decisions made, and actions taken by one spider brain at the center of the web.”7 Centralized, top-down bureaucracies have historically been very good at accomplishing logistical tasks, such as building schools and getting children into them. However, spiders are not so good at “tasks that require local judgment and control, such as teaching a child.”8 This is where starfish, which are decentralized, loosely coordinated, and adaptive, excel. Starfish move “not because the brain processes information and decides to move but because the local actions of its loosely connected parts add up to movement.”9
A key concept Pritchett uses to connect schooling (school attendance) to learning (actual education) is the grade or cohort learning profile. Grade learning profiles include grade attainment aggregated for all students in a cohort. Pritchett uses data from three studies in India to display that grade learning profiles are too flat. This means that, as years go by and students are passed to the next grade, there is little progress in the fraction of students who can answer arithmetic questions or demonstrate conceptual skills such as reading or telling time. Pritchett writes, “The grade learning profile can be thought of as a ramp to the door of opportunity, in civil society, in the polity, and in the economy. If the ramp isn’t sufficiently steep, even walking it leaves you unable to get a foot in the door.”10 At these rates of learning, it takes too long for cohorts of students to reach proficiency. Pritchett calculates that in Tanzania it would take eleven total years of schooling for 90 percent of students to correctly demonstrate basic language skills expected of fourth-graders.11
Developing countries suffer from massive education deficits in comparison with developed countries, as Pritchett illustrates using data from two international comparative assessments, the...