Figures of the week: Africa, education, and the 2018 World Development Report

Last week, the World Bank Group published its flagship report: the World Development Report (WDR) 2018—Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The report is the first-ever edition of the publication entirely dedicated to education. The 2018 WDR warns of a learning crisis in global education; after several years of schooling, millions of children are unable to read, write, and solve basic math problems. The crisis is more severe for vulnerable children—i.e., those affected by poverty, conflict, gender disparities, or disability—and has led to the widening of social gaps. 

The report explains that low-income and developing countries are most affected by the global learning crisis. In low-income countries, less than 5 percent of students in late primary school score above the minimum proficiency level for reading. This figure lies at 14 percent for mathematics. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than 7 percent of students in late primary school are proficient in reading, against 14 percent in mathematics (Figure 1). For instance, when asked to read a sentence such as “The name of the dog is Puppy,” three quarters of primary school students in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda were unable to understand it. Even students tested using local languages were still unable to comprehend given sentences. The report states that the lags in primary education will affect the children’s preparedness for future job prospects, which are increasingly demanding in skills quality.

Figure 1: The percentage of primary school students who pass a minimum proficiency threshold is often low


Progress on these indicators is relatively slow. For instance, the report states that it could take 180 years for Tunisia to reach the OECD average for mathematics if the current pace of learning remains unchanged. The report finds that a high share of students complete primary school without the necessary mathematics and reading knowledge. There are regional differences within the continent too (Figure 2). The WDR cites a 2014 regional assessment showing that 58 percent of grade 6 students in West and Central Africa were not sufficiently proficient in reading, though students in East and Southern Africa perform slightly better, with only 37 percent not proficient. Contrastingly, the level of math proficiency is comparable in the two regions, 58 against 60 percent.

Figure 2. Most grade 6 students in West and Central Africa are not sufficiently competent in reading or mathematics


School attendance does not pose a problem in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, the learning gaps remain high. Many children are not well-equipped to learn due to illness, malnutrition, or income deprivation. The report also cites the lack of testing as a cause for poor educational achievements.  The quality of teaching is poor, as some teachers are not particularly well-educated themselves.

Absenteeism of teachers is also a problem in sub-Saharan Africa. Figure 3 shows the absence of teachers from school overall and those from class. The classroom absence variable combines absences from school with absences from class among teachers who are at school. For instance, in Kenya, the gap between the two variables shows that 32 percent of teachers come into school without attending class. The report suggests that teacher absenteeism can be attributed to low salaries—teachers often have to take on secondary jobs to support themselves. Moreover, in addition to teaching, many teachers find themselves handling administrative tasks normally outside of their purview due to schools being short-staffed.

Figure 3. Percentage of teachers absent from school and from class on the day of an unannounced visit, participating countries 


In order to solve the learning crisis, the WDR provides three recommendations. First, countries should put strategies in place to create well-designed student assessments and help teachers guide students toward achieving good learning outcomes. Second, countries should target the areas with the largest gaps between their learning environment and the tools that yield the best learning outcomes. Third, the report suggests aligning actors in order to make the whole system “work for learning.” 

To see the launch event for this year’s World Development Report, see the October 4 Brookings event, “Education and learning for a changing world.”