Up Front

The Reading Crisis among the World’s Poorest School Children

Rebecca Winthrop and David Barth

Editor’s note: On September 8, the Brookings Institution and International Reading Association co-sponsored an event entitled, “

Early Reading: Igniting Education for All

.” Panelist David Barth and moderator Rebecca Winthrop offer comments on considerations going forward.

The International Literacy Day event at Brookings on the crisis in early reading should be a wake-up call to all who are concerned about the future of education in the developing world. Recent data on the literacy skills of students in the early grades are stark. Children around the world may be going to school, but many of them are not acquiring even the most basic of reading and writing skills. Many children find themselves passing through two, three, four or more years of education and are still unable to read even a single word in their native languages. These alarming findings are softened, if only a bit, by the potential range of solutions. Between special assessments, targeted teacher training, relevant and appropriate materials, and support for students, teachers and parents, this trend can be reversed. As a matter of fact, we can achieve dramatic gains in literacy when the proper package of interventions is implemented.

Among the most interesting findings discussed yesterday was the fact that transparency and accountability seem to have a powerful effect on learning outcomes. Rapid reading assessments in the early grades generate the kinds of data that can be highly influential in community and national policy level dialogue. The development of persuasive data sets is most valuable when that data is placed in the hands of demanding consumers (parents and care-givers), as well as concerned service providers (government, teachers unions and sometimes the private sector).

When the permanent secretary of education in the Gambia became aware of the low level of reading attained by students in his system, he was provoked to action. He partnered with international donors and NGOs to train teachers and to ensure that the right materials were made available to his students. In Liberia, the simple act of releasing assessment data to teachers, parents and administrators seems to have been the catalyst behind a 29 percent gain in words per minute over baseline in literacy after only three and half months. One interesting effect of a similar experiment in Kenya is that teachers who were part of the control group not being provided additional training sought out independently to learn “the tricks” of teaching reading that was being provided in other schools. Their hunger to excel at work and their desire to get the most current and effective methodologies in the classroom moved those teachers to extend themselves to acquire new tools. That’s a powerful thing.

Rapid assessments of reading and math in the early grades provide direct and nearly immediate measures of education quality. Results can be easily reported and interpreted by teachers, parents and school administrators — people who are in a position to change their behavior to achieve better results. This raised awareness and changed behavior in turn will contribute to improving institutional effectiveness and opportunities for multitudes of learners. Linking this type of information about school-level learning outcomes with how schools and education systems are financed through national education accounts would be one possible strategy for how to use education resources more effectively to ensure the children are learning.

Another important conclusion from yesterday’s event on early reading was that there is still more to learn. USAID will be looking to work with the Center for Universal Education at Brookings and other concerned actors to delve more deeply into the connection between transparency, accountability and educational achievement. For many years, educators have repeated the mantra, “knowledge is power.” In the case of the crisis in early grade reading, wide-spread knowledge of the quality of performance of a school system may be the most powerful tool for reform.

Authors

D

David Barth

Director of Office of Education, U.S. Agency for International Development

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