Tackling the learning crisis head on through efforts to bolster literacy
On International Literacy Day, let’s review some of the efforts that the Global Partnership for Education is making to ensure that more children in developing countries are learning.
September 08, 2018 by Ramya Vivekanandan, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat and Talia de Chaisemartin, GPE Secretariat|
A teacher and her students in class at the Amadou Diagne Woré Elementary School, Dakar.
CREDIT: GPE/ Carine Durand

Worldwide, the international education community has been speaking of a ‘learning crisis’ for some time now. Based on figures released last year by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), we know that 6 out of 10 children and adolescents worldwide (617 million in total) are not learning a minimum in reading and mathematics.

Looking specifically at reading, the data also reveals that out of the 387 million primary school-age children across the world who are unable to read proficiently, 262 million (or 68%) are in school, while there are also about 137 million adolescents of lower secondary school age who are unable to read proficiently even though they are in school.

Furthermore, millions of youth and adults are not able to engage in the social and economic life of their communities and nations due to a lack of basic skills, including the ability to read or write a simple sentence.

On the occasion of International Literacy Day 2018, the time is opportune to review some of the efforts that the Global Partnership for Education is making to address this situation, with the goal to ensure that children and young people are learning, particularly in the crucially important area of literacy.

GPE’s strategic priorities

As noted in GPE 2020, our Strategic Plan for the 2016-2020 period, GPE’s primary goal is to increase the number of countries that are improving learning outcomes, with a target of 70% of GPE partner countries showing such improvements by 2020. With GPE support, countries are making good progress in this regard: baseline data showed that 13 out of 20 partner countries with data demonstrated progress in learning outcomes, including reading.

The core support of GPE focuses on the analysis, development and implementation of education sector plans. Funding for the implementation of sector plans is available through large-scale grants of up to $100 million, and the majority of these grants include strong components on some of the key factors associated with progress in learning, including teacher professional development, teacher management, learning materials and learning assessment systems.

For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where nearly half of 4th grade students could not read a single word (2012), GPE has supported the promotion of innovative teaching methods and the introduction of a plan for teaching reading in early grades. In The Gambia, GPE is supporting the implementation and evaluation of early reading programs in national languages through teacher training, provision of supplementary readers and library books and regular monitoring using a classroom observation tool.

GPE is also giving strategic attention to improving the quality of learning assessment systems, for without such systems it is impossible to have accurate data on learning including reading. Having such data can allow teachers to tailor instruction in the classroom, for curriculum, learning materials, and teacher training to be strengthened to address the knowledge gaps of students, and resources to be targeted to schools with the greatest need, contributing to improving learning outcomes. 

As of 2016, a third of GPE partner countries (19 out of 60) had a learning assessment system that met quality standards. GPE seeks to increase this number to 47% by 2020. Given this, 4 out of 5 of GPE’s implementation grants currently support learning assessment systems. For example, in Nepal and Cambodia, GPE is supporting the implementation or expansion of early grade reading assessments.

Acting globally to make changes locally

In addition to these efforts, in 2017 GPE launched the Assessment for Learning (A4L) initiative, which seeks to build capacity for national learning assessment systems to measure and improve learning. A4L provides technical and financial assistance to support sector planning and analysis, capacity building and knowledge exchange at the regional level, as well as promotes comprehensive measurements of learning. One of the core components of A4L includes work on the measurement of 21st century skills, which are a key aspect of ensuring that learners are equipped with relevant skills and competencies needed to meet the demands of a global economy and increasingly complex challenges in their communities and societies.

GPE is an active member of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), coordinated by the UIS. A GAML task force, chaired by the OECD and UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, focuses on SDG target 4.6, which focuses on youth and adult literacy and numeracy.

Various international measurements focus on functional literacy and numeracy in the youth and adult population (e.g. PIAAC, LAMP, STEP), but there are technical challenges to measure it. There’s no agreed definition of what “fixed level of proficiency” means as the indicator notes, and existing measurements don’t capture the skills of the population with low literacy. As a member of GAML, GPE is contributing to discussions to address these challenges.

Supporting the efforts of partners

GPE also collaborates with the Global Book Alliance, a network of public and private sector partners aiming to ensure that no child is without books and learning materials. GBA draws attention to the role of literacy in building life skills, and reinforces the role of literacy in lifelong learning required for employment and livelihoods. Through these efforts, the GPE Secretariat has supported the development and launch of the Global Digital Library, which provides a repository of high-quality reading materials in local languages that are open source to increase access to books for students and their communities.

On the occasion of International Literacy Day 2018, GPE will be joining leaders from the international education community in the UNESCO-sponsored International Conference on Literacy and Skills Development, to explore ways to make effective connections between literacy and technical and vocational skills in the design of policies and systems.

While challenges remain, GPE will continue to focus its work on improving literacy. Through our support to partner countries in areas such as teacher professional development, early grade reading and learning assessment systems, through participation in global initiatives and partnerships, we look forward to helping even more children, youth and adults become literate.

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