What’s the Real Reason Why Some Children are Learning Less in School?
Having uneducated parents, receiving poor early childhood developmental inputs, being from a marginalized ethnic group or just being a girl – all of these factors may influence a child’s future educational outcomes before they even start school.
September 15, 2014 by Santiago Cueto, Young Lives
6 minutes read
Credit: GPE/Koli Banik

It is becoming more and more recognized that attending schools does not necessarily guarantee that children are learning at expected grade levels. And there is mounting evidence that inequalities impact learning outcomes. But at what stage in a child’s life cycle do the disparities emerge?  And what are the most significant drivers behind educational disadvantage?  

Having uneducated parents, receiving poor early childhood developmental inputs, being from a marginalized ethnic group or just being a girl – all of these factors may influence a child’s future educational outcomes before they even start school.

What’s the research showing?

At Young Lives, we researched the progress of 12,000 children in four countries from different continents over 15 years. We’ve administered tests to the same children from preschool age to age 12, which allows for a dynamic view of their learning. Our data shows that the levels of disparities across countries were relatively low at age 5, but by age 8 Vietnamese children had significantly outperformed Ethiopian, Indian and Peruvian children.

What patterns have emerged?

Young Lives’ most recent data, collected by the time children were age 12, show some interesting patterns across countries. To begin with, enrollment continues to increase in all four countries. There are small differences between boys and girls, children living in urban or rural contexts, children living in poverty, or being a member of an ethnic minority. However, girls or members of certain castes in India, are less likely to go to private schools which are considered better schools. If you are from an ethnic minority in Peru or Vietnam, it is more likely that you will be behind the normative grade of your age group.

But, as suggested above, there are concerns not only about attending, but also how much children learn once they are in school. Our most recent data allow us to compare the achievement of children who were 12 years of age in 2006 (older cohort) with children who were 12 in 2013 (younger cohort), in the same regions in each country.

Learning seems to improve in some countries

Our results show that the younger cohort in India and Ethiopia is achieving below the older cohort. For Vietnam and Peru, the result is the opposite: children from the younger cohort in 2013 are achieving above what the older cohort did seven years earlier. While it is too early to fully explain these results, they suggest that quality of schooling may be improving in Peru (although inequality indicators within this country are high) and especially Vietnam.

For all countries however, a key element behind educational success is parental education. More educated parents tend to have children in school, at the normative grade, with better scores.

This result holds even when we incorporate other elements in the analysis. It suggests the need to intervene at an early age targeting children of poorly educated families.

But what else is at play?

Amongst the four countries, Vietnam seems to be doing particularly well. Not only are children less likely to be behind their normative grade, but they also show higher averages in scores and fewer differences by socioeconomic status[i].

While there are particularities in every country, it seems that Vietnamese children are learning more and there are fewer inequalities across the country. Why would this be happening?

In Vietnam, education is a high political priority and a strong public system provides rich resources and lessons for all children. Private education, for example, is almost non-existent, as opposed to the other countries, where private schools are growing – albeit at different rates.

In Peru, Ethiopia and India educational opportunities are marked by gender, poverty, area of residence, or ethnicity, thus making them unfair.

So what are the challenges now?

It seems clear from our data and other studies that there is a link between educational quality and social equity. Providing quality schooling for all children is now perhaps the biggest challenge for developing countries. Indicators of learning as well as enrollment are going to be crucial to ascertain whether we are making progress.


[i] An important issue in Vietnam, however, is the enrollment of children in after-school classes, which are aimed at providing children with an academic advantage in a highly competitive environment. Children from urban environments are more likely to attend these type of classes.

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Hi Santiago,

Thanks for a really interesting post. Great to see more on Latin America.

You mention non-school inputs that impact "failure to thrive" for students, especially poor ones. Did you come across school-related inputs, like quality teachers, for example, that might mitigate some of these non-school inputs or that also impact quality educational outcomes? What is Vietnam doing specifically in education, that say, Peru, is not?

As Barbara Bruns work has shown, LAC suffers from persistently low measures of quality teaching and poor performance by LAC students on international assessments. What can Latin America learn from other regions in terms of extending quality educational opportunities?

Thanks y un saludo,

Mary Burns

In reply to by Mary Burns

Hello Mary,

Sorry for the delay in responding, but I was traveling. You raise an interesting and difficult question. To begin with, it seems to me that in all countries there are good teachers. However, tentatively I will say that in Vietnam teaching lessons are more demanding and teachers seem better prepared than in the other countries. In Peru for example we found that often times teachers posed exercises where students had to do repetitive routines (such as writing the word "rectangle" dozens of time as a way to learn geometry), and even more often they posed number-only exercises that required application of procedures but not cognitive abilities linked with complex problem solving. Recently we published a special issue on school quality across the Young Lives countries in the Oxford Review of Education (see http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/core20/40/1#.VCBRovl5Nic), with best wishes y muchos saludos,


Gracias, Santiago, por responderme. Podria mandarme una copia del archivo? No esta disponsible de este sitio.

Mi direccion de email es mburns [arroba] edc [punto] org.

Muchisimas gracias y mucha suerte,

Saludos cordiales,


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