Learning outcomes in developing countries: four hard lessons from PISA-D

RISE working paper
Martina Viarengo
Abstract

The learning crisis in developing countries is increasingly acknowledged (World Bank, 2018). The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) include goals and targets for universal learning and the World Bank has adopted a goal of eliminating learning poverty. In this paper, the authors use student level PISA-D results for seven countries (Cambodia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Senegal and Zambia) to examine inequality in learning outcomes at the global, country and student level for public school students.

They examine learning inequality using five dimensions of potential social disadvantage measured in PISA: sex, rurality, home language, immigrant status, and socio-economic status (SES) – using the PISA measure of ESCS (Economic, Social and Cultural Status) to measure SES. They document four important facts.

First, with the exception of Ecuador, less than a third of the advantaged (male, urban, native, home speakers of the language of instruction) and ESCS elite (plus 2 standard deviations above the mean) children enrolled in public schools in PISA-D countries reach the SDG minimal target of PISA level 2 or higher in mathematics (with similarly low levels for reading and science). Even if learning differentials of enrolled students along all five dimensions of disadvantage were eliminated, the vast majority of children in these countries would not reach the SDG minimum targets.

Second, the inequality in learning outcomes of the in-school children who were assessed by the PISA by household ESCS is mostly smaller in these less developed countries than in OECD or high-performing non-OECD countries. If the PISA-D countries had the same relationship of learning to ESCS as Denmark (as an example of a typical OECD country) or Vietnam (a high-performing developing country), their enrolled ESCS disadvantaged children would do worse, not better, than they actually do.

Third, the disadvantages in learning outcomes along four characteristics: sex, rurality, home language, and being an immigrant country are absolutely large, but still small compared to the enormous gap between the advantaged, ESCS average students, and the SDG minimums. Given the massive global inequalities, remediating within-country inequalities in learning, while undoubtedly important for equity and justice, leads to only modest gains towards the SDG targets.

Fourth, even including both public and private school students, there are strikingly few children in PISA-D countries at high levels of performance. The absolute number of children at PISA level 4 or above (reached by roughly 30 % of OECD children) in the low performing PISA-D countries is less than a few thousand individuals, sometimes only a few hundred – in some subjects and countries just double or single digits.

These four hard lessons from PISA-D reinforce the need to address global equity by 'raising the floor' and targeting low learning levels (Crouch and Rolleston, 2017; Crouch, Rolleston and Gustafsson, 2020). As Vietnam and other recent successes show, this can be done in developing country settings if education systems align around learning to improve the effectiveness of the teaching and learning processes to improve early learning of foundational skills.