This essay analyses learning profiles of foundational literacy and numeracy using MICS6 survey data from 18 countries. Learning profiles reflect the depth of the learning crisis in many countries. However, there is enormous variation in learning between countries, and these differences emerge early and grow over time. Some countries – even at lower levels of development – have been able to create systems that impart foundational skills to most students. Simulations show that increasing enrolment and attainment would not, on their own, address the learning crisis in most countries. Where children learn little each year in school, spending more time there will not improve learning by very much. Simulations show that closing in-country gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups – such as between boys and girls – would also address a relatively small piece of the learning crisis. Overall levels of learning are low for everyone, including for more advantaged groups, in many countries. Low-performing countries need to make system-wide changes that produce more learning per year in school for all children: prioritise foundational skills; intervene early; and don’t rely on an access or equity agenda to increase learning.