Why we should invest in getting more kids to read — and how to do it

By HARRY A. PATRINOSJIMMY GRAHAM, SEAN KELLYData shows that huge swaths of populations in developing countries are not learning to read. Scaling up early reading interventions will be a first step toward addressing these high illiteracy rates.
Data shows that huge swaths of populations in developing countries are not learning to read. Scaling up early reading interventions will be a first step toward addressing these high illiteracy rates. (Photo: Liang Qiang / World Bank)BY HARRY A. PATRINOS ON MON, 06/12/2017


It is estimated that more than 250 million school children throughout the world cannot read. This is unfortunate because literacy has enormous benefits – both for the individual and society. Higher literacy rates are associated with healthier populations, less crime, greater economic growth, and higher employment rates. For a person, literacy is a foundational skill required to acquire advanced skills. These, in turn, confer higher wages and more employment across labor markets .

Over the past decade, there has been growing evidence that shows that interventions for getting young children to read work. The mostly successful pilots should be brought to scale in all countries where early grade reading is an issue. To increase awareness of the need to do so, a global early skills assessment that tests reading abilities should be created and widely disseminated, serving as a global benchmark.

There is widespread illiteracy in the early grades
In order to address the high rates of child illiteracy that pervade in developing countries, we believe that education funding should be shifted towards early primary education reading initiatives.

Data from Early Grade Readings Assessments (EGRAs) show that huge swaths of populations in developing countries are not learning to read. Several cases illustrate how severe the problem is in some contexts: A program evaluation in Malawi found that 95 percent of second graders could not read a single word. Third graders do not necessarily perform much better. A regional sample in Haiti found that 48 percent of third grade students could not read a single word.

It is crucial that children learn to read in the early grades
In order to attain high literacy rates, children should be taught in the first few years of school. Research shows that it is more cost-effective to teach reading in early primary school than in higher levels. Cognitive research also shows that the optimal time to learn to read is the earlier grades. Shockingly, PISA test scores show that about half of the students that are finishing their primary education in middle-income countries are unable to comprehend the main message of basic texts. One way to address the illiteracy pandemic is through early grade reading interventions. Such interventions are typically geared towards first through third graders and are based on teacher training that improves the ability to teach literacy (for example, evidence-based, context-appropriate literacy curricula; simplified instructional content; follow-up coaching and support for teachers; supplementary instructional and reading materials; training and tools for student assessment).

Early reading interventions have regularly proven cost-effective
Early reading interventions have had consistently large impacts, as is clear from the results from the impact evaluations from 13 countries that have that accrued over the past ten years from Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Tonga, Rwanda, the Philippines, and Senegal.  While the relative impacts vary, all early grade reading interventions almost always have major impacts on critical literacy indicators. The reading programs are cost-effective.

Source: Data taken from the individual country evaluations cited above,
except for Malawi and Egypt and Jordan 

Moving forward: Changing priorities and underscoring the problem
We know how to begin addressing this problem of high illiteracy rates – by scaling up early reading interventions. To do so, two steps should be taken.

  1. A global assessment should be created that tests students in the second to the fourth grade on basic reading skills. Such an assessment could be referred to as the Global Early Skills Assessment, or GESA. By highlighting the extent of illiteracy in simple terms (for example, the percentage of students that cannot read a single word) GESA may help give early grade reading the attention it deserves. It will also identify where the problem is most severe.
  2. Since people cannot take advantage of the high returns to secondary and tertiary education if they do not learn to read at a young age, education investments should be shifted heavily towards primary school. If there is a high rate of child illiteracy within a given country, public investment should prioritize primary education, especially results based on achieving early grade reading. Innovative financing approaches can be used to expand upper secondary and university education.

This blog is based on the report, The Case for Investing in Early Grade Reading.

First published on World Bank’s Education for Development blog.

News and Research 43: What are Non-cognitive Skills?

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The impact of an accountability intervention with diagnostic feedback: Evidence from Mexico

The impact of an accountability intervention with diagnostic feedback: Evidence from Mexico

Economics of Education Review Volume 58, June 2017, Pages 123-140

Rafael de Hoyos                   Vicente A. Garcia-Moreno                 Harry Anthony Patrinos


•    We assess a low-stakes accountability intervention in Mexico
•    The main outcomes of interest are national student assessment test scores
•     A difference-in-difference and a regression discontinuity design are used to identify effects
•     Information on results led to significant positive changes in test scores in a short period of time
Abstract: The Mexican state of Colima implemented a low-stakes accountability intervention with diagnostic feedback among schools with the lowest test scores in the national assessment. A difference-in-difference and a regression discontinuity design are used to identify the effects of the intervention on learning outcomes. The two strategies consistently show that the intervention increased test scores by 0.12 standard deviations only a few months after the program was launched. The results indicate that full and wide dissemination of information detailing school quality is critically important.

Keywords: Accountability; Information; Education


El impacto de una intervención de rendición de cuentas con la retroalimentación diagnóstica: evidencia de México

Rafael de Hoyos                Vicente A. García-Moreno               Harry Anthony Patrinos

Economics of Education Review Volume 58, June 2017, Pages 123-140

  • Evaluamos una intervención de rendición de cuentas de bajo riesgo en México.
  • Los principales resultados de interés son los resultados de las pruebas nacionales de evaluación de los estudiantes.
  • Se utiliza un diseño de diferencia en diferencia y una discontinuidad de regresión para identificar los efectos.
  • La información sobre los resultados condujo a cambios positivos significativos en los resultados de las pruebas en un corto período de tiempo.

Resumen: El estado mexicano de Colima implementó una intervención de rendición de cuentas de bajo riesgo con retroalimentación de diagnóstico entre las escuelas con los puntajes más bajos en la evaluación nacional. Se utiliza un diseño de diferencia en diferencia y de discontinuidad de regresión para identificar los efectos de la intervención sobre los resultados del aprendizaje. Las dos estrategias consistentemente muestran que la intervención aumentó los resultados de las pruebas en 0,12 desviaciones estándares sólo unos meses después del lanzamiento del programa. Los resultados indican que una difusión completa y amplia de información que detalla la calidad de la escuela es de importancia vital.

Palabras clave: Responsabilidad; Información; Educación

Acknowledgements: The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the World Bank’s Research Support Budget and the comments of participants at the World Bank’s economics of education seminar. Thanks to Óscar Hernández and staff at the Secretariat of Education of Colima, Mexico, for all the support provided during the evaluation.

News and Research 37: Gansu Project and ECD Launch in Mongolia

World Bank to Help Strengthen Vocational Education in China’s Gansu Province  WASHINGTON DC, March 31, 2017 – The World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors today approved a $120 million loan to help improve the quality and relevance of vocational schools and strengthen their partnership with industry in China’s Gansu province.  Gansu, in northwestern China, is one of the least developed provinces, based on both income and human development measures, with nearly 60 percent of its population living in rural areas. The majority of its labor force is working in the low-productivity primary sector, though the secondary and tertiary industries are the main drivers of the province’s economy. To facilitate the transition of low-skilled labor force into more productive employment, it is critical to build a modern technical and vocational education and training (TVET) system.  “The new project will support the implementation of the government’s vocational education development strategy in Gansu. We place special emphasis on closer collaboration between the industry and schools both at the system and school levels so students can obtain skills businesses need,” said Xiao Liping, World Bank’s Senior Education Specialist and the project’s team leader…

New Study Recommends Key Actions to Improve Early Childhood Education in Mongolia

ecdA new World Bank report recommends that Mongolia expand access to preschool services in rural areas, prioritizing home-based early-childhood education for hard-to-reach populations, such as nomadic herders. more | Монгол

Download Report (PDF, 4.47mb)

New Study Recommends Key Actions to Improve Early Childhood Education in Mongolia (The Financial)
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The skills that matter in the race between education and technology

Technology rapidly changes the workplace and the skills demanded, making current workers less employable. One approach is to think about the kind of work that technology cannot replace.
(Photo: Curt Carnemark / World Bank)

Depending on to whom you listen, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) will either solve all our problems or end the human race. Sometime in the near future, machine intelligence is predicted to surpass human intelligence, a point in time known as “the singularity.” Whether the rise of the machines is an existential threat to mankind or not, I believe that there is a more mundane issue: robots are currently being used to automate production.

Economist Richard Freeman argues that robots can be a substitute for workers, even highly skilled professionals. In addition, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee suggest that, as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. A bigger impact can be felt in developing countries. If computerization makes high-income countries more self-sufficient—less offshoring and more “reshoring”—then developing countries may lose their wage advantage. Besides slowing employment growth, automation may also increase income inequality. Technological disruption is widely being debated in industrialized, high-income countries; however, policymakers in developing countries need to start worrying about the impact of automation as well.

There is a critical skills gap
Technology rapidly changes the workplace and the skills demanded, immediately making current workers less employable. Meanwhile, education systems are slow to change in terms of the creation of new skills. As the demand for new skills increases, the challenge will be to anticipate what those skills might be. For some the answer is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills as well as coding so that people can develop or work with the technology.

An alternative approach is to think about the kind of work that technology cannot replace. The Oxford Martin School stud­ies the vulnerability of jobs to automation point to those that draw most on creative and social skills, and complex perception and manipulation. Future workers need to make themselves “im­mune” to automation as much as possible. I believe that this does not mean that basic skills do not matter. In fact, we are seeing high returns to cognitive skills, especially non-routine skills.

These skills are:

  • Problem-solving skills to think critically and analyze
  • Learning skills to acquire new knowledge
  • Communication skills, including reading and writing
  • Personal skills for self-management, making sound judgments and managing risks
  • Social skills for collaboration, teamwork, management, leadership, and conflict resolution

Prepare students for the future world of work
Automation implies both deskilling and the need for new skills. For many developing countries, nurturing basic skills remains the most urgent priority. Early reading fluency is paramount, since in the digital economy lifelong learning becomes the key to success. In addition, skills needed for success are not likely to come from the usual sources. The most promising models of education and training that can deliver basic and new skills focus on the elements of effective education systems. Systems that do well prepare children early on, reform continuously, and use information for improvement and accountability.

The following components are necessary to achieving such reform:

  1. Assessment: Measurement is the cornerstone of education planning and reform aiming to improve quality. Countries that are unable to determine where their education system stands currently will find it difficult to make improvements or to reach their goals. One example of success in this area can be found in Jordan, where use of international tests for benchmark­ing and the use of feedback loops led to impressive gains.
  2. Autonomy: Empowering schools will support quality improvements. This includes giving them ownership, resources, and voice.
  3. Accountability: Accountability increases time on task and academic achievement. An ac­countability-based system usually entails a shift of decision-making authority from the gov­ernment to the community, which is represented by school governing boards and integrated by teachers, parents, and community members.
  4. Attention to teachers: Studies across the world show that a good teacher—one that adds value to the learning process—can be effective in helping students to improve their learning out­comes. The top-performing school systems recruit their teachers from the top third of each graduate cohort.
  5. Attention to early childhood development (ECD): Such programs may be the most cost-effective investment. Empirical evi­dence demonstrates that quality ECD interventions increase educational success and adult productivity, and decrease public expenditures later on, as in the case of Jamaica.
  6. Attention to culture: Culture is important and often neglected. The use of the mother tongue as the language of instruction is one cultural area frequently disputed in many countries. In many countries, a significant number of students do not speak the national language in the home, which has practical implications for education. Schools using mother tongues as the language of instruction have higher attendance and promotion rates, and lower repetition and dropout rates.

To improve learning outcomes and prepare students for the world of work, countries must develop a system to determine current learning levels and future learning aims. Policymakers need to consider each aspect of the education system in defining an appropriate reform that will provide an inclusive and holistic approach to improving education outcomes. If this happened, then it wouldn’t matter much whether or not the robots are coming.

Originally published in the World Bank’s Education for Global Development blog.  A paper under the same title as this blog post was prepared for the 2016 Brookings Blum Roundtable.  All our resources on skills and jobs are available here.

News and Research 32

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