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Invisible Children at School
Posted By Dr. Radhika Iyengar

Since the past five years a hidden crises in education has been un-covered. This hidden crisis has to do with what goes on inside schools. The international discourse now has moved from enrollment to learning. This debate centers on the idea that there has been a lot of progress in improving enrollment rates, however there has been very little emphasis on the learning levels of children who attend schools regularly (Center for Universal Education at Brookings, 2011). This learning crisis is not a one-country phenomenon as recent evidence on learning levels show that this trend is visible in more than just a handful of countries (Beatty and Pritchett, 2012). Recently the UN Secretary General announced the Education First campaign. The objective of the campaign goes much beyond basic enrollment push in education. The main priorities include putting everyone in school, improving the quality of learning and fostering global citizenship. Clearly, this is a step in the right direction.

Recent trends from East Africa suggest that in Kenya 11 out of 100 children in class  8 cannot do simple class 2 division (UWEZO Kenya, 2012). Furthermore, 7 out of 100 can neither read a simple English nor a Kiswahili story. UWEZO tests results from Kenya shows that nationally only 3 out of 10 children in class 3 can do class 2 work.  UWEZO Uganda (2011) has a similar story to tell.  In Uganda at least 9 out of every 10 (92%) of all children in P3  could not read a P2 English level story text. The report also shows that of all children in P3 who could read a P2 English level story text, about 9 out of every 10 could comprehend the story implying that at least I out of every ten children could not comprehend the story. Results from UWEZO Tanzania  (2011) are not encouraging either. Only 3 out of 10 Standard  3 pupils can read a basic story in Kiswahili and only 1 out of 10 Standard 3 pupils can read a basic story in English. The results are no better in mathematics. Only 3 out of 10 students can add, subtract and multiply.

These discouraging treads are repeated over and over again in multiple contexts. In Gambia, Mozambique and Nepal more than 50% of the children are not able to read a single word of one-paragraph story after being in school for two years (Pritchett and Banerji, 2013).  Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ) data shows that less than 40% of the children attending Grade 6 have reached the reading proficiency levels required at the Grade level in countries like Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Kenya (Pritchett and Banerji, 2013). The same unfortunate story is repeated in mathematics literacy. The developing country average Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) figures show that India has the lowest score on the latest round of TIMSS. The India learning levels trends are been more disheartening as they show a downward trend in learning levels. ASER tests in 2011 reports that not only are the children not able to perform at grade level, the overall learning levels have decreased over the past years (ASER, 2011). ASER shows that 50% of the children in Standard 5  are not even able to able to read a Standard 2 level text (Chavan and Banerji, 2012). This means that children have spent 3 additional years of schooling with half of them not learning even the basics. ASER 2011 data shows that 65% of the children who were enrolled in Std. 4 are at least 3 years below grade level even after 4 years of schooling (Chavan and Banerji, 2012).  ASER Pakistan report (2013) also suggests the same trend. Only about 50 percent of children in class 5 can read a story in Urdu. For English this figure is 43 and for division it is 43 percent.  The average years of schooling in South Asia is 9.2 for girls and 10.2 for males . Given this rate, the students have on average 9 years to learn what they can before they end their education. But if they are learning rate has a 3 year lag, by the 9th year, there is a high probability that the child would have fallen behind what he/she is expected to learn at grade level.

The international community has been discussing about the “Invisible children” who tend to live on the streets or work as child labor and are usually missed-out by most surveys. However, there is a large pool of  “invisible children” who miss out on learning basic numeracy and literacy skills each day at school. This figure is usually very hard to find. Education movements like ASER (India and Pakistan) and UWEZO in East Africa are effective mechanisms to un-cover this learning crises. Learning surveys implemented by these organizations are easy 10 minutes assessments and act as a “Dip-Stick” to get the pulse on learning. The simplicity of the tool aids in its implementation in villages or communities. Usually eager parents surround this activity to know about their child’s academic abilities. Therefore this learning survey becomes more of a social audit on learning. This social movement is all-inclusive and involves parents, children, village leaders and government officials. Thus the learning results are shared with the people who are affected with this crisis the most and also have the capability to come up with local solutions. To resolve any crises, people must be made aware of the crises. ASER and UWEZO are effective mechanism to make people aware of this hidden crisis.

ASER Pakistan (2013).  Annual Status of Education Report 2013. Retrieved from

Chavan, M., Banerji, R. (2012). The Challenge of Achieving Desirable Levels of Learning in Elementary Education. The Journal of Governance

UWEZO Kenya 2012. Are Our Children Reading? Summary of Key Findings. Primary Facts on Learning Levels. UWEZO, Kenya
UWEZO Uganda 2011. Are Our Children Reading? Summary of Key Findings. Primary Facts on Learning Levels. UWEZO, Uganda
UWEZO Tanzania 2011. Are Our Children Reading? Summary of Key Findings. Primary Facts on Learning Levels A UWEZO, Tanzania.
Pritchett, Lant., and Banerji, Rukmini. (2013). Schooling is not education! Using assessments to change the politics of non-learning. Center for Global Development Study Group on Measuring Learning Outcomes.

Dr. Radhika Iyengar is the Director of Education, Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development, at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is also the Chair for the South Asia Special Interest Group at CIES (2013-2015). She received her Ph.D. in Economics and Education (with distinction) from Teachers College, Columbia University on her dissertation Social capital as a determinant of schooling in rural India: A mixed methods study. Previously, she earned a Master¹s in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, India. Her professional experience includes working in an India-based non-profit organization, Pratham, for multiple years. Her research interests are educational program evaluation and international educational development.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of ASER Pakistan.
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