"The average kid in an Indian eighth grade classroom would be in first or second grade in the US. That's light years behind!"
The world has made dramatic gains in getting children — even very, very poor children — into school. But are they learning? The discomfiting conclusion from Lant Pritchett, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is, in many cases, no.
“The vast majority of countries will meet the Millennium Development Goal target for universal primary school completion, and very few countries will miss it by much,” he writes in his new book, “The Rebirth of Education: From 19th Century Schooling to 21st Century Learning.”
The change has been so rapid that the average Haitian or Bangladeshi in 2010 had more years of schooling than the average French or Italian person did in 1960. (That data looks at average years of schooling for people 15 and older, by the way.) Even repressive and nondemocratic countries have seen tremendous gains. “Good governments do schooling, but nearly all bad governments do it, too,” Mr. Pritchett writes.
But that does not mean that all that schooling has translated into much education, he says. For instance, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, less than half of surveyed children in fifth grade could read a story intended for second graders. About one in six students in fifth grade recognized letters but could not read words.
What can schools and countries do to make sure students are learning while they are in school? What are the consequences of this schooling-education gap? Mr. Pritchett and I discussed those issues in a recent interview. A lightly edited transcript follows.