Measuring the scale of the learning crisis

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 258 million children were out of school – and now, due to the impact of the virus, an estimated 10.9 million primary and secondary students are at risk of not returning to education. In parallel, many children who are in school are failing to learn as the global learning crisis worsens.

Measuring the scale of the problem

As the learning crisis threatens to derail human capital development around the world, having a clear metric for understanding the extent of the crisis in any given country is critical.

By introducing the “Learning Poverty Indicator,” the World Bank has created a tool to do just that, by assessing the percentage of ten-year-olds who are unable to read or understand a simple story.

The indicator is comprised of two components: learning and schooling. Starting with the number of students who haven’t achieved basic reading proficiency (learning), the indicator is then adjusted based on the proportion of children who are out of school and assumed unable to read proficiently (schooling). This standard measure could help make it easier to gauge differences in attainment across countries and regions.

Based on simulations by the World Bank Learning Poverty (LP) team and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), prior to COVID-19, it is estimated that over half of all children in low- and middle-income countries (53%) were already learning-poor. Now, an additional 10% are expected to enter learning poverty, with the problem projected to be further exacerbated by the pandemic (see figure below).


Figure made available by Save Our Future

In low- and middle-income countries, over 50% of children are estimated to be in learning poverty. Further, 87% of all ten-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and 63% in the Middle East and North Africa are learning-poor.

When broadening learning poverty estimates to include children age 5-16 globally, an approximate 750 million lack age-appropriate literacy skills (see figure below).

These staggering figures all point to the urgent need to dramatically improve the quality of education.


Addressing the learning crisis

Education is at the center of building human capital – it provides children with opportunities to secure better paying jobs and broaden their opportunities. As such, the global learning crisis undermines sustainable growth and poverty reduction.

In 2019, World Bank Group President David Malpass announced a new global target to cut the learning poverty rate by at least half by 2030. He also called for “a dramatic improvement in the capacity to measure learning, particularly in low-income countries,” in order to better track progress.

Providing international standardization in literacy levels, the Learning Poverty Indicator is intended to raise awareness about the learning crisis and build the international will to tackle it. A critical step will be to introduce reforms and policies to shift education systems so that they focus on learning and not just the number of children in school.

However, current progress in reducing learning poverty is painfully slow, and COVID-19 is expected to hamper it even further, endangering the chances of meeting the 2030 milestone. Compounding the crisis, the learning losses resulting from COVID-19 could amount to approximately $10 trillion in earnings lost for the current generation of students.

As we look ahead to a post-pandemic world, there is a clear case to be made for governments to focus on eliminating learning poverty, given its significant impact on eradicating extreme poverty. Education has been proven to improve economic opportunities, with each additional year of schooling typically raising an individual’s earnings by 8–10%. Adults who finish primary school with no learning earn only 6% more than those who didn’t attend at all. Comparatively, those who finish primary school and learn to read will earn 38% more than those with no schooling.

We are now at an inflection point. COVID-19 must be used as an impetus for change in our education system, prompting global education leaders to focus on how we can rebuild better. If swift action is not taken to address the mounting learning crisis, we risk losing an entire generation of learners.