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Like many higher education establishments, the University of Liberia holds an annual entrance exam. This year the results came as a bit of a shock – the pass rate was precisely zero. Out of 25,000 people who sat the exam not one made the grade.

For most media outlets around the world this was a perfect ‘and finally…’ news item – but, writing for Businessweek, Charles Kenny gets to the real story, which is the enormous learning gap between the developed and developing world:

  • Analysis by Harvard’s Lant Pritchett suggests that the average eighth-grader in Ghana has test scores on math and science that would place her in the bottom one-five-hundredth of U.S. students. Even richer and more successful countries such as Argentina or Indonesia see scores on international math and science tests that would rank the average test-taker in the bottom 10 percent of the student population of a country like Denmark.”

You might think that students in less developed countries do much worse because they don’t get much schooling. But, in fact, the last few decades have seen rapid progress on access to formal education:

  • “Of the world’s population, about 7 out of 10 live in a country where pretty much every child completes primary school. The proportion of secondary-school-aged kids who are in classes has climbed from about half to two-thirds over the past 15 years…
  • “The learning gap helps to explain how developing countries can be so poor despite high educational attainment. In 2010 the average Kenyan adult had spent more years in school than the average French adult had as recently as 1985. Sadly, that didn’t convert into a Kenyan income per capita equal to France’s two decades ago—in fact, the gross domestic product per head in Kenya in 2010 was only 7 percent of France’s in 1985.”

Obviously a school in a remote part of Africa or India will only have a fraction of the resources available to a school in the developed world – and yet that doesn’t appear to be the key factor:

  • “From 2007 to 2011, India increased its per-student expenditure on elementary education by 80 percent while student learning outcomes were declining.”

Health outcomes are also improving across much of the developing world, with progress on indicators like child mortality out-stripping economic growth.

Charles Kenny argues that the major problem with schooling in poorer countries (including those that aren’t much poorer than the West) is simply the quality of the education provided. While children are spending more time in school they’re not necessarily learning much while they’re there.

Fortunately, experience shows that there's an affordable way of lifting standards:

  • “Testing is cheap—reviews of experience across countries suggests that an assessment system rarely costs more than 0.3 percent of the education budget. And countries that have introduced testing as part of a school reform effort have shown real results. Brazil and Chile have both introduced all-student testing regimes alongside accountability and autonomy reforms over the past few years, and both have seen better performance in international student assessments—Chile improved student learning at the fastest rate worldwide from 1995 to 2011.”

In this country we’ve become increasingly sceptical about the imposition of onerous reporting requirements on schools and other frontline public services. To a large extent, we’re right to be so. However, the lesson from elsewhere in the world is that an objective and transparent measure of performance can still make all the difference.

And there’s another lesson we should learn before it’s too late. The under-performance of schools in the developing world shows just how much untapped potential these countries possess. Sooner or later that potential will be released into economies that are already growing fast. We’d better be ready for the competition.

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