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Two affordable policies to make a difference in education

May 13,2023 - Last updated at May 13,2023

One thing that taxpayers and politicians agree on practically everywhere is that more money should be spent on children’s education. This seems like a no-brainer: Better education means kids get a better start in life. But we need to be careful. Many popular educational investments deliver little or no learning, while we rarely hear about the most effective investments.

In the early 2000s, “One Laptop Per Child” was touted as a revolutionary game-changer in education with the support of charismatic leaders and politicians: It was supposed to be “the laptop that saved the world”. Yet, when the policy was finally evaluated, there were “no impacts on academic achievement or cognitive skills” whatsoever.

Indeed, it is easy to spend a fortune on well-intentioned initiatives that deliver little or no learning. India increased spending per primary school pupil by 71 per cent over just seven years, but reading and maths test scores declined sharply. Indonesia doubled education spending to pay teachers more and achieve the lowest class sizes in the world, yet a large, randomised controlled study showed that this had absolutely no impact on student learning.

In fact, the approaches taken most often by governments, increasing salaries for teachers, lowering class sizes, and building more schools, are costly and do little or nothing for learning. Yet, they are often the go-to solutions for international pledges like the education promises in the Sustainable Development Goals. These expansive goals have been agreed to by all governments in the world, but their 2030 education promises are impossibly ambitious. On current best trends, we’ll be at least a quarter-century late.

Indeed, the world is failing across all its promises from hunger and poverty, over climate and corruption to health and inequality. The reason is clear: politicians decided to promise everything. The current global priorities include an impossible 169 promises. Having 169 priorities is indistinguishable from having none.

This year, the world will be at halftime for its 2030 promises, yet it will be nowhere near halfway. It is time to identify and prioritize the most effective policies. My think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, is doing exactly that: Together with several Nobel laureates and more than a hundred leading economists, we have been working for years to identify where each dinar can do the most good.

The problem is urgent for the poorer half of the world. Children are mostly in school but learn little. Of nearly half a billion primary school children, almost 80 per cent learning minimal reading and maths skills. Instead of unrealistically promising hundreds of billions of dollars to achieve little or no extra learning, we should look for smart and effective solutions first.

Our new peer-reviewed research shows that two affordable policies can make an amazing difference.

The first proven approach helps pupils to learn more effectively. Almost universally, school classes put all nine-year-olds in one grade, ten-year-olds in another, etc. But many of the children in each of those classes are either far behind and ready to give up or far ahead and bored.

An effective way of addressing this is using tablets to teach students one hour a day. With existing educational software, the tablet quickly assesses the level of the student and starts teaching exactly at that level. For one hour a day, that student is taught at his or her right level, boosting learning. After just one year, testing shows that the student has learned what would normally have taken three full years.

The second proven strategy is “structured pedagogy” helping teachers teach better. A trial in Kenya was so successful that the approach was adopted for the whole country. With a full year of semi-structured teaching plans, coaching, and encouraging text messages, the project helps teachers provide more engaging and useful instruction. Studies show this delivers learning that is equivalent to almost one extra year of schooling.

Each extra year of learning not only boosts a child’s lifelong prospects but also benefits a country’s entire economy. Enacting these two policies across the poor half of the world would cost less than $10 billion. But it would deliver long-term economic productivity growth worth more than $600 billion. Every dollar delivers an outstanding $65 dollars of social benefits.

This is much better than current promises to spend hundreds of billions on initiatives that do little or nothing to improve learning.

Improving the futures of children is indeed a no-brainer. Considering our scarce resources, we should prioritise spending $10 billion on proven, effective approaches and deliver on the most important education pledge of all: radically improved learning.


Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution

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