Kaffenberger, Michelle, and Lant Pritchett. "More School or More Learning? Evidence from Learning Profiles from the Financial Inclusion Insights Data." May 2017.
We use a unique set of nationally representative data of adults from ten developing countries and a unique measure of literacy - a direct assessment of reading - to examine the link between targets for schooling completion and goals for education. In six of the ten countries only about half or less younger adults (18 to 37) who completed primary schooling can read a few sentences without help. Our simulations show even had the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary schooling completion been achieved for these adults there was too little learning for this to produce the new SDG goal of universal literacy. For instance, in India since only 51 percent of primary school completers can read, even if the 23 percent who had not completed primary school had instead completed, almost a third of younger adults would still be unable to read. We also use the data to compare males and females and show that, although eliminating gender differences in schooling completed would produce improvements in girls' literacy, in many countries this would leave a third of women still unable to read. In nearly all countries steepening the learning profile (for all students) to the best-performing of the ten low- and lower-middle income countries would lead to greater gains for girls than achieving gender parity. Letting girls learn will require both eliminating gender gaps in access but also improving how much is learned while in school.