Grrrrr, Learning Crisis: Reflection on the relationship between learning crisis and teaching crisis
Author: Ariunkhishig Gonchigdorj
“Nearly two-thirds of 10-year-olds are estimated to be unable to read and understand a simple text. Without urgent action, this global learning crisis will become a generational catastrophe.” (UNICEF1)
The Human Development Index (HDI) is often considered a better measure of living standards than GDP per capita because it incorporates years of schooling as an educational factor and life expectancy at birth as a health factor, in addition to GDP per capita as an income factor. As I used to explain to my students, a healthy, educated person with a good income would be better equipped to afford and sustain a higher quality of life. However, I must now admit that we have been overly optimistic in equating years of schooling with education. Specifically, we assumed that children spending more years in school would acquire more knowledge and skills, thereby enabling them to enjoy improved living conditions. While education undoubtedly enhances an individual's productivity and potential for higher income, it raises the question of how safe it is to assume that years spent in school directly translate to the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The world has made tremendous progress over the past 50 years in its collective attempt to reach universal primary education. According to the World Bank statistics, the percentage of net enrollment in primary education rose from barely 72% in 1970 to almost 90% in 2018 (World Bank, 2020). Nonetheless, before country leaders could kick back and relax with the thought of higher economic growth now that practically everyone was in school, we all gradually got introduced to the terms “Learning crisis.” Countries were experiencing a phenomenon where many students were failing to acquire basic reading skills by the age of 10 despite the highest percentage of school enrollment. Apparently, learning requires more than a student’s physical presence in a classroom (Pritchett et al., 2013).
Although the learning crisis is a global phenomenon, it is more prominent and devastating in less developed countries. During a lecture on Education and development cooperation with Riikka Suhonen, we analyzed a graph taken from the UNESCO's 2021 report on Global Education Monitoring. According to the graph, approximately 90 percent of students in North America and Europe complete their education without delays and attain minimum proficiency, whereas only 20 percent of students in Sub-Saharan Africa achieve the same proficiency level within the expected timeframe. Even if we include all the children who eventually gain basic proficiency, the number for Sub-Saharan Africa does not go any higher than 30 percent (UNESCO, 2021/2022). In general, according to the 2019 data, about 57 percent of the children in low- and middle-income countries fail to acquire basic proficiency. Unfortunately, school closures due to COVID-19 deepened the crisis and studies now indicate the percentage is estimated to be 70 percent (UNICEF, 2022). What are the implications of these numbers for these countries and for these children?
Learning crisis deepens the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries, high- income and low-income families
I can bet that every economist would swear education breaks the spell of the vicious cycle; it promises development for countries, and better living standards for children. According to economic theories, education increases the productivity of human resources, which leads to more efficient utilization of the capital resources and technology. This often translates as better economic competitiveness, economic growth, and development for the country and higher earnings, improved social status, and higher living standards for the individuals. Thus, it is only natural for the policy makers to see education as a path to development. By joining the declaration “Education for all,” many developing countries were able to achieve a solid and significant increase in the school enrollment since 2000 due to passing of compulsory schooling laws, and the elimination of school fees (Angrist et al., 2022).
Back in my country, there are children who walk more than 5 km in –30°C to reach school and spend school days without a proper meal because their homes are far, and lunch is expensive. Some families even accumulate debt to send their children to school. My country allocates 13.2 percent of the total state budget to education-related expenses (National Statistics Office of Mongolia, 2022), which is significantly higher than the OECD average of 10.6 percent or Finland's 9.9 percent. Yet, despite nearly universal school enrollment, 38 percent of 10-year-olds in Mongolia are affected by the learning crisis (World Bank, 2022).
If we dig deeper into the learning crisis, particularly within low- and middle-income countries, children from low socio-economic backgrounds are hit harder by learning poverty. Many of these children live in remote areas and face multifaceted discrimination based on factors such as gender, disability, ethnicity, and language of instruction (Imchen & Ndem, 2020). For these children and their families, who strive to overcome these barriers in pursuit of a better future, the learning crisis takes a toll—financially, socially, and emotionally. While sending children to school incurs costs for a country, it's an investment worth making because true development hinges on learning, not just schooling. However, if the learning crisis persists, the consequences go beyond monetary considerations. Countries suffer from deepening socio-economic inequality, reduced global competitiveness, and diminished potential for economic development. If the learning crisis isn't efficiently and promptly addressed, we risk widening the gap between high- and low-income countries even further. Thus, learning crisis, also known as learning poverty, is one of the pressing challenges for global education and achieving global justice.
Learning crisis is teaching crisis in disguise
Learning starts with teaching. For effective teaching that leads to learning to happen, we need teachers who are present, ready, and motivated to teach (Pritchett et al., 2013). Thus, it is no wonder that there is growing evidence that the learning crisis, at its core, is a teaching crisis (World Bank, 2019). Firstly, there is a global challenge of teacher shortage, with not enough teachers in the classroom. Secondly, many teachers in the classroom lack the necessary academic and pedagogical readiness to teach. Thirdly, fewer teachers are motivated to teach due to lower pay and poor working conditions. Collectively, these give an overall idea on why the teaching crisis is happening.
To gain a deeper understanding of the teaching crisis, we need to examine the causes of teacher shortages, their consequences, and the policies implemented to address them. During recent years, education researchers and international organizations have directed our attention to the issue of teacher shortages, defined as 'the inability to fill vacancies at current wages with qualified individuals in the required fields' (Sutcher et al., 2016). As UNESCO reported, the global shortage of primary school teachers stands at 44.4 million, with Sub-Saharan countries facing the most severe challenges, where over 90 percent of schools are severely understaffed, exacerbating the crisis on a global scale (UNESCO, 2022).
Shortage, as an economic term, is defined as a situation that occurs when the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied at a given price level. This definition effectively highlights the problem at hand: there are not enough qualified teachers willing to work for the wages that governments typically offer in public schools. On one hand, more students are coming into school, more subjects now need to be offered because of drastic socio- economic changes globally, and some policy regulations are aiming to reduce the class sizes (Garcia & Weiss, 2019). Consequently, there is a continuous increase in the demand for teachers.
Unfortunately, the labor market for teachers is not a free market. Wages do not fluctuate in response to shifts in demand and supply since public education is funded by the government, and therefore, wages for teachers are set by them. Unless there is an increase in the number of teachers willing to work for the given wage or the government offers higher wages, the issue of teacher shortages will persist. Furthermore, due to factors such as heavy workload, low pay, and a declining interest in the teaching profession, the prospects for a natural increase in the supply of teachers are limited. The percentage of college entrants choosing a career in teaching has sharply declined, teacher attrition rates are on the rise, and the likelihood of former teachers returning to the profession is not promising either (Sutcher et al., 2016).
Teacher shortage itself is also fueling the problem as it demands more from the teachers due to larger class size, decline in student performances, increase in teacher workload, etc. Unfortunately, there has not been done much to support the teachers to meet those job demands effectively. Consequently, teachers are feeling burned out, stressed, and unmotivated to teach. Learning will not happen when the teacher is not motivated to teach.
Teachers who are not socially and economically supported cannot be fully present in the classroom. In low- and middle-income countries, teacher absenteeism ranges from 3 to 27 percent. For example, in Tanzania, as of 2014, an average of 14.4 percent of teachers were absent from school, with 46.7 percent absent from classrooms. Only 47 percent of scheduled teaching time was devoted to actual teaching (Han & Peirolo, 2022). These absences are often attributed to factors such as low pay, inadequate health and social benefits, heavy workloads, and the inability to afford family care.
This is the inconvenient truth that governments are not addressing properly. Many education systems pay little attention to teachers' knowledge, their classroom practices, and, in some cases, even their attendance (World Bank, 2019). Judging from the policy measures taken by the Mongolian government, it seems they are more focused on meeting numerical targets and closing the shortage gap, rather than addressing the root of the problem. Similar to many other governments, the Mongolian government has taken measures to increase the supply of teachers by simplifying the path to becoming a teacher, rather than making the teaching profession economically and socially attractive. In March 2023, the Government of Mongolia issued a decree to reduce the threshold score required to enter teacher institutes (for primary teachers, technology teachers, and certain subject teachers) (Badamgarav, 2023). In August 2023, another decree was issued to waive tuition fees entirely for students entering teacher institutions. The consequences of such policy measures, solely aimed at increasing the number of teachers, can lead to another type of shortage: a qualitative shortage of teachers, especially in circumstances where teacher institutions are not strong. Teachers who are academically and pedagogically capable will deliver effective teaching, leading to positive learning outcomes. Being confident in teaching, knowledgeable in the teaching subjects, and having experience in teaching all have a positive impact on job satisfaction for the teachers (Admiraal, 2022). Qualitative shortage not only further deepens the learning crisis but also worsens the teaching crisis. It should not be easy to enter the teaching profession. Between 2012-2016, 89 percent of the Tanzanian public-school primary teachers were Grade A teachers, meaning that large majority of the primary teachers only completed 2-year teacher certificate program (Han & Peirolo, 2021). At the same time, only 15.6 percent of the primary school teachers in Tanzania were able to score at least 80 percent on primary school language and mathematics assessment (Pritchett, 2015). We cannot expect teachers who are not capable of passing the primary school language and math assessment to teach and educate the children with proper knowledge and skill.
Education is considered as merit good. Its benefits are not entirely recognized by the consumers; thus, without public financing and provision, education will be under consumed. With this, we are assuming that government provision and funding of public education will be entirely beneficial to every member of society. However, the current situation reveals that in many countries, mostly low- and middle-income, public funds (taxpayers' money) and effort are going down the drain as being in school is not leading to learning or acquisition of knowledge, the situation also known as learning crisis. Children and families from marginalized communities are defying odds to be in school; unfortunately, government policies are not necessarily directed at guaranteeing a better future for them through education. To develop as a nation, to achieve socio-economic equality within the country, governments need to start taking policy measures that would lead to long-term positive impacts on learning crisis. In order to do so, the teaching crisis needs to be resolved through impactful policy measures towards rectifying teacher shortage. We need to remember that policies should not be aimed at solving teacher shortage statistically, but should be targeted at improving working conditions, bringing in more tangible and intangible resources for the teachers to meet the demands of the teaching job, higher pay, and better social status. When it is socially and economically attractive to teach, more students will choose the teaching profession and more teachers will remain in the profession, and that will bring a natural increase in the supply of teachers, good ones too. Being a teacher should bring pride, not stress. Teaching should result in learning, not crisis!
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Ariunna is from Mongolia and has completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Economics with a focus on Development Economics and Macroeconomics. She worked as corporate executive before started her career as a teacher and an educator. She is passionate about education policy and the role of education in the economic and social development. She is currently working at HundrED, Finland based organisation specialised in K-12 education innovation. Ariunna loves traveling and spending time in nature with her family.
Key Words: Learning crises, Teaching crises, Learning poverty, Qualitative shortage of teachers