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By Sundus Khalid, MPhil Education Leadership and Management ’20, LUMS School of Education

Last week, the LUMS Syed Ahsan Ali & Syed Maratib School of Education (SOE) in Lahore, Pakistan hosted a talk with development economist Lant Pritchett, entitled “The Global Learning Crisis: What We Do Know, What We Don’t.” Pritchett is an Associate at the Building State Capability Program at Harvard’s Center for International Development, and the RISE Research Director at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

Pritchett began by stating that nearly everything that is known about education reforms — everything that donors are bringing in as solutions — won’t work. Addressing an at-capacity room of students, faculty, staff, and prominent figures from civil society and the education sector in Pakistan, Pritchett cautioned that the world is confronted with a significant learning crisis. This crisis is from top to bottom, with the “poor getting no education at all, and the rich getting a bad education,” he said. “It’s not just an issue of the developing world. Even the elite are not doing well.”

He explained that the past 50 years have seen a massive expansion of schooling, but the educational outcomes of this expansion are not what we had hoped for. Instead, it has resulted in a “system aligned for access,” Pritchett said, where most education systems have become systems that “select students who got it right — selected the capable,” which doesn’t lead to quality learning. Now, we’re faced with a global learning crisis that cannot be fixed through piecemeal reforms.

In what he termed the “great betrayal,” Pritchett remarked that the youth have been led to believe that if they go to school, their life opportunities will be different. But, in reality, “the youth are not emerging from their schooling as qualified adults.” According to Pritchett, these young adults are deficient in their capabilities, their levels of learning are low, and they are unprepared for real life. Sharing startling statistics from around the world, he revealed that the capabilities of college graduates can be as low as high school drop-outs.

In his critique of global reform agendas, Pritchett singled out some strategies that would ultimately fail to improve the quality of education:

  • The first is simply to “wait and see,” letting technology and economic growth take its course. Yet, this method would take about 150 years to show any results, given the current quality of education and levels of learning.
  • The second strategy is additional schooling — to insist on longer and longer schooling with the belief that if students are not learning in primary, they might learn by secondary or tertiary. He shared the example of Indonesia, where the fraction of youth completing universal secondary education increased from 40 to 60 percent between the years 2000 and 2014. While this should have led to increased capacities, the average ability of students to answer basic questions actually fell.
  • The third strategy, “top-down control,” has not worked either. Likening education systems to a “dysfunctional organization that has lost its sense of purpose,” Pritchett stated, “you cannot restore purpose with data, you can’t make Pinocchio a real boy by adding more strings, and you can’t beat a turtle to move.”

So, what did he propose could work?

The alternative proposal is “an education system that is coherent around learning.” According to Pritchett, it must focus on “universal, early conceptual and procedural mastery of basic skills.” Countries around the world are racing through long curricula by way of rote procedural mastery, leaving no time for conceptual mastery. The current practice needs to change — otherwise, changing education’s trajectory will be difficult. Learning entails a “transformation in the learner,” Pritchett said, and that requires an increase in basic capabilities of learners. A coherent education system would require society to agree on reasonable and coherent learning objectives.

Concluding his talk, Pritchett noted that, though improvement is going to be difficult, we must be realistic about the challenge confronting us.


Lant Pritchett’s talk was jointly organized by the Mahbub Ul Haq Research Center at LUMS, Harvard Club of Pakistan, Oxbridge Society of Lahore, the Harvard Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP), Research for Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Pakistan, and Country Research Team (CRT).