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Title: Learning at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Research and policy directions

Wed, April 17, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Atrium (Level 2), Waterfront A


The United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) have placed a high priority on the quality of education—and on learning. This has led to substantial increases in attention to and international development assistance towards the improvement of educational quality worldwide. Yet, the development goals are mainly normative: that is, they tend to emphasize averages across nations, with relatively limited attention to variations within countries and to the groups performing at the low end of the distribution.

During the last several years, experts from around the world have sought to explore the scientific tensions related to understanding learning among poor and marginalized populations in low-income countries (LICs)¬—those at the “bottom of the pyramid” or BoP (Wagner & Castillo, 2014). International organizations, donor agencies, and many national governments often invoke BoP populations as the target of their investments—trying to help the poorest of the poor. Still, our understanding of learning¬ seems inadequate to the challenge ensuring learning for all.

In this presentation, the focus will be on the status of the research and policy dimensions of learning at the BoP. In a recent edited volume (Wagner et al., UNESCO, 2018), LEARNING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PYRAMID, international experts reviewed each of these dimensions. The findings were dramatic and concerning at the same time. We know a great deal about the variation in children’s learning outcomes that can be attributed to differences in socioeconomic status, language, and gender. And about that learning is influenced by factors like access to schools, the presence of trained teachers, and classroom size. In other words, we can detect variation in learning, and often identify likely sources of variation, but current research suggests that we are still far from knowing how to intervene in improving children’s learning at the BoP, and even further from understanding how to persuade policymakers that greater investment in children’s learning at the BOP is worth at least as much or more than investing in the middle or upper ends of the society.

There is also growing evidence that improved learning also has a broad impact on the broader SDGs. For example, research shows that: (a) early childhood education has major long-term payoffs in terms of reduced social costs; (b) when teachers teach better, learning achievement goes up, BoP student dropout rates go down, and greater opportunities for youth employment open up; and (c ) when adult women in the BoP learn to read, rates of HIV/AIDS go down. Evidence is beginning to show that improved equity in learning in BoP populations can impact on sustainable development even in terms of environment, migration and civil conflict.

This paper will conclude with a number of specific BoP research and policy recommendations needed that will lead to improved learning equity and sustainable development.


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