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Learning at the bottom of the pyramid: the gateway to sustainable development

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

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session


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 for the improvement of education worldwide. 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.

The origins of this effort date back to 1990, when the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand embraced both access and quality of education and learning. In 2000, these international priorities were reinforced in the UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015, and then in the next round of UN goals—the SDGs—learning was again at the center of 17 broad goals to be achieved by 2030.

The growth in interest and support of children’s learning has raised acute challenges, especially with respect to the BoP. Research on learning gaps among the poor in high income countries has been a longstanding area of interest (e.g., Duncan & Murnane, 2014; OECD, 2012; Reardon & Portilla, 2016), along with substantial effort to create measurement tools for diverse populations (e.g., Dorans & Cook, 2016). Even so, the scientific community has, to date, invested only modest effort in understanding and narrowing learning differences in the BoP in LICs. While some lessons can be learned from high-income countries, there are also unique issues in LMICs that warrant systematic research—issues that are highlighted in this panel.

The four papers are provided by senior scholars in the field. The first paper (Wagner) entitled “Learning at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Research and policy directions” considers learning equity issues within BoP populations in LICs. Building on recent research, the paper concludes with recommendations for reducing learning inequities, and the potential for improvement of other SDGs. The second paper (Dowd), entitled “Visualizing learning equity: New options for communicating about learning gaps and gains” reviews the work of Save the Children on gathering and presenting evidence on learning in the BoP, and the role of visualizing techniques as part of policy-formation activities in development. The third paper (Oketch) entitled “Tripartite education and inequality in Kenya: Quality effects and life chances” considers the case of Kenya’s selection processes in secondary education, and their impact on learning equity and workplace opportunities. The fourth paper (Rose et al.) entitled “Beyond the rising tide of access in Ethiopia: What consequences for equitable learning at the bottom of the pyramid?” describe the evolution of educational access in Ethiopia and the challenges remaining in terms of who stays in school and learning equity issues that result. Following these four papers and three discussants (Hinton, Crouch and Wolf).

The overall focus of this panel is to expand the conversation about learning for all in low-income countries by bringing greater attention to reducing learning inequalities within countries, as a way not only to increase equity, but also to raise national levels of learning. This panel will offer ideas relevant to improving learning impact, and implications for the other UN SDGs that rely on learning to address future global challenges.

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