Insights: World Development Report

In saying little about girls’ education does the World Development Report actually say a lot?

The latest World Development Report focuses exclusively on education for the first time in history. The table of contents lists 63 items and exactly one of those items mentions gender. Should girls’ education advocates be alarmed? Or in saying little about girls’ education is the report actually saying a lot?

There is a solid case to be made that absolute deficits in learning outcomes dwarf in importance any gender-specific gaps in education. There aren’t consistent patterns in learning gaps between girls and boys. That doesn’t matter. The magnitude of the learning crisis outlined in the report is so extreme that it this is arguably the #1 concern for girls’ education. It just happens to be the #1 concern for boys’ education, too.

Why should girls’ education advocates be alarmed about the learning crisis? We don’t know everything about the pathway between girls’ education and all the benefits it’s known for like smaller families, healthier children, wealthier women and communities. But from what we do know, it seems like learning is critical. “Each additional year of female primary schooling is associated with roughly six fewer deaths per 1,000 live births, but the effect is about two-thirds larger in the countries where schooling delivers the most learning (compared with the least)” (pg 47). Without learning, girls’ education will amount to little.

By no means am I arguing that we should stop looking at gender differences in education or that we should stop tackling problems that have gendered dimensions. As I argued in my recent SSIR piece, even with learning outcomes we cannot assume that schooling alone will wash away gender inequity. (Prachi Srivastava’s review of the report also points to the ways that classroom learning reproduces societal values.) But our investments should focus on issues that will make the biggest difference for girls, and improving learning for everyone may be what will help girls the most.

Here are 5 other takeaways from the report, with a girls’ education lens:

(1) There is a lot to celebrate when it comes to getting girls into schools. They are attending at record high rates, and progress has been relatively fast: “It took the United States 40 years—from 1870 to 1910—to increase girls’ enrollments from 57 percent to 88 percent. Morocco achieved a similar increase in just 11 years” (pg 58). Educational parity for girls is one of the great successes in international development.

(2) Poverty drives lower school completion and lower learning outcomes. In fact, poverty is associated with less school completion across all contexts whereas gender is more context specific. It is the interplay between gender, poverty, and other disadvantages that influence school participation: “In Sub-Saharan Africa, poor rural girls are seven times less likely than non-poor urban boys to complete school; less than 1 in 20 of these girls is on track to complete secondary school” (pg 62).

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Similarly, the “learning crisis disproportionately affects children from poor households: they are far more likely to leave school without acquiring basic skills like literacy and numeracy” (pg 71). Female/male learning gaps are smaller in richer groups, although females are not always disadvantaged.

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Is tackling poverty the best route for influencing girls’ participationEvidence consistently shows that lowering the cost of education means more girls go to school, and yet over 40 percent of countries charge fees for lower secondary school. This is one area where there is a clear gap between evidence and practice. Eliminating fees for everyone may exacerbate the fact that “public education expenditure tends to favor wealthier, more powerful groups” who are more likely to be enrolled in higher levels of education (pg 184), but programs to alleviate costs specifically for vulnerable groups need wider adoption.

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(3) The report makes a strong case for investing in early childhood nutrition, stimulation, and care in order to set children on higher development trajectories. We don’t know much about gender differences in early childhood, but we do know that marginalized children tend to benefit from early intervention the most. That said, there are two huge caveats to investing in early childhood that the report mentions but spends little time elaborating on. The first is that “attending a low-quality center-based program can be worse than attending none at all” (pg 116). The second caveat? “The quality of subsequent learning environments in primary school is an important determinant of the long-term effects of preschool programs” (pg 116). In environments where providing high quality opportunities is difficult and where primary school is not delivering for children, will early childhood investments pay off?

(4) For interventions that target adolescent girls, it is important to cultivate socioemotional skills. The report is careful to emphasize that socioemotional skills are a complement to foundational skills like reading and math, not substitutes to them. It also argues that a focus on developing foundational skills is likely to “crowd in” other desirable outcomes. That said, the brain science outlined in the report acknowledges two important points. First, “although foundational cognitive skills become less malleable after age 10, some areas associated with socioemotional development remain highly malleable through early adulthood” (pg 69). As such, once students have missed out on developing foundational skills, the most effective way to improve their transition into work might be through an emphasis on socioemotional skills. Second, “certain socioemotional skills–such as self-esteem, positive identity, or leadership–are better acquired in middle childhood and during adolescence” (pg 103). Girls face special challenges in adolescence and socioemotional skills may be one of the best ways to support them at this stage.

(5) Finally, the report left me wondering how private schools are affecting education equity from a gender perspective. The report offers a measured perspective on the question “can private schooling be aligned to learning for all?” (pg 176-177). But in the heated debate about whether private providers are beacon or bane, I have heard little discussion of the gendered dimensions of privatization and this report is no exception. DFID’s rigorous literature review on the role and impact of private schools in developing countries finds that in many contexts–but not all–girls are less likely to access private schools than boys. In India, for example, I’ve attended government schools in Bihar where most of the students are girls, because their brothers are being sent to private schools. As the report points out, “even if the expansion of private schooling brings short-term benefits, it can undermine the political constituency for effective public schooling in the longer term,” which is all the more worrying if it is mostly girls left in the crippled public system.


All in all the World Development Report offers good food for thought for girls’ education, despite little explicit attention to the issue. If we are serious about girls’ education, the learning crisis cannot be ignored.