Among some of the achievements that Bangladesh takes pride in is the rate of increase in school enrolment. We have sufficient reason to celebrate the good news of increased enrolment, especially of girls, in schools over the last decades. But a concern of equal degree may also emerge in the scene. We observe these days that students are not learning much in schools. A public seminar by Research & Evaluation Division of BRAC warns us of not getting complacent over accomplishment in enrolments. In fact, a learning crisis seems to afflict the South Asian region as a whole.
Children's learning may be suffering irrespective of how far they progress through the education system. This has become a serious concern not only in Bangladesh, but also in entire South Asia where children, especially the girls, drop out early. A World Bank document in 1992 covering 5,200 individuals found that majority of those who completed primary schooling failed to attain minimum standards in four areas: reading, writing, written mathematics, and oral mathematics. In fact, this may be called a sordid situation of 'Schooling without learning'. A study on education, by Niaz Asadullah and Fatema Zohra, based on a survey conducted in 31 sub-districts, confirms the weak relationship between schooling and learning in Bangladesh. The findings are very interesting with major policy implications.
According to one study, the rate of children failing a simple four-item written numeracy test (where ability to read and write is required) is 52 per cent among children completing primary school and 68 per cent among those having education below primary level. Given that these tests are designed to assess rudimentary mathematics skills taught at the primary level, they highlight the very low level of achievement in rural Bangladesh. Secondly, the sample children, on an average, increase their written math scores (i.e. percentage of correctly answered questions) by 6.4 percentage points per year of schooling (grades 1-9). Once we account for child attributes, parental characteristics and a measure of cognitive ability, called Raven's scores, the figure is even lower - only 4.0 percentage points per school year or grade completed. Thirdly, among adolescents who have recently completed five years of schooling - called primary school graduates - the sample survey shows that 30 per cent do not have basic numeracy skills while 33 per cent and 66 per cent cannot read two simple sentences in Bangla and English respectively. Thus, the evidence indicates that a large proportion of adolescents continue post-primary schooling in order to attain these basic numeracy and literacy skills, even though they are supposed to have achieved this by the end of primary schooling. These findings do not change even after taking account of various correlates.
What are the reasons behind the slip between the cup and the lip? Obviously a host of socio-economic and even political factors could be adduced to this such as disincentive to teachers on account of very low pay, the poor logistics in classrooms, the overcrowded class, selection of teachers through corruption, politicisation of the management committee, etc., that have historically bedevilled better education in rural areas of Bangladesh.
Besides those factors, one could also cite another important reason. Social customs and norms outside schools may also limit opportunities for learning. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of early marriage cases in the world. Millions of children are raised by mothers who are victims of child marriage and therefore constrained to assist children in learning activities at home. Using the Bangladesh data, researchers documented the intergenerational consequences of early marriage on mothers and their adolescent children sampled from the poorest 19 north-eastern districts of this country.
There is a causal effect of mother's early marriage on children's cognitive development. Moreover, the effect is significant only for daughters. More interestingly, the survey data covering 64 districts reveal that two-thirds of Bangladeshi women (20-40 years old) reported themselves as "literate" (i.e. can read and write) and on an average have completed 07 years of schooling - implying that all of them primary graduates - but two-thirds of them failed in a simple combined test of literacy and numeracy even though they have good numeracy skills, and thus challenging the commonly perceived positive link between school completion and functional literacy. One, however, needs to note here that numeracy skill is a function of some outside-the-classroom factors such as workplace and nature of work. For example, it was found that women could develop important numeracy skills from outside their employment and participation in microcredit. But literacy depends on access to schools.
The preliminary findings generally confirm that children's learning in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh is suffering, irrespective of how far the children have progressed through education system. Given the shallow grade learning profiles, policies prioritising the universal secondary schooling would not even succeed in delivering universal primary standard learning in the region.
Failure to address the learning deficit is likely to be catastrophic for South Asian women, who have limited opportunities to gain literacy and numeracy skills in post-schooling years. As we presume, there are a few policy points raised by the researcher - recruiting qualified teachers and pay them higher salary, emphasise classroom teaching, improve training of teachers and finally, early marriage should be discouraged as it cuts an adolescent girl in two ways - disproportionately harming herself and her babies to come. Those who advocate lowering the age of marriage for girls should clearly bear the consequences in mind. Child marriage is like a poverty trap that affects not only the present mother, but also the future one and their generations to come. After a long journey of chasing quantity in the field of education, Bangladesh should immediately look at the quality of education to achieve one of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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