On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that created a vision of peace and prosperity for the world. As part of that vision, the Universal Declaration sought to achieve elementary education everywhere.
Though first set forth more than 65 years ago, after multiple reassessments and delays, today the world is on track to achieve the goal of universal primary school completion by 2015. It is on the eve of this significant accomplishment that MIT-educated economist and Harvard professor Lant Pritchett reveals a startling reassessment of the progress that has been made, or rather, the lack thereof, and he suggests that the world take a different route to accomplish the goal of universal education.
In his new book, “The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning,” Pritchett draws on previous research to present the idea of two kinds of school systems: centralized “spider” organizations that act as top-down systems of schooling, as opposed to decentralized “starfish” organizations that operate on an innovative, grass-roots style of learning. Pritchett shows how most of the world’s school systems are government-owned spider organizations that developed as a result of the rise of the nation-state. Such government-controlled spider systems of education were never designed to maximize learning; rather, they were meant to be instruments of socialization, or vehicles for the teaching and instilling of nationalist beliefs, ideas and values.
Consequently, most school systems around the world never attained significant levels of learning. Most were satisfied with simply increasing the number of “inputs” — more schoolhouses, more teachers, more supplies, etc. As a result, though the world is coming close to attaining the goal of universal primary schooling, the world is far from achieving the intention behind that goal — to increase learning to best prepare the planet’s youths to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
In India, 65 percent of children in grade two could not solve a grade one arithmetic problem of adding two single-digit numbers — that in and of itself is not the problem. The real problem, Pritchett argues, is that by the time these kids reach fifth grade, only 61 percent can solve such single-digit arithmetic problems. When it comes to three-digit addition, the learning curve is even flatter. After three years of schooling (from grade two to grade five) only one in five children learned to add three-digit numbers. Pritchett posits that such findings indicate more than a simple inability to solve arithmetic problems — they portend a deeper lack of conceptual learning.
Not being able to grasp the concept of space in a three-digit number can prevent children from going on to learn more advanced concepts, such as weight, definitions or fractions. These problems extend beyond the subject of math — similar findings exist in studies on language ability, for example being able to read a complex passage.
Correlated problems often exist with practical skills — telling time or handling money. The defining issue is not so much the inability of students to solve mathematical problems or to read passages at their grade level as it is the lack of progress throughout the children’s years in school. Pritchett’s views on the matter are direct: “The relationship between the number of years children attend school and what they actually learn, is too darn flat.” The reason many schools are able to get away with such dismal learning is a concept called isomorphic mimicry.
In evolution, the pressure to survive is so great that organisms mimic the survival characteristics of another organism without actually performing the survival function it pretends to have. One example of such isomorphic mimicry is the scarlet king snake. The scarlet king snake is relatively harmless; however, because of its bright red, black and yellow coloring, it manages to effectively look like the highly poisonous and dangerous eastern coral snake. In this manner, the scarlet king snake manages to survive by simply looking dangerous without actually being dangerous. Pritchett argues that this evolutionary effect has parallels in the world of education.
Through isomorphic mimicry, many ineffective school systems continue to receive funding and in effect “survive” in the ecological landscape of schooling. Parents continue to send their children to “buildings that look like schools but don’t produce learning … depriving