Lant Pritchett: “Schooling ain’t learning; education ain’t investment.”

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (South Africa) has released a great interview with Lant Pritchett focusing on how nations develop. I’ll post a few highlights in the coming days. To begin with, here’s a nice summary of one of the main themes of Pritchett’s work on education.


Ann Bernstein: Let’s move to education now. You’ve made a controversial statement, which forms part of the title of your book, that ‘schooling ain’t learning’. And more recently, you’ve followed that up with ‘spending ain’t investment’. What do you mean by these phrases and why are they so important?

Lant Pritchett: In the post-World War II period, at the start of the ‘development era’, there was a UN Declaration of Human Rights, which declared in Article 26 that every child had a right to education. What everyone meant by ‘education’ was that children would acquire the skills and capabilities they needed to be successful adults in their society: literacy, numeracy, thinking skills, and an array of other skills.

Subsequently, in countries around the world, there have been huge successes in putting ‘butts in seats’. Unfortunately, this has not, by and large, been accompanied by increases in the levels of education. There are many countries in the world where the skills acquired per unit of time in school is so small that children emerge from up to 10 years of schooling fundamentally ill-equipped for the world they face. So, we cannot simply assume that schooling is learning.

The extension of that idea is ‘spending ain’t investment’. It is only ‘investment’ if it works. If I worship a god of the ocean, and I throw gold into the ocean, and call that investment in my prosperity, I have made a mistake because there is no causal link between my spending and my prosperity. Unless you are causally right about the chain of events that leads from your spending to the desired outcomes, you can spend all you want and not actually improve outcomes. In Indonesia, which is a reasonably well functioning country, teacher’s pay was doubled and the amount of spending per child tripled over the past 20 years, yet learning has not budged a bit; if anything, it has deteriorated. I think people have confused ticking the box of spending money on a budget item called ‘Education’, with true investment in human beings.

Lant Pritchett in Conversation with Ann Bernstein

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