Often times, we know things are bad for us, but we do them anyway. Whether it’s cigarettes and alcohol, or doughnuts and pizza, we ignore the public campaigns that tell us not to. But what about when it comes to education? Surely when parents get information telling them their kids aren’t learning, they’ll take action against the school or the government? Not always.

Ten years ago, the global education community—including donors, think tanks, and NGOs—were mainly focused on getting kids to go to school. Millions of children have since enrolled in primary schools, marking a major achievement. But more recently these same folks discovered that the schools weren’t actually teaching kids very much, and so they set about to try to improve learning. 

Meanwhile, however, parents and communities within emerging economies don’t seem to share this concern, and this lack of demand could be one of the biggest barriers to getting kids reading and counting.

With the recent release of the Varkey Foundation’s Parent Survey, we get more insight into this issue. The survey asked 27,500 parents in 29 countries various questions relating to their children’s education. And the results, which point to a major asymmetry between parents’ satisfaction with schools, and what we know about learning outcomes (see chart below), provide some cause for alarm.

This asymmetry is most acute in emerging economies, where some of the lowest-performing education systems in the world, such as in India, have among the highest levels of parental satisfaction with their schools. This is in contrast to systems that perform well, such as South Korea, where parents report much lower levels of satisfaction with schools.

A look at parent satisfaction with their kids’ schools, compared to what kids are actually learning in school.

In India, Kenya, and other emerging economies, the disconnect between satisfaction and actual learning outcomes is stark:

  • Of 500 parents surveyed by the Varkey Foundation in Kenya, 92 percent thought the quality of teaching at their child’s school was good or fairly good, and 71 percent thought the schools were preparing their child well for the future. In addition, 51 percent rated government schools as fairly good or very good. Yet Uwezo, an annual household-based survey that measures actual levels of children’s literacy and numeracy, tested 130,000 kids in their most recent study and found that only 30 percent of grade three kids were able to do grade two work, dropping to just 25 percent of kids in rural areas.
  • Of 1,000 parents surveyed in India, 87 percent were happy with the teaching in their kids’ schools, and 88 percent thought they were preparing them well for the future. But ASER, a sister organisation to Uwezo, tested 560,000 children in 2016 and found that 50 percent of grade five kids couldn’t read a grade two text. 

Put simply: Many thousands of children in India and Kenya are graduating primary school every year functionally illiterate and innumerate, yet their parents are satisfied with their school.

One simple explanation for this is the Varkey survey methodology. Varkey uses an online questionnaire, so it makes sense that in countries where Internet penetration is low, the data is representative of a better-educated and wealthier urban population. On the other hand, the Uwezo and ASER surveys are larger, household-based, and nationally representative. It’s likely that the parents surveyed by the Varkey Foundation in India and Kenya were sending their kids to the more elite, fee-based schools (about 10,000 of the 27,500 parents surveyed by Varkey have kids in private schools).

A lack of parent involvement in learning

Yet the socioeconomic status of parents surveyed by the Varkey Foundation doesn’t fully explain the disconnect between satisfaction and learning outcomes. The lack of demand for quality by parents has been well documented elsewhere. For example, following the release of the Uwezo data we refer to above, researchers randomized an intervention reporting the results of the literacy and numeracy tests administered to children in 550 Kenyan households, alongside the provision of materials explaining how parents could become more involved in their children’s learning. 

This information had no effect. Parents who received the information were no more likely than other parents to take action at school or in the public sphere to improve the quality of their children’s schooling, or to adopt behaviors at home that might have a positive impact on their children’s learning.

The story is the same in India. A 2008 study by Banerjee et al evaluated the impact of the provision of information to parents, to encourage community participation in school committees that have powers over resource allocation in the schools, and to monitor and manage school performance. The study found that the intervention had no impact on community involvement in public schools, no impact on teacher effort, and no impact on learning outcomes in those schools.

These studies suggest that the prevailing theory—that providing performance data to poor parents will encourage them to monitor school performance—simply doesn’t stack up.

Misperceptions of system performance over time

Just as striking from the Varkey Foundation survey is parental perception of their country’s education system’s performance over time. In India and Kenya, 72 and 68 percent of parents respectively believe that the standard of schooling has improved over the last decade (although 85 percent of Indian parents say they would send their kids to private fee-based schools if they could afford it). While there’s a dearth of longitudinal data on learning outcomes in most developing countries, ASER’s survey is now more than 10 years old and shows very few signs of improvement on any measure of quality. As the chart below shows, the number of grade five children able to read a grade two text or do simple maths has remained remarkably and depressingly stagnant since the survey began.              

A look at the percentage of children able to do basic reading and maths in India (data courtesy of ASER)

The Uwezo surveys, which have been used in Kenya since 2009, tell a similar story: The number of children age seven to 13 able to solve grade two numeracy and literacy problems remains almost unchanged since the survey began. 

Why this asymmetry? Of some significance may be the huge number of first-generation learners that have enrolled over the last decade. These children tend to come from disadvantaged families with limited support for their learning at home. Illiterate parents are less likely to have the means and the knowhow to hold their child’s school accountable for its performance and are probably more likely to be satisfied that their child has an opportunity to attend school at all. And indeed evidence from countries such as Chile and the United States, suggests that where parents are better educated, they do take action when informed of their children’s performance.  

Or perhaps parents are listening more to the big policy proclamations by politicians when they judge the performance of their country’s education system. The Kenyan and Ghanaian governments’ promises of free secondary education were big hits in recent elections in both countries. And in both India and Kenya, the massive increase in enrollment since the early 2000s is a highly visible achievement which could well contribute to a perception of good performance.

Another interpretation is that parents are concerned about learning but can act only when they know what to do. For example, when given information about their child’s absence or missing assignments, the action they need to take is fairly clear. But when given student or school-level literacy results it’s challenging for parents, especially poor and uneducated parents, to know how to remedy the problem.

Yet there is a puzzle. In contrast to much of the other literature, the report card study by Andrabi et al in Pakistan showed that giving information to poor parents (test scores of their own children, along with all schools in the village) did improve test scores, increase enrollment, and reduce fees—all with significant effect. While other research points to the ineffectiveness of interventions that try to fix schools by expecting poor parents to monitor their performance, this study suggests that by providing good and relevant information in a context where meaningful school choice (for example, where there is a large private sector) can have an impact on kids’ learning.

Amplifying demand for good schools

But this is one study in one country, and the problem is global. It’s not enough to have the donors, think tanks, and academics lamenting the poor quality of education in developing countries. Until there is more demand from parents for good schools, and more outrage from parents about bad schools and dismal learning outcomes, things are unlikely to change. The massive increase in private schooling in India, Kenya, and elsewhere, backed up by evidence like the report-card study from Pakistan, shows that parents are willing to vote with their feet in search of better education for their kids. (Whether or not the private schools are better than the public ones is the subject of a long-running and heated debate, and not one for this article.)

The Varkey Foundation’s parent survey makes an important contribution to this discussion by illuminating the disconnect between parent satisfaction and actual learning. If things are to change, the education community needs to find better ways to help poor parents demand better quality education for their kids. If we don’t do this, hundreds of thousands of children will continue to leave primary school every year without basic numeracy or literacy. That needs to change, and it needs to change fast. Because for all the hype in education about technology and other quick-fix solutions, if kids don’t learn how to read and count, their own life chances and the potential of their families, communities, and nations will be devastated.