Should you read the 2018 World Development Report? Not if you care about libraries and reading books (fiction and picture books)

Public and school libraries and reading books (fiction and picture books) get not a single mention in the 200 page WDR report that proclaims it is “the first ever devoted entirely to education.”

The report is full of analysis of reading test scores, without a mention of a single book that an elementary school student might read. For the authors, kids need to learn to read so that they can read the instructions that come packaged with a new thermometer, not so they can read the best children’s books of their country in their language, and then the best of the world.  No mention of ANY library support programs.  Not even a mention of Worldreader!  C’mon education researchers… really?

Well, there is one small box on page 118 that gives a little shout-out to the Literacy Boost program of Save the Children: “Across Africa and Asia, the Literacy Boost program has implemented community reading activities to leverage the many hours that learners spend outside school. These include pairing struggling readers with stronger readers (“reading buddies”), implementing read-a-thons (in which all the books that children read during a specific period are recorded), and providing mini-libraries.”  The box basically repeats the summary of a NY Times article from 2012.  There is no follow-up.  In World Bank-ese, a small box means: “Marginally interesting and good for filler and to break the pace of our relentless analysis of reading test scores where we never ask the question that maybe kids don’t learn to read well because there is nothing interesting for them to read because we assume they should just wait for the thermometer instructions that will be very useful reading when they are sick with fever.”

Has The World Bank made no attempt in the last five or ten years to even try to learn a little bit about the impact of community and public libraries and how to effectively deliver a wide selection of picture books, pre-teen chapter books, young adult novels, and regular novels?  The answer seems to be: “No.”  Why not?  My guess is the researchers at the World Bank know that kind of research will not likely lead to any publications in prestigious economics journals.  Public and school library functioning is messy, costs are hard to measure, impact hard to evaluate, sample sizes are small. Not the kind of research that academic journals like.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the education research community “knows” that reading books is entirely irrelevant to improving reading test scores, without ever studying the question.  As a reality check though, go ask any elementary school teacher in the U.S. or Europe whether they think that is likely to be true.  Ask them how much they think reading outcomes would change if books were removed from all classrooms, from school libraries, from public libraries, from garage sales, from home bookshelves, and from book stores (OK books could still be sold, but you would be required to travel 50 kilometers to get to the store- no delivery by mail- and the minimum price would be $50 per book).

So let’s hope for a revised WDR that takes seriously the issue of improving the quality of education, and so spends at least a chapter doing a cost-benefit analysis of a best(reasonable)-practice example that improves access to quality books for children and pre-teens and teens.  And if all the reasonable-practice examples (including simply distributing books) suggest low benefit-cost ratios (compared to other interventions), then let’s have some creative researchers work with communities to come up with better practices that can be evaluated.

We don’t test reading in order to declare that people are educated.  We help kids read in school… so that people can read.


About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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