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CGD's work in this area seeks to better understand the sources of global learning gaps and to identify solutions to help close these gaps.
While primary school enrolment levels have increased dramatically in recent decades, this progress has not been matched by equivalent gains in learning. Millions of children in the developing world leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. CGD seeks to better understand what causes this learning gap and to identify policies and ideas to help end the global learning crisis.
Children in developing countries get lots of schooling, but they are not necessarily learning. To address this, countries need new forms of feedback, experimentation, and financing that conventional aid is ill-suited to provide. This paper reviews experiences with an unconventional aid modality—paying for results—as it could apply to learning. The paper explains how such a program could be implemented and accelerate institutional changes needed to improve student learning.
CGD's Bill Savedoff and Justin Sandefur (who leads our education research through the RISE project) discuss their contributions to and assessment of the education Commission's Learning Generation report.
Chaired by Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, and with an uber-eminent panel including a clutch of current and former world leaders, the Commission’s final report Learning Generation lays out 12 recommendations that Savedoff says should make us all sit up, take note and take action.
Several CGD scholars including Savedoff, Nancy Birdsall, Justin Sandefur and Barbara Bruns were among the many experts who contributed research to the Commission. In coming weeks, CGD will be publishing that research. For this edition of the CGD Podcast I’m joined by Savedoff and Sandefur (who also leads our education research through the RISE project); they give a sneak peak of their contributions to, and offer an assessment of, the Learning Generation report.
Earlier this month the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4481, Education for All, a bill that aims to strengthen USAID’s efforts in the realm of education. While the Senate has yet to take up the companion bill, S. 3256, here are a few thoughts on what American aid can and can’t do to improve learning around the world.
The best thing about H.R. 4481—and why I think it's worth supporting—is that it frames USAID's mission in education around a commitment to both access and quality, where quality is not just the airy-fairy concept referenced in the UN's Sustainable Development goals, but explicitly defined by outcomes (e.g. learning, literacy, numeracy, etc.) not inputs (e.g. buying more books).
The narrow technical purpose of H.R. 4481 is to require USAID to write a major strategy document for its education work, create a new office to coordinate it, and periodically report back to Congress on what it's doing to implement the plan. So far so good.
But the subtext of the bill is that USAID should be doing much more on education. On that, I'm unmoved. All sectors want a bigger slice of the pie, and education's slice has been growing quite a bit (though you could argue it remains smallish). The portion of USAID disbursements going to education almost tripled from 2001 to 2015, rising from 2.4 percent to 6.7. While this isn’t an appropriations bill and doesn’t authorize any new money, it sneaks in an expansive agenda by reeling off a laundry list of topics and activities that USAID must cover, which could have the side effect of encouraging a lack of focus—and impact.
A framework to think about aid for education
The big conceptual framing that I think the bill is missing is to recognize that USAID is a tiny player in education finance, and that even poor countries are spending orders of magnitude more on education than USAID has to offer them. In a world where Kenya's education budget is bigger than USAID spending on education in all of Africa combined, it's worth asking what USAID’s education spending relevance is. The contribution of aid (or AID) to education can't just be finance that is a pure substitute for local spending.
The median country in terms of USAID education funding per capita is the Philippines, which receives 13 cents per person from USAID for education, and spends $55 per person from the national budget.
American foreign assistance in health, by contrast, is often quantitatively significant in budget conversations—especially in the area of HIV/AIDS through PEPFAR. But that's just not the case in education.
In judging this bill, it's worth asking: What kinds of activities maintain a coherent purpose in the era of tiny aid budgets relative to domestic social services? I want to make a case for three basic functions for the international community in general, with specific reference to USAID's strength and weaknesses.
So what should Congress ask USAID to focus on? Here are three suggestions.
1. Pick up the tab when states really fail (conflict, refugees, etc.)
While USAID's budget is minuscule relative to national education spending in general, there are kids who fall through the cracks. Refugees are a prime example of a vulnerable population that often lacks access to any public education system. But it's not just refugees. Failed states emerging from conflict without the capacity to fund or organize even basic services (think South Sudan or Liberia) are often much more reliant on aid and AID to keep schools open.
Both refugees and truly failed states could be conceived as wards of the international community, in an informal sense, when thinking about education funding.
The bill recognizes this unique problem. As it notes, "roughly half, or 28,500,000, of the world's out-of-school children live in countries affected by conflict and crisis." US foreign assistance is particularly needed and justified for this population, arguably more so than for poor people living in more or less stable states with functioning school systems.
However, the language of the bill seems to confuse palliative care with a cure. Aid can help children affected by conflict, but it’s not going to win wars or even prevent them.
The bill attempts to frame foreign aid for basic education in the developing world as a national security priority. It mentions the Taliban murder of 145 children and teachers at a school in Pakistan, and at least 68 separate attacks on schools in Syria. These examples confuse cause and effect. Both the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and the bloody and complex conflict in Syria clearly are national security priorities, and they both clearly do undermine basic education, creating a genuine need for aid. But this is aid is mitigating the effects of conflict, not addressing its causes. It's not clear that aid for education has anything to do with solving these conflicts, and it’s unhelpful to delude ourselves on this.
Since the big money in education in developing countries is domestic spending, the path to real impact is influencing how that money gets spent. Sadly, USAID has traditionally kept to itself, worked off budget and outside government systems, and implemented its projects through private contractors.
The bill has some welcome rhetoric about playing nice with government systems. And there's a big commitment to multilateralism. Both are useful steps toward making USAID a more constructive player in building effective national education systems, continuing trends already well underway in the agency.
However, the path to influence is still pretty vague. It seems unlikely that USAID is going to successfully implement the kinds of aid conditionality that the MDBs struggled to make work for decades. There is a lot of language in the bill about "leveraging" USAID money, but it's not clear what that means. All bilateral donors wants to leverage their money, but nobody wants to be leveraged.
I would be remiss as a CGD employee not to use this opportunity to put in a plug for some form of results-based aid modality, or cash-on-delivery aid as we call it around here. The bill is already strong on emphasizing measurable learning outcomes. If Congress really wants to push for progress on those outcomes, it should explore the possibility of putting money behind them. A modest pilot might be in order. And of course, if you want to pay against learning outcomes you have to measure them first, which brings me to the next topic.
3. Fund knowledge as a global public good (an area USAID excels in is health)
Aid is ideally suited to provide public goods that no individual developing country has sufficient incentive or resources to provide alone. Research on cost-effective innovations in education, new pedagogical techniques, and “edtech” (while overhyped) all fit in this category.
There's reference to building up national assessment systems, there's passing reference to systematically measuring (global?) progress on learning, and there's a whole section devoted to M&E for USAID's education work. Great.
But Data and M&E are sort of a sideshow, designed to evaluate USAID programming. In contrast, I'd argue that USAID programming itself is the sideshow. M&E may be the main attraction. If USAID money provided the data and evidence base to do serious M&E for the education sector as a whole in many poor countries—and did nothing more than that—that'd be a huge contribution.
The task described here, for example, is huge (and worthwhile).
In the public health arena, USAID has contributed enormously to global knowledge through initiatives like the DHS surveys. Doing something similar for learning and education would be another major contribution. Knowledge has many dimensions, not just survey data collection, but funding, evaluating, and dissemination results from innovative pilot projects, as USAID has done through the Global Development Lab.
This bill may not be the place to dictate specifics, but it would be refreshing to see more emphasis on this work, and a recognition that—rather than paying for the nuts and bolts of an education system—providing this type of global public good may be a priority use for limited aid dollars in the sector.
Chaired by Gordon Brown, the Commission includes such luminaries as Amartya Sen, Felipe Calderón, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The report draws on research from dozens of organizations (including the Center for Global Development) and hundreds of consultations with education practitioners and policymakers worldwide. Consequently, it really does reflect the latest research, evidence, and knowledge in education.
At first glance, this new report doesn’t look very different from The World Declaration on Education For All—the 1990 declaration that called for universal access to high-quality schools. The Learning Generation makes recommendations to improve education in four ways: by focusing on results; by fostering innovation; by prioritizing inclusion; and by committing more and better resources. At the surface, much of this looks like a conventional call for more money, more teachers, and more attention to enrollment. But The Learning Generation gives greater attention than ever before (1) to learning, (2) to efficiently allocating more education funds, and (3) to supporting rapid transformations with flexible financing mechanisms.
1. Measuring and tracking learning
First, the report defines results in terms of what students learn. This is extremely important because it shifts attention away from creating “high-quality schools” and toward asking “are children learning?”. The Commission rightly identifies that the critical first step is to find out how much children know by improving national assessment systems and developing internationally comparable tests (data on learning that can be compared across countries and over time are highly incomplete). This is the only way to find out if investments are leading to results, and to adapt and change course when necessary.
2. Allocating resources effectively
Second, the report acknowledges the primary role of developing countries in funding their own education systems. Alongside domestic resources, more international funding is also needed, and ensuring better value for money will be just as important. But the report correctly sets priorities to use these resources to educate children in the most disadvantaged and vulnerable settings, and as a catalyst for good policies by supporting innovation.
3. Projecting how transformations can be achieved
Third, the report identifies countries where fast progress has occurred and outlines what’s needed to support comparable innovation elsewhere. Countries like the Dominican Republic and Bangladesh have improved functional literacy among 10-year-olds, showing that rapid progress is possible. But the strategies employed in other countries will necessarily differ based on their unique contexts. That is why the report’s proposals for innovative financing mechanisms like a Multilateral Development Bank Investment Mechanism, a Global Offer for Learning, and an Education Outcomes Fund all envision foreign assistance that is more flexible and responsive to results than current forms of aid to education.
The Learning Generation makes a convincing case that business-as-usual is not working. More funding for inputs, such as school buildings, text books, and teachers can only have impact alongside programs and policies that put learning front and center. To prevent an ignorance attack, we need better measures of learning, funding linked to results, improved types of finance, and support for domestic innovation to ensure all children are learning the life skills they need to succeed. The world will be a better place for it.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing the series of background papers CGD submitted to the Education Commission. These papers offer analyses on elements we were glad to see included in the report: the benefits of girls’ learning; recommendations on measuring learning outcomes; and a proposal for a Global Offer for Learning. Stay tuned!
A sweeping reform proposal that made global headlines has evolved into a more modest pilot, designed to generate rigorous evidence.
Liberia's public schools are failing. After years of civil war followed by the 2014 Ebola epidemic, the Ministry of Education does not have the capacity to run the national school system. Teachers often aren’t paid, and as a result, often don’t show up. Many students don’t either. More than 60 percent of school-aged children in Liberia aren’t in school, placing Liberia in the lowest percentile of net enrollment rates in the world.
Not that going to school is a guarantee of much. Among adult women who reached fifth grade in Liberia, only 1 in 5 can read a single sentence. It’s hard to tell parents to keep their kids in school when they’re unlikely to even learn to read.
Something needs to change.
A radical proposal and a rocky reception
Against that backdrop, Liberia made international headlines earlier this year when the Ministry of Education announced a radical proposal to convert its failing primary schools into American-style charter schools.
These charter schools would be free, with no selective admissions, and staffed by qualified, unionized teachers on the government payroll.
The plan became a media sensation. "Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm," was the headline in South Africa's Mail and Guardian. The UN's Special Rapporteur for the right to education declared Liberia's plan "completely unacceptable" and "a blatant violation of Liberia's international obligations under the right to education." Legally, that’s highly dubious, but his comments reflected a growing tide of opinion.
So, over the next six months, the Ministry of Education went back to the drawing board and took counsel from local and international partners. What has emerged is a much more robust, and more modest plan, with stronger foundations for the future.
Beyond the sensationalist headlines, the Ministry responded to a variety of domestic concerns, which had a very different tenor. Rather than opposing the charter school plan, many local stakeholders wanted to be part of the programme. Local education operators wanted to be involved, senators were eager to see more counties included, and aid donors working in Liberia wanted to see a serious evaluation before committing to any funding to current or future plans.
“Partnership Schools for Liberia” will start with fewer schools but more partners
The program that launches in September will start small, with 90 schools in the 2016/17 academic year. That’s still an ambitious plan for a poor country with limited bandwidth in the public sector. But it gives the Ministry a chance to see what works, to keep closer oversight of the process and to iterate the policy before making any decisions about the future of the program.
While Partnership Schools will be smaller (in terms of schools) it will also be bigger (in terms of the number of players involved). No one organisation is getting monopoly rights over Liberia’s primary schools. This is a key lesson from similar models in other countries: the benefit of building a government regulated “market” of high performing school operators, who strive to raise educational standards by learning from and competing with each other to achieve better outcomes. So, after an open and competitive bidding process led by Education Minister George Werner and his team, the Liberian government has selected seven organizations to run its new charter schools—in addition to its original agreement with Bridge International Academies—including leading Liberian educational institutions like Stella Maris Polytechnic; large international non-profits like BRAC with a reputation for scaling up fast in hard-to-reach places; and private school chains like Rising Academies with experience running schools in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Putting public accountability into a public-private partnership
The public side of a public-private partnership is just as important as the private side. These are public schools and, ultimately, the Ministry of Education needs the capacity to act as the duty bearer for education: responsible for all decisions to commission, scale and indeed terminate operator contracts.
To help inform those decisions, Minister Werner requested partners to commission a rigorous external evaluation of the pilot. This was commissioned via an open tender and an independent selection committee, including USAID, UNICEF, the Ministry and expert advisors, with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) selected as the winning bidder. The evaluation will provide a rigorous, independent measure of the effectiveness, equity and sustainability of the Partnership Schools in delivering quality education to Liberian children. It is a randomized control trial, which will help ensure that differences between charter and regular government schools reflect the true impact of the program rather than any pre-existing differences. (See an FAQ document on the evaluation here.)
The evaluation will study the impact of the Partnership Schools program across a number of dimensions, including enrollment, attendance, learning outcomes, equity and parent perception and engagement. Evidence generated from the study is intended to inform the Ministry’s and donors’ policy decisions to continue or scale up the charter school model. It’ll also contribute to the international debate about the design and role of charter school-like policies in education systems.
Beyond the RCT, the Ministry’s broader task is to ensure that the school operators are provided with the conditions they need to deliver, while being held accountable by government for the measurable results that they achieve for children.
When the status quo is unacceptable, experimentation is an obligation
Charter schools remain controversial, even in rich countries like the U.S. where they are already widespread. Regardless of how you feel about charters in general though, one thing seems clear: in Liberia, the status quo is simply unacceptable. Tina Rosenberg put this eloquently in the New York Times a few months ago:
I’ve sent my children to New York City public elementary and middle schools that are not academically selective. Our elementary school has been active in the anti-charter movement.
Liberia is different. The project should have been envisioned sooner, and the process should have been fairer. But if experimentation is justified anywhere, it’s there. It’s hard to look at Liberia’s educational system and say: Do nothing new.
When classes open in September, Liberia is going to try something new. It will be an experiment, and like any good experiment, it should be judged on the empirical data it produces—data on whether these schools deliver better learning for Liberian children, both boys and girls, urban and rural. Until then, stay tuned.
Susannah Hares is executive director of Ark’s Education Partnerships Group, a UK non-profit advising the Liberian government on the design of the Partnership Schools for Liberia program.
Justin Sandefur is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a principal investigator on the external evaluation of the Partnership Schools for Liberia program.
When Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, received a call from a civil servant in Bihar about the chronic problem of student absenteeism, she had an idea. Could absenteeism be caused by the poor learning taking place in classrooms? After all, with years of schooling without gains in basic foundational skills in reading and math, it was hardly surprising that children in Grade 5 were struggling with the highly advanced “Grade 5” content in their textbooks. One result of the mismatch between student ability and curricular content: teachers were demotivated; children were simply uninterested; parents did not see much value in schooling; and ultimately, attendance was subpar.
What would happen if children were taught by their actual learning levels rather than their grade? This idea began a learning experiment in Bihar that highlights the problem of mismatched curriculums in education systems.
The intervention began in Jehanabad, a relatively small district of Bihar with around 700 schools. Students from Grades 3, 4, and 5 were assigned into different learning groups based on simple assessments. Using new methods and materials, teachers taught each group at their skill level in a special class during the afternoon session of the school day. Based on improvements in learning level, children could move to a different group.
The first visible sign of improvement was the higher attendance levels. Whereas attendance “melt” after the morning session and the mid-day meal was pervasive before, children now stayed into the afternoon.
More promising still was the increase in the percentage of children who could read and do arithmetic at different levels. Figure 1 shows the increase in the percentage of children who can read a basic Grade 2 level story from August 2012 to March 2013.
Jehanabad saw a 37.1 percentage point increase in the number of children who could read a story at Grade 2 level in a span of eight months. This marked progress offers potential insights into ways to steepen the learning profile.
Figure 2 overlays the progress in Jehanabad (shown by the horizontal dotted lines) on the regular learning profile of Bihar created from ASER 2014 data for percentage of children who can read a Grade 2 level story.
The numbers speak for themselves: Jehanabad’s increase in story readers from 16.4 percent to 53.5 percent in eight months of teaching at the “skill-level” rather than “grade-level” is equivalent to almost three years of “regular” progress in Bihar.
A similar trend was found in another intervention in East Champaran, one of the biggest districts of Bihar, where the number of children who could not read simple words more than halved in five months. As the success in Jehanabad and East Champaran got increased visibility, the government of Bihar launched Mission Gunwatta in 2013. A major aim was to improve basic reading and math skills across schools in Bihar. Out of 38 districts in Bihar, 12 districts—reaching 1.64 million children—decided to partner with Pratham and focus on improving learning by teaching at the right level.
Comparing results for ASER 2013 and ASER 2014 for the 12 districts in partnership with Pratham (versus others) reveals that the partnership districts did better. The gain in learning in partnership districts was larger: 19.5 percentage point increase in story readers in partnership districts compared to a 15.9 percentage point increase in other districts.
The experiment in Bihar does not make claims about causal inference. There was no randomization or control group. However, past randomized controlled trials (RCT) assessing the effectiveness of Pratham’s methodology focusing on building basic skills through groups organized by ability in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and Haryana have shown promising gains in learning. Another RCT in Kenya (Duflo, Dupas & Kremer, 2008) shows that random assignment of students based on initial achievement benefits all students by allowing teachers, who otherwise may have incentives to teach to high-performing students, to teach at the right level. Other research has also provided evidence for how curricular mismatch in education systems can contribute to the shallow learning profiles in many developing countries. A 2012 paper by Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beatty shows that students learn the most when instructional level is in alignment with student skill. The Bihar experiment brings to the fore the effect of overambitious or misaligned curriculums on overall learning gains.
While the strong focus on universal enrollment over the last few decades has led to more children going to school and staying there longer, their learning gains are far from sufficient. Switching from thinking about inputs to learning outcomes has challenged the age-old assumption that schooling leads to learning.
The message from the Bihar experiment is clear: In order to overcome hurdles in improved learning, structural changes in the organization of teaching and learning are necessary. As a first step, this would require education goals focusing on mastery of basic literacy and numeracy skills.
The experiment in Bihar raises deeper questions about what education systems are doing. How is it that Bihar’s education system has been allowed to produce such poor literacy performance year after year when simple and doable steps to produce dramatically better learning have been available? These are the kind of questions about the overall operation of education systems and how they allow persistently poor learning outcomes that RISE hopes to address.
This is one of a series of blog posts from “RISE"—the large-scale education systems research programme supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Experts from the Center for Global Development lead RISE’s research team.
This is one of a series of blog posts from “RISE" – an education systems research program supported by the UK’s DFID and Australia’s DFAT. CGD experts lead RISE’s research team.
A challenge with comparative education research is that we lack a globally comparable measure of the real outcomes of education—actual learning or skills. Instead, we make do with a patchwork of international and regional assessments, each with different country coverage and especially few that allow for comparisons between high-income and low-income countries. Justin Sandefur makes the case for a global standardized assessment here.
So naturally researchers get pretty excited whenever new comparative assessments do come out. Recently Lant Prichett blogged about the latest round of the OECD international assessment of adult skills (PIAAC), which included for the first time measures for Jakarta, showing the dismally low levels of skills even in the capital city of a typical middle income country like Indonesia (Indonesia is 127 of 216 countries by PPP GDP per capita).
This prompted me to look at the World Bank’s new skill survey of working age adults in urban areas of developing countries (STEP) that includes a literacy assessment calibrated to the same scale as PIAAC, thus allowing for comparisons.
Two striking findings emerge.
First the good news. Low-income Vietnam, which is a huge positive outlier in other international tests, also performs very well here (Vietnam achieves OECD levels on PISA, and on the TIMMS-scaled questions from the Young Lives survey). Vietnam (urban) performs just below the OECD average overall, but better than expected for a country at that income level. One of the first research programmes funded by RISE is focused on better understanding of the superior performance ofVietnam.
Literacy correlates with GDPPC, but the deviations from that association are large and interesting
Source: PIAAC and STEP [marked with a (U) for urban]
Second, the bad news. Many other low-income countries are around the same shockingly low level as Jakarta. University graduates from Jakarta, Ghana, and Kenya, have lower levels of literacy than the average junior secondary graduate from OECD countries. Secondary school graduates from urban Kenya and Ghana countries have substantially worse literacy on this assessment than people with only primary school completion in OECD countries.
University graduates from poor countries have worse literacy skills than junior secondary school graduates from rich countries
But are developing countries catching up?
One way of looking at this is by comparing the skill level of different age cohorts. Generally, across almost all countries younger adults have better literacy skills than older adults. This partly reflects the deterioration of skills over time, but partly also reflects real improvement in school quality over time. If we make the heroic and unrealistic assumption of zero deterioration in skills, then looking at the improvement in skill of younger cohorts can give us an over-generous upper bound estimate of the rate of improvement in school quality. The next chart shows that some progress is being made, but even with these over-optimistic assumptions, low-income countries are still many decades away at current rates of progress from catching up even with current OECD levels (and OECD countries are likely to continue improving also). The chart shows literacy levels just for adults with upper secondary school, to avoid confounding improvement in school quality with the general increase in enrolment. Vietnam has already caught up with OECD levels for 15-24 year olds, but Bolivia, Ghana, and Kenya are still lagging way behind.
Younger adults have better literacy, implying that schools may be improving, but not nearly fast enough
Note: This chart shows literacy level for upper secondary graduates only within each age group.
There is one more twist that we can squeeze out of the data. Hanushek, Piopiunik, and Wiederhold have previously used the PIAAC data to look at the skill level of teachers in rich countries, relative to other professionals. We can do the same here for low-income countries with the PIAAC data. The sample size of teachers is small, but just about enough (100-150 teachers from each country from an overall sample of ~2,000 adults per country). And the results are not great.
This last chart takes people identified as primary, secondary, or “other” teaching professionals, excluding university teachers. Finnish teachers, perhaps unsurprisingly, come top. In general, the average teacher in most OECD countries has around the same level of literacy (or better) as the average OECD tertiary graduate. Down at the other end, the average teacher in Kenya, Bolivia, and Ghana, has literacy skills lower than the average OECD junior secondary school graduate. It’s also notable here that the average Vietnamese teacher is only at the level of an OECD senior secondary graduate, so Vietnam is able to achieve its high overall skill level without having tertiary skill level teachers.
How literate are teachers?
The conclusions from these data support earlier findings, namely that there is a crisis in learning levels in low-income countries, but that this crisis extends beyond just early grades, to adults, and even university graduates and school teachers. Furthermore, at present rates of progress, it will take many years for low-income countries to catch up to OECD skill levels. Yet as Vietnam demonstrates, it is possible to do better, even on a low-income. The challenge is finding out how to make that happen.