How will they ever learn? What works to improve education in developing countries

The low-quality of education in much of the developing world is no secret. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) produced by the Indian NGO Pratham has been documenting the poor state of affairs in that country for several years. The most recent report highlights the fact that more than half of grade 5 students can only read at grade 2 level. That is, they are three years behind. Similar sorry statistics are available from around the world.

There is a common view that we have, in targeting quantity – getting children into school, sacrificed quality – making sure that they learn something once they get there. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly qualified teachers and lack of teaching materials create a poor learning environment, exacerbated by rampant absenteeism amongst both pupils and their teachers.

Whilst interventions like conditional cash transfers have been shown to get children into school, what is the point if they don’t learn once they are there?

Improving schooling outcomes

A new 3ie review  of the evidence of what works in education, which I produced with my colleagues Shari Krishnaratne and Ella Carpenter, paints a more optimistic picture. Pulling together findings from 75 high-quality studies, our analysis shows that government and donor interventions work – not only in getting more children into school and keeping them there but also at learning more, especially in reading, writing and maths.

This finding surprised me too. I had expected to see a significantly positive average treatment effect (the overall average impact of the interventions being assessed) for enrolments and possibly attendance. But I had bought into the children-don’t-learn view enough not to expect a positive effect on test scores, or even the proxy measures of drop out and grade repetition. I was wrong. On average, the interventions have a positive impact on all education outcomes.

This finding doesn’t alter the facts. Most children in most schools in most countries are not learning enough. But our study shows that we know what to do about it.

Promising interventions

Of course not everything works. And for most interventions there is too little evidence to be confident. But some clear patterns emerge. Yes, conditional cash transfers get children into school, and so does a range of health and nutrition interventions. But existing evidence, which is too little, doesn’t support the position that these same interventions increase test scores. That finding alone shows, again, that schooling is of poor quality.

But different interventions can increase test scores. Increasing teacher resources, including computer-assisted learning, clearly comes out as the most successful approach. School-feeding and school-based management have both been shown to increase maths scores, but we need more evidence to know if there can be a similar impact on reading and writing.

The overall message is a good one. We know what works to get children into school and keep them there. And we have identified a different set of interventions needed to improve learning once they are there. That is the point I want to emphasise – they are different interventions. Demand-side approaches to get children into school need to be complemented by supply-side ones to improve learning. Yes, we need to strengthen the evidence base, but we have strong pointers as to where we should be looking.

How will they ever learn? By going to school and by governments taking evidence-based steps to improve the quality of education in those schools. We can do this, and I hope our new review will help us know how to do so.

By Howard White Executive Director of 3ie

This blog was originally posted on the 3ie website