Incentivising national scale increases in reading skills in Tanzania

Late in 2015 I jointly posted with Dr. Abhijeet Singh of the Young Lives team in Oxford: Getting learning assessments right when money depends on it about a novel, national scale experiment that directly links financial aid for education to improvements in student learning outcomes. We outlined some of the risks, both statistical and political, in this approach and promised to dutifully follow-up on progress (or the lack of) after the 3Rs national survey was repeated and change detection could commence.

To quote the Tanzanian Minister of Education Prof. Ndalichako at the recent 3Rs survey launchIn education, quality and quantity are not always friends. Expansion of the school network in the past decade has seen large drops in examination pass rates, and a declining appetite for input based spending from development partners has led to advocates for testing results based aid approaches.

The Big Results Now! Education Programme for Results in Tanzania is a UK DFID, World Bank and Swedish financed initiative to incentivise improvements on key steps of the results chain. Disbursement linked indicators were agreed around Tanzania’s  own prioritised budget expenditure on education, more equitable teacher distribution, making public school level data, and the rollout of teacher training. In addition, a significant graduated payment is offered, proportional to the increase in average Kiswahili reading speed from a national 3Rs baseline taken in 2013 of students completing primary grade two. Use of an average speed metric allows improvement from pupils across the entire reading spectrum to contribute, including non-readers, those with emerging literacy and fluent readers.

Proportions of Categories of Readers
Proportions of categories of readers

I’m glad to report that in Tanzania the average Kiswahili reading speed has increased by around 5 words per minute since 2013. The survey revealed that girls were performing slightly better than boys and that the proportion of complete non-readers has fallen substantially, which was probably the main factor in the average increase observed. This is triggering the release of around $36m of funds to the government’s education budget.

Unsurprisingly the results were warmly welcomed with a surge of optimism from both government and development partners alike. A prominent civil society organisation Twaweza also presented its Uwezo household based citizen led learning assessment results, which came to broadly similar conclusions on recent improvements in reading.  They noted there was much to do before celebrating. Much remains to do to get the majority of children learning at grade appropriate levels; changes in numeracy skills were minor and only 5 per cent of students met a ‘proficient reader benchmark’ in the 3R Survey.

Categories of readers, by gender
Categories of readers, by gender

It would be amiss of me not to mention some potential discrepancies and the question of causality. The follow-up survey was delayed by several months due to political elections: did an extra two months in school and an intervening holiday period affect the findings? Confidence intervals were large in the smaller scale 2013 baseline survey. Which factors were most influential in improving learning: a simpler new ‘3Rs’ curriculum and policies promoted by government, large geographic focused programmes of support such as DFID’s EQUIP-T, or more motivated teachers spending more ‘time on task’ actually teaching and with more effective approaches?

For the results based aid approach, did the offer of major financial incentives to government actually inspire or motivate the policy measures and action taken, or would it have happened regardless? It is probably impossible to say for sure on causality vs. correlation! We look forward to RISE: a new major programme of research about improving the education system that has commissioned work in Tanzania. It seeks to shine more light on the impact and factors that have made this major results based initiative succeed.

By Ian Attfield, DFID Senior Education Adviser, June 2016 

This is an update to the previous blog post Getting learning assessments right when money depends on it by Ian Attfield, DFID Senior Education Adviser Tanzania and Abhijeet Singh, Young Lives Research Officer, University of Oxford, published in December 2015, available here.


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