Equity-Focused Approaches to Learning Loss during COVID-19

By Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares.

With an estimated 91.3 percent or 1.57 billion students out of school worldwide, ministers of education are executing their plans for school during disruptions related to COVID-19. Under the banner of learning continuity, many countries have slowly begun to use existing platforms, tools, and technologies for some form of interim learning by distance.

But even in the best-resourced and highest-performing education systems, most COVID responses in education will end up by privileging better-off children. Students from households with greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parental education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, and in-home availability of books and materials have much better ability to access and benefit from distance learning. These advantages are further reinforced by the fact that digital learning platforms are typically more developed for secondary and higher education than at the primary level. International organizations have also emphasized COVID education responses that rely on technology. In developing countries, where far fewer children have access to secondary education, and where learning opportunities are heavily defined by quality education in the early years, COVID presents an especially stark equity challenge.

In this blog, we draw from a wide range of evidence about interventions that hold promise as equity-focused approaches to learning continuity. Our main message is that emergency measures which rely solely on technology are unlikely to offer an adequate response for learning continuity for children who sit at what Wagner describes as “the bottom of the learning pyramid.” And no country can improve overall learning outcomes without tackling the “tail” of its learning distribution—the children who are most left behind by current policies.

Thus, while we discuss how ministries can “layer” an effective set of enabling responses for learning continuity during COVID school closures, emergency interventions are likely to make modest contributions to learning continuity—their primary role may be to keep children engaged in their education. We therefore urge ministries of education to start planning now to implement targeted measures to ensure children from the poorest households can catch up when schools reopen, using the mounting evidence on accelerated learning.

1. What do we know about equity challenges in learning continuity?

Evidence in recent years has highlighted how gaps in schooling lead to loss of learning, providing an important caution for educators. Estimates vary by context, but the impact of school closure is stark. For example, in the United States, where children enjoy summer breaks of 8-10 weeks, summer learning loss has been estimated at between 10-25 percent of yearly learning, with children from poorer households disproportionately affected. Studies in low-income settings show that gaps in schooling lead to drop outs at critical transitions between educational levels, and can lower the progression of the most disadvantaged children through the school system. Further, as research from Argentina and Rwanda has shown, school closures at primary level can have harsh cumulative effects, lowering chances of secondary completion and reducing labor market earnings of affected children many years later. A new analysis by the World Bank offers starkly different scenarious for learning loss during COVID.

Connectivity cannot be counted on to solve learning loss for children at the bottom of the pyramid. Many governments have turned to online learning as a handy and effective way to staunch learning loss. However, several sobering reviews show just how limited connectivity for students is around the world. For example, in their excellent planning resource on COVID-19, Harvard and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that while in many OECD countries children from advantaged schools have access to computers, in many other countries, including Turkey, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Peru, and Indonesia, 50 percent or fewer children from disadvantaged schools have a computer at home.

Access to the internet is even more severely limited in many developing countries—for example, Young Lives data show that in Ethiopia four of five rural children have never used the internet. Access to other forms of connectivity are also profoundly unequal, especially in South Asia and Africa. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, while three quarters of the population have a cell phone, most use pay as you go SIM cards and often change service providers and numbers. In some states in India, only half of all schools have working electricity, and there are stark differences in access to cell phones and the internet between girls and boys. Fewer than 40 percent of all households in low- and lower-middle-income countries own radios or televisions.

Perhaps for these reasons, education leaders surveyed in 75 countries report that availability of technological infrastructure is the most challenging issue in the implementation of their COVID response. Even among rich countries—like Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom—the absence of connectivity has slowed down the shift to distance learning during COVID-19 and continues to be a major challenge. In short: relying on connectivity for distance learning is not a panacea during school closures; indeed technologically mediated distance learning is likely to increase inequality in learning continuity.

2. Remote learning opportunities for children without connectivity

Given that inequality in connectivity is only going to heighten the gaps between rich and poor as we turn to distance learning, what can governments do? A wide range of options exist. Almost all require governments take a pro-poor approach that layers five reinforcing opportunities for learning:

I. Simplify curricula and modify learning goals

To reach children at the bottom of the pyramid, governments could start with simplified curricula targeting areas where learning loss will be most consequential for learning progression in the coming school year. Focused strategies that ensure continuity in early grade literacy and numeracy during the COVID crisis are urgently needed. For higher grades, governments could prioritize learning continuity for children most at risk of dropping out, such as cohorts transitioning from primary to lower secondary school, by including strategies to keep vulnerable populations engaged and excited about learning.

II. Make learning materials available

Even during a pandemic, school systems should be able to work with partners to safely deliver or allow families to pick up a basic package of learning materials, including books and writing materials (for example, from food distribution locations). The impact that learning materials can have on learning continuity during periods of school closure are well researched. For example, a US-based intervention that mailed 10 books to students over the summer matched to students reading interests, accompanied by email or text messages to parents, promoted more than one month of gains in reading skills.

Governments may be able to fund these materials using supplemental grants to schools and by drawing on resources and support from development partners to purchase materials for the poorest households. Governments could leverage other COVID-related social services—for example, emergency food distribution channels or health service programs—by using volunteers (with social distancing), or other means. Education can learn much from foodbanks and other health emergency distribution chains about how to safely ensure such deliveries.

III. Use radio, television, and SMS to amplify learning

There is evidence to suggest that across the learning continuum from kindergarten to secondary schooling, radio provides a low-tech and effective intervention that can mitigate learning loss when it is combined with outreach from teachers, provision of learning materials, and interactive content—including in emergency settings, such as Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. Many countries already have radio-based programs upon which to build. Where individual households lack radios, it may be possible to provide low-cost devices or to use speakers to broadcast short lessons in communities. A number of experimental programs suggest that SMS messaging or simple phone calls may also be used to provide simple learning activities and nudges to students to help maintain engagement in learning, though they can in no way replace a formal curricula.

Such low-tech solutions are likely to be most effectives when they are combined with the other interventions described in this blog: opportunities for interactive engagement (including with family members), outreach from teachers, and access to learning materials.

IV. Make use of family engagement, an under-utilized resource

Parental and sibling support during COVID-19 are an especially important layer in efforts to bridge gaps in learning continuity within poor households during emergencies. Yet the importance of family engagement in enhancing learning is an area often overlooked in mainstream planning of education systems—where the role for parents and communities is also limited to raising resources or participating in governance and accountability.

A growing body of research shows significant effects of parents and siblings on childhood learning, by supplementing and reinforcing the traditional 2–4 hours of focused learning within schools. Furthermore, evidence from recently evaluated programs, such as Save the Children’s Literacy Boost and other family-based literacy interventions, show that even in the poorest households and households with limited literacy, parental and sibling engagement and support can add significantly to learning outcomes using very simple methods. Those methods can take the form of creating dedicated time for children to learn, teaching parents to engage children in talk and answering questions, or creating simple counting and language activities as part of daily household routines. “Child-to-child” approaches, and peer and collaborative learning—where older siblings or cousins support learning for younger students—can be safe and effective reinforcing skills. While a lack of parental education may further disadvantage poorer children, parental engagement programs in developing countries have shown that even parents with limited literacy can do much to enhance learning. COVID responses should build on these existing programs.

V. Encourage outreach and support from teachers, school leaders, and districts

The final layer in an integrated strategy for bridging learning loss for students from poorer households during COVID-19 involves structured support from teachers, school leaders, community leaders, and school districts. As we learned in the health sector during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, enabling local problem-solving and supporting context-specific solutions is especially important during health emergencies.

These actors know much about the individualized needs of children in their care. They can do much to ensure that families and students understand available learning opportunities and maintain motivation and engagement in learning. While many countries are already using social and other media as platforms to communicate their broad plans for learning under COVID, disadvantaged children will benefit disproportionately from more personalized outreach from teachers and school leaders.

Leaders at the district level should have a fair understanding of the disadvantages and barriers to participation for children within their catchments, including from tools developed through the UIS/UNESCO Out of School Children initiative. During COVID closures, they have an important role to play in supporting teachers and leaders to find context-specific solutions, which may range from “drive-by loudspeaker announcements” to SMS messages, phone calls, or even household visits (respecting social distance).

3. Recovery: planning for learning recovery when schools reopen

The options suggested above focus primarily on actions governments can take during periods of school closures. However, even in well-resourced education systems, it is unlikely that this combination of interventions will be able to fully mitigate against learning loss, especially for the most disadvantaged households. For this reason, governments should be planning interventions now that ensure that disadvantaged children can return to school and catch up with their peers when schools reopen.

Strong evidence from around the world suggests that summer and afterschool learning programs, including those that utilize trained teachers or volunteers, structured pedagogy, enrichment experiences, ability grouping. and high levels of teacher-student engagement, can generate significant learning gains for disadvantaged populations. Accelerated learning programs and other kinds of intensive “learning camps” targeted to the most disadvantaged children have been shown to be effective in many developing country contexts, both for bridging periods of learning loss and pathways for successful re-entry of out of school children. Other interventions, such as afterschool tutoring and peer-to-peer coaching, also hold promise.

Now is the time to plan for these programs, so that teachers, school leaders and volunteers can be prepared and outreach to parents can be launched before schools are abruptly reopened. Teachers and community volunteers, who are more likely to have online access, can be trained and coached virtually on accelerated learning. Relevant curricula and materials for accelerated learning can be designed. District and school leaders can identify disadvantaged groups and tailor approaches to specific contexts; and parents can be informed and engaged. Priority should be given to the most vulnerable in two age groups: children at primary level, where learning loss can most limit educational progress; and adolescents transitioning from primary to secondary education, where the poorest are most at risk of dropping out.

Karen Mundy was the primary author of this post. This blog was originally published by the Center for Global Development on April 16 2020. It has benefited from inputs from Kerrie Proulx, Amy Jo Dowd, Ben Piper, Scott Davies, Janice Aurini, Sheena Bell, Laura Moscoviz, Minahil Asim, and staff at Room To Read.

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Remote Learning Opportunities for Children without Connectivity

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Leveraging the enthusiasm of parents and caregivers for lifewide learning

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Planning for Learning Recovery When Schools Reopen

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Managing Education Systems During COVID-19: An Open Letter to A Minister of Education

Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares, originally published by the Center for Global Development March 23, 2020

Dear Minister,

As of March 23, more than 124 countries have closed their education systems either in full or in specific regions, and closures now affect more than 1.25 billion learners worldwide. As Fernando Reimers and his collaborators note in their book Letters to A New Minister of Education, your job as an education minister is now to “make sense of the mess”—to turn a series of interrelated challenges into a series of organized and prioritized problems and then into a strategy for action.

The COVID-19 “mess” for education is a unique one. We have limited information about the likely path of the pandemic. Ministers, educators, communities, families, and learners will all have to make decisions in a context of “radical uncertainty.” To assist decision-making during the pandemic, we highlight six things that you as a minister of education should consider as you plan.

1. Prepare for the situation to last for weeks and months

In countries at the European epicenter, and in many developing countries where the virus is only starting to spread or where public health systems are weak, schools and higher education institutions are likely to be closed for a considerable period. Although many school systems announced initial closures of 2-4 weeks, recent announcements in the United States and in Canada, for example, suggest closures may last upwards of three months.

And because transmission of the virus is both new and global, its pathway is hard to predict. Education ministers are going to have to plan not only for an indefinite period of school closure, but also for the potential that either some or all schools may have to close again in a second wave of the virus.

2. Adapt your plan, but stick to your key goals and principles

The Building State Capability program at Harvard highlights common characteristics of successful leadership in contexts of crisis.

First, and foremost: even though you cannot stick to your existing plans, it would be wise to keep a steady focus on your mission, goals, and principles. Your government has a mandate both to protect children and to ensure that they learn. You have principles, goals, and targets for your education system. These have not changed, even if they need to be modified.

Second: focus on things that are within your control, and make sure education has space within the government’s crisis planning. While you won’t be able to deliver your planned policies and interventions in the coming period, senior education leaders during past crises suggest that you need to ask carefully: What you can do, now, in this context, with your resources, to keep your country moving towards these goals? Who can help you to do this? How can you unlock the capacity of your staff, communities, and partners to keep education moving?

Remember that while ministries of education have many fixed costs during school and university closures, there may be staff, equipment, and materials that can be redeployed; and myriad donors, partners, and stakeholders that can be called on to help fill gaps.

3. Protect your people

A first principle in crisis management is to protect your people, especially the most vulnerable. COVID-19 presents a number of new challenges compared to other kinds of emergencies. Most importantly, because it is highly contagious, COVID-19 requires “social distancing,” which prohibits traditional forms of face-to-face coordination and service delivery. However, while there are new challenges, many of the issues you should consider have been well described in many different guidelines related to education in emergencies provided by INEE, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, and condensed into this simplified guidance by Harvard. You will also have learned lessons from past crises. For now, just a few points to keep in mind:

Address the needs of the most vulnerable children and youth. As seen in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, school closures mean the loss of protection for those most vulnerable, including girls. Children with special needs often receive specialist care in school settings. Even in the richer countries, schools provide social services that are difficult to replace—in Los Angeles for example, a majority of children rely on school meal programs; in New York, homeless children rely on schools for bathing and laundry.

Replace essential services. You can start by thinking about how you might replace these essential protective services—for example, can you switch from school meals to take-home rations, or cash transfers? Can schools remain open for specific services, as is the case in recent UK guidance? Can they be used as crisis hubs for the community? Think now about seeding plans for bringing those most likely to drop out back into school. For girls in particular, what kind of communication and protection can be provided?

District leaders, school heads, and teachers often have detailed information about the needs of children and families in their communities—you may be able to call on them for advice to ensure that the most vulnerable children are protected and return to school. Consider asking them to staff phone lines, text community members, or engage local media to support the psycho-social needs of children.

Duty of care to your employees. Ministries of education are typically among the largest employers in their countries’ public sector or even entire economy. What will you do to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of your staff during the crisis? How will you protect the welfare of contract teachers and others in the education workforce? UNICEF has issued guidance that provides a checklist with detailed information about how to preserve the safety of teachers and school leaders when calling them into active service.

The tricky question of exams. Many education systems are organized around high-stakes examinations and credentialing. Such exams heighten stress among learners, and are risky during COVID-19 because they rely on face-to-face proctoring. Exams across West Africa were cancelled last week in response to the pandemic. This is an anxious time for students, who have been required to vacate schools and do not know when or if they might return to earn their leaving credentials. A protective response is to allow for automatic promotion (in K-12 education) while ensuring earmarked places and remediation for disadvantaged populations in future admissions processes.

4. Keep learning going

How to keep children learning is a challenge facing education leaders globally. Even in high-resource systems, the use of online technological platforms for teaching is in its infancy. We will see many experiments in coming months. No doubt some will be successful, but there will likely be many failures.

Minister, you may want to be wary of the rapid, aggressive upswing in marketing of educational software by commercial vendors—as is presently happening in the United States. What’s important is to focus on what you already have that can support structured distance learning in your context. It will be important to remember that technological solutions often exacerbate existing inequalities. And even the best solutions require careful attention to the crucial interface between technology, teacher, and child.

Low-tech solutions are often more viable in low-resource contexts. One option is to send reading and writing materials home with children, combined with supporting daily reading practice through radio broadcasts. Modules offered by radio broadcast have been used effectively in many countries (see Kenya for an early example of a program responding to COVID-19). Teachers and upper-level students can be called on to act as virtual tutors using simple SMS platforms to enhance the effectiveness of online and broadcast programs. Parents and siblings can also support simple learning exercises (for example UNICEF’s “child-to-child” programs). However, research suggests that relying on parents will not be enough; getting your teachers and school heads involved in (virtual) delivery will be essential.

5. Communicate, motivate, and engage

For learners, educators, their families, and communities, the loss of schooling erodes the social glue that holds together everyday life. They will want and need information. Scott Cowen, a university president in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, argues, “the importance of actively creating a sense of community beyond living and learning in close proximity cannot be overstated.”

The literature on crisis leadership emphasizes the importance of explaining your situation, plans, hopes, and concerns, openly and often. Harvard’s Matt Andrews suggests a few simple guidelines: be calm, clear, factual, and frank. Explain what you do know—and what you do not. Be human.

Crucially, the public, your staff, and your partners also need to know about your continued commitment to key educational principles and goals. They need to know that you are planning forward, even if there are uncertainties and the specifics are not in view.

Crisis leadership also means listening carefully to your people, to their concerns, and to their ideas and solutions, however small. You could consider setting up channels for listening within your ministry—even to things you may not wish to hear. Everyone from ministerial staff down to district leaders and school heads, teachers, children, and parents has something to contribute, and together they will provide crucial insights to help you plan your response. Appointing a body within your ministry to coordinate these inputs can help.

Published announcements like this circular issued by a Canadian school board or these guidelines released by the Ministry of Education in Kenya are a good start. But frequent, personalized communication is better, especially where a situation is evolving and complex. Many African ministries have extensive WhatsApp groups through which they communicate to school heads and staff. Public broadcasting and social media can help amplify your messages.

Engaging directly with children is an emerging innovation in crisis communications. These dedicated COVID-19 briefings for children recently held by the prime minister of Norway and the prime minister of New Zealand helped show students that their governments care about the effect this pandemic is having on their education.

6. Stay on top of the evidence and learn

Minister, you have a challenging but vital job during this crisis: to protect, plan, motivate, and continue to deliver on your mandate. Learning from what has worked and is working in other jurisdictions will be important, as this will through necessity be a time of great experimentation (see this new UNESCO platform which will bring together education ministers to share experiences). As you learn from the experience of others, also consider how you are learning from this crisis: What evidence can you collect that will help others now and in the future? And, as this recent overview on leadership during the Ebola crisis suggests, listen to, mobilize, and unlock the agency of your own people—they are critical to your success.

This blog was originally published by the Center for Global Development, Susannah Hares is co-author. It has benefited enormously from a recent series by Harvard’s Matt Andrews, in the Building State Capability blog. Generous inputs were also provided by Luis Crouch, Barbara Bruns, Ben Piper, staff at Room to Read, and Professors Scott Davies and Janice Aurini.

Cited References (Hyperlinked within the blog)

UNESCO (18 March 2020).  “Half of world’s student population not attending school: UNESCO launches global coalition to accelerate deployment of remote learning solutions. https://en.unesco.org/news/half-worlds-student-population-not-attending-school-unesco-launches-global-coalition-accelerate

Reimers, F. (2019). Letters to a New Minister of Education. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fernando_Reimers/publication/331501036_Letters_to_a_New_Minister_of_Education_With_contributions_from/links/5c7d62b2458515831f83c82f/Letters-to-a-New-Minister-of-Education-With-contributions-from.pdf

M. King. (March 12, 2020). Can forecasters keep up in the era of Coronavirus?  The Economist Asks (Podcast). https://www.economist.com/podcasts/2020/03/12/can-forecasters-keep-up-in-the-era-of-coronavirus

Kay, J. A., & King, M. A. (2020). Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making Beyond the Numbers. WW Norton. https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Uncertainty-Decision-Making-Beyond-Numbers/dp/1324004770

Section 1:  (this wont be over soon)

CNN. (March 19, 2020).Lessons from China (Coronavirus Fact or Fiction Podcast with Sanjay Gupta). https://www.cnn.com/audio/podcasts/corona-virus

Cauchemez, S., Ferguson, N. M., Wachtel, C., Tegnell, A., Saour, G., Duncan, B., & Nicoll, A. (2009). Closure of schools during an influenza pandemic. The Lancet infectious diseases, 9(8), 473-481. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

E. Christakis and N. Christakis. (March 16, 2020).  “Ideas: Closing Schools is Not the Only Option” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-closing-schools-not-only-option/608056/

Grant Hindsely.  (March 18, 2020).  “As schools look for guidance, educators are left asking”.  New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/politics/education-schools-coronavirus.html

K. Allen. (March 18, 2020).  “Months of school closures, social distancing needed to fight pandemic:  U ofT Research.”  https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/03/18/months-of-school-closures-social-distancing-needed-to-fight-pandemic-u-of-t-research.html?li_source=LI&li_medium=star_web_ymbii

Government of the United Kingdom. (March 20, 2020).  “Coronavirus (COVID-19): scientific evidence supporting the UK government response.” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-scientific-evidence-supporting-the-uk-government-response

Section 2: Leadership

Matt Andrews (March 15, 2020).  “Public Leadership through Crisis 1:  Can Public Leaders Manage through High Waves in Little Boats?  Building State Capacity Blog. https://buildingstatecapability.com/2020/03/15/public-leadership-through-crisis-1-can-public-leaders-navigate-high-winds-and-big-waves-in-little-boats/

Section 3: Protect your people

INEE.   Minimum Standards for Education In Emergencies. https://www.unicef.org/violencestudy/pdf/min_standards_education_emergencies.pdf

E. Boudrea. (March 10, 2020). Providing Stability in a time of Crisis: What Leaders Can do To Calm Their Communities and Keep Children Ready to Learn. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/20/03/providing-stability-time-crisis


R. Jenkins. (March 13, 2020).  “Op-Ed: LAUSD just closed schools. Ebola taught us why that may be extreme.” https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-03-13/op-ed-lausd-just-closed-schools-ebola-taught-us-why-that-may-be-extreme

A. North. (March 19, 2020). “The pros and cons of coronavirus school closures explained”  Vox.com. https://www.vox.com/2020/3/16/21180629/coronavirus-new-york-city-public-schools-closed

K. Azzi-Huck, T. Shmis. (March 2018).  “Managing the impact of Covid-19 on education systems around the world.”World Bank Educatio Blog.  https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/managing-impact-covid-19-education-systems-around-world-how-countries-are-preparing

UNICEF.  (March 2020) Key messages and actions for COVID-19 prevention and control in schools. https://www.unicef.org/media/65716/file/Key%20Messages%20and%20Actions%20for%20COVID-19%20Prevention%20and%20Control%20in%20Schools_March%202020.pdf

Section 5: Learning Continuity

R.Hess. (March 16). Five thoughts on the Coronavirus and Schools. Education Week Blog. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2020/03/five_thoughts_on_the_coronavirus_and_schools.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=rickhessstraightup&print=1

L. Darling-Hammond.  (March 19, 2020). Learning in the Time of Covid. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindadarlinghammond/2020/03/19/learning-in-the-time-of-covid-19/?utm_source=LPI+Master+List&utm_campaign=5efefb01f7-LPIMC_COVID-19-Resources_20200319&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_7e60dfa1d8-5efefb01f7-42297087#7b7998797203L.

M. Tuason and L. Stannard (2018). Edtech for learning in emergencies and displaced settings: A rigorous review. Save the Children.


C. McCabe. (2015)  Three Education Programs Using Radio to Amplify their Impact. https://educationinnovations.org/blog/world-radio-day-3-education-programs-using-radio-amplify-their-impact

Section 3: (Communicate, Motivate, Engage)

J. Van Fleet.   (March 16, 2020).  “Opinion: Education in A Time of COVID.” Devex.  https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-education-in-the-time-of-covid-19-96765

Matt Andrews.  “Public Leadership through crisis 5:  Good communication ideas you might consider.” Building State Capacity Blog. https://buildingstatecapability.com/2020/03/17/public-leadership-through-crisis-5-good-communication-ideas/

Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt. (March 18, 2020). Mass testing, school closings, lockdowns: Countries pick tactics in ‘war’ against coronavirus. Science. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/mass-testing-school-closings-lockdowns-countries-pick-tactics-war-against-coronavirus

Toronto District School Board. (n.d.) “Information on coronavirus”. https://www.tdsb.on.ca/Elementary-School/Supporting-You/Health-Active-Living/Coronavirus

Republic of Kenya, Ministry of Education. (March 18, 2020). Media Release “https://twitter.com/EduMinKenya/status/1240221103794069504?s=20

J. Elliot. (March 19, 2020)   “Its ok to be scared Norway PM says and kids coronavirus briefing” Global News: https://globalnews.ca/news/6701272/coronavirus-norway-kids-press-conference/

E. Ainge.  (March 19, 2020).  “Jacinda Arden holds special press conference for children” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/jacinda-ardern-holds-special-coronavirus-press-conference-for-children

Mundy et. al. (2014). Evaluation of the Early Learning Child to Child Program. https://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/reports/evaluation-study-early-learning-child-child-programme

Furstenberg, Frank. 2011. “The challenges of finding causal links between family educational practices and schooling outcomes.” pp. 465–482 In Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. New York: Russel Sage.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312593282_The_challenges_of_finding_causal_links_between_family_educational_practices_and_schooling_outcomes

Section 6: Evidence and Learning

P. Harrington. (March 20, 2020).  Seeing Pandemics as Complex Adaptive Problems. https://buildingstatecapability.com/

Investing in advocacy for learning equity

After being involved in years of design work, it’s satisfying to post a blog today with my former colleague, Sarah Beardmore, about GPE’s new “Education Out Loud” call for proposals. This blog is also a “downpayment” on a forthcoming book entitled ” Civil Society and Education Change in Developing Countries: What Policy Makers and Planners Need to Know,” commissioned by the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), that I’m current finishing. Among all the projects I’ve worked on – understanding the potential for collective action to drive education change is still top of my list.

This week the Global Partnership for Education launches the second call for proposals under its new fund for civil society – Education Out Loud, which is managed by Oxfam IBIS.  Education Out Loud aims to support civil society engagement in education sector planning, dialogue and monitoring; strengthen transparency and accountability in education; and create a stronger enabling environment for civil society advocacy at global and national levels.

This new call for proposals is open from December 9th to January 31st for applications to support transnational advocacy.

Education Out Loud’s funding for transnational advocacy promises to open the pathway for better, more effective education advocacy, accountability and engagement by bringing together country-level and global-level actors.

The success of this new fund tops our wish list for the New Year:  it has the potential to spark a 21st century campaign for learning equity – a campaign that re-establishes government and intergovernmental accountability for the right to education; and that inspires citizens, everywhere, to realize their right to learn.

Why should we care about advocacy?

GPE has a long history of engaging with civil society in the effort to strengthen national educational systems, to ensure that they are properly financed, and focused on learning equity and on the needs of the most marginal and vulnerable populations (Mundy 2012). Representatives from civil society – north and south, NGOs and teacher organizations – play an important role in GPE’s Board and governance at the global level, and in GPE-supported sector planning, joint sector reviews and dialogue at the national level.

Between 2009 and 2018, GPE became a leader in financing civil society education coalitions in over 60 countries, under the Civil Society Education Fund, a program managed by the Global Campaign for Education. It has also funded new approaches for engaging civil society, through a pilot initiative with Education International and UNESCO on engaging teacher organizations in sector dialogue; and through novel initiatives on out-of-school children and school report cards called Data Must Speak  co-funded by UNICEF and Hewlett Foundation.

Citizen voices must be heard

Despite the strong engagement with civil society by GPE and other international actors, there is so much more to be done. As organizations like Civicus and Afrobarometer highlight, civic space in many parts of the world is closing, with governments narrowing basic freedoms of speech and association.

Information technologies – which can support rapid, wide engagement of citizens in monitoring and accountability – also can be easily hijacked leading to the distortion of citizen voice in national politics.  With limited outlets for citizen voice, and ever larger global challenges, it is no surprise to see a rising wave of civic unrest and citizen protest around the world.

GPE’s charter and strategy express the ideal of “mutual accountability”; and civil society participation in national education policy dialogue forms a core element of GPE’s operational model. Yet GPE’s recent country evaluations and results reports tell us that although members of civil society are increasingly engaged in national education sector planning and joint sector review processes, sector dialogue and monitoring are too often ineffective. Education plans are not being translated into reality; and governments are often not held accountable for ensuring that all children realize their right to learn.  

The result is that almost 75 years since the first United Nations commitment to universal education, many children are schooled but not learning; and the numbers of adults without foundational literacy remain stubbornly high.

That is why Education Out Loud’s support for transnational advocacy is so important.  Innovative national social accountability experiments such as the People’s Action for Learning network, are supporting citizens to monitor education outcomes nationally. What makes Education Out Loud stand out is that it seeks to ensure that not only are governments more accountable to their citizens, but that global and regional policy agendas are also more effectively addressing the challenges and realities of people at the community level.

What will Education Out Loud do?

Recent research suggests areas where a transnational approach can be most effective – for example, it can play a critical role in ensuring that civil society is able to mount legal challenges when education rights of the poor and marginalized are abrogated  (Norrag 2018; Rosser and Joshi 2018); it can support better access to/use of information for accountability (Devarajan and Khemani 2016); it can build political pressure that reinforces national efforts by civil society to assess early literacy (R4D 2014); and help galvanize political reformers and allies at the “top” to form alliances with civil society actors mobilizing from below (Fox 2015UNESCO 2018).

Education Out Loud will invest in efforts to leverage national civil society expertise to inform and influence international and cross-national policy agendas; and support international civil society to help hold open national space for citizen-led advocacy and accountability.

This formula – what political scientists call a “boomerang” approach – has effectively contributed to such historical changes as female suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and advances in global efforts to address HIV/AIDs (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998; Mundy and Murphy 2001Keck and Sikkink 2014). 

At its crux, Education Out Loud aims to support civil society accountability alliances that connect local, sub-national, national and international actors together to catalyze the delivery of stronger education outcomes for all children and youth.  

And because we still have much to learn about how to do this well, Education Out Loud emphasizes the importance of capacity development, experimentation, knowledge, and the use of evidence in the proposals it will fund.

This new funding window complements two other Education Out Loud grant streams – for national coalitions and social accountability initiatives – with the aim of investing in a renewed multi-level civil society accountability eco-system capable of driving the vision of universal quality education for all children.

For more information on Education Out Loud and the current call for proposals, please visit GPE’s Education Out Loud webpage


Fox, J. A. (2015). Social accountability: what does the evidence really say?. World Development72, 346-361. 

Devarajan, Shantayanan; Khemani, Stuti. 2016. If politics is the problem, how can external actors be part of the solution ? (English). Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 7761. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. 

Finnemore, M., & Sikkink, K. (1998). International norm dynamics and political change. International organization, 52(4), 887-917. 

Keck, M. E., & Sikkink, K. (2014). Activists beyond borders: Advocacy networks in international politics. Cornell University Press. 

Mundy, K. (2008).  Civil Society and its Role in the Achievement and Governance of Education for All.  Background paper for the Education For All Global Monitoring Report, 2009. Paris: UNESCO. 

Mundy, K. (2012). The global campaign for education and the realization of “Education for All”. In Campaigning for”” Education for all”” (pp. 17-30). Brill Sense.

Mundy, K. and L. Murphy. 2001. Transnational Advocacy/Global Civil Society? Emerging Evidence from the Field of Education. Comparative Education Review 45(1).

NORRAG. 2018. NORRAG_special-issue-01_Right to education movements and policies_EN_2018.pdf

R4D. 2015.  Bringing Learning to Light: The Role of Citizen-led Assessments in Shifting the Education Agenda.  Washington DC: Results for Development. 

Rosser, Andrew; Joshi, Anuradha. 2018. Using courts to realize education rights : reflections from India and Indonesia (English). Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 8448. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. 

Serhan, Y. November 19,2019.  The Common Element Uniting Worldwide Protests. The Atlantic. 

UNESCO. 2018. Global Education Monitoring Report:  Accountability in Education – Meeting our committments.  Paris: UNESCO. 

Making Evaluations Work for Equity and Inclusion in Education

I’m reposting this blog (originally published by UNESCO) on the our synthesis of evaluations on education equality and inclusion. The report will be presented next week in Rome and Oslo.

International organizations typically have well-developed evaluation units, generating large volumes of evidence about their policies, programs and practices. Yet, while synthesis of evidence on international education development has evolved considerably in recent years, synthesis of evidence from the independent evaluations undertaken by international organizations has not.


A new ‘evidence synthesis’ released this week from UNESCO’s IOS Evaluation Office and a group of international partners partly fills this gap. The study reviews 147 independent evaluations commissioned by 13 international organizations, all with a focus on measuring and assessing some aspect of education equality or gender equity. Using a rigorous search process, systematic coding and narrative analysis, the study gives a bird’s eye view of the types of interventions being evaluated by international organizations and synthesizes evaluation findings. It also proposes important recommendations to help improve evaluations commissioned by international organizations and ensure that these evaluations support country progress in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.5.

What are the main findings from the study?

The volume of evidence is impressive: in an open search of the evaluation databases of 16 international organizations, we found that 147 of a total of 156 evaluations of education published between 2015 and 2019 included objectives or outcomes related to gender parity, equality and inclusion.  Approximately 30 to 40 education evaluations were published each year.

There are strengths and gaps in these evaluations. Their predominant focus is on interventions to support access and participation. Very few include learning as a measured area of impact. Furthermore, while the issue of girls’ education is well covered in these evaluations, the impact of programs on other aspects of equity, related to inclusion for those with disabilities, and disadvantage related to ethnicity and language, were less commonly studied. Geographically, the largest number of evaluations in the dataset are based in Africa – signaling an important new body of evidence on education in the continent.

Only 28 of the evaluations used rigorous quantitative methods with a counterfactual. The strongest evidence appears in evaluations of cash transfer and school feeding programs. Very few of the evaluations look at the equity impact of interventions that directly target improvements in service delivery, with a notable lack of strong evidence on what works to improve teaching practices for more equitable learning outcomes.

With a few exceptions, evaluations in this dataset are unable to show a convincing link between large-scale system-wide reform programs and improvements in learning equity and alleviation of other forms of educational inequality, in part because rigorous and consistent use of theory-based evaluation design is rare.

Furthermore, as noted in an earlier study (and also noted in a podcast), there is little attempt to compare and learn from system reform programs by looking across countries, or across the different organizational forms of support provided in a single country. Yet complex and multi-pronged ‘system-wide’ programs form an increasingly large share of donor-funded interventions in education. Tantalizing but incomplete findings from evaluations of system reform programs include the fact that decentralization and school-based management may have negative impacts on equity and inclusion; and that results-based financing has mixed impact on implementation.

Thaneshwar Gautam

In conclusion, this new report calls for international organizations to strengthen their evaluation of SDG 4.5 in four specific ways.

First, address evidence gaps by improving evaluation of the equity impact of interventions focused on changing frontline service delivery (improving classrooms, teachers and schools), including by incorporating stronger measures of learning equity.

Second, use the evaluation enterprise to contribute to stronger, country-owned generation and use of data.

Third, strengthen evaluation methodologies. 

Finally, based on validation workshops in five countries, the report calls on international organizations to make evaluation evidence more usable and useful to national stakeholders, by ensuring they are involved in the selection and timing of evaluative studies, and by preparing evidence syntheses to support ongoing learning.

In addition to the full report, a methodological note and list of the evaluations will be available on the UNESCO IOS website in due course.

The New Learning Targets – Redux

The past year or so has seen a rash of new initiatives and exchanges among the global education literati about “global learning targets.” Lets take a look at what all the fuss is about, and why it is worth asking a few further questions.  [And a “heads up”:  in coming weeks I’ll be comparing the strategies of two international organizations – UNICEF and the World Bank-  for tackling the learning crisis.]

What’s all the fuss about?  Over the course of the year, it has become increasingly clear that the global community has not moved quickly towards selecting realistic measures for some of the most important SDG 4 goals.  Specifically, almost 30 years after the Jomtien Declaration, and more than 50 years since the first UN led efforts to “eradicate illiteracy,” education still has no comparable measure to those that have elevated global health diplomacy – no guiding metric, no single data-point, that can focus attention on learning (instead of schooling).

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics has been valiantly aiming to develop such a metric, specifically for SDG 4.1. Based on low levels of enthusiasm among both developing country members and civil society for a single global test that measures literacy, it’s strategy so far has been to design a “bridge” that can allow us to equate and compare learning outcomes from national and regional learning assessments. UIS however is in crisis: its modest funding is in no way adequate to meet its global role; furthermore, it faces an underlying problem: too few countries have national learning metrics to start with (though those that do is growing). In August, a big twitter fire erupted when a UN meeting on indicators for SDG 4.1 saw a recommendation to stop pursuing a learning target for SDG 4.1 at primary level and instead replace it with the more traditional adult literacy indicator proposed for use with 4.6.1. 

Enter stage left the World Bank.  For at least the last decade, the Bank has endorsed and advanced the idea that education system quality can be measured by learning outcomes. Yet it never quite got its act together to ensure that all its operations and loans included funding for a learning outcome measure or used learning outcomes as a metric for its own project performance.   Earlier this year the Bank signed a cooperative agreement with UIS that draws on UIS expertise to help it create a single learning metric that it says it will use as the centrepiece for all its education sector work going forward. Now we have a new, new indicator: the Learning Poverty target.   Last week at its fall meetings, the World Bank also announced that it will (support countries to) “halve” the number of children aged 10 who cannot read at a basic level of proficiency (do I hear echos of the last USAID strategy?). The Bank estimates that over 50% of children in low and middle income countries cannot read and understand a simple text. It also launched a new learning policy package to get all children reading by age 10.  

Why hasn’t more happened already?  Lets back up a bit and ask why education as been so slow in developing relevant global metrics.  The problem can be traced to several issues, but the common root may be fragmentation in the institutional architecture, as captured in a recent article by Nick Burnett.  Lets face it:  in the past 20 years the international community could at any time have provided steady and predictable investment in a process that engaged groups of countries in designing their own rigorous national and regional assessments. Such initial investments were made – largely by the World Bank – but it didn’t hold the course. Over the same period, the agencies that we might look to to develop or support broadly owned learning metrics, went off in different directions with their own technical fixes for measuring learning outcomes, usually working bilaterally (think USAID’s EGRA, think World Bank’s service delivery indicators). The governments and organizations that might be expected to provide core funding for global education statistics – including the World Bank, GPE and bilateral donors – have not provided it. In the meanwhile UNESCO (and its scion UIL), have lost their groove. 

International organizations and donors are fickle and always seeking a new shiny “silver ball” – their main focus is on their own organizational needs and drivers, and rarely on the regional and global goods needed to shift a whole education system or the aid regime. UIS is struggling to gain its ground, and may not be the best “agent” for scaffolding regional assessment regimes. PISA and the OECD may have overplayed their hand. GPE’s Strategy 2020 stood out because it was the first time an international organizations promised to hold its own work to account for improving learning outcomes, and UNICEF quickly followed. But have they really changed the way their organizations fund and support learning?  Today’s World Bank seems to be a frenetic “metrics machine”  – deeply fragmented internally about how and what metrics to use to monitor learning outcomes. For example, the World Bank’s new Learning Poverty Measure, draws from different data than last year’s  big annual meetings announcement, the Human Capital Index; while the Bank’s Service Delivery Indicators framework, which the Bank promises to spread across its portfolio, draws from – yup – another learning outcomes measure!  Go figure. 

Skepticism about the underlying “theory of change.”   So lets unpack the theory of change behind global metrics.  It might look something like this:  the world community comprised of nation states sets a meaningful goal, identifies a target and a measure of this goal. Countries report on this target, and change their priorities to reflect this shared goal. At the global level an advocacy and accountability “boomerang” helps to hold countries to account, and provides a significant tool for accountability politics among local and regional stakeholders (aka, governments and citizens!), stimulating further incentives for policy makers committed to change.  This is essentially the theory of change for the new Learning Poverty indictor, except that initiative is not a globally set target owned by countries. Nonetheless, it is gaining wide support (see this blog from the Gates Foundation).

Is this a plausible ToC?  The record is mixed.  As a recent Centre for Global Development paper on the role played by regional assessments in Latin America and Africa by Bruns et. al. shows,  successful assessment regimes are built painstakingly by engaging regional actors and countries over long periods of time. If these processes are managed well, along the road countries to develop both a strong normative frame for thinking about learning outcomes and learning equity, and the technical and policy capacity for using data.

We could hypothesize from this that the process through which learning targets and measures are developed is as important as the metric itself:  metrics work best when there is time to build a sense of ownership and belonging among a“club” of countries — where the “muscles” for constructive comparison are gradually built alongside national capacity to use data for reform. Yet this organic pathway is not at all what we see in current efforts.

We can further stress test the theory of change behind global learning indicators by looking at the mixed impact PISA has had in developing countries. It is true that international metrics can spur change where there is a change oriented policy entrepreneur ready to catch the boomerang (aka, Jaime Savaedra in Peru), or where a robust civil society and free media demands national response (see Germany).  But few low-income countries have either of these assets – which combined are what we typically mean when use the term “political will”. Instead several low-income countries have simply pulled out of PISA altogether, finding the metric irrelevant.  

We can also learn by taking the MDG era targets and experiences seriously. The MDG global goals for education were widely rejected by developing countries because of their sole focus on primary education; GPE’s early support for “all children reading” campaign for learning metrics suffered a similar pushback.

Do we want a quick fix, or country and regional ownership and commitment to learning?  

In short:  these new global metrics may all be great inventions for moving a single agency forward – and they certainly give an organization a reputational boost and the patina of strategic focus. But as far as I can see, none of these new metrics is built on the kind of consensus and the underlying accountabilities that are likely to generate lasting global change.  We should all worry when a new learning poverty metric is not organic.  If I am right, global targets of this type will do little to shift policy winds that are almost entirely focused on secondary schooling and youth skills, as for example across Africa.

More importantly, supply driven metrics and diagnostic tools of all kinds may have pernicious side effects, undermining rather than bolstering national will and ownership of learning goals, reinforcing a culture in which global policy talk and national policy action continue to diverge. This is one of the lessons highlighted in GPE’s recent country level evaluations, in regards to its emphasis on a prescribed model for education sector planning.

So what should we do? Three thoughts.  

·      First:  Pool international resources and support regional coalitions for learning. Predictable funding for collaborative policy dialogue about learning should be our first goal. Supporting country-led efforts to develop national and regional assessments (especially in Africa), can be part of this effort – but at best these should be a supporting concern, not an ends in themselves. And don’t forget: for learning metrics, it’s all about process, and that takes time and steadfast commitment.

·      Second: Invest adequate resources in a simple global learning indicator module in household surveys. This strategy is cost effective and has the advantage of drawing new focus for the learning crisis in the youth and adult populations. (Recall that even teachers aren’t reading at primary level in parts of Africa).  SDG 4.6.1 – everyone has the right to literacy – needs just as much attention as all children reading.

·      Third:   Don’t overestimate the importance of international organizations and international metrics.  But do demand more information about what each international organization plans to do increase learning outcomes and ask whether they will be using learning metrics to evaluate the performance of their own portfolios and programs. Too few IOs have looked rigorously at the impact of their sector financing on learning outcomes; more and more of them are moving funding away from primary education and towards secondary and TVET. I suspect the new focus on learning metrics is more political ploy than conscientious effort to shift the way aid dollars are spent. Twenty years ago a group of donors conducted a joint evaluation of aid to basic education – and shortly afterwards the World Bank evaluated its support to primary education. Each suggested lacklustre performance – in areas that are consistent with USAID’s more recent evaluation of its support to basic education and a Norwegian evaluation of GPE and UNICEF. It’s time to evaluate our sector again, answering one clear question (with thanks to Lant Pritchet):  why after 30 years, and so many global commitments, have aid and international donors had such limited impact on learning?

More Money Matters: New work on financing education development

As the CTO at the Global Partnership for Education, I spent a lot of time working with the GPE Board to design GPE2020, the organization’s strategic plan.  Everyone hoped GPE would raise more money to reach the Sustainable Development Goal 4; but many also criticized the effectiveness of aid to education, and worried about how new funds could be better spent.

This month has seen the release of new research and recommendations about financing that bring the importance of more funding for SDG4 into sharper focus. In this blog I review new costing of the funding gap for Education 2030; an update on the International Financing Facility for Education; and new research on the role of educational financing in achieving learning and completion (raising questions about recent World Bank prescriptions). All highlight the importance of additional financing for equitable educational outcomes – particularly relevant to the sometimes neglected SDG 4 Target 5: “By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.

Costing the Education Sustainable Development Goal:

The UNESCO GEM Report team estimates that an annual education funding gap of at least US$39 billion per year in low and middle income countries will persist over 2015–2030, requiring international financing to achieve SDG4. Using a slightly different methodology the International Commission on Financing Global Educational Opportunity, estimates total financing for education in low and middle income countries will need to increase from USD $1.2 trillion to USD$3 trillion by 2030 to achieve SDG4. Allocations of external financing for education, now at $16 billion per year, would need to grow $89 billion per year by 2030. These funds would remain particularly critical for low-income countries, covering on average half of their education costs.

Last week a publication from the IMF provided a new way to look at the domestic and international financing needed to achieve the SDGs, this time modelling what is needed to close the gap in public and private financing for education, health, roads, electricity, water and sanitation by 2030. The report’s findings are revealing:  While approximately US$ 2.1 trillion is needed to close the SDG spending gap in these areas in emerging (middle income) countries, only US$ 0.5 trillion is needed in low income countries. However, as the report concludes, it will be much harder for low income countries to raise this sum, because it requires average additional spending representing an increase of 15 percentage points of GDP. In contrast, for emerging market economies, the spending gap is a more manageable 4 percentage points of GDP. This is why external resources are so important to low income countries.

What is perhaps most interesting in this new study is the remarkable heterogeneity in the financing gaps for education and health within low-income and middle income country categories.  Some countries have done much better in raising domestic education spending, but why and how? There are lessons in positive deviance here to learn from.

New Evidence that Financing Education Matters

For quite a while, the World Bank has argued that more money is not what is needed to reach the global goals for education. Key reports, including the Bank’s World Development Report 2004 and the World Development Report 2018showed little correlation between spending and access to school, and a similarly weak correlation between spending and learning outcomes.  

As a result the World Bank has tended to emphasize a greater focus on improving the efficiency of spending, and shies away from recommendations to increase per capita education spending in low-income countries. For example, the Bank’s new book on African education, “Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa,” the handful of major recommendations include only one focused on financing: “strengthening key budget processes.” (Watch for further detail in my forthcoming book review blog).

A refreshing blog last week from World Bank economist Dave Evans raises questions about Bank orthodoxy on education financing. In it he reviews a new paper by Kirabo Jackson (“Does School Spending Matter? The New Literature on an Old Question”) based on 13 studies in the US. As Evan’s notes, twelve of the studies in the synthesis show convincingly that improvements in school completion and learning outcomes over the last 20 years can be traced to sustained increases in financing – with particularly strong impacts for low SES students.  

Because these studies all come from the US, they also raise an important challenge for researchers who study education finance and education reform in the developing world. More money matters.  But Evans argues that while the impact of a marginal dollar in the developing world might produce even stronger effects than spending increases in the US, the effectiveness of education spending is likely lower in developing world – mainly because less reaches schools and the poorest children.

But we simply don’t know for sure.

We have remarkably little research or evaluation evidence like that reported by Jackson to help us to understand the causal impact of spending changes on learning and equity in the developing world.  

So: I’m wondering whether we can’t divert some of the our international research dollars to this type of question. We’ve gone whole hog using experimental methods to study discrete educational innovations – but are we spending too little on research on whole of system reforms, like how changes in financing levels effects equity? Love to hear your views.

And if we do such research, let’s continue to focus on positive deviance – how some low income countries have been able to increase their spending and achieve equity-focused improvements in completion rates and learning outcomes. A good example of this highlighted in “Facing Forward” is Burundi.  Lessons from such examples are essential if we want to spur future progress.  

More on Development Finance: 

Meanwhile, Nancy Lee highlights the challenge the world faces in providing the right mix and levels of public finance and commercial private finance for the SDGs (including education) on an OECD blog. As she notes, despite global commitments “four years later the hoped for trillions are no where in sight… In fact we have reached the stage where we need to decide whether to change the goals we set in 2015 or take a hard, critical look at the institutions we rely on to propel mobilization of private finance for sustainable development.”  The situation is most critical for low-income countries where 40% are in or at risk of debt distress, often for borrowing to fund investments in the social sectors and infrastructure.

It might appear that education has been quicker to address this problem than other sector, what with the new Education Finance Facility moving forward. But not so fast! As the 2019 updated prospectus and plans for the facility make clear, this facility is focused on filling the gap in financing for lower middle-income countries, with an expected USD$10 billion in additional finance. That’s important because approximately (according to the commission) 155 million out-of-school children live in this geography, including more than half of the total refugees and displaced persons globally.  

However, for education we need to look at demographic, economic and educational trends going forward, realizing that making investments now will only yield results decades into the future. Such trends suggest that the number of out of school or under-educated children in low-income countries is stubbornly expanding and likely to grow as a share of the total underserved population over the next 20 years. Furthermore, high levels of global geopolitical and economic volatility raise the risk that countries recently “graduated” to lower middle-income status will sink back into low-income status (see for example Zambia) or indebtedness (see for example Ghana). 

This brings us back to the need for sufficient external concessional financing for education.  Yet according to a GEM policy brief, international financing flows for education in low-income countries are declining: less than a quarter of basic education aid goes to low income countries, compared to 36% in 2002; and overall aid to sub-Saharan Africa, home to about half of all out of school children world-wide, has slipped down the donors priority list. 

Money matters! 

It’s clear from the above that we continue to need new educational financing solutions for children in low-income countries. While a large share of the financing gap could be filled if donors met the internationally agreed target of providing aid at the level of 0.7% of GNI  – a fact that the IMF paper emphasizes – this seems unlikely. 

Of course both domestic and international funding needs to be spent well, reaching the poorest children and most marginalized schools with good quality education. But spending funds more efficiently alone won’t get us where we need to go.

More money, not just money better spent, is essential if we want to improve equitable educational outcomes for all.  New research on educational financing also shows that more and better financing, especially through concessional flows, is essential, not incidental to achieving the global goals in education.


Bashir, S., M. Lockheed, E. Ninan and Jee-Peng Tang. 2018.  Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa, Washington D.C.:  The World Bank.

Education Commission. 2016. The Learning Generation.  https://report.educationcommission.org/finance/

Gasper et al. 2019. Fiscal Policy for Development: Human Social and Physical Investment for the SDGs.  IMF Staff discussion Note # 1903. Washington: International Monetary Fund. 

Evans, D. 2019. Education Spending and Learning Outcomes. Development Impact Blog January 17, 2019.  

Jackson, C. Kiribo. 2018. Does School Spending Matter? The new literature on an old question.  

Lee, Nancy. 2019. Trillions for the SDGs?  Time for A Rethink. OECD Development Matters Blog

the Education Commission. 2019.  IFFED Prospectus Update. New York: the Education Commission 

UNESCO. 2018.  Policy Brief # 36:  Aid to Education: A return to growth?   Paris: UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report. 

Winners take all: A master class in contemporary philanthropy?

I’ve just finished reading** (aka listening) to a provocative new book —  Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World by New York Times journalist Anand Giridharadas. For those of you who want a master class in how to interface with international donors in education, I think this may be the book for you. 

First impression: this is a compelling, if cynical, book about philanthropy.  It’s not about individual donors but about the entire complex of ideas, actors and behaviours that form the mental models underpinning contemporary US based philanthropy. The book literally gallops along, fueled by insider accounts of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Aspen Institute, the work of major foundations and consulting firms. It’s studded with a cast of star appearances from leading philanthropists and young professionals. Political scientist Dan Drezner,  economist Dani Rodrik, and even Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, are featured, adding to the fun.

Argument:  Building a layered account through short case studies, participant observation and interviews with major philanthropists, politicians and foundation staff, Giridharadas argues that that the culture of philanthropy in the US has changed and is increasingly narrow. 

He builds a convincing portrait of what does and does not count as good philanthropy and shows how these ideas have come to permeate the field: 

  • Donors increasingly frame what they want to do with their philanthropic funding as “win-win” – for the investors and the recipients/targets of the funding. A double bottom line is essential.
  • The only acceptable language is the language of market and entrepreneurship. And it’s all about innovation – disruptive innovation – – all the way down.
  • Out of bounds are topics like the potential role of billionaire donors and their corporations in the creation of social inequality; the need for progessive taxation; and the role of state policies in ensuring equity and democracy.
  • The “heroes” are always innovators from the business sector.  Problems of the poor are personalized and individualized – leading to the concentration of efforts on improving the resilience and adaptability of the poor to the social and technological changes affecting them. Collective action or state regulation is rarely on the menu.
  • Major consulting firms have codified how to make “win-win” proposals and programs using a set of analytic tools that is reproducible across almost any field of philanthropic endeavor (but often neglecting collective action, context and the political economy of forces that drive inequality).
  • A whole generation of young people are being trained to execute this philanthropic approach – including through their recruitment into major consulting firms. As Giridharadas hilariously documents, there are workshops, seminars and even cruises that provide “how to guidance” to young professionals encouraging them to be part of the “win win”.
  • The new culture of philanthropy is changing the role of public intellectuals and academics:   “thought leaders” who purveys win-win arguments are the new normal (building on Dan Drezner’s recent book). 

Winners Take All is at times hyperbolic and reads a bit like Jonathan Swift satire. This may come from the fact that, for Giridharadas this topic is very personal. He worked for a major consulting firm and spent time as an Aspen institute fellow. Not only was he  deeply immersed in the culture of the new philanthropy; his ideas were sharply critiqued when he presented them at the Aspen Institute. 

The upshot:  Read this book if you need a master class in the language of current donor discourse. Giridharadas describes a mindset that increasingly permeates work in educational development organizations. I don’t necessarily agree with his portrait of the motivations behind this culture nor would I dismiss the benefits of entrepreneurship and innovation as completely as he does. But I have learned some of the lessons he offers in this book the hard way. For example:  Arguments that work best with international donors are those that are framed as “win-win” innovations. Never start with any strategy with a zero sum argument.. And try using a major consulting firm to advance an idea or proposal, it almost always improves the uptake of an idea.   

However, if you are really interested in contemporary philanthropy, try something more grounded in research. Stanford University Prof and colleague Rob Reich’s new book “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it can do better” is on my holiday reading list. I’m curious to read his take on how to reform charitable giving. 

I’m also looking forward to a NORRAG sponsored workshop on the new philanthropy being held in Stanford California in April 2019, where Rob Reich will be our host, with collaboration from the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, and the Open Society Foundation. 

What to watch/read/listen to this week:

An update on the future of reading:  one of the questions I raised in a recent blog is: “is listening as good as traditional reading for knowledge acquisition”  Today a New York Times article by Daniel T. Willingham takes up my question. The answer is “it depends.”

Read Rob Reich’s new book –  or see this short piece by Rob in the Stanford Innovation Review.Rob Reich. 2019 (winter).  Philanthropy in the Service of Democracy. Stanford Innovation Review.

Rob Reich. 2018.  Just Giving:  Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it can do better. Princeton University Press

Take a look at Dan Drezner’s book on decline of the public intellectual and the rise of “thought leadership.”  Or listen to this podcast interview.

Dan Drezner. The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.. Oxford University Press.

Listen to Anand Giridharadas on the NYT Book review or NPR. Or just go all out and read** (listen) to the book. 

Learning and Human Futures: My Fall of “Reading”**

As many of you know, I’ve moved from a managerial role back to academia. Perhaps the most perplexing thing about changing tacks is that old habits have to be changed, and new ones developed.   It’s really, really, hard.  So, much of my “reading”** this fall has been focused on understanding the science of making change at the level of the individual (i.e. myself), which I like to think is my zone of proximal development.

But what if the changes to be made are part of a much wider societal shift?  Early in September, I realized that I had lost my ability to read longer texts (those things called “books”) with concentration. There I was, on sabbatical, time to spare –every day struggling to read about the science of human learning for any longer than 15 minutes without distraction.  

Slowly I realized this was not a Karen Mundy problem but something bigger — a problem that parents, schools, communities and workplaces are all facing at scale. Everyone is talking about it (see this from the NYT and this from the CEO of Apple). Happily I stumbled on one of NPR’s most listened-to podcasts, hosted by Manoush Zomorodi and captured in her popular book entitled Bored and Brilliant.” Manoush interviews leading thinkers on the challenges that new technologies and changing work patterns are imposing on the human brain – then she provides a series of “exercises” (she calls them challenges) to help us get things under control.   Nothing too difficult – track and limit your screen time, use the pomodoro method to rebuild concentration, drop all the notification functions on your social media, read more, and restructure your daily habits to maximize productivity (through line to Daniel Pink’s new book “When” /which I also “read”**/ and all the others trying to sell me on meditation and napping)! Ha!  

But re-learning how to read deeply is not a simple process, as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf documents in her new book – “Reader Come Home– apparently motivated by the realization that she had lost the skill herself. Her book explores the evolution of the brain’s ability to read – showing how the “reading circuit” is unlike genetically hardwired abilities (vision, language), and draws on and builds the brain’s deep seated plasticity.  The book argues – implores – us to protect the reading brain and its capacity for deep thought, even while building out new brain circuits for learning through other media. With some irony I admit to “reading”** this book on audio, a learning modality whose efficacy is rarely researched.  

Now let’s take this problem up one notch – since I’m on sabbatical anyway. How should/can we steer learning systems of today so that kids and adults around the world are ready for a 2050 future?  Let me call this out as an area where “basic research” is much needed and not yet thriving. A vast literature on the future of work is emerging, which I’ll cover in later blogs, and another on using technology to disrupt learning.  But neither of these threads seem wide enough or interdisciplinary enough to me. Such research is delinked from other changes in world order – climate change, new geopolitics, rise of populism and decline of democracy, migration, bio-engineering, all intersecting with what some call the 4thIndustrial Revolution. Nor does it utilize what we are beginning to know about the science of learning and the brain itself.  Most importantly, how to tackle this level of “change” in a world where the ability to read is already polarized between children who are schooled to fail at reading and those who have moved on to digital alternatives.

The irony is that just when we need to think on a world-historical scale and build a basic science for change that stretches downwards to brain science and outwards towards societal structures, much recent funding for educational research has gone down the path of rapid loop experimentation to test “what works” in terms of discreet interventions – (see recent blog by the Curry School Dean, Bob Piantas on this problem in the US experience).  

To think forward I say we need to start by learning from history (I always say that –  history was my first degree) and then invest in basic research. That brought me to my next deep reading challenge of the fall – Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.” In it he lays out possible futures for humanity based on lessons from his previous two histories of human society, Sapiens and Homo Deus.  Again, guilty admission:  I think I’ve picked up what is is basically a “Harari light” compared to his earlier books (this one is clearly meant for distracted readers); and even so, I’ve shamelessly supplemented the book with videos of interviews and talks by Harari (see Harari on education; discussing the book with IMF head Lagarde; and my favourite, with Christiane Amanpour).  Suffice to say that his futures are framed as extra-ordinary challenges to which only human creativity, deep learning, ethics and story telling (read education – which gets a whole chapter) provide solutions.  And he’s pretty funny about the story telling done by economists in the mix!

All of this “reading”** is helping me as I think through what research questions I will pursue now that I’m back to academe – but also what kind of writing I want to do. Epistolary writing (dear reader) is back in vogue, that’s for sure.

For now I plan to use Harari and Wolf in my redesigned course “Global Governance/Educational Change” (blog and syllabus coming soon here). Feel free to recommend more “reading” to me. 

What to “read”**  (listen, watch)

(**shout out to my dear friends the novelists Nino Ricci and Erika de Vasconcelos for pointing out to me last week we that need a new term for audio reading. For now I am going with “READING”**).

  1. Harari, Yuval Noah (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.  Signal Press/Random House.
  2. Pink, Daniel.  (2018). When:  The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.  Riverhead Books. https://www.danpink.com/books/when/or interviewed on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/17/578666036/daniel-pinks-when-shows-the-importance-of-timing-throughout-life
  3. Wolf, Maryanne. (2018). Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper Collins.  https://www.maryannewolf.com/reader-come-home-1/
  4. Piantis, Bob.  (November 2018) Blog. “Why Education Research Isn’t Improving Education Much.” https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2018/11/why_education_research_isnt_improving_education_much.html
  5. Zomorodi, Manoush. (2017). Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York Public Broadcasting.

It’s all about youth

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, policy makers are paying attention to education and skills for youth. The coming crisis has at least four dimensions:  a large bulge of youth (the Economist); poor quality of learning in the primary cycle (WB); high demand for free universal secondary education; and a future in which non-formal employment and the gig economy remain the norm for most young people (CGD).

Embed this all in an uncertain future, one where the fourth industrial revolution threatens to make traditional pathways for economic growth through manufacturing and services difficult for Africa, and where climate change and conflicts will take their toll, and Africa has a youth challenge on a scale no other country or world region has faced in human history.

In Ghana last week, I had a special chance to look at these challenge up close. Hosted by CAMFED, I met with girls and young women supported to go to school and to engage in a range of leadership and community development activities. I also worked with an advisory panel on a report that the MasterCard Foundation will release in 2019 on youth, skills and secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s what I learned.

First, we must and can support the imagination and resilience of the young people themselves to craft their futures, and in doing so change the culture of schooling itself.  More prescient than the experts on the MasterCard advisory panel, the secondary aged girls I spoke with asked me cutting edge questions: will artificial intelligence replace our future jobs? How much will we suffer because our library has no computers?  Do you think free secondary education will help our country or will schools get worse? How does what we’re learning compare to other countries?

Remember these girls are selected for scholarships based on need, not academic merit. CAMFED’s model offers them training in budgeting, time management, leadership skills and community development. Alumnae of its programs become community “guides,” a fundamental part of the CAMFED ethos of giving back.  This community-focused model has been shown to be highly cost effective: for $100 USD, it delivers the equivalent of two additional years of learning to those children it supports with ripple effects to others at participating schools and communities.

At university level, I joined a room of young CAMFED women with an amazing range of propositional ideas about learning and the future of work.  Tagged initially as “poor scholarship girls” they told me they now sit in student leadership positions across the University Cape Coast. And they are using the leadership and self-management skills learned from CAMFED activities to identify problems they can solve – not tomorrow but today.  From retooling early grade learning by setting up literacy boot camps in primary schools to starting Ghana’s first network on mental health for young people, these girls are stepping up as social entrepreneurs – and creating pathways to a new economy .


The Economist on Africa’s youth bulge https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/09/22/africas-high-birth-rate-is-keeping-the-continent-poor

REAL Centre’s evaluation of CAMFED’s cost-effectiveness http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/real/downloads/REAL%20Policy%20Brief%20Cost-effectiveness%20Camfed%20A4_FINAL.pdf

The World Bank (2018) report –  Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa. https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/publication/facing-forward-schooling-for-learning-in-africa

The Centre for Global Development’s new brief on the informal sector, gig economy and the future of work in Africa https://www.cgdev.org/publication/lets-be-real-informal-sector-and-gig-economy-are-future-and-present-work-africa


Education Aid and Creativity

What to read in global education this week.  CGD on IFFED and new podcast on Creativity and why schools kill it off.

Aid architecture: See this critical article on the  education aid architecture’s new international financing facility (IFFED). Note: one author was among the original proposers of IFFED. On the education impact fund authors argue that impact funding should be for governments – not only private providers – I agree.  However, I am skeptical about the drive to use multilateral aid for outcomes. The political economy of multilateralism makes true COD/results based financing unlikely (more in a later blog); and wide use of financial and other material incentives can undermine human motivation (except in a few settings).

I see other routes to same end:  make sure all multi-lateral aid is aligned to country plans  that are owned by governments; and that what is funded from the plans includes stronger accountabilities to national publics. Evaluate education aid properly and make sure that there is a go/no go for second stage funding based on results. Lets fix the fundamental problem in our own back yard: multi-laterals are still driven by spending pipelines –  not by longer term, consistent delivery of results.

Science of learning:  see the new Freakonomics series on creativity. I’m fascinated with the new sciences of the human brain, of human motivation, and what this can tell us not only about individuals but about how to get systems and organizations to change. I’m also crazy curious about how this is being used in popular media. Curious fact:  more 30 year olds are writing popular books, and other media  on human motivation than in any previous decade.   I will tell you more about this and my new mantra for foreign aid in coming blogs…. “autonomy, mastery, purpose.”