Smart strategies to improve learning in low- and middle-income nations
Education is a good investment: It can transform the prospects of a community along with the lives of individuals. But if you want to improve education, what kinds of investments work best? A recent World Bank report, “Cost-Effective Approaches to Improve Global Learning,” looks at different interventions and how well they work in low- and middle-income countries.
It includes recommendations from education and policy experts convened by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office and the World Bank. “The report identifies ways to spend money effectively on education,” says Deon Filmer, director of the World Bank’s Development Research Group.
Smart education investments are even more important in the wake of the pandemic, says Halsey Rogers, lead economist with the World Bank’s Education Global Practice. “Children may have lost half a year’s worth of learning or more,” he says. “So the question is, how can governments prioritize with constrained resources so those children recover as quickly as possible?”
Remember that context is important: What works in Tanzania might not work in Ecuador. Here we lay out some of the effective strategies outlined in the report and some of the potential pitfalls. Find the full report.
Cost-effective strategies supported by strong evidence
Share information with parents and children on how education can increase income, on available sources of funding, and on the quality of local schools. When parents know what they’re paying for, how much children are learning, and how much money is going to schools, they can demand better outcomes.
Provide structured lesson plans with linked materials and ongoing teacher monitoring and training. In a randomized, controlled trial in Gambia, scripted lesson plans, after-school supplementary classes, and frequent monitoring and teacher coaching dramatically improved learning outcomes for students.
Target instruction by learning level, not grade. When one classroom serves a wide variety of learning levels, some students can get left behind. Group children for all or part of the day based on their learning levels, with help from teacher assistants or volunteers.
Reduce commute times to school. Building new schools closer to students can be prohibitively expensive. A more cost-effective strategy entails setting up schools in existing community buildings or reducing travel times through other methods. In one study, when girls in the Indian state of Bihar received bikes, their secondary school attendance increased by 30 percent.
Give merit-based scholarships to disadvantaged children. Merit-based scholarships targeted at disadvantaged young people can act as an extra incentive to improve attendance and student effort.
Provide software that adapts to a child’s learning level. Adaptive or self-paced software targeted to the individual student can be very effective. But reliable electricity, internet connections, teacher training, and available hardware for all students are critical to this strategy.
Support pre-primary education (ages 3-5). Poor children tend to start school with lower levels of cognitive and language development than children from higher-income households. Intervention in those pre-primary years can have long-term economic benefits.
Tips for avoiding pitfalls
Studies have shown that providing money or supplies alone — whether it’s books, computers, school buildings, grants, salaries, or libraries — without addressing other issues is often ineffective. Donated laptops, for example, won’t improve learning if the school doesn’t have reliable electricity or teachers aren’t trained to use them. Even providing textbooks might not be as simple as it seems. In one case, new textbooks in Sierra Leone went unused because administrators weren’t assured that damaged books would be replaced.
For any intervention to be effective, “you need to have a real sense of what those schools need,” Rogers says. “You need to build that relationship and have a sustained commitment.” And whatever the strategy, Filmer advises, pay attention to outcomes, learn from them, and adapt. Come back in a few months to see whether donated books are being used. Come back in a year and replace them if needed.
Rotary members can also use their influence to improve global learning. “Rotarians can help get the private sector involved in telling the government that education is the future of our country, and we need to invest smartly in our country,” Rogers says. “It really packs a punch when business leaders like Rotarians say that.”
“When countries have made learning for all children a priority, they can achieve remarkable results,” Filmer adds. “We’ve seen that happen around the world, whether in Korea or Finland or Vietnam or states like Ceará in Brazil. What it takes is commitment by all of society.
More than 50 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries don’t learn to read with comprehension by age 10. Post-COVID, that number could rise to an estimated 63 percent.
Just before the pandemic struck, 53 percent of young people were completing secondary school globally, but only 29 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
In rural India in 2016, only half of grade 5 students could fluently read text at the grade 2 curriculum level.
In Uruguay, poor children in grade 6 are assessed as “not competent” in math at five times the rate of wealthy children.
This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.