On December 5-6, last year, a slightly unusual meeting was held in Nyeri County, bringing together experts from around the world and local policymakers at the Education Evidence for Action conference.
What makes this slightly out of the ordinary is the second word, “evidence”. Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has worked with Kenyan decision makers on more than 120 studies to identify which programmes work or don’t.
The conference reflected on the ongoing global leadership of Kenya in creating evidence for improving education and applying what works.
Kenya’s leadership goes back to the late 1990s, when researchers in Busia worked with the Ministries of Health and Education to systematically offer schoolchildren simple and inexpensive deworming pills to treat intestinal parasites.
The ground-breaking study found that the pills helped the students to be healthier and attend school more, but also something else: Treating the parasites (presumably meaning they could no longer transmit them) helped their young siblings, and other people nearby, at no extra cost.
The research team tracked the children who were treated and also the untreated ones for a decade. They found that those treated were more likely to graduate and earned higher wages as adults, all from a pill that costs a few shillings.
The evidence shows that deworming is one of the best buys in education. Other countries have emulated Kenya with about 200 million children getting the dewormers every year in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Another example, led by colleagues at the research organisation RTI, is the Tusome programme. It was piloted and refined with continuous testing and monitoring of results, which showed students in the programme were twice as likely to meet the Ministry of Education’s benchmarks for reading fluency. Based on the evidence, the ministry plans to expand it to reach seven million students.
While Kenya has been a leader in inviting researchers to help to explore specific programmes over the years, we can also learn from what other countries have done to make evidence a cornerstone of national education policy.
India faces a problem common to many countries — Kenya included — of students enrolled in school but not reaching their learning potential.
Rigorous studies in Kenya and elsewhere discovered that curriculums were typically geared towards the top students in class but many who came in with poor reading or other skills were unable to keep up as the teachers made their way through the curriculum.
The NGO Pratham found in India that teaching at the level of the child, grouping kids according to learning level rather than age or grade and targeting instruction at that level led to learning gains.
When officials in Ghana learnt about the programme, they were intrigued but also sceptical that what worked on another continent could be applied to their context.
Rather than do a straight copy-and-paste though, they worked with IPA to adapt the programme to their education system but also pilot a nationwide test, looking at the data before putting it into practice.
Liberia has a particularly challenged school system with only a third of children enrolled and 75 per cent of adult women who finish primary school unable to read a complete sentence. Officials were being pressured to allow private organisations to run public schools while others rooted for investing in making the school system functional.
So they invited a number of private school operators for a test on whether they could do better and, if so, who were more capable.
The results were complex — learning increased but often at high cost. But with evidence in hand, supporters and critics can debate the merits of the programme rather than reverting to ideological debates.
Perhaps the most enlightening example comes from Peru.
IMPROVE EDUCATION SYSTEM
The government is building rigorous evidence into education policy. An in-house “Education Lab” within the education ministry is tasked with finding or developing the latest ideas to improve classroom performance — be it in a pill, SMS-based support to teachers or adapting and translating audio recordings of lessons from abroad to local languages.
Every idea will be piloted and rigorously evaluated for whether or not it works before being expanded with decisions evidence- not intuition-based.
We are confident that Kenya’s leadership in figuring out what works will continue to improve its education system, building a culture of evidence-based decision-making.