Jenny Perlman Robinson is a nonresident fellow with the Center for Universal Education at Brookings where she focuses on policies and practices that improve educational opportunities and outcomes for girls and boys in developing countries.
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Scaling up education quality as well as quantity: finance, partnerships and data
Do we know how to expand education access and the quality of learning at scale? In the latest blog in our national progress in education series, Jenny Perlman Robinson and Liesbet Steer discuss the Brookings’ Center for Universal Education Millions Learning project, and the key factors that drive change in achieving scale.
Attend a development conference or pick up the latest UN report and there will be some mention of reaching scale. There is real demand today for stories on where, how and why change and large-scale progress happen. On education, a Brookings survey found that public and private investors identified going to scale as their biggest challenge. This is encouraging. It means that there are programmes out there that have worked on a smaller scale and that want to scale up. But do we know how to expand education access and the quality of learning at scale?
While there is considerable literature on scaling up in development, it primarily has focused on sectors such as health, food security and rural development. Less has been said about education, and that is generally about expanding access through, for example, abolishing school fees or providing conditional cash transfers. The knowledge base thins out when looking at interventions that also improved learning outcomes – even more so when focusing on marginalised populations. ODI’s Development Progress and the Millions Learning project from the Brookings’ Center for Universal Education aim to close this gap.
The factors that drive change
There is no single path to scale, but we can learn from experiences in distinct settings and identify the underlying enabling factors that drive change. These can be more important to achieving scale than the specific measures used. The Millions Learning project will focus on three key factors: finance, partnerships and data – factors that emerged from Brookings research on getting to scale in development and a wider review of evidence on scaling, as well as from the Development Progress education case studies.
Finance: how money is spent matters, as well as how much
The Development Progress case studies on education have found that improvements in outcomes have often coincided with hikes in domestic education spending and a shift in the financing burden from households to governments through fee abolition. In Indonesia, for example, improved education quality over the past decade was accompanied by a doubling of real spending.
But simply providing more resources won’t guarantee large-scale gains in learning. How funds are allocated and spent is just as important. Achieving learning at scale may, for example, require allocating a more-than-proportional amount of resources to marginalised groups. Such strategies exist, including needs-adjusted funding formulae, decentralised financing and targeted conditional cash transfers and voucher schemes.
The ways in which resource flows are monitored and accounted for also affect the delivery of quality education. Some developing countries have already developed mechanisms to create greater accountability around public spending on education as a way to improve learning outcomes. In El Salvador, through the national programme Educacion con Participacion de la Comunidad (EDUCO), greater local responsibility and control over schools has been credited with a significant expansion in educational opportunities for poor communities in rural areas, with some limited evidence of improved learning outcomes.
Partnerships: this is everybody’s business
Experience and research reveals that partnerships are at the core of most successful scaling initiatives. In education, the conception of government as the sole provider of basic education is changing with the development of hybrid models of state and non-state provision and financing. For example, in India, an estimated 65% of children in urban areas are in private school. Improving learning at scale requires the combined efforts of many actors to leverage diverse resources, capacities and skills – particularly related to financing, service delivery and knowledge generation. In Minas Gerais, Brazil’s third largest state, reading proficiency among 8-years-old increased from 49% to 86% from 2006 to 2010 – the result, in part, of establishing a common vision for change combined with clear and measurable goals among teachers, parents, schools and regional departments.
Partnerships, however, are rarely easy. They can have high transaction costs and require overcoming cultural, institutional and bureaucratic differences. A 2008 Brookings review of scaling up literature and practice found that incentives need to aligned and accountability mechanisms need to channel the efforts of multiple actors in ways that produce shared outcomes.
Data: improving what we know about how much children are learning
At a time when data are available on an unprecedented scale, education remains a laggard and a global data gap on learning outcomes is holding back progress on quality. Most countries lack the capacity to measure and track learning outcomes systematically over time, hampering evidence-based decision-making and accountability. The connection between data and the improvement of learning, however, is neither automatic nor simple. This is not just about having assessment systems in place: it means collecting the right data and using it effectively.
Since 2005, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has conducted an annual citizen-led household survey on children’s basic learning in rural India, now reaching about 300,000 households and 600,000 children aged 3-16. While the resulting data have increased understanding of the state of learning in India, the latest ASER survey in 2013 demonstrates that learning levels have stagnated or declined over the past three years. Learning data must also be disaggregated by sex, age, income, ethnicity and other characteristics of exclusion to identify children and regions lagging behind. Finally, data must be used to empower citizens to hold leaders accountable for progress, often a politically complex task. Chile prioritised education throughout the 1990s and 2000s because of a national assessment system that provided continuous feedback at the policy and classroom level.
The evidence base on how to ensure that many more children are in school and learning continues to evolve, but important research gaps remain. Building on the work of ODI and others, Millions Learning will identify the factors and forces that contribute to successful scaling of learning. As part of this process, a global call for case studies aims to identify examples of programmes and policies, from early childhood development through post-primary education, that have contributed to large-scale gains in learning.
Let’s hope such concerted efforts to better understand the scaling of learning in education will lead to rapid action to help millions of children deprived of a quality education.