Playing Catch Up

Playing Catch Up

By: Caitlin Baron

This essay was originally posted on the Center for Global Development’s website as a part of a Symposium responding to Girindre Beeharry’s essay “The Pathway to Progress on SDG 4.” Girindre was the inaugural Education Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can read the introduction to the collection of essays here.


2020 shook the very foundations of education around the world. After dramatic progress in the first decade of this century in expanding access to the classroom, 1.6 billion children were cast out of school. Today, an additional 24 million children are at risk of dropping out of school in COVID’s aftermath. Not only is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 at risk, but Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 is as well. To return to the right course, the global education community must refocus and renew our priorities; in this, Girindre Beeharry provides us with a much-needed cornerstone for change.

Lessons from my own organization and experience align in many ways with Girindre’s call to arms. In this piece I aim to show that a focus on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) is indeed fundamental to advancing educational opportunity across the globe, and I hold a mirror to some the sector’s efforts so far. By outlining some stumbling blocks that education funders have faced in the past, I hope to ensure that we capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment to move forward, not pull back.

As Girindre outlines clearly in his essay on the pathway to progress on SDG 4, focusing on literacy in the first three grades is essential to inclusive and equitable quality education. In low-income countries, where nearly 90 percent of children aged 10 are unable to read with comprehension, it is not only the first hurdle to overcome, but the foundation of any real progress within SDG 4’s broader agenda.

Prioritizing universal FLN in low-income countries rightly forces the global education community to acknowledge that foundational skills are the gateway to all later learning. Second, it expands our lens to focus on education outcomes for children who are in school, but also, crucially, for those who are out of the system. And lastly, it compels us to “reach the furthest behind first.” Girindre’s conviction is radical because it lays bare the global education community’s relative lack of focus to date in improving education outcomes, and the frequent disconnect between policy pronouncements and calls for further funding from the top with actual results for teaching and learning in the classroom. By placing universal FLN at the center, we can set clear and measurable targets to which we can then hold ourselves accountable. To achieve and track real progress, consistent, regular, and relevant data—currently missing from the UIS and the Global Education Monitoring Report—is essential.

Girindre’s focus on FLN is especially helpful in that it centers our attention on a clear-eyed understanding of need, and calls on us to note that gaps in FLN are more similar than different for girls and boys. Indeed, if nine in 10 children in low-income countries cannot read by their tenth birthday, we know with certainty that this is a problem for both genders.

As Kirsty Newman says, “because we see education as a solution to gender inequality… we make the mistake of thinking that gender inequality in education is the biggest priority. In fact… girls’ foundational learning levels are generally not worse than boys.” And, research shows that even when the goal of an intervention is to increase solely girls’ learning, those interventions that have targeted both boys and girls have delivered the same impact for girls as those that focus on girls alone. This subtlety is important because it means we need not waste time searching for FLN solutions uniquely designed for girls. Broad-based FLN solutions are the strongest way to improve outcomes for girls as well as boys.

A school system that keeps children in a classroom for six years or more without teaching them to read fundamentally does not value children’s time, no matter their gender. On behalf of every child, we need to demand more.

But what does getting FLN right really mean at the level of the child? As a child, I learned from my own family what a strong foundation of learning really means. My grandmother would tell me how she grew up in a village where girls went to school through grade three and boys through grade five, and that was the end of their educational journeys. With just three years of reasonably high-quality schooling though, she could read the Bible, balance a check book, and sign a mortgage. Not to mention raise five children who went on to fulfill their full potential, collecting a series of university degrees along the way. I share this not to celebrate how incredible my grandmother was, though she was, but rather to make the point that even three years of schooling can be remarkably impactful if delivered well.

Achieving FLN at scale

Luminos’s Second Chance programs in Ethiopia and Liberia show that first-generation readers can advance from reading five words per minute to 39 words per minute in merely 10 months. Through careful iteration and evaluation, we have enabled over 152,000 out-of-school children to get up to grade level and back to learning.

Along the way, we have learned a few things that are relevant to achieving FLN at scale. We know these lessons can be applied to help make FLN a reality for all. No child should be denied the right to be able to read, write, and do basic math, and the global education community has the power to ensure this happens.

Access versus quality is a false dichotomy

Against the backdrop of the many disappointments of international education detailed in Girindre’s piece, the expansion of access to basic schooling around the globe is a shining achievement that merits far more celebration.

Before the pandemic, the proportion of children out of primary and secondary school fell from 26 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2018. In 1998, it is estimated 381 million children were out of school. By 2014, this number fell to 263 million. This proves the possible: real progress can be made when the world’s education actors are galvanized around a clear, common goal, like the second MDG.

Yet the COVID pandemic threatens all that progress: even three-month school closures can cause students to fall an entire year behind. The significance of these closures is weightiest in the Global South, where some children are missing out on nearly a sixth of their total expected lifetime learning.

The global education community has spent too much time since the penning of the SDGs in debating the merits of education access versus education quality. Girindre’s essay and the World Bank’s new focus on Learning Poverty make clear that this is a false dichotomy, especially post-COVID. A drive to ensure all children learn to read with meaning by age 10 puts our focus on both access and quality, on efforts to improve instruction quality inside early grade classrooms, and on ensuring the one in five African children who still never even make it through the schoolhouse door actually have the chance to get inside.

Learning from global health

Focusing on foundational literacy is the gateway to further learning, and the foundation for unlocking better health, stronger democracy, and so much more. There is good news: even the least-resourced countries have the capabilities to deliver on FLN. At Luminos, our experience training non-formal or community teachers demonstrates that the human capital to unlock early literacy for all children already exists everywhere.

Our program shows the promise of community teachers, especially for countries with a seemingly insurmountable teacher shortage. The global teacher shortage stands at nearly 69 million teachers; 70 percent of this shortfall is in sub-Saharan Africa. The global community needs an education infantry to deliver FLN—fast. Many countries cannot graduate teachers at a rate that could fill the shortfall: South Sudan would need all of its projected graduates from higher education—twice over—to become teachers to fill its gap. The sector must be bold and think outside the box to provide basic and remedial education, as global health has to provide basic healthcare.

Useful lessons can be drawn from global health’s embrace of community health workers as a “last mile” extension to overstretched public health systems. Pratham’s success with the “Balsakhi” model—where tutors from the community worked with local school children—alongside Luminos’s work training community teachers, proves that high-potential young adults with minimal formal training can deliver transformative impact in FLN rates where it is needed most: rural, hard-to-reach areas (Banerjee et al, 2007; Luminos, 2017).

Reduced class size in the early years is essential for success

Entry-level literacy, especially for first-generation readers, requires a class size where the teacher can have a basic sense of each child’s learning level. My experience suggests that, heroic outliers aside, most teachers cannot effectively teach many more than 40 children to learn to read at one time.

In our program at Luminos, children begin the year at uniformly basic learning levels, but by midyear we find a wide dispersion of literacy levels within the same classroom. For a teacher to ensure every child in her class learns to read, she needs a small enough group to allow for some understanding of individual learning levels and differentiated instruction. Larger class sizes are never ideal, but older children are better able to navigate this constraint. Once literacy is achieved, it is possible for children to continue to grasp new learning, even when taught through a passive “chalk and talk” model, with limited individual engagement between teacher and learner, as is typical of large classes. But—and this is crucial—the key gatekeeping event is literacy, and smaller classes facilitate achieving that.

Reflections for education funders on driving change

I write as someone with 15 years in the international education space: 10 years at a leading international education foundation and now 5 years at the helm of the Luminos Fund. I am honored to be featured alongside this esteemed list of researchers, though I am very much not a researcher myself. Instead, I write from my lived experience, having had the rare pleasure of serving on both sides of the desk, as funder and fund-seeker. From this perspective, there are three key provocations I would like to share with funders seeking to drive bold change in international education.

Girindre persuasively highlights the shortage of investment in research and insight in international education relative to global health. While education research may indeed be underfunded, I wonder if a lack of knowledge about what works is truly a barrier to entry for a funder seeking a profound impact in international education?

Reviewing a selection of proven yet diverse FLN interventions that deliver high impact—Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), RTI’s Tusome project, and Luminos, for example—a number of shared elements can be discerned:

  •  Successful delivery of operational basics, including some form of textbooks, learning materials, and, ideally, midday meals
  •  Simple assessments at classroom level that allow for a tight dialogue between teaching and learning, enabling teachers to meet children where they are
  •  Activities that allow children to learn by doing
  •  Some form of scripted instruction, providing a roadmap for success in the classroom, especially for newer and less prepared teachers
  •  Project or systemwide efforts to manage from data, driving problem solving and accountability for performance

Indeed, there is an emerging consensus that some version of the above list is at the core of almost every successful FLN intervention in the sector. It may not be as certain as a “Copenhagen Consensus,” but more than enough information is available for a smart, strategic funder to take bold action. Moreover, the learning that will come from moving forward with what we know and evaluating as work advances is far more valuable than what can be achieved by analyzing from the sidelines.

As courage for the uncertain journey ahead, I offer three key reflections on international education philanthropic strategy from my own professional journey:

The who and the how versus the what

The rise of the importance of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in education has brought many important insights to the fore and allowed for the equally important result of setting aside interventions that simply do not work. An unfortunate side effect of RCTs in the education space, however, is that these studies have at times fueled the search for silver bullets. Too often, education grantmaking strategy has centered on the choice of model of intervention, rather than the quality of the implementation of a model.

Even the most evaluated and celebrated international education intervention in recent time, TaRL, provides ample proof that selecting a powerful model alone is insufficient to guarantee success. While this model has an appropriately renowned track record of success, of the 15 evaluations cited on TaRL’s website, six show little to no material impact on student results. Alongside the conclusion that meeting children where they are is a vital component of successful teaching and learning, we must arrive at the equally important conclusion that who delivers the intervention and how (including elements of both context and quality) matters.

As a sector, we should place greater value on the teams doing the work. In education, implementation is everything: the who and the how are at least as important as the what, if not more so.

For a funder, this means balancing a focus on evaluation data with the long, sometimes expensive investment in building the capability to gather, analyze, and action operating data. Our funders at Luminos love to see our past external evaluations, but it is our real-time management data that enables us to deliver targeted, transformative education to the children sitting in our classrooms today. For funders, I urge directing more support to organizations invested in the long-term, iterative search for sustainable impact, and less towards large-scale but time-bound projects that often leave little behind when they conclude. Furthermore, I urge funders to invest in the development of in-house measurement systems that make it possible for organizations to advance the ongoing, iterative search for impact.

Cursing the darkness versus lighting a candle

Girindre’s piece rightfully calls out the struggles and shortcomings of the major multilateral institutions in their quest to materially advance the quality of education around the globe. Changing some of the in-built challenges in the global education aid infrastructure will be hard though, and with uncertain success. Meanwhile there are simpler education investments, with more straightforward paths to catalytic impact, waiting to be made.

There is a rising cohort of international education NGOs ready to do far more good for the world, if only they had the financial support to further scale. I recognize I may seem an imperfect messenger for this call to action, as the head of one such NGO. But I make this claim, in heartfelt truth, on behalf of a broader coalition of excellent organizations doing remarkable work to expand educational opportunities for children globally: the Citizens Foundation, Educate!, PEAS, Rising Academies, Young 1ove, the entire membership of the Global Schools Forum, and many more. These high-impact organizations are underpowered financially. It would be an easy—and transformational—win for a foundation to invest sustained, flexible, mezzanine-style funding to take these proven models to true scale.

An important consideration to highlight here is that it is not necessary to choose out-of-school children over girls’ education or over early childhood development. Each organization above is a proven winner on their piece of the education puzzle. The world’s children would be far better off if this cohort of organizations could pursue our respective missions at some multiple of our current sizes. While lasting change in education inevitably means working within government systems, there is no effective way to do this without high-quality partners to support that engagement, and this is where high-impact, under-funded NGOs come in.

The potential for impact from a greatly expanded tier of international education NGOs should be resonant for those coming from a global health perspective. While global health has long been criticized for focusing on “vertical” or disease-centered initiatives (malaria, HIV, etc.) at the expense of mainstream health systems, this focus has also driven a revolution in health outcomes around the world. These vertical initiatives have time and again made the case to donor agencies and national governments of the positive return on global health investments. In short, this “problem” of global health is one the international education sector would love to have. Investing in scaling up high-impact international education NGOs is a risk worth taking.

Getting out of one’s own way

Leading a major portfolio at a foundation means operating in a world of awesome possibility and weighty responsibility, as I know from my decade as a leader at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. All that flexible capital naturally requires a razor sharp, insight-based strategy to guide its effective deployment. But true philanthropic wisdom involves allowing the occasional freedom to set aside rigid strategies (however elegant they may seem) and simply fund great things, regardless of how they map to a fixed strategic plan—and I say this as someone who also spent the first seven years of her career as a strategy consultant.

Anthony Bugg-Levine, another recovering strategy consultant, wrote of his time at the Rockefeller Foundation: “like most foundations, ours had a strategy and looked for grantees undertaking specific projects that fit into it.But great nonprofits have their own strategies. By pushing many of them to fit into a specific type of restricted funding, I risked not getting their best.” When you fund exclusively against your own strategy, you close yourself off to the possibility that anyone else in the sector might have a good idea of which you had not yet thought.

Careful research and deep diligence are important when planning a grant portfolio, but real learning comes ultimately from doing and applying that same rigor to evaluating the journey of the work, not simply the choice of destination.

In education in particular, we need to create space for just a little bit of magic: incredible successes we cannot quite explain lest we “dissect the bird trying to find the song.” Imagine if the philanthropists who funded Maria Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini had insisted on knowing the neuroscience behind sensorial education before committing to support the scaling of her work. Would we now have one of the most scaled and impactful education models the world has ever seen? Taking the occasional risk on something new, different, or unproven is one of the great joys of philanthropy, and very much to be cherished.

Answering Girindre’s call to arms

If there is one thing our sector needs more than anything else, it is bright, passionate minds, unwilling to compromise with the status quo of incremental progress, and hell-bent on making good on the promise of universal access to a quality basic education. As such, those of us in the sector feel the loss as Girindre steps away from his fulltime role at the Gates Foundation all the more palpably.

I first met Girindre when I had just transitioned from 10 years at a foundation into the role of NGO leader, and he had just made the leap from the world of global health to that of international education. We have enjoyed trading fish-out-of-water reflections on the fresh perspective that comes from taking up new, complex things. He treated me to a few warp-speed tours of the Gates Foundation’s evolving strategic vision in international education, keeping me on my toes as he bounced effortlessly from RCT findings to national education budgets to pedagogic frameworks. It was a privilege to be in the room with him. I have watched with admiration and a small touch of jealousy as he went on to build a grant portfolio funding all of my very favorite international education researchers to tackle some of the most pressing questions of our time.

It is hard to imagine someone having a greater impact on the international education sector in a shorter period of time than Girindre. He has gifted our sector with so many important insights, but his most important legacy is the searing and inspiring call to action in his essay.

Education is hard, and messy, and slow to show results, but it is the only truly lasting social investment we can make. Girindre poses the essential question to each of us in his piece. Complex and difficult as it is to get education right, what more worthy challenge could we possibly choose for our “one wild and precious life”?

Ethiopia Rising: Exploring Education After COVID-19

Ethiopia Rising: Exploring Education After COVID-19

Ethiopia: the second most populous country in Africa where over 63% of the population is under age 25 and there are more than 40 million school-aged children and adolescents (UIS). In 2000, nearly 60% of primary-school-age students were out of school in Ethiopia, a number that had dropped to 14% as of 2015 due to dramatic government investment (World Bank). Though the country has navigated rising ethnic violence in recent years, such as in the Tigray and Oromia regions, the government has continued to invest deeply in education. Today, the Ethiopian government spends nearly a quarter of its entire budget on education. As H.E. Ato Minister Million Mathewos, State Minister for General Education, puts it, “Ethiopia is rising.”

Recently, the Luminos Fund had the privilege of hosting a discussion on the current and future state of education in Ethiopia as it navigates beyond COVID-19. Guest speakers included Minister Mathewos and Dr. Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education and Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge.

The Current Education Landscape in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Ministry of Education (MOE) presented the current state of affairs in Ethiopia to frame the discussion, noting that the number of primary schools has increased from 4,000 in 1994 to over 37,000 as of 2018, as has gender parity. While making considerable progress on enrollment, Ethiopia has struggled to keep students in school through graduation. Yohanese Wogasso, Director General of School Improvement noted, “Primary completion rate is a critical area where we are challenged. In 2018-2019 we only had 62% [of students] attend school through 8th grade, meaning 7.6 million students couldn’t complete grade 8.” Minister Mathewos and Yohanese outlined several different priority areas where the MOE is looking to expand its efforts in collaboration with external support: accelerated learning programs (such as the Second Chance program run by Luminos), school feeding programs, secondary school construction, and school improvement including WASH facilities.

Examining the Data

Dr. Pauline Rose noted that one of the incredible strengths of the Ethiopian MOE has been its ability to reflect on both the progress they have made and the challenges ahead saying, “That’s why we see Ethiopia as a leading light on the continent.”

Notwithstanding Ethiopia’s progress, even before COVID-19, the most disadvantaged children in Ethiopia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa were struggling to complete their primary education. Pulling from her recent research through the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Dr. Rose noted that this is in part because students from poorer rural backgrounds simply don’t have access to the same resources as more affluent, urban students.

COVID-19 is likely to increase dropout rates for the most disadvantaged students in addition to causing large learning losses for students in the early years of schooling. Accelerated learning programs, such as Luminos’ Second Chance program, are among the efforts Dr. Rose hailed as a learning opportunity for other countries, especially post-COVID-19.

Referencing an August 2020 phone survey conducted with the RISE Programme and the Early Learning Partnership, Dr. Rose explored the digital divide between rural and urban households in Ethiopia. According to the survey, only 58% of rural households had access to electricity compared to 92% of urban households. In both urban and rural households, fewer than 60% of those surveyed had access to a radio and barely 2% had access to the internet. Dr. Rose emphasized that this lack of access to technology and basic electricity is something funders interested in Ethiopia should pay particular attention to before pushing for ed tech solutions. To read more about the REAL Centre’s research in collaboration with Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute, please view the full report here.

In order to build resilient, inclusive education systems, Dr. Rose recommended prioritizing resources to improve primary school standards. This includes adapting the curriculum to focus on the basics and extending the school day. It may also involve providing additional support for those whose family members are unable to support home learning due to illiteracy, poverty, or lack of access to ed tech. She noted that supporting schools and teachers with resources on tackling learning loss, both academic and socio-emotional, will be another critical step to building a resilient, inclusive education system, as will paying particular attention to the most vulnerable students: those in the rural areas, those in poverty, and girls. Finally, to create a safe learning environment, especially during the pandemic, Dr. Rose emphasized the importance of providing basic hygiene in schools as well as masks and hand sanitizer for the poorest students – something Luminos provides in all of our Second Chance classrooms.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the discussion, a guest asked the speakers to name one key take-away or piece of advice for the donor community. Dr. Rose emphasized that, “The number one thing is bridge programs [like] accelerated learning programs: something that is possible for children to attend in a flexible manner, that allows them to engage in the learning environment and get up to speed. I think they’re going to be even more vital going forward.” Luminos Strategic Advisor in Ethiopia, Dr. Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, reflected on how the current state of the world requires new creativity in education, explaining, “As we all know, COVID-19 coupled with unprecedented disasters has augmented the problems of exclusion in education. Bringing these children to school requires an innovative approach.” Luminos CEO Caitlin Baron closed out the session:

“The Ethiopian government has made an extraordinary commitment to education over the last few years. Luminos looks forward to continuing to partner with the Ethiopian MOE to ensure that the most vulnerable out-of-school children get a second chance to catch up on education after COVID-19.”


Caitlin Baron, CEO, The Luminos Fund
Luminos welcomes new board members: Erin Ganju & George Kronnisanyon Werner

Luminos welcomes new board members: Erin Ganju & George Kronnisanyon Werner

We are delighted to announce that two new members are joining our Board of Directors this month: Erin Ganju and George Kronnisanyon Werner.

Erin Ganju is a Managing Director at Echidna Giving, one of the largest private funders in girls’ education in lower-income countries. Erin joined Echidna Giving from Room to Read, the internationally lauded NGO she co-founded to advance literacy and gender equality. During her tenures as COO and CEO, Room to Read helped over 12 million children in 15 countries pursue a quality education.

George Kronnisanyon Werner is an experienced public-sector leader and innovator who has spearheaded successful national and government-wide reform programs across a range of areas including health and education workforce reforms. George served as Liberia’s Minister of Education from 2015 to 2018. Since leaving public service in March 2018, he has used his first-hand knowledge to assist other African and Asian leaders to implement transformative reform agendas aimed at developing human capital and maximizing demographic dividends for long-term economic growth.

Erin and George are longtime trusted advisors and friends to the Luminos Fund and were recently featured in our Education Leadership through Crisis video series. To get to know them better, we’ve asked Erin and George a few questions about themselves:

At Luminos, we’re working to unlock the light of learning in every child. What do you see as the power of education? Why is education so important to you?

Erin: “I see education as the cornerstone solution that can help solve so many other issues. If you have an educated population, they are able to develop local solutions that can best address health issues, climate change, political participation, peace, justice and so on. As Nelson Mandela so aptly said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.'”

George: “If you want bridges, if you want hospitals to function well—good doctors, good nurses, all of these people—if you want engineers, and good presidents, you ought to invest in children. Right from the beginning of the pipeline to its end. There is a clear moral purpose to this. I think that once people get the message that we have a moral responsibility to our children not to fail them, that we should do whatever it takes so that every child, regardless of disability, regardless of gender, regardless of whether or not they come from low-income families, must have equal access to quality education. It is our moral responsibility to make sure we have citizens who are not just healthy, but literate and numerate and productive to grow the economy and to make sure that we transmit this from one generation to another.”

What excites you most about the Luminos Fund?

Erin: “The work the Luminos Fund is doing to ensure all children, no matter what their circumstances are, have access to a quality education in their local communities is very relevant. I think your Second Chance accelerated learning program is especially relevant as children are reentering school after the COVID-19 pandemic. I am particularly impressed with the approach Luminos Fund takes to collecting and analyzing data to ensure effectiveness of your programs.  

George: “The practice the Luminos Fund has of hiring high potential young people who are often only Grade 10 graduates to become your classroom teachers and providing them with three weeks of intensive training followed by weekly in-classroom coaching. For countries with massively stretched school systems and average class sizes already in the 50+ range, this is an effective, practical auxiliary option to educate children.”

At Luminos, we value each students’ learning journey and emphasize activity-based, joyful learning. Erin, when you were a student, what was your favorite subject? Why?

Erin: “I loved school as a child and feel very fortunate to have been able to attend great public schools filled with dedicated teachers. I can’t remember really disliking any subjects, but, if I had to choose one as my favorite, I would choose world history. I loved learning about different cultures and important world events, and imagining all the great places I would visit when I grew up!”

Another thing we emphasize in our programs is the importance of reading. George, when you were young, what books inspired you?

George: “The first one that really got to me was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The second one was Camara Laye’s The African Child. It was the first time I came face to face with somebody talking about the nature of an African village and the culture around African villages.”


To learn more about Erin and George, view their interviews from the Education Leadership through Crisis video series. You can find Erin’s here and George’s here. Welcome Erin and George, we’re honored to have you on our Board of Directors!

Podcast Feature: “How social & emotional learning is transforming education across the globe”

Podcast Feature: “How social & emotional learning is transforming education across the globe”

A special episode of the podcast “Let’s Talk About Skills, Baby” launched Monday, December 7 featuring Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, and Dominic Regester, Program Director of Salzburg Global Seminar and Founding Member of the Executive Committee for Karanga, The Global Alliance for Social and Emotional Learning and Life Skills. 

Created and hosted by Kelly Ryan Bailey, the “Let’s Talk About Skills, Baby” podcast was developed with the intent of learning what skills make individuals successful, how they developed those skills, and their innovative approaches to improving skills-based hiring and learning around the world. In this episode, Kelly spoke with Caitlin and Dominic about transforming education through social and emotional learning (SEL). 

While talking about Luminos’s SEL efforts, Caitlin noted that in our Second Chance program:

“What we’ve seen is that through a variety of evaluations, as many as six years later, [Second Chance] children are still progressing through school at better rates than their peers, and most importantly, they have sustained greater happiness in the classroom, that they have a strong sense of self-efficacy, and that they have higher aspirations for the future.”  

Karanga, which works to equip and inspire practitioners, policy makers, and researchers from around the world to promote quality and equitable SEL and life skills, is working with Luminos to further strengthen our SEL practice within the Luminos Second Chance program. As Caitlin notes:

“In our program, it’s not like from 10-10:15 we do social and emotional learning—there’s no unit in the days calendar. It’s really baked into the ethos.” 

Luminos is honored to be part of Karanga’s Global Steering Committee, a community of 60+ SEL experts, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. Karanga is currently hosting a series of online SEL activities which can be joined at https://karanga.org/events

Listen to the full episode here, or via the “Let’s Talk About Skills, Baby” website

HundrED Honors Luminos as a Global Education Innovator for the Fourth Time

HundrED Honors Luminos as a Global Education Innovator for the Fourth Time

The Luminos Fund’s Second Chance  program, an accelerated learning program for out-of-school children also known as Speed School, is one of the world’s leading innovations in K12 education according to Finnish education nonprofit, HundrED. During this week’s HundrED Innovation Summit, Luminos was selected as a member of the HundrED 2021 Global Collection.

The annual Global Collection highlights 100 of the most impactful innovations in K12 education from around the world. HundrED’s goal is to help pedagogically-sound, ambitious innovations spread and adapt to multiple contexts across the globe. While there has been remarkable disruption in global education this year due to COVID-19, we at Luminos are inspired by our fellow education nonprofits across the globe as they have rapidly developed new ways of teaching and learning. This marks the fourth consecutive year that the Luminos Fund has been honored by HundrED, starting in 2017.

This year’s HundrED Global Collection includes innovations from thirty-eight countries. To make the Global Collection, the HundrED research team compiled a list of over 5,000 innovations from over 110 countries. After this initial survey, 150 Academy Members—consisting of academics, educators, innovators, funders, and leaders from over 50 countries—reviewed a shortlist of innovations. In total, there were 3,404 reviews by the Academy based on each innovation’s impact and scalability that were then evaluated by HundrED’s Research Team to make the final selection.

In the words of Luminos CEO Caitlin Baron, “Over this past year, the hard work and creative problem solving of our staff to ensure children still get a second chance to learn has been truly humbling and inspiring. We are honored to be a part of the HundrED Global Collection for the fourth year running.”

Once again, the Luminos Fund’s program was chosen due to its pioneering status and ability to create a scalable impact. Since 2011, Speed School (known outside of Ethiopia as Second Chance) has worked in partnership with Ethiopian NGOs to enable more than 122,062 children in Ethiopia to get a second chance at education. Over 90% of the children who start the Luminos program transition successfully to their local village school. External evaluations show that graduates of our program complete primary school at twice the rate of their peers. In 2016, the program expanded to Liberia where it reaches thousands more children every year. During COVID-19, Luminos pivoted our programs quickly to support our students learning at home with remote learning resources and through “micro-classes” (small, distanced groups of students). In addition, Luminos is providing relief to vulnerable families and communities and strengthening our collaboration with Ministries of Education.

To learn more, view the Luminos Fund 2021 Innovation page on Hundred.org and explore the profiles of our fellow innovators!

Video: The Luminos Fund Innovation

Related Links

The Luminos Fund 2021 Innovation Page on HundrED.org, 2020

HundrED honors Luminos as a Global Education Innovator for the Third Time, The Luminos Fund, 2019

Promoting Equity through Data: Our New Program Dashboard

Promoting Equity through Data: Our New Program Dashboard

Lindsey Wang is a Program Analyst at the Luminos Fund where she is instrumental in program monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. She joined Luminos in 2016 as a Mechanical Engineering graduate of MIT and is currently pursuing a Master in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Why build a data dashboard?

COVID-19 has interrupted students’ learning all around the world. Now, more than ever, the international education community needs effective tools to analyze data in real time and spur equitable solutions to close learning gaps. As Luminos’ Program Analyst, I ensure that rigorous data collection and analysis are at the foundation of program management and support efficient service delivery because, in the end, each data point represents an individual or a community. With over 1 billion students slowly returning to school due to COVID-19 (UNESCO), we need faster feedback loops to identify and address learning gaps and better meet the needs of every student and family.

One year ago, I set out to develop a tool for program managers to leverage the wealth of data collected from the field to drive program delivery. I sought to capture a real-time snapshot of the state of our Second Chance program by integrating both quantitative and qualitative data into our model, thus ensuring that vital institutional knowledge and first-hand observations could be shared across far-reaching geographies. Our solution: a data dashboard for program management with three simple objectives to help us monitor program results in real-time and deploy program resources more efficiently:

  1. Monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
  2. Capture a holistic view of the program and drill down to granular insights
  3. Identify struggling students and facilitators

With the data dashboard, we can easily contrast how students performed on the Early Grade Reading and Math Assessments at the beginning and end of our program. The vast majority of students enter our program unable to read even a single word. In 2018-19, students graduated from our program reading an average of 40 words per minute, well above the national average.

A dashboard for program management

Given my past experience as an engineer applying user-centered design principles to develop products to support low-resource communities, I believed it critical that we prioritize our intended users (program staff) throughout the dashboard development process to ensure we built a tool that met their needs. To do so, I built iteration and feedback into the design process: at each stage of development, I solicited feedback and co-created elements alongside program staff.

My constant engagement with program staff in Liberia and within the Luminos HQ informed the creation of four distinct dashboard reports:

  • The Program Overview captures an up-to-date snapshot of the program by pairing student enrollment information with internal field reports and spot checks. Program staff can drill down and filter data by program year, region, and implementing partner.
  • The Student Assessments dashboard captures the distribution of scores for literacy, numeracy, and words per minute (WPM) in each phase and allows users to disaggregate data by region, implementing partner, student demographics, or classroom rating.
  • The Classroom Observations dashboard enables users to review a log of classroom observations from field visits conducted by program coordinators. KPIs include facilitator performance and internal measurements of attendance and words read per minute.
  • The Baseline and Endline dashboard compares the results from our external baseline and endline EGRA/EGMA surveys from the program level down to the individual student level.
With the Student Assessments dashboard, we can investigate the distribution of assessment scores across three subjects: literacy, numeracy, and words read per minute (WPM). Our program staff can deep dive all the way to the classroom level to identify struggling students.

Dashboards in practice

The potential applications of the dashboard are vast. Here is a taste of what I hope to achieve once this new tool is implemented:

  1. Diagnose barriers: Imagine we notice a classroom in which most students scored below the program average. The dashboard allows us to examine this datapoint in context. Has there been an economic shock in the community that caused parents to withdraw their students to work? We can compare the performance of the classroom in question against other classrooms in the same or neighboring communities to determine if this is a shared phenomenon. Perhaps the issue lies with the facilitator. We can review the classroom observations logged by program coordinators over the prior weeks to determine if the facilitator is struggling to grasp the principles of Second Chance’s activity-based pedagogy.
  2. Map trends: With data stored in a centralized database, we can combine external baseline and endline data with internal midline and phase-level assessments to create a picture of students’ learning trajectories.
  3. Promote equity: Luminos disaggregates data by region, implementing partner, and student demographic information — such as gender — to promote equity in program delivery. The success of our Second Chance program has always depended on strong partnerships with leaders and advocates in the community who help us localize the program to meet students and families where they are. With this dashboard, we can easily assess how different sub-populations are performing and address their specific barriers to learning.

As Second Chance classes gradually reopen from months of school closures and interim distance learning efforts, our team is committed to supporting our students, classroom facilitators, and communities. I am currently training our program coordinators to use the dashboard to inform their management practices in anticipation of classes resume. We have already begun the orientation process and will dive deeper into each of the dashboard visualizations in the coming months. My hope is that eventually our program staff will bring their own creativity and curiosity to the dashboard and derive unique insights from the data.

The Classroom Observations and Ratings report helps our program coordinators catalog and review their notes from field visits to classrooms.

So, you want to build a data dashboard….

Design is fundamentally an iterative process. Here are some of the lessons we have learned through many rounds of feedback:

  • Build for your end users: Who will use the dashboard, and how will they engage with the tool? User interviews and feedback testing are great ways to make sure you build something your users need rather than what you think they need.
  • Identify KPIs early: It is easy to try and incorporate too much into one dashboard. Enumerating your KPIs early will help avoid scope creep.
  • Address varying levels of data literacy: Make sure to assess the data literacy of your end users and tailor your dashboard to their comfort level with data visualizations.
  • Track your data sources: Especially as you begin to combine datasets, it is critical to track where your data come from, how and by whom they were collected and cleaned, and how often the data are updated.

If you’re interested in learning more about the development of the Luminos dashboard, please contact info@luminosfund.org.

71 Commercial Street, #232 | Boston, MA 02109 |  USA
+1 781 333 8317   info@luminosfund.org

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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