The Luminos Fund’s Speed School initiative, an accelerated learning program for out-of-school children also known as Second Chance, is one of the world’s leading innovations in K-12 education according to Finnish non-profit, HundrED. HundrED recently released its third global innovation collection, HundrED 2020, highlighting one hundred of the brightest innovations in K-12 education.
This is the third consecutive year that the Luminos Fund has been honored by HundrED. Luminos was also awarded in HundrED’s 2018 and 2019 global collections.
The HundrED 2020 collection includes innovations spanning thirty-eight countries. Each innovation was evaluated on its impact and scalability, and submissions were reviewed by teachers, students, leaders, innovators, as well as HundrED Academy Members and community members.
Caitlin Baron, Chief Executive Officer at the Luminos Fund said: “We are thrilled to be recognized again by HundrED in its 2020 collection. This honor is such an affirmation of our ongoing work helping children. Our team couldn’t be happier to continue being part of this community of global education innovators and changemakers. Thank you, HundrED.”
The Speed School initiative was chosen due to its pioneering status and ability to create a scalable impact. Since 2011, Speed School has worked in partnership with Ethiopian NGOs to enable more than 113,000 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. (The Luminos Fund also provides accelerated education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, though that program is not under the Second Chance/Speed School umbrella.)
Saku Tuominen, Chairman & Creative Director of HundrED, said: “Spreading innovations such as Speed School across borders can be a gamechanger for education, worldwide. We will continue to encourage as many stakeholders as possible including schools, educators, administrators, students and organizations to get involved so that we can work towards a positive future.”
Our people are what make the difference at the Luminos Fund. This post is a part of an occasional series profiling team members and what drives their passion for our work. Here, Abba Karnga Jr., Program Manager, Liberia, reflects on his own educational journey and the importance of education in post-war, post-Ebola Liberia.
Abba Karnga, Jr.
To tell my story, I must start with my father.
My father grew up in the deep jungle in Grand Bassa County, Liberia. At eighteen, he left home. He’d never been to school. He walked from the jungle to Buchanan City, about 100 km, where he realized there were no schools for him to attend. Education beyond Grade 6 was forbidden for Indigenous Liberians.
With the support of American missionaries, my father managed to graduate high school and pursue a master’s degree in the United States. Later earning two doctorate degrees, he devoted his life to expanding educational opportunity for Liberians. Above all, he made sure that education was the most important thing for my eleven siblings and me growing up in Liberia.
For instance, growing up in my family, I remember that if you didn’t go to school for any reason, you wouldn’t eat that day. If you were sick, you’d go to the clinic and then straight back to school. Gifts from my parents were always something practical like a notebook or a backpack that we could use in school. My father was strict, but it is because of him that I developed a passion for learning that I’ve carried through ups and downs.
Pursuing Education through Civil War, Rigged Exams, and Ebola
In 1991, during the First Liberian Civil War, my family fled to Cote d’Ivoire. We lived in a refugee community with other Liberians who had also fled (it is estimated that half of all Liberians were displaced by that war). From age 11 to 16, I attended a school for refugees. This school was different than schools I had attended in Liberia, and better. I gained a strong foundation in reading comprehension and communication skills: I learned how to learn.
When we returned to Liberia, it was still the war period. I was entering ninth grade and attended a private high school where most of the students were 5-10 years older than me. Most students had dropped out during the war and missed five years of school. There were 85 students in my 12th grade classroom. I learned very little in that school, and most of what I did learn was self-taught.
Abba smiles while observing a lesson.
Teachers at that high school were mostly people from the community who were decent at math or English, but they weren’t qualified teachers and they didn’t put students first. The Liberian government wasn’t paying teachers regularly so bribery in schools was common: teachers often required students to pay for passing grades. Exams might be intentionally difficult or cover content that hadn’t been taught. Teachers took advantage of students in many ways, like making students do chores at the teacher’s house in exchange for passing grades. It is still like this for a lot of children in this country today.
In 12th grade, I remember refusing to pay my teachers for grades. I went to my principal with my report card and said, “These aren’t my real grades.” It was because of my principal that I graduated high school, as my marks (as given by the teachers) weren’t high enough to make me eligible to graduate.
After high school, I applied to different university programs, including in the U.S., and finally enrolled at Cuttington University in Liberia to study education. In my second year, war broke out and Cuttington closed for nearly a year. I returned to Grand Bassa County where my father grew up, I grew up, and my family still lives today, as it was war-free. Soon, however, rebels entered and I found myself in the middle of a war zone. That period was one of the worst experiences of my life: living in constant fear, not having enough food, night raids, and seeing 12-year-olds working as rebel soldiers.
I graduated finally from Cuttington in 2007 and got a job as a school principal. This was a good job until 2014 when the Ebola epidemic broke out and all schools closed for seven months. During Ebola, I worked as part of the emergency response as Director of the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign, educating people about the disease and how to respond, identifying cases, and distributing supplies.
When schools reopened, many families did not have the money to send their children back to school, which contributed to the out-of-school problem we see today in Liberia.
A New Chapter Begins
Around that time, I applied for a job overseeing the Liberia country program of an organization that provided accelerated learning to out-of-school children and helped empower communities. Of course, this was the Luminos Fund and I’ve been on the team ever since.
In the Luminos Second Chance program, students arrive unable to read even though most are 10 years old. Ten months later, they are reading over 40 words per minute on average. We train local community members as teachers (we call them “facilitators”) and coach them in appropriate pedagogies and putting children first. I spend a lot of time driving to our different classrooms to check in with facilitators and serve as a mentor. I meet with other local organizations and secure support from the Ministry of Education to use vacant classrooms and help our graduates transition. We also host monthly sessions for parents and communities to get involved, get excited about their children’s potential, and commit to continue these boys’ and girls’ schooling. Teaching and education is like a sport – it works best with proactive coaching.
As I reflect on my life’s journey so far, I sometimes consider what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone to school. Like many Liberians, I would lack the skills, knowledge, and mindset necessary to earn a living and provide for my family. With a national literacy rate of just 48% in Liberia (34% for women), chances are that I would lack the ability to read a single sentence. No country in the world can make progress on development goals if most of its population is illiterate. This is why our focus on foundational literacy and numeracy at the Luminos Fund is so critical.
To this day, with much gratitude to my father, I believe nothing is more important than education. You need human capacity to build a country and you need education to develop human capacity.
The Luminos Fund has an important role to play ensuring that all children in Liberia and beyond have the chance to go to school and learn. I’m proud to be part of the Luminos Fund’s story helping unlock the light in thousands of children through education – and for Luminos to be part of my story, too.
Abba, left, guides a classroom visit in Bomi County with friends of the Luminos Fund in October 2019
On September 26 during U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) week, the Luminos Fund hosted “Dynamic Philanthropy: A Remedy for the Global Learning Crisis,” an intimate conversation featuring Phyllis Kurlander Costanza, Head, UBS Philanthropy and CEO, UBS Optimus Foundation; Pascale de la Frégonnière, Executive Director, Cartier Philanthropy; His Excellency Dr. Tariq Al Gurg, Chief Executive Officer, Dubai Cares; and Alan McCormick, Managing Director, Legatum Group. Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, moderated.
In the last fifteen years, enormous progress has been made in global education, such as a 40% decrease in the number of children out of school, a doubling of the school system in Africa, and the emergence of near parity in girls’ and boys’ education in the primary phase. However, much work remains. Globally, three-quarters of children and adolescents are still not learning at minimum levels.
Now in its third year, the Luminos UNGA week event convenes key funders, thought leaders, and implementors around the subjects of education and international development. This year, we were delighted to have a packed room of participants all focused on real solutions for the 260 million children around the world who still fail to learn the basics.
Caitlin Baron moderated the discussion
Innovative Approaches to Solve the Global Learning Crisis
At Luminos, we believe in philanthropy’s power to fuel breakthrough innovations that will tackle the global learning crisis. We feel extremely fortunate to work with these four leaders and their respective organizations, and were eager to hear their timely, energizing insights about the power of philanthropy in education development.
Cartier Philanthropy, Dubai Cares, Legatum Group, and UBS Philanthropy/UBS Optimus Foundation have funded an array of innovations that are moving the needle in educational opportunity around the globe. During the event, each speaker discussed his or her organization’s approach to philanthropy, innovation, and international education.
“The power of UBS Philanthropy is bringing clients to the doorstep of the world’s greatest problems,” Phyllis explained, noting that up to 80% of UBS clients are interested in investing in education. “UBS Optimus is a foundation of our clients: we route money from clients towards solving many social challenges. With education, we are trying to move clients from building schools to focusing on the quality of learning happening in the classrooms.”
One key area of innovation for UBS Optimus Foundation has been investment in outcomes-based financing. Phyllis described outcomes-based financing as one way to help build capacity in the space and encourage NGOs to focus on results. UBS has achieved strong returns through Development Impact Bonds (DIB) that can then be re-invested to achieve even more impact.
Meanwhile, Cartier Philanthropy seeks to fund scalable, high-impact innovations while moving toward an unrestricted funding model.
“Cartier Philanthropy believes in unrestricted funding,” Pascale noted. “We work for our grantees. They don’t work for us.”
“Cartier Philanthropy is quite independent of Cartier, which has been great to let us be experimental and find organizations working on exciting ideas that scale. Our work isn’t dictated by how we can further the Cartier brand: we were left free to draft our own strategy. Test, try, learn, fail, and try again is a philosophy we believe in,” she continued appreciatively.
Tariq described Dubai Cares’ founding vision to improve children’s access to quality primary education and, more broadly, increase funding for education as this sector receives far less investment than health.
“The Millennium Development Goals were set in 2000 and the 2nd Goal was universal access to primary education. Five years later when the UN met, they said Goal 2 would not be met by the deadline. Dubai Cares was founded in 2007 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. HRH is a strong believer in youth and education. He wanted to convince others to invest more in education, as health always gets more investment compared to education. Dubai today is where it is because of its focus on youth and education. Since 2007, Dubai Cares has worked to provide quality education around the globe.”
“The job of philanthropy is to pilot and test innovations, and do your best to see them to scale,” Tariq continued. “Philanthropists’ job isn’t system strengthening. But, partnership with government is key if you want to influence the mainstream. We have to work within the priorities of governments if we are serious about achieving systems change – or help the government to prioritize an issue if we feel it is important.”
Legatum has a unique relationship with the Luminos Fund. A Legatum Foundation grant launched Luminos as an independent organization in 2016. Alan currently serves as Chairman of the Luminos Fund’s Board of Directors.
From left: Pascale de la Frégonnière, Alan McCormick, and Phyllis Kurlander Costanza
Alan explained, “We run a purpose-driven investment business at Legatum. The mission at the heart of our business is to generate and allocate capital that helps people prosper – and we’ve funded 2,000 projects across the developing world. Our philosophy is to test ideas and then bring others to invest in proven solutions. The best way to help people succeed is to give them the freedom to innovate.”
Describing the Luminos Fund’s origins, he noted, “When we saw how the program makes children numerate and literate in 10 months we were blown away.”
Words of Encouragement
As the event drew to a close, panelists offered advice based on their experience in philanthropy.
“We can’t do this alone,” Tariq said. “We need more donors to collaborate, like how Co-Impact is bringing funders together.”
Phyllis shared recommendations for prospective grantees: “Learn how to ask for money and go big.” Funders are pitched frequently and potential grantees must stand out from the crowd to succeed.
“Reading the news, it’s easy to focus on problems,” Alan cautioned. “Get out and look for solutions and innovations. The innovations out there today give me such hope. Be hopeful and persevere.”
H.E. Dr. Tariq Al Gurg discusses Dubai Cares’ focus on education
Kaitlynn Saldanha is Senior Research Analyst at the Luminos Fund where she works on programs as well as monitoring and evaluation. She joined Luminos in 2019 after working at PEAS, Teach For America and Gray Matters Capital. She holds an MPhil in Education and International Development from the University of Cambridge and a BA from Middlebury College. In August 2019, she supported our annual facilitator training in Liberia. Here are her reflections from the field.
Kaitlynn Saldanha, Luminos Senior Research Analyst
It’s early afternoon in Liberia following a heavy rain. You walk into a classroom to 14 adults using their hands to create a steady, handsome beat. Some swing their hips from side to side. Others get low to the ground engaging their full body as they chant each letter of the short words written on the blackboard. They follow the leader at the front – their peer – who raises a knee to stomp each time he claps.
A word and its spelling is repeated three times total, getting faster each round. The leader at the front pauses to explain the meaning of each word before starting the next activity – this time a cheer for each word. Chanting and cheering is one way that Second Chance students learn high frequency words that they see often in text. At Luminos, chanting and cheering form part of our approach to joyful learning — with positive results.
Here is a video of Luminos facilitators chanting the italicized words above:
In August 2019, I attended a Luminos training for Second Chance facilitators (what we call our teachers) in Liberia. The training was a 10-day residential ‘bootcamp’ where Luminos facilitators and implementing partners (BRAC, ROCH and LIPACE) received training in the Second Chance curriculum and pedagogy prior to the start of school. In 2019-20, the partners and facilitators who attended this training will run 65 Second Chance classrooms serving just under 2,000 students across Montserrado, Bomi and Lofa counties. Like all Luminos trainings, the training was experiential, designed such that facilitators experienced firsthand what it is like to be a student in a Second Chance classroom. For instance, facilitators spent the training working in small groups, practicing phonics exercises like “Blending Ladder” and “Elkonin Sound Boxes,” acting out the meaning of “Mop” and “Hop,” narrating short stories and demonstrating concepts (like how to use a number line, types of sentences and punctuation) in front of the class. With 80 Luminos facilitators, 6 supervisors, Ministry representatives (including the County Education Officer of Bomi County, District Education Officers, the Assistant Minister for Early Childhood Education, plus 5 government master trainers) and 4 Luminos staff present at the training, it was a full few days for Luminos in Liberia. Below are a few of my reflections from the week.
Luminos Liberia Program Coordinator and in-house phonics expert, Alphanso Menyon (left), models how to decode or sound out words by breaking them down into individual sounds for a new Second Chance facilitator.
Reflect. Learn. Adapt. Repeat. As those of us who work in international development know, responding quickly to challenges and feedback that arise in the field is critical to ensuring that programs achieve desired impact and outcomes. As someone who is new to the Luminos Fund but not new to international development, Second Chance is truly special in the way that it has created a learning culture where feedback is encouraged, received and responded to at every level. Iteration is embedded in the program’s DNA. For instance, during the training, Luminos Program Manager, Abba Karnga Jr., asked facilitators and partners again and again to share feedback and reflections. He continuously drew on facilitators’ lived experience delivering the Second Chance program and did a brilliant job of creating a safe space for candid conversations on corporal punishment (still all too common in the region), integrity and professionalism, and the importance of knowing the ability of each and every student.
During the training, Luminos supervisors (who monitor Second Chance classrooms and provide ongoing classroom-based support to facilitators) met as a group, alongside Luminos Liberia-based and U.S.-based staff, to reflect on program data and problem solve on challenges. Sessions like these ensure that Second Chance continues to learn, adapt and respond to the needs on the ground. They are also a powerful mechanism for elevating the role and voices of supervisors and facilitators, removing hierarchy and building collective ownership for the Second Chance program, which ultimately drives stronger outcomes for Luminos students.
Balancing Autonomy and Structure. Scripted lessons can earn a poor reputation for limiting teacher autonomy, and in some cases, for being ineffective. Second Chance strikes a delicate balance of providing young and motivated (though often inexperienced) teachers the tools and support they need to succeed, while also empowering them to exercise professional judgement, take risks and lead learning in their classrooms. While our Second Chance Facilitator Manual provides a helpful block-by-block guide for each day, facilitators still develop and lead their own lessons. For instance, the Second Chance curriculum includes two activity-based learning (ABL) periods per day where facilitators are provided guidance on the content that is to be taught or reviewed, but the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of teaching and learning are to the discretion and creativity of the facilitator. During the 10-day training, facilitators were guided on how to use the Facilitator Manual as a tool to support them (as opposed to a script), and encouraged to bring their own ideas and imagination to their teaching as much as possible.
Build People, Build Mindsets. In Liberia, Luminos is not just building a program – we are changing people’s understanding of what is possible to achieve with the most marginalized children. Is Second Chance supporting out-of-school children to become functionally literate and numerate in 10 months? Yes! External evaluation results show that Second Chance students in Liberia are identifying 40 words per minute on average, compared to 4 words per minute at the start of the program (for comparison, just 6% of Liberian Grade 2 students can read 40 words per minute). How did we get here?
Facilitators practice lesson plans.
The training commenced with an inspirational opening speech by Liberia’s Assistant Minister for Early Childhood Education, Minister Thelma, who had visited several Luminos classrooms last year and was impressed by how well Second Chance students were learning. Throughout the training, facilitators, government representatives (including the 5 master trainers from the Ministry who participated in the full 10 days of training) and partners, were reminded again and again of Luminos guiding principles: “Every child can learn. Help a child learn how to learn”. These principles, while obvious to many of us, are not yet realized in every classroom and school in the communities where we work in Liberia. Until they are, trainings like the one held in August are not just for rehearsing phonics drills (though these are important too!) but for building the mindsets necessary to carry out the work.
Let Experience Speak. This year many facilitators are returning for their third or fourth year teaching with the Second Chance program. This is tremendous in and of itself and a testament to the positive experience they’ve had working for Luminos and Second Chance. It also means that these professionals have deep, valuable experience teaching in low-resource communities. They know what works — and also what doesn’t — in supporting out-of-school children to learn.
During last month’s training, Luminos leveraged the knowledge and experience of veteran ‘lead’ Second Chance facilitators to support training newer facilitators. We will continue using this approach in future trainings. When we think about the local knowledge and know-how that’s being built for Second Chance in Liberia, there is a lot to be excited about, especially when we think about further scaling of Second Chance in Liberia and beyond.
Second Chance classes in Liberia started on September 9th! We look forward to sharing more updates from facilitator trainings throughout the year. Stay tuned!
The Luminos Fund is delighted to release its 2018 Annual Report. We’re working to ensure children everywhere get a chance to experience joyful learning, especially those denied an education by poverty, conflict, or discrimination.
In this Annual Report, we review 2018 through the lens of the Luminos Fund’s contribution to girls’ education. When girls get the chance to learn, they can positively transform their lives and those of their families.
Around the world, an equal number of girls and boys are out of school. Luminos programs prove you can give girls and boys a second chance at education right alongside one another — with great results. In fact, research shows that co-ed programs like ours may be one of the best ways to reach girls.
118,437 – To date, we’ve helped 118,437 children get a second chance at a good education, half of whom were girls.
10 months – Luminos delivers accelerated 10-month programs covering the first 3 years of school, with 4 times as many reading hours as mainstream school.
95% – Overall, 95% of children transition to mainstream school upon completion of our programs.
11,185 – In 2018, 11,185 children (46% girls) received a second chance education in Ethiopia.
1,615 – In 2018, 1,615 Syrian refugee children (43% girls) participated in our back-to-school programs in Lebanon.
3,150 – In 2018, 3,150 children (46% girls) received a second chance education in Liberia.
The Luminos Fund team extends sincere thanks and gratitude to our funders, implementing partners, government ministry allies, Board of Directors, advisors, and friends for joining us on this vital journey.
Learn more and support our work
Learn more about the Luminos Fund and our work by exploring our website or contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lindsey Wang is 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 entering Harvard Kennedy School this autumn.
I would like to tell you a story. In the Dargweh community of Liberia, West Africa, an 11-year-old girl steps into a classroom for the first time in two years. She attended school previously and can name a few letters of the alphabet but is unable to read even two-letter words. Years helping her mother in the market taught her to perform simple sums in her head, but she doesn’t know how to write any numbers. In her new classroom, she chants and claps alongside her peers, repeating the names of letters, their sounds, and words beginning with those letters. A. Ah. Africa. B. Buh. Bird. A letter. A sound. A word. She memorizes the pattern and steps to the front of the class to lead her classmates in song. Outside, she can hear toddlers from her community chanting along, drawn to the boisterous chorus rising from the cinder block building.
Ten months later, imagine returning to this one-room classroom in Dargweh to find that this 11-year-old girl now can not only identify all 26 letters, she can read entire paragraphs about Sammy and his sister Satta. She’s more than happy to tell you that if Yatta has 8 pencils and Abdul has 5 pencils, Yatta has 3 more pencils than Abdul. When she encounters an unfamiliar word, she holds out her left arm and taps it with her right hand, moving from her shoulder to her wrist, one tap for each phonetic sound: shuh, oh, puh. Shop.
In 10 months, thanks to her own tenacity and the Luminos Second Chance program, this girl jumped from near illiteracy to acing a second-grade reading comprehension assessment. Her progress is real, and we have the data to prove it.
As the Luminos Fund’s Program Analyst, I had the great fortune to attend the first week of Luminos Second Chance classes in Liberia in September 2018 and the final week of classes in June 2019. I observed similar advances in dozens of the children I met as I supervised the baseline and endline EGRA and EGMA assessments that measure the learning levels of a sample of students before and after our program. Our Liberian program team—Program Manager Abba Karnga and Program Coordinator Alphanso Menyon—diligently arranged for enumerators (the third-party professionals who conduct evaluations and capture raw data) to randomly sample five students from each of our Second Chance classes during the first week of school. At the end of the 10-month program, those same five students were given the same test by the same enumerator. These kinds of data enable Luminos to identify program strengths and the weaknesses we need to rectify for the next cohort of students. The baseline and endline evaluations are our report card, so to speak.
Everyone in international development knows that external, independent evaluations are essential, but we may underestimate what it takes to get it right. Leading up to my trip and on my flight to Liberia, I buried myself in lecture notes and slide decks from an evaluation management training I had attended until finally, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I realized that no workshop would prepare me completely for the boots-on-the-ground experience of supervising an evaluation.
The lessons that have fundamentally shaped my approach to managing independent evaluations came not from lectures but from visiting classrooms and speaking with enumerators. Now, with the June 2019 endline evaluation completed, I can reflect on the entire process and share a few of those lessons here.
Pilot the survey instrument. Pilots may not always be possible due to time or resource constraints, but the experience of testing a survey with subjects before it launches is invaluable and will strengthen the actual evaluation. We were fortunate to pilot our survey instrument at a Monrovia government school a few days before the baseline evaluation began. Looking over my field notes, I have pages of scribbles even though our pilot took place during just one afternoon. I jotted down every mistake that enumerators came across in the survey and every set of instructions that students did not understand. I noted the names of enumerators I thought were particularly skilled at putting children at ease. Receiving test data collected during the pilot also made it easier for me to prepare an R script to run data checks on the actual evaluation data as they were received from enumerators each evening. This script was a critical time-saver and allowed me to respond swiftly to data discrepancies and issues that arose in the field.
The enumerator training prior to the September 2018 baseline evaluation
Build relationships with your enumerators. While piloting the survey instrument, I received the most insightful feedback from the twelve enumerators preparing to evaluate our students. Rufus noted that students seemed to struggle to read words, not because they didn’t know the words but because the font was too small. Sarah suggested that marking incorrect responses on a paper in front of the child may be discouraging which prompted the other enumerators to change their own processes and mark their papers under the table. During evaluations, enumerators have a front row seat to the students and can share more qualitative insights into students’ knowledge and behavior. At the endline, Margaret shared with me—with a beaming smile—that students seem much more confident in their abilities than they did at the start of the program year, something that wouldn’t have been clear from the data alone. One student, she reported, even corrected her as she tried to demonstrate how to break up a word into its phonetic sounds. Without this direct line of communication to the enumerators, I would have a less nuanced understanding of Luminos results.
Raise concerns early and often. I was nervous going into the baseline evaluation. Was I ready to be an authority on the Luminos program and supervise the enumerator team in the field? I had the Luminos leadership team’s support and they reminded me that, in that room, no one knew more about the program than I did. “Don’t hesitate to raise concerns,” they told me, so I didn’t. I disputed the phrasing of one of the questions. I stressed to enumerators the importance of putting students at ease and reassuring the children that their performance would not impact their enrollment in our program. It surprises me even now how easily the survey team and I fell into a good rhythm. I would observe the enumerators and recommend a change to the survey. The survey firm’s manager would adjust the instrument and the cycle would begin again. This ease is a testament to the survey firm’s professionalism and investment in conducting a rigorous, informative evaluation in service of Luminos’ mission.
Dive in (and be prepared to sweat the details). Did we edit the survey so that both addition and subtraction questions require numeric responses? Does every enumerator know that we will no longer be reading the examples for question 5? The night before the baseline evaluation launched, I caught myself drafting an email to the field coordinators with a few more observations from the pilot only to realize that the enumerators and field coordinators were probably asleep and wouldn’t respond to my emails at 3:00 a.m.! In the end, despite some sleep deprivation, the exhilaration of accompanying the survey into the field kept me motivated. After four hours of driving over pothole-ridden dirt roads – the same pace of work our Liberian colleagues keep every week – I would return to my room to start running data checks, keeping an eye out for enumerator errors and data inconsistencies. In evaluations, as in our Second Chance program as a whole, success lies in the details.
Sleepless nights, constant survey revisions, and many miles logged on bumpy dirt roads. Conducting evaluations can be tedious and time-consuming, expensive and exacting. Why do we do it?
Data drives decision-making and real-time program enhancements. When mid-year internal monitoring reports flagged that our students were struggling with language arts, the Luminos program team in Liberia acted immediately and restructured the curriculum around phonics. A few weeks later, when facilitators met for our semi-annual training, Luminos staff and curriculum consultants delivered a new training module in phonics that led to increased emphasis on literacy in the classroom. Real-time data collection and analysis enables efficient and agile program improvements. This process helps Luminos fulfill our commitment to deliver high-quality education to students in joyful, welcoming, safe, and instructive classrooms.
Lindsey crunching the evaluation data back in Boston
Data is key to achieving impact at scale. At Luminos, I have seen firsthand how a lean NGO-operated education program can evolve into broad, government-funded, and implemented education policies. In Ethiopia, where Luminos also runs classrooms, our academic research partners at the University of Sussex Centre for International Education have rigorously evaluated that program’s pedagogy, implementation, and long-term impact on students’ educational prospects. Excitingly, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education has now adopted the Second Chance program model as a national strategy to reach out-of-school children, largely due to the rich body of evidence demonstrating our program’s impact. Going into the baseline/endline process in Liberia, I understood that for our Liberia program to follow a similar path to scale, we must produce another compelling body of evidence — beginning with this evaluation.
Not all NGOs are fortunate enough to have strong evaluation partners. Even when they do, evaluations can be expensive, especially for small teams. But, without data, how does an organization self-reflect, implement better strategies, and, frankly, attract more investment? Only through data-driven action, dialogue, and policymaking can the global community address systemic inequalities with sustainable solutions.
When you’re deep in the analysis process—trying to make sense of one thousand data points—it’s easy to lose sight of why data matter. Data is important because our decisions and policies have implications for real people. Data should be the foundation for policymaking, not only to scale effective programs more efficiently but because, in the end, each of those data points represents a person or a community. Remember the young girl who aced the second-grade reading comprehension test? I know her only as Student B014, but she is a reminder that these data we collect are more than a series of numbers. She is a person with dreams and aspirations of her own. She is a daughter. She is a friend.
This autumn, I am taking my experience with data-driven program management to Harvard Kennedy School in pursuit of a Master in Public Policy and will continue working at Luminos on a project basis. In my academic studies and career so far, I have approached international development as an implementor. At HKS, I look forward to bringing my implementer’s lens to the policymaking table. As I transition to this next chapter, I proudly carry with me the humanity and dignity that the Luminos Fund brings to its work, whether around a conference table in Boston or in a one-room classroom in Liberia.