The Luminos Fund is expanding to help more out-of-school children catch up than ever before. Our country leaders are spearheading this effort: a group of dynamic, knowledgeable, and dedicated individuals who live and breathe our mission to ensure all children experience joyful learning. In this new series, “Luminos Leaders,” we will share their stories with you, starting with Liberia Country Manager, James Earl Kiawoin.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background. Did you grow up in Liberia?
I was born in Liberia in the middle of the civil war. Then my family went to the Ivory Coast and Ghana where we were refugees for two years before coming back to Liberia. I started primary school in the Ivory Coast but continued the rest of my education in Liberia where I finished high school at age 14. I was too young to do anything, so I went to the African Leadership Academy (ALA) for another two years. ALA is a pan-African prep school meant to develop the next generation of African leaders. ALA was a real game-changer in terms of what my life could have been and what it became after that. It was the first time that I got access to real, proper education—global education that was preparing me with a skill set and a mindset dedicated to social change and social justice. With ALA, there was a mission around preparing students to go back to their homes and do actual work to advance their communities.
Growing up in Liberia, many of my friends’ parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. Or kids would go to school, and they weren’t interested or motivated and would stop going. As a child, I didn’t understand the gender dynamics, culture factors, or financial issues. I just thought, oh, they don’t want to go to school because school’s boring. Today, I’m able to step back and understand those dynamics: the fact that if the public school systems are not strong, parents will think that their kids are better off staying on the farm. In most of the communities Luminos serves in Liberia, there’s no real no role model effect. Kids don’t see people graduate from high school and so school doesn’t make sense to them because they haven’t seen anyone do it.
Q:What makes Liberia special? What do you love about the country?
When you trace the history of Liberia back to free slaves returning to a place they knew nothing about—there’s this sense of daring and entrepreneurship in the Liberian spirit. That’s one of the things that’s always brought me back to Liberia.
When I was growing up, before attending ALA, I had no idea that I could do anything meaningful for Liberia. It was just: you go to school, you try to survive the war, you just try to eat and live. When I went to ALA, that was the first time that I actually realized that there’s something we can do in this country. We can change the narrative for children who come after me. We can help build the national education system. We can help build systems across all sectors to do good for people!
Q: The core of our mission at the Luminos Fund is education. Tell us more about your own education. Why education is important to you?
After completing the ALA program, I did my undergrad at Colorado College in Political Science. I went back to Liberia to work for two years on the Ebola crisis and then returned to the States for a master’s degree in Public Affairs with a focused on international development from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. I’ve been really, really fortunate with all the places I’ve gone to school.
For me, education opens doors for people to cultivate their own potential and innate talent. For most families in Liberia, there’s no other pathway out of their current situation. The way you pull yourself out of poverty, for the most part, is to go to school and get a job to take care of your family. For the longest parts in Liberia’s history, people have not been able to go to school because of the war or their family didn’t have the resources. It’s really important that we are able to create access to high quality education so that people can do things for their families and in their own communities.
Q: Why did you decide to join the Luminos Fund team?
It was a combination of a personal desire to help Liberia, and also knowing that I could do more at scale, even through a small organization. The Luminos Fund is so different from previous parts of my career that focused on strategy and were far removed from day-to-day implementation. At Luminos, I’m actually in the field once a week; talking to Abba [Luminos Liberia’s Program Manager], talking to parents, and talking to teachers. There was an appeal to being in direct communication with those who are benefitting from the program. It’s a very dynamic job. At Luminos, every day there’s something new from government engagement to people management and trying to ensure the motorbikes run!
Q: What’s your favorite part of your role?
I love being able to see the students in class and learning. The teachers are there, classrooms have the proper materials, and there’s all this chanting going on and active, play-based learning.
At the front of everybody’s mind is that we have to ensure that these children are reading and writing properly, and that they can transition to traditional schools. Whenever you enter Luminos classrooms that’s on the fullest display: everyone is so committed to helping these kids learn how to read and develop the desire to learn.
Q: What inspires you?
The will of individuals to craft big societal change is really inspiring. Whenever I come across those people who are willing to ask hard questions or to put it all on the line to solve hard problems, it’s really inspiring.
Q: What inspires you about the Luminos Fund?
This commitment to excellence. Watching Folley and Emmanuel [Luminos Libera Program Associates] in the field, seeing them coach the teachers, and do the running records, it’s very visible that everyone wants these kids to succeed. Everyone really buys into the vision that every child can learn, and our job is to ensure we teach them how to learn.
At Luminos, everyone’s actions reflect our mission. When we’re collecting receipts to ensure that we’re good stewards of our resources, it’s reflecting that mission because, if we can do more with this money, more children can learn. When we’re tweaking the curriculum based on feedback or driving consistent use of data to improve program outcomes, it’s all geared toward that simple vision that children should be reading; that they should be in school in order to cultivate their potential.
To learn more about Luminos’ work in Liberia, visit our Liberia page.
Growing up in Liberia, Otis had the chance to briefly attend school, but was pulled out when his parents could no longer afford to pay school fees for all of their children. School fees prompt hard choices for many families in Liberia. In this West African country of 4.9 million people, between 15-20% of 6–14 year-olds are out of school. Feeling the strain of supporting their family of eleven, Otis’s mother and father made the difficult decision to send Otis to his aunt’s house where he helped with household chores.
Despite having to leave school, Otis’s brief, early exposure to learning had him hooked. Eager to continue learning, Otis asked his older brother to teach him, and soon Otis was learning basic letters and numbers.
Early last year, at ten years of age, Otis finally had the chance to return to the classroom again. He enrolled in the Luminos Fund’s free catch-up education program for out-of-school children, known as Second Chance. In a class of 30 students, Otis rapidly began to build on his basic knowledge of letters and numbers with the help of his teacher. Like many of his classmates, Otis loves Luminos’ play-based activities best. For Otis, experiencing joyful learning has made all the difference on his education journey.
“I like school because it is helping me learn how to read!” says Otis. His rapid progress has not gone unnoticed by his parents.
“I can now see him writing on everything in the house—and he can spell some words now,” says Otis’s father.
Otis’s mother, Sata, has noticed the writing, too. She remarked that Otis is now able to read a few small things and hopes that Otis will be able to read for the family since Sata herself is not literate. Both of Otis’s parents have seen the impact of Luminos’ Second Chance program in their communities firsthand.
“I know children who are now in 7th grade after they finished the program years ago,” says Sata.
Most Luminos students transition into public schools at the 3rd or 4th grade level after they graduate. Continuing to 7th grade means these students successfully completed primary school and are continuing their education!
Otis’s father agreed with Sata, saying, “Second Chance has helped the community because a lot of students are now in the public school.”
“Second Chance has helped the community because a lot of students are now in the public school.”
Luminos takes a holistic approach to education. Not only do we run catch-up education programs for out-of-school children, but we also recruit and train local young adults as teachers for our classrooms and engage parents in the learning journey.
Parents of Luminos students like Otis participate in monthly parent engagement groups where they step inside the classroom. During meetings, students may read a passage or demonstrate their writing skills in front of parents and community members. This is especially motivating for parents as they see the vast progress their children have made because of Second Chance. Parent engagement meetings also emphasize the importance of child protection and safeguarding, and challenge gender-based stereotypes that constrain women and girls. Parents in these groups commit to one another that they will keep their children in school, creating a network of accountability.
“I enjoy the work,” says Sata. “I’m happy to help the program that is helping my child.”
When asked about their dreams for Otis, his father replies, “I dream that he will be educated and do everything he wants to do.”
Sata chimes in, “I dream that he will learn a lot and become a better person tomorrow to help the family.”
With Otis’s parents behind him and the Luminos program providing a path back into mainstream education, his future of learning looks bright. For Otis, education isn’t something he wants to keep to himself. “Education is important because it will help me learn—and help my younger sister,” says Otis proudly.
“Education is important because it will help me learn—and help my younger sister.”
On Wednesday, December 8th, the Luminos Fund had the honor of leading a virtual panel discussion at the 2021 WISE Summit titled, “Easy as 1-2-3: Innovative Community-Driven Collaborations for Helping Out-of-School Children Catch Up.” Luminos was honored with a WISE Award in 2017 and remains a proud member of the WISE community.
Moderated by Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, the session explored Luminos’ model of deep partnership with community-based organizations and shared lessons for the broader education community to drive greater positive impact for some of the most marginalized children and communities. Panelists included:
Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education and Development, the Open University | Luminos Advisory Board member
Benjamin M. Freeman Jr., Executive Director, Liberia Institute for the Promotion of Academic Excellence (LIPACE) | Luminos partner
Abba G. Karnga Jr., Liberia Program Manager, Luminos Fund
Nikita Khosla, Senior Director of Programs, Luminos Fund
Why Luminos works with community-based organizations
Luminos works in partnership with community-based organizations (CBOs) and governments through a hub-and-spoke operating model to deliver our catch-up education programs. In each country we work in, a small, expert Luminos team is responsible for curriculum, pedagogy, training, monitoring and evaluation, and government adoption, and Luminos funds local CBOs to implement the program. Second Chance, our catch-up education program, is delivered through these local partners whose capabilities Luminos helps build, support, and oversee throughout the program. Each community Luminos operates in is unique with different traditions, dialects, and needs. As such, it is critical that we contextualize our work to align with these varying circumstances. Who better to know and deeply understand these needs than the people who live and work there? This is why we partner with local organizations like LIPACE in Liberia, led by panelist Benjamin M. Freeman Jr. (Ben).
As Nikita Khosla explained, thanks to CBOs, Luminos is able to rapidly adapt to new geographies and quickly learn how to help meet children where they are. These community partnerships allow Luminos to be highly responsive to local conditions and needs and teach in children’s local language using contextually relevant stories and experiences to enrich learning. In addition, this community-based model helps build local capacity and creates a sustainable model for the future. As Nikita noted, Luminos hopes that our holistic, community-based approach to catch-up education for out-of-school children will grow beyond our organization.
Navigating the power dynamics
There is an inherent dynamic between larger, international NGOs and smaller CBOs. Nikita explained that to navigate this dynamic, Luminos intentionally creates a flat hierarchy from the start. We co-establish a common goal—ensuring all children are learning—and work towards that together. In addition, Luminos conducts quarterly learning sessions with our partners where we ask, “How can we improve the program?”
The first time Ben needed to provide constructive feedback to Luminos, he was hesitant. Ben shared that it was through the quarterly learning sessions that he grew to trust Luminos as an organization that valued the voices and opinions of its partners. Now, providing feedback comes more easily.
Luminos Liberia Program Manager, Abba G. Karnga Jr., noted that this was a crucial part of the puzzle to get right.
“We have to talk about the things that are working, and the things that are not working,” he said.
With that information in hand, Luminos can actively problem-solve. For instance, Nikita shared a recent example from Liberia where Luminos provides midday meals. After receiving feedback from our partners that students did not like the new fortified porridge, we changed the hot meals back to rice and beans.
Working with CBOs during COVID
For Luminos, working with CBOs allowed learning to continue for our students during the pandemic. Because our teachers are local, we were able to hold outdoor micro-classes that parents felt comfortable sending their children to attend. Through our partners, we distributed at-home learning resources and provided emergency food supplies to families in need. On the partner side, Ben noted that the CBO network Luminos created “ensured that we could go beyond the technological gaps that we were experiencing to bring effective COVID awareness and continue to ensure children were learning.”
What can the global community learn?
To wrap up the session, Caitlin posed the question, “What might the Luminos team be getting right, what are the shortcomings, and what might the global community take away more broadly?” to Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, a long-time evaluator of Luminos’ program and member of our Advisory Board.
Kwame reflected that the research shows Luminos’ model can close learning gaps for out-of-school children; it is essential for the global community to look at models like these that can close those learning gaps rapidly. Working with CBOs who have deep knowledge and investments in communities means that Luminos can recruit teachers and make a meaningful difference. “We tend to think about the program much more in terms of the child,” said Kwame, “but it also about the community. It takes a village to educate the child.”
Thank you to WISE and all the participants for such a dynamic and engaging session, and all our community partners. Learn more about WISE and the 2021 WISE Summit here, and read more about Luminos’ community teaching model here.
Kirstin Buchanan is Special Assistant to the CEO at the Luminos Fund where she provides essential executive, communications, fundraising, and event planning support. She holds a MA in International Affairs and BA in International Relations from Boston University, as well as a certificate in Latin American studies.
I grew up in the Caribbean and have seen how institutional and societal inequalities impact access to opportunities, including to quality education. Growing up, I developed a passion for supporting and amplifying the voices of vulnerable and marginalized communities and the issues they face. I believe that there is extraordinary innovation within communities and, when given the resources to adequately express it, they are some of the greatest architects of truly transformative solutions. This belief, in part, led me to the Luminos Fund.
COVID learning recovery is not a level playing field
Nearly two years into the global pandemic that saw the shuttering of schools everywhere, we are witnessing a gradual return to a sense of normalcy and a hopeful reimagining of a more resilient, flexible, and equitable education system. However, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the problem of learning loss and its impact on individuals and societies. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were cut off from their education.
Andenet, eight years old, lives in the Bona District of rural Ethiopia. She is the youngest of five siblings. While Andenet’s mother, Aster, was able to save enough money to send two of her younger children to school, she couldn’t afford to send Andenet, too.
“It was difficult to send her to school because I couldn’t afford the cost of education materials for three children,” says Aster.
Around the world, millions of children face similar barriers to learning. Over 59 million primary-school-aged children were out of school before COVID-19 swept the globe; over half of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO). In addition to financial constraints, children like Andenet are often kept out of school due to conflict, violence, cultural practices, gender, and distance, among other factors.
The pandemic has brought the critical challenge of barriers to learning to the forefront of global discourse: a challenge affecting marginalized communities long before stay-at-home mandates, national lockdowns, and global school closures. Today, UNESCO estimates that as many as 24 million additional children may not return to school following the pandemic. Traditional barriers to learning, coupled with the impacts of the pandemic, risks a lost generation of learners with lasting impacts on their futures, the future of their societies, and the world.
It has never been more urgent to build resilience within education systems: to equip them to not only cope in the face of crises like COVID-19, but also to think more expansively and innovatively about addressing the confluence of barriers hindering children’s journeys back to school.
Building resilience for children to learn
To build children’s resilience to learn, wherever they are and regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, I believe we must address learning barriers at their root, incorporating affected communities in the development of lasting solutions. The barriers to education are unique to each context, and it is important to engage the people most affected in the search for solutions that are specific to their needs.
Working with communities to harness their wealth of local knowledge and resources, and address barriers to education at the source, is integral to the Luminos model. Implemented in close collaboration with community-based organization partners, Luminos catch-up education programs are free of charge to students and their families and are carefully designed to meet the most marginalized and hardest-to-reach students and communities where they are. Andenet’s mother, Aster, notes that without Luminos’ free program, Andenet would have remained out of school indefinitely. In today’s COVID-19 moment, such programs are more important than ever.
Luminos classes are taught by high-potential, young adults from the community who we train: we build their capacity as teachers to bring children like Andenet back on the path to learning. We help develop intrinsic learners at no cost to families, while fueling local education systems with much-needed trained resources. In Ethiopia, the program includes monthly community savings for mothers, helping them build business management skills and develop sustainable financial practices to augment household and community income. This in turn helps to reduce financial barriers for children to transition to government schools to continue their education.
The way forward
Through my role at Luminos, I’ve seen the value of working in lockstep with communities to ensure that children everywhere can learn. Across program countries, Luminos students are journeying back to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, in keeping with national guidelines and COVID-19 protocols. While I brim with hope and anticipation for their futures after a tumultuous period of global learning disruptions, I know that the work is not done.
There are no ‘quick fix’ solutions to addressing the many barriers to learning for children. Sustainable solutions demand innovation, partnerships, and the prioritization of community members as agents of their own development. Advocating for such solutions is an integral part of my own journey: and my journey has only just begun.
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.
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”?
Liberia. Egypt. Ethiopia. Libya. Sudan. Tunisia. Morocco. Ghana. Guinea. Cameroon. Senegal. Togo. Mali. Madagascar. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Somalia. Benin. Niger. Burkina Faso. Côte d’Ivoire. Chad. Central African Republic. Republic of the Congo. Gabon. Mauritania. Sierra Leone. Nigeria. Cameroon. Tanzania. Burundi. Rwanda. Algeria. Uganda. Kenya. Malawi. Zambia. The Gambia. Botswana. Lesotho.
Congratulations! You have just read the names of the first 39 African countries to gain independence from western colonial rule. You likely did so in less than one minute. But, if you were a third-grade student in a high-poverty Liberian school, you likely couldn’t read these names. Only 21 percent of you and your peers would have succeeded. Just 5.8 percent of you would have succeeded at reading this list if you were a Liberian in second grade.
Of course, I am cheating a little. The names of the some of the countries above are multi-syllabic or multi-worded, both of which increase the reading degree of difficulty, especially for young children. So, here is an easier passage:
“Come down,” I said. “Can you see all the people?”
They asked, “When will we go to the water?”
But it was a cold day. So, I called each of them. “Look! I am about to write some words.”
This one also has 39 words. This passage is drawn from the Fry 100 Sight Words List. Sight words are high-frequency, commonly-used words that third graders should know and read easily. The words are often taught for memorization because they do not all follow the general rules of spelling, or conform phonetically to guidance on the six types of syllables.
Still, there is some good news for children in Liberia. The Luminos Fund, where I am Managing Director, has been active there since 2016, providing catch-up education to out-of-school children who have missed or dropped out of the first years of primary schooling due poverty, conflict, discrimination, and now COVID-19.
Over ten months, Luminos’ joyful, child-centered, play-based approach helps children learn how to learn and become literate and numerate. They then take the government placement exams and enter mainstream schooling in the third or fourth grade, reading at 39 words per minute on average.
Now, 39 words per minute may not sound impressive at first, but it is really good news. You see, when out-of-school children come to Luminos, most can only read 5 words per minute. That means, with Luminos, they make 10-month learning gains of 34 words per minute.
Take a look at the U.S. for context. According to the Oral Reading Frequency Norms (ORF), children in American schools at the 50th percentile start third grade at 83 words per minute and end the year reading 112 (a 29 words per minute gain). They enter fourth grade at 94 words per minute and end reading 133 (a gain of 39 words per minute.)
That is about the same annual reading gain as the Luminos children in Liberia – give or take 5 words per minute in each case. But Luminos gets this done at a tiny fraction of the cost. For reference, U.S. K-12 schools spend $12,612 per student annually, as compared to the Luminos program, which delivers three years of learning in 10 months at a cost as low as $150 per child.
So, here’s the takeaway. As Africans and friends of Africa come together and celebrate Africa Day on May 25th, please take note. If Luminos, as an independent NGO, can cost-effectively bring the most marginalized children in Liberia to reading improvement levels commensurate to kids in American public schools, then what might be possible throughout entire education systems? I mean, what could be achieved if we all unite around one straightforward idea: to concentrate education reform, innovation, and development efforts on improving oral reading fluency for all primary-age children across the landscape of the 54 African countries? Surely recovery from COVID-19 related learning loss would be tangibly within our grasp!
That’s it for my Africa Day message. But, before you go, allow me to make you smile. In 1979, when only three African countries—Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa—remained under colonial and apartheid rule, Bob Marley released a magnificent song called Africa Unite. In its final refrain, the song, at its best, offers some powerfully evocative words:
“So, Africa, Unite.
Afri, Africa unite, yeah!
Unite for the benefit (Africa unite) of your people!
Unite, for it’s later (Africa unite) than you think!
Unite for the benefit of your children.
Unite, for it’s later than you think!”
You are smiling aren’t you? It’s Bob Marley after all. But imagine if all African children received quality education: education that would allow them to read these very same 39 inspiring lyrics comfortably at third grade, even as they sing along to this remarkable Africa Day anthem. Wouldn’t that just light up their faces? We grownups had better not wait until it is too late to make it so.
Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director at the Luminos Fund, a nonprofit that provides transformative education programs to thousands of out-of-school children, helping them to catch up to grade level, reintegrate into local schools, and prepare for lifelong learning. Luminos has set 152,051 children across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia on a path to lifelong learning.