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”?