Let's think together: Every week the World Bank team in Tanzania wants to stimulate your thinking by sharing data from recent official surveys in Tanzania and ask you a couple of questions. This post is also published in theTanzanian Newspaper The Citizen  every Sunday.
Education is key. As foundations go, there is none more important than this one – in achieving progress as well as in sustaining it.
Since the introduction of free primary education in 2001, Tanzania has achieved significant progress in improving access to basic education. Primary school attendance of children aged 7 to 13 years increased from 54 percent in 1999 to almost 80 percent in 2010. Yet Tanzania also still has one of the lowest primary-to-secondary transition rates in sub-Saharan Africa (at just 41 percent in 2009), with girls being particularly disadvantaged. In addition, standardized assessments have revealed that the quality of education is insufficient to provide students with the most basic numeracy and literacy skills. In 2011, Tanzania scored much lower than Kenya or Uganda in these assessments.
Not only does Tanzania still lag in terms of educational outcomes compared to neighboring countries but also the quality of education varies tremendously depending on where you live in the country:
- The best performing schools are found in the urban centers, such as Iringa Mjini, Bukoba Urban and Arusha. In these districts, students in Standard 7 scored on average 97-98 per cent in math, 88-91 per cent in English and 97-98 per cent in Kiswahili when being tested on a Standard 2 exam.
- In contrast, schools in Chunya, Kibondo and Tunduru reported math scores ranging from 50 per cent (Chunya) to 78 per cent (Kibondo, Tunduru), and only obtained a dismal 44-47 per cent in English, and 75-83 per cent in Kiswahili. Many Standard 7 students in these districts hence have not grasped even the Standard 2 curriculum.
- Disparities in learning outcomes emerge from the very beginning of the education cycle: Already in Standard 3, students in Iringa Mjini perform twice as well in math as those in Kibondo (82 per cent vs. 40 per cent – again, based on a Standard 2 exam), almost five times as well in English (61 per cent vs. 13 per cent) and more than 2.5 times as well in Kiswahili (83 per cent vs. 33 per cent). These children may only be a day’s drive from each other, but they are worlds apart in terms of the quality of education they receive.
- And inequalities are not confined to primary education. The share of children who passed the 2011 Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (CSEE) is between just 2 per cent (e.g. Simanjiro and Mbulu districts) and 24 per cent (Makete) (see http://developmentseed.org/tanzania-bank/#performance  for further details).
What could explain these variations in learning outcomes? A major explanation is found in the current distribution of resources across districts and schools. As expected, districts with more resources and teachers (per student) are also more likely to deliver better education services and therefore outcomes. However, there is some limit to this logic since one additional teacher in an already well-served district will likely have a lesser impact on service delivery than one more teacher in an under-served district.
But money alone cannot explain cross-district variations in school performance. The districts of Ruangwa and Kilombero, for example, report approximately the same level of public (recurrent) spending per capita on primary education yet exam results in 2011 are much better in Kilombero than in Ruangwa (with an 8 percentage points difference in test scores of students in Standard 7). Other factors are obviously at play. These include:
- The quality of financial management in the local education system and/or the school.
- Teacher productivity. Teacher absenteeism is a widespread phenomenon, with 20 per cent of teachers in rural schools and 36 per cent of teachers in urban schools reported missing during an unannounced visit.
- Family involvement in the children’s education. This too is a very important determinant of success or failure in school.
These huge variations in school performances within Tanzania raise several questions:
- Why do schools in some districts appear to be doing so much better than others, even with the same resources? What are the key ingredients of success for these schools? School-level management? Teachers’ work ethics?
- Should the government increase teacher salaries depending on school performance?
- To what extent are variations in education outcomes explained by factors outside the school system, such as poor nutrition and health?
- Are parents discriminating against their daughters in access to secondary education? If so, why?
Note: The statistics above are based on the 1999 Reproductive and Child Health Survey, the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey, the 2011 UWEZO Learning Assessment, the World Bank’s Education Statistics Database, the National Examination Council of Tanzania (NECTA) and the World Bank’s 2011 report, ’Service Delivery Indicators: Pilot in Education and Health Care in Africa‘. Data from these sources are publicly available and results can be replicated.