Very soon, tens of millions of children around the world will start a new school year. It’s supposed to be the time for children to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life. Are they getting that education in school? Not always. Nearly 25 percent of primary school-age children around the world can’t read, write or do basic mathematics. About one-quarter of these children have never had the chance to learn because they aren’t in school. Making sure that children learn – in other words, giving children the tools needed so they can reach their potential – is a global priority. Success requires understanding the most effective way to do this. That’s where evidence matters.
Education experts and development groups know the problems all too well. Teachers are absent or they don’t teach well when they are in the classroom. Students grow frustrated and drop out, or they leave to work, or maybe they never make it to the classroom in the first place. So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, it can’t be found in a simple multiple choice test, a true or false quiz, or even with a well thought out essay. We’re still trying to identify the most effective solutions ourselves. That’s where impact evaluation can make a difference.
For example, the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development  (DFID) are working in partnership through the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund  (SIEF) to determine which education programs and incentives improve learning. They’re then taking those results and making sure that policymakers and other development groups know what’s working and what’s not. The goal is to focus on evidence – proven solutions to help governments craft programs and policies that fit their needs and give them results. This approach fits right into the World Bank’s drive to be a knowledge bank – that is, in addition to finance, providing evidence and information on what works to improve service delivery and development outcomes – and DFID’s drive to embed evidence into policymaking.
So are things changing? Are policymakers using the evidence? The answer is yes. In Mozambique, the evaluation  of a Save the Children pilot preschool program showed such amazing gains for children that the government is now scaling it up to reach some 80,000 kids by its third year. SIEF-supported researchers are working right alongside the government to evaluate the scale-up  and see whether adding nutrition supplements gives children even more of a boost.
Elsewhere, impact evaluation work is already reverberating across borders and continents. Researchers studying results from a Jamaica early intervention program  found that poor, stunted children exposed to early stimulation caught up to their non-poor peers in schooling and, critically, earnings. The Jamaica program sparked policymakers in other countries to develop integrated approaches. Impact evaluations in Bangladesh, Colombia, Nepal and India  of programs informed by the Jamaica model are currently underway, which will help policymakers and the development community understand what approaches can work to promote child development in different contexts. Beyond SIEF, the Jamaica study has led to impact evaluations underway or planned in Peru, Brazil, China, Madagascar and Zimbabwe for similar programs.
Older children aren’t being left out. Ongoing education impact evaluations  will help education experts in governments and in development groups better understand the role of teacher incentives in improving teaching and thus learning. SIEF is also evaluating financial versus non-financial incentives and whether gains are sustainable even after the incentives end.
Ultimately, student learning will depend also on how well we educate ourselves when it comes to what works. This evidence is crucial for addressing the needs of the 58 million out of school children and the 250 million children with poor learning outcomes. Keeping children in school and learning is the goal. Rigorous evidence helps countries prioritize what works and implement the right policies. The focus must be on learning and access as we go forward.
Follow the World Bank Group Education Team on Twitter @wbeducation 
- Education