Building Back Better: Accelerating learning when schools reopen, and what Kenya’s Tusome program can teach us

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Building Back Better: Accelerating learning when schools reopen, and what Kenya’s Tusome program can teach us

As countries grapple with the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on learning loss, dropout rates, and inequity, they must simultaneously determine how to reopen schools safely. However, if countries move quickly to support continued learning, they can mitigate the damage and even turn recovery into acceleration. These policy responses provide an opportunity for education systems to not only recover, but not replicate the mistakes of the past. Countries now have an opportunity to build back better, and may consider the lessons from successful interventions, like Tusome, to build the basis for long-term improvements in ensuring students are equipped with the basic skills to succeed.

When it comes to education interventions, every policymaker is out to find the “holy grail:” a rigorously evaluated pilot, which improved student outcomes and is scalable. Kenya’s Tusome Early Grade Reading Activity embodies some of these qualities. A collaboration between Kenya’s Ministry of Education, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by RTI International, the Tusome activity builds upon the interventions developed and piloted through the Primary Mathematics and Reading (PRIMR) initiative. Tusome includes “ingredients” that have been found to be most effective in improving student literacy outcomes, including: i) teacher professional development and reinforcement visits from coaches, ii) literacy textbooks given to students on a 1:1 student-to-textbook ratio, and iii) structured teacher guides that help teachers’ execute the lesson and are aligned to their students’ textbooks. These ingredients work together to create a culture of good practice and accountability – not only at a school level, but at a system level. Single ingredients, though, do not make the cake. Our team conducted a field visit to Tusome to learn more about the driving factors behind the success of the program. This success is predicated on the government’s willingness to enact reforms and innovate for change – here our top five lessons from the visit:

  1. Use pilot results to build political capital for reform. To garner buy-in from the Ministry and instill government ownership during the PRIMR pilot, the RTI team arranged site visits with members from all levels of the Ministry to observe the pilot program in action. These visits, compounded with the positive results from the pilot, helped create ‘champions’ within the Ministry, securing the political backing needed to adopt Tusome and implement it at scale.

  2. Create simple materials that are easy to implement. Teachers were given teachers’ guides with structured lesson plans aligned to the textbooks their students’ received, which helped improve their instruction and facilitate teacher buy-in from the start of the program. These guides follow a consistent instructional method (i.e. “I do, we do, you do”) and were designed to fit within a 30-minute lesson, making them straightforward and easy to follow. Lastly, the guides are lightweight and strongly bound, so that they can be used daily and transported frequently without falling apart.

  3. Give coaches the time and resources needed to support teachers. Government pedagogical support officers, known as Curriculum Support Officers (CSOs), were given the time and resources to visit schools regularly, observe teachers’ lessons, and provide constructive feedback on their instructional practice. Previously, CSOs were primarily responsible for administrative tasks. The Ministry reallocated CSOs to technical activities to carry out these tasks so that CSOs could focus on supporting teachers. CSOs were also given a tablet with coaching materials and were supported by RTI education officers and county-level technical leaders. The CSOs observed teachers in the classroom and provided real-time feedback to teachers once a month. They also encouraged peer-based support among teachers, which created communities of learning. The RTI education officers and county-level education officers observed CSOs in their coaching sessions for teachers to help them improve the quality of their coaching and to transform their role squarely to instructional support.

  4. Give every child a high-quality, age-appropriate textbook. The Tusome program invested heavily to develop a set of high-quality, age-appropriate textbooks – and put them in the hands of every child. A complementary and closely linked set of Teacher’s Guides were also developed (for example, each lesson of the Teacher’s Guide has embedded in it a picture of the corresponding page in the student textbook). As part of their observations, the CSOs also checked to ensure that each child had a textbook, in hand, during class. CSOs also had access to buffer stocks when and if individual schools did not have sufficient books. This impressive feat was made possible by reforms that streamlined the procurement and distribution process. These efforts resulted in a 75% reduction in book costs and more efficient printing and distribution, making it possible to ensure the books actually made it into the hands of every student.

  5. Use real-time data to monitor the quality of implementation and create a system of accountability. The CSO’s tablets not only contained coaching materials, they function as a means for CSOs to collect student assessment and teacher observational data. These tablets also enable policymakers to monitor whether coaches actually conduct their allocated visits. These data are automatically stored in a cloud-based platform that generates a monthly report, which policymakers use to monitor whether CSOs conduct classroom visits and provide travel reimbursements for those who do. This information affords policymakers the means to monitor variations in performance at the school and district level, which can then be used to improve teaching training and classroom teaching practices.

What’s Next for Tusome?

Since 2014, Tusome has provided English and Kiswahili textbooks to all students in grades 1-3, trained every lower primary school language teacher on reading pedagogies, and provided CSOs with the tools and skills to support teachers. Yet, there is no guarantee it will continue to boost such high learning outcomes without continuous funding from USAID and implementation support from RTI. The program is scheduled to be transitioned to full Ministry leadership this year.

Alongside Tusome was the Ministry-led Early Grade Mathematics (PRIEDE) project. PRIEDE also scaled up an intervention piloted by the PRIMR initiative, but differed from Tusome in that it focused on early grade mathematics. PRIEDE also differed from Tusome in that it was rolled out without the support of an external implementing partner. Despite these differences, PRIEDE operated at the same scale as Tusome, and provided in-service training and regular pedagogical supervision and support to 60,000 teachers across the country, reaching 1.3 million pupils through improved classroom instruction, and benefiting 6 million pupils through the provision of improved early grade mathematics textbooks. Preliminary results of PRIEDE point to a 5% improvement in student numeracy proficiency from end line survey results (81.9%) compared to the midline results (76.6%).

PRIEDE had many of the same ‘ingredients’ as Tusome. Like Tusome, the PRIMR pilot was key for garnering political buy-in for PRIEDE. The intervention also utilized CSOs as a medium to deliver feedback and provided teachers with guides and complementary student textbooks. However, PRIEDE has not boasted as robust of effects on student learning as Tusome. There are several reasons that help account for this difference. First, Tusome hired staff trained by RTI to train and support CSOs alongside of government supervisors, whereas PRIEDE utilized Ministry staff only. Second, CSOs were reimbursed for conducting literacy classroom observations by Tusome, whereas the CSOs did not receive their reimbursements as consistently through PRIEDE. The challenges PRIEDE faced point to the need for implementation fidelity and a well-functioning mechanism for course correction in order to ensure that essential ingredients can work cohesively together.

How is the World Bank Learning from These Programs?

Tusome, like Sobral, presents a strong case for how a country can tackle learning poverty. These cases exemplify the success that is possible when teachers are equipped with the tools and support needed to effectively teach for literacy, when schools and children have access to age- and skill-appropriate texts, and when there is political and technical commitment to measure and set goals for learning. Interventions that include these components have been shown to improve literacy outcomes, and are at the core of the World Bank’s recently launched learning target and complementary Literacy Policy Package.

To accelerate student learning and eradicate learning poverty, the World Bank is developing the Coach program as part of the Literacy Policy Package. Coach is a forthcoming in-service teacher professional development program that aims to move away from a traditional focus on inputs (e.g. number of teachers trained, number of credit hours awarded) and focus on how coaches and other school leaders can provide evidence-based support to teachers. For a quick introduction to Coach, watch our recent Innovations to Transform Teaching event.

The COVID-19 crisis is amplifying the pre-existing global learning crisis, but presents also a unique opportunity for countries to learn from programs like Tusome and PRIEDE as they design their crisis-recovery strategies. Likewise, our goal is to not reinvent the wheel but learn from existing programs to inform how Coach can best support teachers.

If you know of a coaching program that: i) has helped to improve the way teachers’ teach and deliver existing content, ii) could inform our work on Coach, and iii) is willing share their experiences and/or materials, please reach out to us at [email protected]. By building on one another’s work, we’ll reach our goal of improved in-service teacher professional development and be better positioned to provide global public goods that can best serve in-service teacher professional development systems in low- and middle-income countries around the world.

A special thanks to Ruth Charo, Gemma Todd, Girma Woldetsadik, Ben Piper, and Jessica Mejia for their insightful contributions to this blog.

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