How to boost student learning in South Asia

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ImageThe Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs)—a set of international targets adopted by the international community last September at the United Nations—recognizes the central role that quality education for all plays in global development.
In South Asian countries, raising the quality of education is already a key policy objective given the development trajectories of these countries and the human capital they need to sustain economic growth.
While school enrollment in South Asia has significantly increased in the last two decades, access to quality education for all remains elusive. A major obstacle to achieving the SDGs by 2030 in South Asia is that vast numbers of children who are in school are not acquiring even basic skills such as reading and numeracy.

Time is of the essence, because education reforms that fix the education quality issue in South Asian countries could provide opportunities for upward mobility to millions of people living in poverty. New avenues of employment, for as many as a million people entering the labor force each month, are opening up.
The question of how to improve learning in schools has remained largely unresolved in the region. Our paper, which is a meta-analysis of 29 studies evaluating the impact of interventions on student learning outcomes, has several key findings that may be useful to South Asian policymakers.

We found that the most promising measures that have worked to raise student learning are:   

  • Supplementary remedial teaching by community volunteers;
  • The introduction of publicly funded private primary schools;
  • Revised English curricula;
  • School management structures; and
  • Training/support services for community members.
One striking policy implication is that demand-side interventions targeting either individual households, children or families help raise student attendance and enrollment but have less impact on learning. However, supply-side interventions targeting teachers and schools seem generally more.
Another key observation is that combining resources with behavior-change incentives both increase enrollment and positively affect test scores.  Input-oriented interventions are more effective when they are bundled with incentives tailored to local conditions.  Finally, interventions that involve whole communities in holding public service providers accountable have been successful in South Asia. 
Overall, the results of the meta-analysis are very consistent with the findings from other regions. For instance, McEwan (2015) reviews 77 interventions and confirms that supply-side interventions generally are a more efficacious way for improving learning outcomes and is also cautious about demand-side intervention impacts that rely solely on monetary resources.
Nevertheless, there are instances where education-related interventions have had different impacts in South Asia and other parts of the developing world. One of these might be the effectiveness of reforming school management or supervision. While evidence on this topic is scarce for South Asia, our meta-analysis indicates a larger impact on learning outcomes of these types of interventions than does McEwan’s.
The study compares the relative effectiveness of education-related interventions in South Asia, generating a combined estimate of impact of interventions across studies and contexts.  The 29 rigorous impact evaluations that we examined each had one or more education-related interventions implemented in at least one South Asian country with clearly-defined outcome measures (enrollments, attendance, test scores). Impacts on test scores are available for 27 of these studies.
Additionally, the studies included in the review had to either follow a randomized controlled trial or quasi-experimental design with a carefully selected control group. The impact estimates had to have been reported in transparent standardized fashion for comparability.
To interpret the results, we develop an actor-based framework to classify these studies into four main groups: on the supply side we distinguish between interventions targeting teachers and schools and on the demand side between interventions aimed at households or communities. The meta-analysis estimates the impact of these interventions on children overall test scores, native-language scores and mathematics scores for each of the four sub-groups.  
In the group targeting teachers, the most promising intervention is supplementary remedial teaching which shows the largest impacts on Mathematics scores. For interventions targeting schools, public funding of private primary schools and revised English curriculum stand out as the most effective with large gains in combined Mathematics and English scores.  In contrast, demand-side interventions that target children, households or families have only weak impacts on native language, mathematics or overall test scores. 
While evidence on community related-interventions is relatively scarce, our meta-analysis finds larger impacts of interventions targeting whole communities on learning outcomes. For instance, the program to establish school management structures accompanied with training and support services for communities increased Mathematics scores significantly (0.22 standard deviations) in Sri Lanka. Results are summarized in Table 1 below:  

Table 1: Summary of Results of the Meta-Analyses
Notes: o means no significant effect; (+) effect smaller than 0.05 s.d.;
+ effect between 0.05 and 0.15 s.d.; and ++ effect between 0.15 and 0.25 s.d.
A meta-analysis of community-focused interventions on overall learning outcomes is impossible because
​only one intervention falls into this category.
Source: World Bank staff calculations

Our meta-analysis has been possible because South Asia has been at the forefront of a new analytical movement, with a growing body of empirical evidence on the impact of innovative interventions (usually native language and math test scores) on learning. However, some standard caveats are in order.  Evidence on many important interventions is still relatively scarce—e.g. on incentives to learn, increases in school choice and promotion of non-state education. While current analysis has helped us disaggregate by actor, we lack enough studies to conduct a meta-analysis on specific interventions such as the impact of volunteer teachers versus incentives to learn for children.  
South Asia is ahead of other developing regions in terms of the quantity and quality of education-related impact evaluations, with researchers paying close attention to common methodological fails and biases. Today, the region enjoys a unique opportunity to harness this knowledge for evidence-based policy making—and also to continue to gather rigorous evidence on program impacts.
Follow the World Bank Group education team on  Twitter  and  Flipboard .
Read about other  impact evaluations on education .


Amit Dar

Director of Strategy and Operations for Eastern and Southern Africa

Robert S. Chase

Practice Manager, Practice Manager for Social Protection and Jobs

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