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What does research on education systems look like? A run-down of the RISE 2016 conference

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This blog post is co-authored with Lee Crawfurd and Daniela Scur.
“How can education systems be reformed to deliver better learning for all?”

That’s the fundamental question behind the program for Research on Improving Systems in Education (RISE). Last week, we attended RISE’s 2016 conference. Given all the evidence of a learning crisis in schools in low- and middle-income countries and that more inputs won’t solve it, the RISE conference sought to bring together new evidence on four crucial ingredients to quality education: teachers, school governance, the political economy of education systems, and – of course – measurement. Here’s the conference program, with links to many of the papers and presentations.
Beyond those, there was a panel on how to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for education, and sneak previews of a few RISE-funded evaluations.
Here’s a quick sample of what we saw:
What do teachers know and do? Comparable data from 7 African countries show strikingly low learning levels for teachers: Fewer than 10 percent of primary teachers had a minimum knowledge in language. And beyond, 20 percent absence from school, teachers who were at school were absent from the classroom an additional 45 percent of the time (Bold et al.).
Initial information (a report card of how your school is doing) + expert coaching improved use of class time for instruction by about 0.3 standard deviations in Brazil. It was also pretty cheap (Bruns, Costa & Cunha). RCT
STiR Education seeks to raise intrinsic motivation of teachers in India by setting up professional development networks for teachers. RCT is ongoing, but the big challenge measuring motivation in a way that’s not obviously gameable. (Abraham et al.)
Enormous resources go into in-service teacher training, but teacher training programs vary enormously both in form and in effectiveness. Popova, Evans, & Arancibia propose the In-service Teacher Training Survey Instrument (ITTSI) to consistently capture the nature of these programs (paper; slides).
School governance
Providing information to parents and communities positively influences the work of school management committees, and it leads to more furniture/infrastructure expenditure but no short term changes in test scores (Asim et al.) RCT in Pakistan
School monitoring in India results in reams of gathered data but very little of it is analyzed, much less used, potential due to (1) a lack of autonomy of those monitoring and (2) incoherence in the institutional structure and norms at this level of the bureaucracy (Bhatty).
A review of 26 impact studies on school-based decision making suggests that there are beneficial effects on drop outs and on test scores, in both cases only for middle-income countries. Studies from low income countries suggest effects in wealthier or more education communities (Carr-Hill, Rolleston, and Schendel; slides).
School management is associated with better student performance in Ugandan secondary schools. What we don’t understand is why some schools are better managed than others (Crawfurd).
Political economy
Kingdon presented a political economy analysis of education in India. Teacher efforts is low, with absenteeism highest among the most educated and best paid teachers. Test score swing wildly from year to year, depending on the party in power, suggesting shifts in administration rather than knowledge.
Managing the politics of quality reforms in education is difficult but crucial. We can learn something from Latin America over the past decade, where several governments have put together political coalitions -- of parents, NGOs and the business community -- that made it possible to adopt major reforms of teacher policy that were previously thought impossible (Bruns and Schneider).
In South Africa, “low expectations and unprofessional conduct contribute to fragmented and dysfunctional engagement,” but “some schools do improve when expectations are high and the school cares.” This can happen as resources, values, and accountability mechanisms are all defined for leaders, teachers, and parents (Mc Lennan and Dale-Jones).
What can developing countries learn from the U.S. experience with value-added models of teacher and school quality? Although controversial and imperfect, they contain new information. A good place to start is where a test already exists – e.g., an official primary or secondary test (Chaplin).
Non-cognitive skills – like grit – are malleable and predict life outcomes, but “the excitement about this topic has outpaced the research” and “no one has a good way to measure these at a large scale.” Jackson’s work on this front is promising (Kautzreport; slides).
In systematic review of education, Carr-Hill, Rolleston, and Schendel argue that meta-analysis is particularly problematic because test scores are not comparable unless they’re designed to be so, and different populations mean standard deviations are not so standard (per McKenzie’s and Singh’s blog posts). 
“School management structures are crucial to understand `what works’ in improving education systems.” Lemos and Scur propose an expanded survey instrument – building on Bloom et al. – adapted to low- and middle-income countries.
Meeting the education SDGs
Justin Sandefur showed data on how schooling far from guarantees literacy. Current projections of the cost – from UNESCO – suggest that it would take “$20-25 billion over current aid levels” to reach universal primary and secondary of moderate quality. But that makes a linear assumption? Is that level of financing really necessary, and is financing the principal bottleneck?
Robin Horn signaled how early child education (ECE) can prepare children for the future, but – interestingly – showcased the work by FSG in Mumbai showing that what parents want from ECE is basically “grade school earlier,” expecting homework and exams.
Deon Filmer and Halsey Rogers laid out plans for the upcoming 2018 World Development Report on Realizing the Promise of Education for Development. Notably, they highlighted that the learning crisis is not limited to low-income countries, with average learning in many middle-income countries falling short of low performers in the OECD. At the same time, the last two decades have seen the evidence base on how to improve education quality mushroom: The report will explore how to put this knowledge into place, among other things.
New, RISE-funded evaluations
In Tanzania, the research objective is to analyze the “Big Results for Education Now” reform that covers initiatives in increased transparency, incentives, training support and improving teacher conditions to understand how such a big reform was politically feasible and whether and how it is working to improve learning.
Three more country research projects got a sneak preview and will go live soon.
A version of this post will be cross-posted on the RISE blog.


David Evans

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

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