“Knowledge can be global, but solutions must be local” lessons from my conversation with Dzingai Mutumbuka

Written by Marla Spivack

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to sit down for an in-depth conversation with Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, the first Minister of education of Zimbabwe after its independence, a global education leader and (to our great fortune) the chair of the RISE Delivery Board. 

I had already been fortunate enough to benefit from Dr. Mutumbuka’s insights on the global education architecture, through conversations he’d led with the Board. I also knew his thoughts on the most pressing challenge facing education systems today: the prolonged school closures due to COVID-19 and the risks they posed to further exacerbate the learning crisis. But this was the first time I had a chance to ask Dr. Mutumbuka about his experience as an education leader. Our conversation, which was recorded and is available as the first episode in RISE’s new podcast, touched on a range of issues education leaders face: navigating complex political challenges; setting and sticking to clear priorities; building effective, equal partnerships with donors; and leveraging global knowledge to develop local solutions. 

Negotiating complicated politics

We started our conversation with Dr. Mutumbuka’s reflections on leading the new ministry  of education in the newly independent, post conflict Zimbabwe. Black parents, whose children had been excluded from quality education for decades under the apartheid government demanded a swift move towards equity, integration, and inclusion, but at the same time white parents feared that integration would erode the quality of the children’s education. 

Dr. Mutumbuka knew that negotiating these complicated issues would require consultation and coalition building. He started his tenure by meeting with all relevant stakeholders, white parents, black parents, teachers, trade groups, industrial groups. 

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To Increase Girls’ Schooling, Improve Girls’ Learning

written by Michelle Kaffenberger, Danielle Sobol, Deborah Spindelman, Marla Spivack

A new paper shows that girls who are learning are more likely to stay in school. Improving learning could be key to achieving both schooling and learning goals.

The G7 recently agreed to two new education objectives: ensure that 40 million more girls attend school and that 20 million more girls are able to read by 2026. A new RISE working paper suggests good news: that progress on the girls’ learning goal may actually be one of the keys to delivering on the girls’ schooling goal. 

The paper draws on longitudinal quantitative and qualitative data from the Young Lives Surveys in Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam to understand why children drop out of school. The quantitative data reveals a strong link between low learning and later dropout. The qualitative findings reveal that low learning often underlies other, more commonly cited reasons girls drop out such as marriage or work. Girls report seeking ways to provide for their futures, and when it becomes clear that they are learning too little for school to provide future security, they seek other means such as a husband or a job.

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IPP Reflection: It is the journey, not the destination that truly matters

Guest blog written by Deepa Singal

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Participating in the Executive Education program, “Implementing Public Policy” at the Harvard Kennedy School was a dynamic, motivating and humbling experience. Our global cohort consisted of emerging leaders and seasoned policy experts from multiple sectors and countries, all with the shared purpose of making a positive impact in the world. The course was an interactive and intense program, taught by world class faculty and guest lecturers, supported by Harvard case studies, internationally used and validated methods, and relevant and interesting readings. To say it was tremendously educational is an understatement.

While this course would have been pertinent and fascinating any given year, the teachings and lessons underpinning our curriculum were extremely relevant to the complex and unique challenges facing us in our current context. Our cohort partook in this course as the world dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Loss, pain and daily stress prevailed throughout the duration of the course, as thousands of people lost their loved ones to an unknown disease, hundreds of thousands were isolated from their family and friends, and children and parents grappled with the stress of online learning and balancing working from home. Seniors were isolated and alone, businesses closed, livelihoods were lost, and front-line staff desperately tried to keep health care systems across the world from falling apart. In addition to the immediate and unintended consequences of the pandemic, our neighbours in the United States held one of the most important and contentious elections of world’s history, people united and divided over the death of George Floyd and the Black lives movement, and society reckoned with race, misogyny, structural inequalities, and the threat of rapidly spreading misinformation. As the world was in a state of unrest unlike most had seen in their generation, my colleagues were tasked with solving some of the world most pressing policy problems while navigating their own personal lives and loved ones through these unprecedented circumstances. 

While I expected this course to be world class, and the methods and tools to be effective in solving policy challenges, I did not expect the core approach – Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation – and the principles underlying this approach to be applicable to almost all challenges we were facing in this current context of uncertainty and loss. Here are my top three learnings from this journey:

Lesson 1: Problem Driven Iterative Adaption is applicable and generalizable to a wide variety of professional and personal challenges: While I entered the class with a challenge from my professional organization, I quickly changed my case study to my volunteer role as a member of my children’s school COVID-19 task force and board member.

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Better school improvement through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation

Guest blog written by Harry Fletcher-Wood

What do these have in common?

  • Crossrail
  • The Edinburgh Tram
  • The NHS National Programme for IT

All three ran late and overbudget: Crossrail is 3 years late and £2 billion overbudget; the Edinburgh Tram was half-finished 3 years late and £231 million overbudget; the NHS IT programme was abandoned after 10 years and £6 billion. Most big projects exceed their budget – because when people make plans, they are usually optimistic, overconfident, and under pressure to promise success (Flyvbjerg et al., 2018, 11-12). Promising plans pose subsequent problems.

Which brings me to school improvement. How many things did we drop from the School Improvement Plan and professional development programme last year – because unanticipated challenges took precedence? This example is so extreme – so obvious – that it risks undermining my point. The same thing happens every year.  We finish our plan, and – almost immediately – new priorities arise, external pressures shift, colleagues move role. Much of the plan is never fulfilled.

I’ve come to view a long-term plan as a necessary fiction. It may all come off: if it does, I’ll believe in it. I don’t mean we shouldn’t plan or prepare. I mean we should recognise that our foresight is limited: unexpected events will make fulfilling the plan hard; new insights will make us change direction. Planning a series of steps (and expecting they’ll actually happen) prepares us poorly. In this post, I’ll explain why, and suggest a better way to plan school improvement, drawn from development economics.

The problem with big plans and best practice

Consider these events:

When we face a problem, our instinct is often to create a grand plan to solve it: in this case, a multi-million dollar, internationally-supported project. We emulate best practice: we want a world-class case management system. For some challenges – like building schools – this can work. But it doesn’t work for complicated challenges rooted in human behaviour, such as getting multiple judicial agencies to cooperate, or ensuring students experience a great education.

Big plans pursuing best practice make organisations look good (helping them survive). But they neither help them meet their goals, nor build capacity to meet those goals:

Continue reading Better school improvement through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation

To Improve Women’s Lives, Start by Improving Girls’ Education

written by Marla Spivack

By ensuring that all girls are receiving inclusive, effective instruction in well-functioning education systems, we can grow closer to achieving SDG 4’s promise of universal literacy and numeracy and lifelong learning.

Today is International Women’s Day. Among the unprecedented challenges that COVID-19 presents, there are manymanymany issues in women’s lives that deserve urgent attention.  Amid all of those pressing challenges, we should not lose sight of how COVID-19 is affecting today’s girls, who will become tomorrow’s women. 

COVID-19 and girls’ schooling

COIVD-19 has closed schools. According to UNESCO, nearly 1.5 billion children in more than 180 countries were affected by the closures. For girls with access to the internet, this means time spent in front of screens, where too little is known about how the abrupt transition to online learning will affect their progress. But for girls in disadvantaged countries and communities who lack access to the technology that enables remote schooling, school closures have severely curtailed or even completely paused their learning. 

Fortunately, schools are starting to open up again. This is welcome news. But school systems will have to act quickly to help girls catch up from this lost year of learning. Simulations and empirical estimates suggest that when children miss out on time in school, they can continue to fall farther behind after they return unless sufficient attention is paid to ensuring that classroom instruction matches children’s actual, post-lockdown learning levels rather than simply defaulting where the curriculum would have been under business as usual. Education systems need to focus on foundations when schools reopen, assess where students are when schools reopen, provide adequate time for remediation, and streamline curricula so that children don’t fall farther behind when they are back in the classroom

Those are the immediate steps systems can take to help children catch up from this crisis, but the reopening of schools is also the right time to ask: what kind of school systems are girls returning to? 

Even before the pandemic, far too many girls had their future potential stymied by ineffective education systems

The World Bank’s Learning Poverty measure paints a stark picture of the poor quality of the education most children in low- and middle-income countries receive. 53 percent of boys and girls in low- and middle- income countries reach the age of 10 without mastering basic reading skills. In the world’s poorest countries, the figures are even more grim, as Figure 1 shows.

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Working with local governments to improve service delivery in Indonesia

Guest blog written by Karrie McLaughlin

Melayani project in Indonesia

When Indonesia decentralized just over 20 years ago, it did so partly on the promise that bringing services closer to citizens would help to improve them. However, at the same moment that responsibility for the provision of basic public services was shifting to local governments, the nature of those service delivery challenges was itself shifting from improving availability of services to improving access and quality. The logistical tasks of constructing clinic and school buildings and hiring nurses and teachers had largely been completed, and districts are now left looking toward the top of the tree at more difficult problems. This blog examines the MELAYANI – Untangling Problems in Improving Basic Services program to better understand the issues local governments face in dealing with more demanding service delivery challenges, and how they can better be supported in doing so.

Importantly, there is a common element to these more difficult problems—they are complex, context-specific and cannot be solved by one-size-fits-all prescriptions from the central government. The root causes of these problems are multi-faceted and frequently vary from one location to another. As such, they require district governments to play a more active role in identifying, understanding and responding to them.

MELAYANI addressed these challenges by working with local governments to solve service delivery problems of their choice, while testing scalable capacity development approaches and learning about locally-led change. Experiences in the three locations (Bojonegoro, East Java; Kubu Raya, West Kalimantan; and Belu, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT)) are presented in this video.

MELAYANI supported local governments to select the problems that they felt were most important, helping to ensure that they were locally salient. By anchoring analysis in a key issue, rather than a particular sector, it allowed both for more actors to be involved and for the identification and mobilization of new resources. In addition, by providing support to local governments to better understand citizen problems, it provided clearer arguments for policy stability and commitment.

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RISE Launches Interactive Data Visualisations Estimating Long-Term Learning Losses from COVID-19 School Closures

Guest blog written by Carmen Belafi

COVID-19 will exacerbate the learning crisis. Causing schools to close around the world, the pandemic disrupted education as we know it. But the COVID-19 shock to education systems will likely cause severe and long-term learning losses that are far bigger than the ‘mere’ time schools were closed. Learning losses can continue to accumulate after children return to school.

It is important to estimate long-term learning losses

Research following the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan shows how the long-run effects of school closures can compound over time.  When schools closed for 14 weeks following the disaster in Pakistan, learning losses were far more severe. Four years after the earthquake, children were 1.5 years behind their unaffected peers, far more than the 14 weeks of school they originally missed. Learning losses can far exceed the actual school closure time if no mitigating action is taken, multiplying an initial short-term learning loss into significant long-term losses.

The same will be true for COVID-19. Modelling the impact of school closures on children in Grade 3, Michelle Kaffenberger shows how an initial three-month school closure could build up to more than a year’s worth of learning by Grade 10 if no mitigating action is taken. This is because many students had already fallen behind before the pandemic caused schools to close, as curriculum and instruction were too ambitious to have all children keep up. And even school closures themselves will likely exacerbate inequalities—not only because solutions for remote learning vary a lot in quality and effectiveness, but also because students from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not have the same household support and access to remote learning options (especially those that require electricity or internet). Hence, differences in learning based on household characteristics are likely to widen during school closure times.

But the outcomes do not have to be so grim. Combining short-term remediation with long-term reorientation of instruction and curriculum to better align with children’s learning levels not only has the potential to fully mitigate learning losses, but to improve learning outcomes beyond what was to be expected under the ‘business as usual’, counterfactual scenario where the world never experienced COVID-19.

Continue reading RISE Launches Interactive Data Visualisations Estimating Long-Term Learning Losses from COVID-19 School Closures

COVID-19 is Poised to Exacerbate the Learning Crisis, Evidence from Long-term School Closures in Pakistan

written by Marla Spivack

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and of the policies adopted to mitigate its spread will be drastic everywhere and particularly grim in low- and middle-income countries.1 As economies shrink, up to a decade of progress in poverty reduction could be undone. As health systems struggle, millions could go without treatment for preventable infectious diseases and childhood vaccination rates could plummet. And as schools are shuttered, millions of children will fall further behind in school with devastating effects on their outcomes later in life.

A leaky roof is a small problem on a sunny day and a big, urgent problem on a rainy one. The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a rainy day for education systems in low- and middle-income countries, it is a one-hundred-year flood. A new paper from the RISE Pakistan Country Research Team (CRT) shows that children in these countries are especially vulnerable since they are embedded in already dysfunctional education systems. The paper also shows that some of the worst damage to children’s long term learning from these closures may come after schools start up again. If children have fallen behind, they may never catch up even after they return to school.

New study of the learning effects of the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake has important lessons for COVID-19 related school closures

In the paper, RISE Pakistan Team members (Tahir Andrabi of LUMS and Pomona College, and Jishnu Das and Benjamin Daniels of Georgetown University) use a survey conducted four years after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake to measure how the disaster affected children’s learning and other human capital outcomes.

The 2005 earthquake was severe, with an epicenter in the Himalayan region, it registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, caused more than 80,000 deaths, and destroyed the vast majority of infrastructure in the area. As a result, children were out of school in the affected areas for an average of 14 weeks.

The researchers studied the effect of the school closures on children’s learning, and the findings have important implications for how we can expect the COVID-19 related closures to affect learning outcomes for children in education systems with similar constraints to Pakistan’s—and what can be done to mitigate these effects.

If countries reopen to business as usual, short-term school closures can produce outsized, long-run learning loss

The results of the paper add further evidence to the established finding that interruptions to human capital accumulation due to disasters can be severe. In this case, they show that the disaster can leave long-lasting scars on children, even when government interventions compensate households for the shock and facilitate a speedy economic recovery.

Four years after the earthquake, school enrolments had fully rebounded, infrastructure had been rebuilt, household incomes had rebounded, and adult’s health outcomes had returned to pre-quake levels, but children were still suffering the effects of school closures. Test scores of children in the affected areas put them 1.5 to 2 years behind their peers in unaffected. This lost learning could result in children earning 15% less in every year of their adult lives. 

Losses to human capital may well continue to accumulate further after children return to school, if they fall behind and are not able to catch up with the curriculum. Children fall behind, the over-ambitious curriculum races ahead, and children can’t catch up. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Andrabi et al find that school closures accounted for only 10% of the gap in test scores. Much more was lost after children returned to school. This is likely because children fell behind the standard curriculum during the closure period and then failed to catch up. This reinforces findings from RISE work in India which shows that when children fall behind in school they struggle to catch up later, due in part to overambitious curricula.

If steps are not taken to prevent children from falling farther behind when they return to school, the crisis will likely further exacerbate inequalities

Many commentators have noted that COVID is likely to exacerbate inequalities. The findings from the aftermath of the earthquake suggest that long term school closures can reduce inter-generational educational mobility. Andrabi et al found that in the aftermath of the earthquake children with educated mothers were fully able to fully catch up with their peers from unaffected areas. This finding is troubling considering pre-COVID work from the RISE Ethiopia CRT, which shows that first generation learners are already among the most disadvantaged in terms of learning outcomes.

Pedagogical approaches that focus on teaching children where they are will be critical to averting permanent learning deficits

The compounding of learning loss that was seen in the years following the earthquake in Pakistan suggests that assessing children when they return to school and teaching them from where they are will be vital to mitigating the long-term effect of school closures. The effectiveness of approaches like these often called teaching at the right level, have been well established. When they reopen, school systems should leverage approaches like these, and focus on helping children catch up and solidify their basic skills.

Reopening to business as usual would compound the disastrous effects of the COVID related closures. This catastrophe can be avoided if education systems embrace the opportunity to take on systemic changes, as part of their response to the crisis.

Footnotes

1 Incidentally, the May 23 edition also includes a laudatory and well deserved profile of RISE Nigeria CRT PI Leonard Watchekon and RISE implementing partner African School of Economics, which Watchekon founded.

This blog first appeared on the RISE blog.

Charting a new course: Education systems after COVID-19

Written by Dzingai Mutumbuka and Marla Spivack

An ordinary classroom in an African school.

We know that time away from school due to COVID-19 has undermined learning. Children are depending on education leaders – from high level officials to classroom teachers – to start planning now for a new focus on foundational skills. With bold action, and clear focus education systems can mitigate the long term effects of this crisis and set out on a new course towards sustainable improvement in learning. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives and our education systems. Education has been adversely impacted in two significant ways: schools have been closed, in some cases for a whole year; and economic production, the major source of education funding through budgets, has declined precipitously.  In Africa, where there was already a learning crisis characterized by millions of children out of school and for those enrolled completing primary education without minimum competency in literacy – 86% of children reach the end of primary school without basic literacy according to the World Bank – and numeracy, COVID-19 school closures have turned the crisis into a nightmare.

Insights from research on education systems suggest that by making a system-wide commitment to prioritizing foundational skills, assessing children’s learning levels when schools reopen, and adapting instruction to children’s learning levels, education systems can mitigate learning loss and even come back stronger than before.

Several features of the learning crisis set the stage for COVID-19 school closures to severely impact long-term learning outcomes. Learning profiles in African countries are flat, meaning that children acquire little new learning with each additional year in school. Many fail to master foundational skills early on and then struggle to keep up or catch up as the curriculum progresses. For children who learn little during school closures, catching up will be even more challenging. Learning levels in classrooms can vary widely and are likely to likely to increase in the aftermath of COVID-19 closures

COVID-19 closures are also poised to exacerbate learning inequality. The majority of children in African countries do not have access to virtual learning, but those that do are likely to be urban and better off. Better off children are also more likely to have parents who can support and supplement remote learning from the school system.  

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IPP Program Journey: Early Childhood Education in Brazil

Guest blog written by Beatriz Abuchaim

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

Screen Shot 2020-07-30 at 5.04.58 PM

A big headache. It was what I felt in the introductory class at Kennedy School. It was not my first experience at Harvard. I had taken a course in 2018 at Center on the Developing Child, but it didn’t have the same pressure I was feeling as a Public Policy Implementation student. My company was paying for me to be there and Harvard gave me a partial scholarship. While I was listening to Matt introduce the course to us, my painful head did not stop with mixed thoughts: “I should give my best to show I deserve all this investment. I feel so special to represent my country in such a selected group of people. I am worried if I will be able to implement my project”.

When I am overwhelmed with so many feelings my body complains with a migraine. Then I have to stop. It is a way to tell myself: take it easy. Breathe. Calm down. After the first night in pain in Cambridge, I could slow things down. During the week, I felt motivated by the professors and engaged with colleagues. Always feeling exhausted with so many assignments and tasks, but fulfilled. I came back home feeling empowered and secure. And missing my PDIA folks already.

My problem in a few words

Early Childhood Education (ECE) in Brazil currently covers 34% of 0 to 3-year-old population and 93% of 4 to 6-year-old population. These percentages represent eight million children enrolled in ECE.  The public sector is responsible for 70% of enrollments. In the past 10 years,  we have had a significant increase in the number of enrollments, but with budget limitations, so the quality of services may vary quite substantially nationwide. The municipalities, which are responsible for implementing  ECE, are struggling to improve service quality.

Although Early Childhood Education in Brazil has many problems regarding the quality of services, we still do not have a national assessment that could provide data about children’s development and learning environment. Without data, policy managers struggle to plan, improve and make decisions about ECE.

My problem is “lack of systematized information about ECE quality”. Working with PDIA and presenting my fishbone to as many people as I possibly could ended up with 12 causes and 16 subcauses for the problem.

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Here I will present three that were my entry points during this year, in other words, the causes I selected to try to address first:

  1.  The education area has criticisms and resistances about ECE assessment, mainly because the teachers are afraid that the results are used in a negative way: to punish them or stigmatize the children with low results.
  2. Municipal ECE managers are not used to working with data. They do not have access to systematized data, so they did not develop the skills to analyze results and use those to inform policies.
  3. There are no instruments adapted for the Brazilian context. Until now the assessments implemented in the country used translated instruments, which were not totally suitable for ECE in Brazil.

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: Early Childhood Education in Brazil