Fourteen years of civil war shattered Liberia’s school buildings. Windows were smashed, desks burned for firewood, and violence drove students and teachers into refugee camps that spilled across borders. An entire generation of children grew up with little or no schooling.
“Liberia’s educational system was deficient before the war, but what was left afterwards was just in shambles,” Julia Richards, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development education team in Liberia, told Devex.
In 2003, a United Nations and African regional coalition brokered peace between the warring parties, and Liberia began to rebuild. But half a decade later, a broken education system remained, offering a stark reminder of the war’s legacy.
Amid the reconstruction, RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute and long-time USAID partner, began a new push to elevate education.
The Early Grade Reading Assessment, which RTI developed with support from USAID and the World Bank, offered a new approach to focusing attention on the persistent problem of poor learner performance in low-income countries: Treat illiteracy like a public health problem and track progress toward eradicating it.
Beginning in November 2008 under the USAID-funded EGRA Plus project, RTI researchers randomly divided 180 Liberian public schools into three groups — one that received full literacy programming, one that received limited programming, and another that did not receive any support.
Results proved compelling. Students in schools that participated in the full program outperformed their peers by a wide margin, acquiring the equivalent of three years of schooling in just one year.
A number of enthusiastic government officials took up the cause. Mator Kpangbai, former deputy minister for instruction, dubbed himself the “deputy minister for reading,” recalled Richards.
With that support, schools elevated reading to a prominent position in the curricula; instead of devoting little or no time each day to teaching reading, teachers structured lesson plans to include a substantial amount of it.
While EGRA Plus ended in 2010, RTI is continuing its work to improve early grade reading in Liberia under the Liberia Teacher Training Program II. Led by FHI 360 and again funded by USAID, LTTP II has scaled up reading efforts to a national campaign and is helping Liberia reach its goal of all its children reading by Grade 3. Under LTTP, RTI is overseeing the rollout of training and support for teachers to follow new reading and math instructional models that build on lessons from EGRA Plus.
Toward a paradigm change in education
Based in part on RTI’s success in Liberia and in consideration of the results from the 60 or so countries where EGRA has been applied, the U.S. government has embraced a research-led approach to putting better reading tools in teachers’ hands.
The current prominence of the EGRA reading assessment and outcomes methodology in U.S.-supported programs abroad also points to a broader shift in international education policy, which data-driven assessments like EGRA have helped to spark.
After decades of donor programs focused primarily on providing access to schooling, an approach some argue led to overcrowded classrooms and overtaxed teachers, USAID has now established improved reading as the number one goal of its overall education assistance program.
The agency’s current five-year education strategy has set the ambitious goal to improve reading outcomes for 100 million children by 2015.
Similarly, other members of the international community have expanded efforts beyond just getting children signed up for school: Increasingly, the focus should be on learning, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in his global education strategy last year.
That paradigm change would not have been possible without the data to measure impact and to rally political support around identifiable and achievable targets.
For the longest time, “we didn’t have the numbers,” said Amber Gove, RTI’s director for teaching and learning, and member of the team that developed EGRA.
“Everybody was able to rally around primary completion and primary universal enrollment,” she noted, citing the Millennium Development Goals, which are meant to boost primary school enrollment, among other objectives. “We didn’t even have a consensus around how to talk about quality learning levels.”
But that conversation has changed in the last few years, and EGRA — along with other assessments like it — were part of that transformation, pointed out Gove.
These initiatives have helped to document abysmal indications of a global education system in crisis, and in so doing provide a firm evidence base for education advocates and policymakers to argue for reading and literacy campaigns.
A focus on results
EGRA exemplifies a central Obama administration mandate, set forth in a 2010 presidential policy directive, to put innovation and impact at the forefront of U.S. development efforts, said Melinda Taylor, RTI’s vice president for international education.
And a focus on teaching the world’s youngest readers makes sense, suggested Benjamin Piper, RTI chief of party of the Primary Math and Reading initiative in Kenya.
When education initiatives focus on students at the secondary or tertiary level, only those who have made it thus far through the educational system benefit, he said. The students who access higher levels of education are often socio-economically better off.
“If you don’t get to the fundamental problem early, you’re going to focus investment on those who are least in need,” Piper said.
The “fundamental problem,” he explained, is a lack of basic reading skills that obstructs progress at higher grades. The problem is compounded when parents and students look at a lack of progress and question the value of school attendance in the first place.
In developing countries, families weigh the option of school attendance against other pressing obligations like farming, labor or tending to household chores. In some places, a long walk to school or hostile class environment may put girls at risk of abuse. And when learning falls off, so do parents’ incentives to have their children spend the entire day away from home or work.
RTI’s programs focus on giving teachers the tools — in the language of instruction — to help students become better readers. When kids show improvement in reading, their parents find greater value in sending them to school and investing their limited resources in paying for their education.
The primary focus, said Piper, is giving teachers the tools they need to thrive. That means helping teachers achieve the kinds of early results that can help sustain a multi-year reading campaign, like the one Piper has helped administer in Kenya.
There, RTI’s USAID-funded PRIMR program is being implemented in the context of language diversity. Kenya has 68 languages, including the co-official languages of Kiswahili and English, which is a reflection of the country’s diverse population. But that is a reality that EGRA was specifically designed to accommodate. Rigorous analysis of each language’s most frequently used sounds and words allowed the assessments to uncover reading comprehension gaps and prompted RTI’s researchers to produce specifically-tailored learning materials for use in classrooms. As of 2013, PRIMR had developed literacy materials in four languages across Kenya.
And the results are promising: The proportion of Kenyan children who can read has increased by 100 percent or more, according to Piper. Students in the randomly selected schools that implemented PRIMR are two to three times as likely to be able to read after only a few months of the intervention.
But the real evidence that EGRA data and RTI’s programs are helping to turn the tide on education is in the demand they are generating, noted Piper.
Egypt has taken a reading program developed under the RTI-led Girls’ Improved Learning Outcomes project and turned it into its own national program. In Liberia and Kenya, parents are taking kids from struggling schools to schools that have adopted a reading-focused approach. Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda and Indonesia are all now also benefiting from RTI’s evidence-based support for learning improvement.
“There’s real power in data,” Piper said. “All these designs are organized to reflect and respond to data, to become fast-moving programs to see what’s going well and not going well and respond.”
“Teachers are capable and they’re willing, they just need more technical support and some interaction with other like-minded people to help them do it,” he added.
RTI’s programs seek to answer one question: How do you help teachers improve learning in an environment where they oversee classrooms with large numbers of children by themselves? An approach which focuses on assessment, research, data and local adaptability has helped drive answers.
“This is a really hopefully field,” Piper said. “We used to be a little behind on being evidence-based. Now we’ve gotten ahead. We’re able to see what’s working and what’s not and help teachers to respond better.”