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By R4D’s Caitlin Moss and Tarek Chehidi and Raky Gassama-Coly and Shem Bodo of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA)
Across the globe, we’re facing a learning crisis — 617 million children, adolescents, and youth who are in school are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading or math. In sub-Saharan Africa, 85 percent of children in school are not mastering these foundational skills. In East Africa, “literacy and numeracy skills are generally low, vary between countries, and show no clear signs of progress over the last five years.” And in Francophone Africa, almost 60 percent of students do not reach sufficient competency in language or mathematics by the end of primary school.
How and why is the world facing such widespread challenges when it comes to learning quality? And what can we do to help address them? How do we prepare our students to become the future workforce? What can we do differently to translate the continental vision of young people as drivers of innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa? At the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), Results for Development (R4D), and the World Bank, these are some of the questions that we have been asking ourselves.
Serious underinvestment in the education sector’s knowledge-sharing and global public goods (GPGs) is one contributing cause of this crisis. The Education Commission’s 2016 Learning Generation report found that only 3 percent of all official development assistance to education supports GPGs, compared to 21 percent in health. A new report by the Education Commission, Teach For All, the Boston Consulting Group, Asia Society, the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), and R4D, called Investing in Knowledge-Sharing to Advance SDG4, builds on this work by highlighting criteria to guide more and better investment in effective knowledge-sharing.
Related Resource: Investing in Knowledge Sharing to Advance SDG4
This report presents a fresh approach for understanding knowledge sharing in education.
At the Investing in Knowledge-Sharing report launch in late September, BHP Foundation, Omidyar Network, the Education Commission, and others issued a powerful call to action to look beyond investment only in individual innovations, to global public goods, capacity development, and networks — or as one panelist put it — to “the connective tissue and enabling environment” needed to make progress in education. So, what investments are needed, and where do we go from here?
Our answer: we need to invest more in the capacity of education ministries as a long-term, sustainable way to improve learning outcomes. In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, many education ministries perform unevenly and operate with limited capacity to handle large, complex education systems that are also decentralized and fragmented. Making progress in these systems demands both technical know-how and the soft skills required to lead, coordinate and change course as needed. But ministry leaders struggle to achieve alignment towards the goal of learning and can’t translate policies into action. Key ministry capacity gaps include project management, mobilizing key stakeholders, and team and talent management, including teacher training. Capacity development support provided to ministries in African countries has historically been ill-suited to their needs, for several reasons.
Although building institutional capacity may be important in the long-term, education ministries often put time, energy and limited resources towards reaching shorter-term goals. Many also face a low-accountability and politicized administrative culture that prevents alignment towards learning. The capacity support that does come to ministries is often provided through donors and is closely connected to donor goals instead of ministry needs, and focused on the “what” of policy rather than the “how” of implementation.
Perhaps most strikingly, while education ministries account for a large proportion of civil servants and bureaucracies in most countries, capacity development for them is sorely underfunded when compared other sectors such as finance, economics, health, and agriculture. As UNESCO put it, underinvestment is not limited to data and research – in fact, funding needs are higher for the function of “sustained technical support to countries to help build national capacity, especially through peer learning mechanisms at the regional level and related networks.”
Even amid these challenges, many individuals within education ministries are working hard to undertake learning-oriented reforms, as shown in bright spots such as Mozambique’s improved procurement processes for learning materials, resulting in a 17 percent reduction in workbook production unit costs from 2011 to 2015, Kenya’s Tusome national literacy program, which improved reading outcomes through in-service teacher training, and Senegal’s SIMEN project, which uses an integrated information system to improve the country’s education management, encourage widespread use of ICT at the school level, and improve teaching and learning. More support, with greater emphasis on aligning policies and institutions, is needed so that education ministries can continue similar learning-oriented reforms.
Education civil servants need better support and ways to accelerate progress. If we hope to drive meaningful, system-wide and system-deep change for learning, we cannot perpetuate the status quo of underinvestment and inadequate education ministry support. A new model of better, longer-term, country-driven, peer-to-peer learning is needed.
With the Investing in Knowledge-Sharing criteria in mind, ADEA, R4D, the World Bank, and other partners have been working to design a new way for ministries to share their learning and accelerate reform implementation, called the Leadership for Education Administration and Delivery Network, or the LEAD Network, for short. While all sixteen of the report’s criteria apply to LEAD, below we focus on how the first four, on effective knowledge-sharing, will guide this initiative.
The LEAD Network follows criteria for effective knowledge-sharing because it:
1. Integrates global public goods, capacity development, and networks to create actionable solutions and sustained impact.
As a network focused on providing capacity development and both using and producing global public goods, LEAD will bring together education ministry teams from different countries to learn from and support one another as they confront shared implementation challenges in real time on their paths to making progress towards learning. The LEAD Network will both leverage existing global public goods and create new ones. To inform and contextualize participants’ challenges and potential solutions, LEAD will bring in existing research, knowledge, and tools — whether education sector analysis, systems-relevant research, or synthesis of the education research and knowledge base in Africa. And by supporting ministry teams to surface their own technical, political, and managerial experiences and lessons learned in navigating these challenges, LEAD will help capture and disseminate practitioners’ how-to knowledge and co-developed solutions as global public goods.
2. Will accelerate progress towards learning by centering the perspectives and tacit knowledge of government civil servants who are responsible for, and grappling with, implementation challenges in real time.
To build a body of solutions and tools relevant to education reformers, we need to recognize the expertise that they already have in policymaking, technical content, and administration of education reforms, and target the relative gaps that exist, for example, in management, soft skills, and implementation. In contrast to traditional fly-in / fly-out models of technical assistance, and because implementation challenges are often managerial and political, LEAD’s collaborative learning approach recognizes that ministry teams are themselves experts who are best placed to define and unpack challenges and develop solutions. In this way, LEAD will help education reform implementers make their tacit knowledge explicit and surface insights relevant to reformers in other countries, and in the process, create global public goods.
3. Aims to catalyze a stronger education ecosystem by leveraging and building on what already exists, especially the efforts of regional partners and national resource centers.
Rather than create parallel or competing education infrastructure, LEAD will use existing fora, including ADEA’s Inter-Country Quality Nodes (ICQNs), to bring ministry teams together. As cross-country peer learning groups that reinforce capacity, ICQNs bring ministry teams, practitioners and development actors from across the continent together to exchange knowledge, education policy best practices and shared implementation challenges. ADEA’s existing ICQNs, which focus on topics including teaching, learning and assessment, literacy and national languages, technical and vocational skills development, mathematics and science education and more, are housed within ministries in national resource centers and institutions (including, for example, CEMASTEA in Kenya). LEAD also holds the potential to complement and collaborate with other initiatives, including the Education Commission’s work to strengthen the education workforce and improve education delivery, and the Global Partnership for Education’s initiative to strengthen national education systems through knowledge and innovation exchange. By bringing a peer-to-peer, collaborative learning approach to partnerships and fora that are already country-driven and owned, the LEAD Network will help strengthen the existing regional and global architecture in education.
4. Is designed with a sufficiently long-term time frame for countries to make progress in implementing reforms and improving learning outcomes.
Traditional capacity development efforts have historically sought short-term solutions to what is fundamentally a long-term challenge of sustainably bolstering education ministries. High-performing low- and middle-income country experience shows that a sustained focus on a few key areas of reform can minimize the burden on agencies with limited capacity, allowing them to learn by doing and yield substantial gains. Similar to the role that the 10-year-old Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage plays in the health sector, LEAD is designed to provide support to education ministries that is long-term, country-driven, and systemic, rather than short-term, donor-driven, and piecemeal. And like the JLN, the LEAD Network will only grow its membership and activities based on country demand. To ensure an adequate time frame for progress in identifying shared challenges, creating solutions, and adapting and implementing those solutions in-country, LEAD will use a three-year window for investment and for measuring progress against a learning agenda set by participating ministries.
To make progress against the learning crisis, it’s clear that we need a paradigm shift to tackle long-term, entrenched challenges in education. The criteria put forth in Investing in Knowledge-Sharing to Advance SDG4 have informed our thinking as we’ve designed the LEAD Network as one new way to address these challenges. As we continue to build out this approach to support education ministries, we welcome your reflections, suggestions and engagement in the comments below.