KAMPALA —To improve your economy, first improve your education system. Several years ago, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a series of seminal research papers that clearly linked economic growth to education outcomes.
This compelling data has swirled around policy-making conversations in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) and every finance minister should be familiar with it.
Those studies conclude with a strong prediction: over a 20-year period, a country’s economic growth rate will increase by 5% for every 0.25 standard deviation (SD) improvement on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The path to higher PISA results begins with effective early childhood and primary instruction.
But large learning gains of the kind that could ultimately drive a country up the PISA scale are rare. A comprehensive peer-reviewed analysis of 234 studies of education interventions in LMICs found they had a median effect of 0.1 standard deviation. It labelled those of 0.4 standard deviation “really big” – as only 10% of them hit this mark; although many of those were small-scale studies.
That’s why a new study, Can Education be Standardized? Evidence from Kenya, into the Bridge methodology, led by Professor Michael Kremer of the University of Chicago is so significant. Conducted over two years and including 10,000 pupils from across Kenya, it finds “among the largest learning gains ever measured in international education.”
The groundbreaking study finds impacts 8 to 14 times larger in Bridge schools than the median effect previously identified in international education.
Primary school age pupils gain almost an additional year of learning under the Bridge integrated methodology, learning in two years what their peers learn in nearly three.
For the critical Early Childhood Development (ECD) years, the gains are even bigger. Bridge pupils gained almost an additional year and half of schooling, learning in two years what pupils in other schools learn in three and a half years.
The study explains that, “the test score effects in this study are among the largest observed in the international education literature, particularly for a programme that was already operating at scale”.
But how does being in the top 1% of learning gains measured translate into economic impact? Examining the standard deviation gains alongside research linking education improvement to economic growth, arguably the gains demonstrated in the study could push Uganda – and countries like it – up education league tables to match countries such as Mexico and Peru, with incomes three or four times greater per person.
The evidence shows successful education reforms lead to better economies. But better economic opportunities for individuals are likely the first steps along the path to improving a nation’s economy.
Using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) – measuring the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper – large returns are estimated for improved cognitive skills, approximately 18% higher hourly wages per standard deviation improvement.
The Kremer study found that attending a Bridge school had roughly a 0.90 standard deviation effect on higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving at both the early childhood development (ECD) and primary school levels.
That is over just two years. Apply the learning gains over an entire ECD and primary school career, and the study suggests children taught using these methods could gain 53% more education than their peers in other schools.
It has never been more important to focus on learning outcomes. The World Bank has called the current state of global learning “The most serious crisis in education in 100 years.”
The Bank’s own estimate is that up to 70% of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries could be in “learning poverty” – unable to read and understand a simple text.
The Bridge methodology studied by Professor Michael Kremer and his co-authors show learning outcomes can be improved for all children. The 10,000 students in the study come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, many from homes with no electricity and with dirt or mud floors.
Although all pupils made large learning gains, those starting from the lowest levels gained the most.
The Bridge methodology is data-rich, characterised by an integrated end-to-end system including a digital learning platform, adaptive instructional content, professional development, and 360-degree support. Four years in a row, Bridge pupils have achieved excellent results in the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE).
A clear focus on school management is combined with the use of cellular networks to ensure each school leader has purpose-built applications for school management and instructional leadership, as well as to digitally publish teachers’ lesson guides and additional supporting materials.
This makes core activities within thousands of supported schools and classrooms visible, and supplies data to support decisions made on everything from the deployment of field support staff to lesson design.
Historically, education investment and policy-making were focused on schooling rather than learning. Now, the global community, multilaterals and Western governments are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to improve outcomes in LMICs. But few programmes deliver results at a scale that can hope to tackle the learning crisis.
As Professor Kremer and his co-authors say, “This study shows that attending schools delivering highly standardised education has the potential to produce dramatic learning gains at scale, suggesting that policy-makers may wish to explore incorporation of standardisation, including standardised lesson plans and teacher feedback and monitoring, in their own systems.”
More and more governments in LMICs are looking to improve education outcomes swiftly and on their own terms. Pioneered in Kenya, this integrated approach to teaching and learning is already supporting government teachers and school leaders in countries including Nigeria, Rwanda, India and Liberia. Organizations like the World Bank are noticing the results and supplying additional support – as in the case of the EdoBEST programme in Nigeria’s Edo State.
One million students – 95% of them in public schools – are being taught using the Bridge methodology in this groundbreaking study, with that figure increasing year on year.
The relevance of Professor Kremer’s work for political leaders and policy-makers is clear. When children are better educated, economies benefit significantly. Economic growth follows improved learning, enhancing the opportunities for a nation’s youth, and for the economy’s workforce.
With evidence of an approach to teaching and learning that works at scale, it is time to deliver change by implementing transformational methods like those of Bridge. It is time to focus on education outcomes as never before.