Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Education & citizen surveys

@oso had asked for some information on the impact of things like Uwezo which I had promised to post something on, and @BinyavangaW also posted a recent rip-roaring series of tweets on "Generation Privatisation" which included this.

I don't know the details of Uwezo's own impact evaluation (although given the quality of their funders, they will have something in place).  But very happy to share some more info on the impact of these types of citizen-based initiatives.

Uwezo itself is based on a precedent-setting exercise called ASER which was started in India in 2005.  ASER is a remarkable platform - an annual, NGO-led survey of actual learning levels in every district and block in India.  Their statistical approach is solid, and they are often able to penetrate parts of the country that the state itself approaches with caution.  If you're interested in quality of education in India, or social inequity, their annual surveys are a must-read.

Ok, so far so nice - so what's the impact been?

ASER was catalytic when it first came out because it showed that in spite of all the rhetoric around education, and govt spending on it, children were actually learning bugger all.  And, quelle surprise, the poorest, most disadvantaged children were worst off.

They weren't the first to point this out (Lant Pritchett was asking similar questions back in the mid-late 1990s).  But prior to ASER's sustained spotlight, these discussions remained in the realm of expert esoterica and the hallowed realms of "policymakers".

The ASER surveys brought it front-and-centre to the public realm.  And not just in an anecdotal case-study way.  But in a systematic, statistically serious way.  Where the quality of the data-analysis could not be ignored or disputed away.

This was echoed and picked up by many.  Cutting a long story short, this has been instrumental in getting the education sector focused on outcomes, not just outputs (the latter incidentally often play to vested political economies).  Are children learning - that's the key point.  And are the children who are the most disadvantaged, and therefore who would benefit the most, learning - or is it just their better-off peers who are accelerating further and further away?

The upshot of this has been that there is a much greater focus now on quality of education.  "Education goals" are being replaced (or certainly at the least complemented) by "learning goals".  See here for a proposal for "Millennium Learning Goals" from CGD, see here for a "Global Compact for Learning" from Brookings, see here for the incorporation of quality into the most recent incarnation of the multilateral Global Partnership for Education, see here for USAID's increased emphasis on learning.  There are plenty of others.

Now, many many folks have been involved in this struggle to focus on quality.  So there is no way you can attribute this to any single person or organisation.  But, if you talk to people who have been involved in this struggle, the ASER reports are universally cited as a major reference point by person after person in paper after paper.

So, job done?  Well hardly!  Just because the topic of quality is now being spoken of by many, does not mean that quality is being delivered.

In fact, far from it - NOW is when initiatives like ASER, Uwezo (and comparables being done in West Africa, and perhaps even in Latin America) become vital watchdogs - they're fundamentally necessary to check whether all this talk is actually translating to substantive results on the ground, or is just that most favourite commodity of politicians (and large swathes of the private, public, philanthropic and non-profit sectors): hot air.

(As an example, see here for a geeky paper on the incredible diversity of learning levels within public education systems - and see here for commentary from India on the perverse effects of a recent "right to education" act that govt passed which overlooked quality...).

Oh, the multilaterals themselves do talk about monitoring (see here or here for examples).  But their monitoring remains an ivory tower discussion among the technocratic anti-politics machine that is development.

Change happens through dynamic, contested processes on the ground.  This is where citizen based movements are vital.  But they need to be authentic, embedded in their cause and frankly autonomous of funders & govts.  They will - eventually - be accountable to their own public, who will vote with their feet, ears, tongues and arms on whether the work is relevant to their lived experiences.

(I have to add one last point.  People will sometimes ask: what is the sustainability of these initiatives, and since they clearly can't be self-sustaining, this is clearly not a structural solution.  Bollocks.  In the Global North there is a sustainable model - the govt pays for it through the independent audit office, or independent inspectorates for education and league tables etc.  Every parent in the North checks these when looking at school options, or which districts to live in etc.  They don't ask what the sustainability of these is then, do they?  Independent, easy to access, relevant measurement is vital - it is the right of citizens who a govt would tax or claim to represent).

So, to conclude a long post, Binyavanga is right that such surveys should exist.  They need to  exist, they need to be supported, and they need to be rigorously objective and independent of providers (and funders).

(PS - to borrow a turn of phrase from a certain author, one day I will also write about "low-cost private education" models in the Global South since those are often cited by agenda-driven ideologues and investors as "the answer", but that is for another day...)

1 comment:

David Newtoon said...

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