Each year, billions of dollars are spent on programs to improve social sector outcomes in the developing world. These investments influence which aspects of education get measured and which are overlooked.
In recent years, global initiatives, such as Education for All (EFA), the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Educate a Child (EAC), have shifted focus from access to school toward school quality. This shift has encouraged more rigorous approaches to monitoring, evaluation and research. The World Bank, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) now emphasize the importance of evaluating the impact of their projects, not simply documenting reach and scope.
FHI 360’s Monitoring and Evaluation Technical Assistance team is conducting research on how large-scale global initiatives, such as EFA, promote progress in international education by creating incentives for improved monitoring and evaluation practices. We are also looking at the flip side: what happens when attention dramatically shifts from one issue to another, leaving important data unmeasured. Our hope is to understand how influential international initiatives can truly move the search for better monitoring and evaluation practices forward.
Here is what our preliminary research indicates so far.
What we measure and report has changed
In the last decade, there has been a significant shift in the focus of measurement. Funders are not just asking how many children are in school, but what they are learning. More specifically, there is an emphasis on early grade reading. For example, as EFA began emphasizing school quality and the importance of learning outcomes, USAID dedicated resources to improve definitions and data collection on reading fluency, setting benchmarks for how fast students should be able to read by grades two and three, and developing instruments to reliably measure these outcomes. This change happened relatively quickly: five years ago, the education community was still struggling to measure learning outcomes in any systematic way.
In more than 50 countries around the world, the education community is tracking student reading ability. What now matters is the number of words per minute that students can read. Whether this is a true proxy for student learning is still being debated — but it is certainly one measure of foundational reading skill acquisition. We still have more to learn about effectively measuring education quality.
Many areas of learning go without measurement
Measurement and evaluation should take into account the big picture. Though we have made great strides, we are still struggling to agree on how best to define and measure learning in different contexts and languages. Not enough information exists on how to measure learning in conflict and crisis settings. We know the private sector needs students with skills that transition into the workplace, but we do not know exactly what those skills are and how to measure them. Science and math learning has been largely overlooked. To close gaps, we need better and more diverse indicators; stronger, clearer definitions of what we are measuring; and a collective understanding of what success in education looks like.
Measurement must be better integrated within the global education agenda
Through their visibility, large global initiatives can shift the conversation on measurement for the better among donors, governments and implementers. However, there is clearly room for improvement. Key steps include putting money behind strong monitoring and evaluation practices; agreeing on what learning means and how to measure it in a multi-dimensional way; and, to the extent possible, requiring that all programming be evidence based. This should be done in coordination with, and not apart from, broad partnerships.
By widening the scope of what is measured and how it is reported, global initiatives can encourage the education community to come up with even better measures of progress in education and sustainable development. This will bring us closer to achieving success through these initiatives.