We need to test whether our millions in education aid is actually working – Financial Post

Posted: January 3, 2020 at 7:41 am

By John Richards and Shahidul Islam

Canada is back, the Liberals told the world on returning to office in 2015. Henceforth, Canada would play a meaningful role in world affairs, including providing effective development aid. Gender equity headlined the press releases but not much attention was paid to the best means of creating equity, namely quality schools accessible to both boys and girls. In 2016-17 Canada spent nearly $400 million on development aid to education, most of it in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Was it effective? It did allow for the building of schools, buying of textbooks and training of teachers. But whether more children learned to read and do basic arithmetic no one knows because, to our knowledge, Canada undertook no learning assessments on any projects.

Coincidentally, 2015 marked the end date of the UNs campaign to improve social outcomes in the developing world. The first of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG1) was to eradicate extreme poverty. The second (MDG2) was universal primary education. Good quality primary education is arguably the most important prerequisite for a low-income country aspiring to get to middle income. After completing the primary cycle, most children should be able to read and write the common language and do basic arithmetic though this will happen only if the education system is of reasonable quality.

In the case of the health MDGs, aids effectiveness can be evaluated unambiguously. For instance, measuring the success of MDG4 a two-third reduction from 1990 to 2015 in a countrys under-five mortality rate is relatively easy. Measuring outcomes in education is more complex. Realizing this, many governments in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the regions with the worlds weakest school systems, gamed MDG2. For instance, in 2009, in India, the national government enacted a right to education act. The result has been higher enrolment, higher completion rates, fewer dropouts and worse outcomes.

In South Asia, government spending on primary schools is typically too low. But there is no guarantee a donors cheque to a national education ministry improves outcomes. In four of the five major South Asian countries Sri Lanka is an honourable exception ethically dubious interest group politics poses a major obstacle to quality education. It is common in much of South Asia for politicians and bureaucrats to oblige applicants for a government teaching position to pay the equivalent of US$10,000 for the job. In exchange, supervision is lax and teachers frequently offer their students private tutoring for a fee. Applicants who get the jobs typically receive little training and are unlikely to be those most devoted to teaching children.

In India, the most widely accepted measures of quality in basic reading and numeracy are random in-home surveys conducted bi-annually for over a decade by Pratham, a large NGO. In the 2018 survey, 400,000 children ages six to 16 were assessed on reading and arithmetic items from the Grade 2 curriculum. Only 50 per cent of the national sample of Grade 5 students could read a short story while only 28 per cent could solve subtraction and division problems. Those results are, respectively, six points and nine points lower than in 2008. Its no surprise that the decline occurred in the years immediately following the 2009 legislation, as state-level governments increased enrolment with little concern for school quality.

Further evidence of quality problems is that families with modest incomes are abandoning government schools. One-third of Indian children now attend low fee private schools while others attend NGO or faith-based schools. Some of these schools have worse outcomes than government schools but, on average, outcomes are superior at these non-government schools.

Atishi Marlena, a prominent Indian education reformer, has boiled down the essentials for a good public school system to three imperatives: provide quality school infrastructure; ensure a system to identify and hire motivated teachers; and focus on objectively measured learning outcomes and minimum levels of learning for all children. Perhaps the key determinant of improving the persistently low quality of education in government schools, she concludes, is political will. Until political elites decide education outcomes matter, South Asias next generation both boys and girls will remain poor relative to East and Southeast Asia.

If Canada wants its $400 million of education aid to be effective, it should be insisting on independent assessment of what children actually learn in aid-supported projects.

John Richards teaches in Simon Fraser Universitys School of Public Policy and works extensively in Bangladesh. Shahidul Islam served in USAID missions in Bangladesh and Afghanistan and is currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto.

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We need to test whether our millions in education aid is actually working - Financial Post

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