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Selling Learning

Sep 19, 2011

Uwezo Kenya release

The Hon. Mohammed Elmi, the Minister of State for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands, announces the release of the Uwezo report, Are Our Children Learning?, at a press conference in Nairobi last year. The report documented high rates of illiteracy and a lack of math skills in primary schools throughout Kenya and catalyzed parents to press school officials for Uwezo’s proposed reforms. Photo by Dana Schmidt/Hewlett Foundation.


Newspaper headlines from Kenya and Tanzania over the past year tell the story: “Alarm as East African Pupils Learn to Remain Illiterate,” says one. “Kenya Suffers Quality of Education Setback,” adds another. “Shocking Report on Literacy Levels in Schools,” offers a third.

Paradoxically, for Sara Ruto, East African regional manager of Uwezo, an education reform organization, the bad headlines are good news.

“We’ve learned that there are very important connections between the media here,” says Ruto, whose organization is a grantee of the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program. “The radio stations pick up a story from the newspapers, and then it becomes what is discussed.”

And “what is discussed,” in turn, is central to Uwezo’s strategy to raise literacy and math skill levels by at least 10 percent over the next four years among children aged five to sixteen in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

“It is important that citizens start asking questions in their own small places,” says Ruto. “Our experience is when you have a push from below, then you will get more attention from the top.”

Changing the Focus to Learning Outcomes

Uwezo, which means “capability” in Kiswahili, is a key grantee in the Hewlett Foundation’s strategy to improve the quality of education in select countries in the developing world. Since the Foundation launched the initiative known as Quality Education in Developing Countries five years ago, groups like Ruto’s have significantly shifted the discussion at the national level from whether a country’s children are attending school to whether they are mastering basic reading and math while they are there.

International organizations have worked for decades—and quite successfully—to help developing countries increase the numbers of children attending school. What these organizations didn’t fully anticipate was that attending school was no guarantee that students would master basic skills. Excessively large classes (some with as many as 200 students), a lack of materials and trained teachers, and ineffective instruction all have contributed to poor learning. The Foundation’s current grantmaking is trying to remedy these problems by funding efforts to develop effective teaching techniques and measure student achievement, particularly in the mastery of reading and basic math in the primary grades. Part of that approach has been informing parents of their children’s lack of progress and drafting their help both in urging changes in school policy and in tutoring their children themselves.

The Foundation has been making grants for this work in India, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, and Ghana. In addition to backing more effective teaching techniques, Foundation grants support efforts to improve the transparency and accountability of government funding for education, ensuring that these resources are well used and not diverted to other purposes.

Making Learning Central to the International Discussion of Funders

Since this grantmaking began in India in 2007 with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a funding partner, those overseeing the work say they have had significant success in changing the international discussion about education reform from building schools to improving children’s learning outcomes.

“Overall, I would say what we’ve seen globally is that learning has come onto the agenda in a big way,” says Lynn Murphy, the Hewlett Foundation program officer who manages grants to improve education in the developing world.

“The World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development [known popularly as USAID], and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development have launched a joint planning process to look at the issue of learning outcomes. USAID alone has committed to assuring that 100 million more children learn how to read by 2015. So we’ve greatly increased the effect our own work is having globally.”

newspaper headlines

As Uwezo announced its findings of poor student mastery of basic language and math skills in one East African country after another, newspapers trumpeted a learning crisis in primary schools. Radio stations picked up the story, spreading the findings to communities throughout the region.


For Ruto, too, who is working primarily in Kenya and Tanzania, the past two years have brought significant progress. Uwezo’s work began in 2008, partly modeled after a similar project in India launched with Hewlett Foundation support by an organization called Pratham.

But unlike this Indian reform project, whose top-down approach starts with education officials and works down to the community, Uwezo has adopted a bottom-up strategy, which has proven effective in East Africa.

For example, Ruto explains, schools in Kenya have “district education days” when top officials from the ministry of education visit as guests. When the officials visited recently, they were met by district representatives and parents who presented them with Uwezo-generated statistics showing students’ failure to master material.

“The face of Uwezo is different in each district,” she continues. “We are working in 124 of 158 districts. Villagers’ constant questions have served as pressure.  When ministry education officials began being confronted with data everywhere, they finally asked Uwezo to present them with learning data for the entire country.”

Data on Learning Proves Persuasive

The size of the samples proved large enough to be persuasive. In addition to the children aged six to sixteen tested in 124 districts in Kenya, children in 80 districts were tested in Uganda and in 133 districts in Tanzania—all showing abysmally low levels of competence in basic skills.

“The core idea is simple,” Ruto says. “Learning will improve when everyone—parents, teachers, local leaders, and other concerned citizens—takes practical action to improve education in their own communities by exerting pressure on the authorities to focus on learning.”

The international community is demonstrating growing acceptance of the focus on learning outcomes, but Ruto acknowledges that much remains to be done at the national level to maintain momentum.

“After parents have been trained in testing children’s mastery of basic reading and math, they become energized and realize they can do things right now,” she says. “We’re still not using that moment very well. And yet, we have many examples of people who are teaching two or three children to read who couldn’t read before. We need to encourage more efforts like that to get things to roll on their own.”

newspaper headlines

In Tanzania, assessments are printed on the back of the standard schoolchildren's workbooks.


Murphy agrees and adds that changing the thinking among international donors still presents its own challenges.

“The bad news is there is no shortcut” to reform, she says. “Our grantees have to push on the education system all across each country to assure that children actually learn. And dealing with the level of dysfunction has been hard. In Mali, for example, schools have been closed for fully half the year because of strikes. The other difficulty is that, as much as people are starting to accept learning as a reform objective, it’s still easy to slip back into the old ways of thinking.

“What I’m learning more and more is the importance of communications in all these efforts,” she continues. “Concerned citizens have technology, but a lot of their mobilization as advocates is about political will and the hard and thorny implications of having that will. You have to give them motivation, and that’s where communications comes in.”

Murphy’s hopes for five years from now? “Realistically, my expectation is that when governments and ministries of finance think about money for education, they view their objective not as getting children to school but as getting them effective learning in school. That may mean providing more money for education or allocating that money differently. And I hope to see more of the best teachers assigned to the primary grades. The advocacy community is moving this way.”

The stakes, she says, couldn’t be higher: “If we succeed, there will be more children out there who have a chance because they have learned to read.”


Read a Q&A with Chloe O'Gara, Global Development and Population Program Officer