“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work. Ward Heneveld is a program officer and Lynn Murphy a senior fellow with the Foundation’s Global Development Program. Together they are working in an unusual partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the quality of primary school education in the developing world. The Gates and Hewlett work is intended to focus new attention on assuring that children learn while in school, and not just attend.

Ward Heneveld is an expert in a broad range of educational issues in the developing world and a former staffer at the World Bank. He has a doctorate in educational planning from Harvard’s Center for Studies in Education and Development. Before joining the Hewlett Foundation, Lynn Murphy served as a consultant and education advisor for several international organizations including Save the Children, UNESCO, and the Commonwealth Education Fund.  She holds a Ph.D. in International and Comparative Education from Stanford University.

Governments and other donors have been trying to help with education in these countries for decades. What’s different about what you’re doing?

Lynn: Here’s the history. In 1990, many governments and international organizations involved in education in the developing world came together and agreed to try to provide education for all. It quickly focused on getting all kids into primary school. Since then we’ve had a decade-and-a-half of building schools and getting kids into seats. And they’ve had great success. The problem is, they’ve been expanding so rapidly that they couldn’t pay sufficient attention to whether learning was going on. The quality has been missing.

We’re working to make people aware that having a building, a teacher and textbooks in themselves aren’t enough to assure that children will learn. We’re trying to get people to examine what kids actually are learning in the classroom. This work has to happen at every level, from donors to governments to parents. Right now, even the tools that international aid organizations use don’t include indicators about student learning.

And then it’s what I call demonstration advocacy-advocating for a change by showing what works. We’re trying to get people to see that there is something you can do about a big complicated problem. It’s taking techniques out there that have shown to be effective in getting kids to learn and helping them serve more kids faster. And part of it is helping these people share what they’re doing with a wider audience, countrywide and beyond.

What are the big obstacles to learning that you hope to address?

Lynn: Obstacle number one is that most teachers are not being trained and supported, particularly in methods to teach reading in the lower grades.

Ward: I agree. There’s an assumption that if you send out guidelines on how to instruct students, that takes care of it. Of course it doesn’t. It’s much more of a process. You need to demonstrate the teaching method to the teachers and then stay with them until they really incorporate it. We’re trying to find and support people who understand this problem and have created effective organizations to address it.

Lynn: Some of this help to teachers started to happen in the ’90s but a lot of work still focused on only on what teachers did rather than on whether kids learned more.
Other obstacles?

Ward: To me the biggest obstacle comes down to the rigidity of bureaucracies.

Lynn: One way to address this is to look at where the funding goes. Does it go for the classroom and furniture, but there are very few textbooks? That’s not a good use of money. For me, it is anything that stands in the way of teaching kids to read and do basic math. It means having enough books and other learning materials, but also having teachers who know how to use them.
There’s also a big issue of corruption. If everyone takes off 20 percent at every level, the money that gets to the schools is so little. Also, the headmaster who gets what’s left may never have planned an education budget before and so doesn’t know how to think about tradeoffs to give the kids the best chance to learn.
So who do you fund to address that problem?

Lynn: Good question. We’ve given a grant to Transparency International to look at what happens in the budget chain in seven countries and how officials at the school and district level are using the money. This is something very new. They’re going to look at the data from across all the seven countries and eventually make some policy recommendations to governments and development agencies.
What are some of the other first grants that you are making?

Ward: There are groups in West and East Africa and in India that have demonstrated alternative ways to get kids to like school, to read and to learn to calculate in grades one through three. And they’ve done it with enough success to draw some attention. We’re offering to help them clarify what their models of learning are. And in each case we want them to do what they do on a large enough scale to demonstrate that it can be used on an even larger scale elsewhere. We also want it to be big enough to undergo an independent impact evaluation to determine what contributes the most to its success. If we can do that, we think there will be great incentives for governments to use the techniques countrywide.

Lynn: And our grantee in India, Pratham, with its program “Read India,” is working with four million kids in 10 states. Pratham has been instrumental in getting student learning, not just attendance, onto the agenda, and they are in the process of expanding “Read India” countrywide.

Are you making any grants that are not for work in the classroom?

Lynn: We support groups around the world that advocate for these approaches to education in the developing world, like the Global Campaign for Education. Historically, advocacy groups have been very successful getting more money for education but mostly so that schools can take in more children. We want them to start talking not just about access to education but about its quality. The advocacy groups work at many levels. Globally, they work with organizations like the World Bank, and there are national coalitions in developing countries working to increase national education budgets.

When will we know that the work is succeeding and when will the kids in these countries start to see the benefits?

Lynn: By years two and three we hope to see some evidence that kids in the projects we’re funding are learning more, particularly doing a better job learning to read. I love what Pratham says: You learn to read so you can read to learn.

Ward: And then I think it will be five to ten years in the countries we’re working in before we see results, not just for the demonstration projects we’re funding, but for the larger population.

What keeps me going is, wherever I’ve been in the world, parents place their hopes for the future on their kids. No matter how poor they are, education continues to be a very valuable thing to them. And all the things we’ve been describing are ways to make that education happen.