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

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.

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

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

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

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.”

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