Addressing The Global Learning Crisis: The Case of MVP

Authors: Radhika Iyengar and Alia Karim

Currently, in sub-Saharan Africa 76% of primary school-aged children enroll in primary schools, of which only 53% complete primary school. Only 28% of those who complete primary school enroll in secondary schools, of which only 6% enter any tertiary education.

What is going wrong with the education system in this region? To answer this question we need to first address the following question:  What does education really mean?

While there is much literature on “schooling” versus “education”, the target for MDG 2 is to “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike are able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” Thus far, most efforts have focused on enrolling children in school, but are less concerned about completion. Simply enrolling children in school is not enough; children must gain basic competencies AND progress through the primary school system without dropping out.

In multiple countries there is a learning crisis. Despite enormous growth in enrollment rates across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asian countries in recent years, several studies have shown that many children reach the final grades of primary school without having acquired the skills they are expected to achieve. This suggests that while the number of children in schools grows, the quality of education they receive remains either low or decreases. Ensuring students in early grades acquire basic literacy and mathematics skills is the foundation for further learning in later grades, is a contributing factor to reducing repetition and dropout, and to improving survival rate to the last grade of primary. This last point is one of the core indicators to track progress towards MDG2 on Universal Primary Education.

The following strategies could provide a remedy to the growing learning crisis:

(1) Teacher Training: Are children not learning because teachers are not adequately prepared to teach? This is a factor that can be remedied. Both pre- and in-service teacher training needs to be critically reviewed. Are teachers taught to complete the syllabus, rather than ensuring that all children learn? The syllabus and its content take more of precedence in classroom teaching, rather than focusing on students being able to grasp basic competencies. This is coupled with complex textbooks that are not child friendly. Teacher education needs to be critically evaluated and should be combined with incentives based on merit (number of children learning, not the academic degree that the teacher has), community-based recognition, and teacher motivation.

(2) Community partnership to build accountability: Do parents know how much their children are learning at school? It has been shown that even uneducated parents can be involved in their children’s education. Schools don’t exist in vacuum and community involvement in the functioning of the schools needs to be highlighted. There are many examples from the Millennium Villages that show this factor to be one of the most critical in improving the quality of education. In one instance, the school committees in

There are many other ways parents can be involved, including active participation in the village councils and elected Government. Community-based meetings around student learning could be one form of community outreach.the MVP site of Bonsaaso, Ghana are responsible for coffee planting in the school compound. The funds from the sale of the coffee beans are given back to the school to supplement the school feeding program.

Education Coordinator Edwin Zawanda (MVP Mwandama) with his team of Community Education Workers

Education Coordinator Edwin Zawanda (MVP Mwandama) with his team of Community Education Workers

The Millennium Villages sites often have Community Education Workers (CEWs) who act as a bridge between the community and the schools. The CEWs conduct outreach efforts at the household level to improve enrollment and attendance. They engage with communities at community level meetings, and are involved in is monthly data collection at the school level. Basic information on attendance, performance and infrastructure is summarized in a one page ‘report card’ for each school. The MVP team can share these results at community meetings, and draw attention to the schools with lower pupil or teacher attendance, poor literacy rates, or lack of basic materials. Sharing data at the community level increases accountability and empowers them to seek change.  Data are also going to be shared with local education officials, to ensure accountability and action. 

(3) Establishing community-based learning: Teaching and learning should not be limited to just schools.  Mwandama, Malawi presents an interesting case, where learning Community Education Workers run Village Learning Centers. Learning Centers are located within the community so children don’t have to walk from far, and classes are available free of charge.

The main purpose is to attract the out-of-school children and accelerate their learning, giving them the basic skills to enter or re-enter school. The Centers also serve as space for tutoring, homework clubs and remedial education. These after-hours approaches can be crucial in mitigating the achievement gap faced in these communities. Indeed, Pratham, the largest education NGO in the world, is already using supplemental community-based education programs to produce measurable advances in learning.

A Village Learning Center in Mwandama Malawi

A Village Learning Center in Mwandama Malawi

(4) Giving alternative education delivery models a chance: Since Dewey, we have been propagating the idea of organizing children in classrooms based on their abilities and not artificial grade levels. However, classes are still organized by grades rather than by circles of learning levels. Pratham-style volunteer teachers have been to be effective in improving learning as compared to a regular teacher teaching in class. These models have been well researched, however not implemented or adopted on a large scale. Traditional classroom practices with a teacher lecturing to a group of children sitting in a linear fashion far from the teacher and rote memorizing the notes simply copied from the blackboard still dominates majority classrooms settings. This traditional education should give way to tried and tested classroom management styles to facilitate learning.

Education should be relevant to the current economic needs. In many cases, completing eight years of compulsory education may or may not guarantee economic independence and families continue to make trade-offs between schooling and livelihood. There needs to be a bridge between education and livelihood that is useful for the family. In a rural setting this might end-up combining basic numeracy and literacy with farming practices, animal husbandry, working on school gardens etc. There are some unique examples from the Millennium Villages Project in Sauri, Kenya which has been able re-define education by contextualizing it the surrounding. More of these experiments should be encouraged.

For now, we need to keep asking the question: How should we promote learning and not just schooling? How can we shape education strategies based on “best practices” that have proven to be effective to improve learning levels?

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