Winning Start

A Level Learning Field for All Kids

What is Winning Start?

Winning Start is an Evidence Action Beta project designed to improve literacy and numeracy among primary school students. Youth volunteers target struggling learners with interactive educational activities that complement classroom learning and are tailored to students’ skill level. The youth-facilitated sessions, coupled with a community engagement imperative for youth volunteers, also equip volunteers with professional development skills that support their transition into the workforce.

G-United: Putting Winning
Start To The Test

In 2014, Evidence Action Beta partnered with the Government of Kenya to pioneer the Winning Start model through a national youth volunteer program dubbed G-United. Implemented by the Government of Kenya, G-United recruits youth volunteers to serve as facilitators of remedial sessions in select schools across the country. A high level steering committee — which includes the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Deputy President (ODP), the Cabinet Secretary of Education, the Secretary General of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) and Evidence Action — oversees the administration of the program. While G-United exists primarily to enhance primary education, the Government of Kenya is also using it as a platform to promote national cohesion: G-United volunteers are deployed outside their home Counties and hosted by local families – a demonstration of how the program can be adapted by Governments to serve different aspects of their national agenda and priorities.

G-United continues to grow and offer important insights into the question of scalability as well as critical lessons for improving program design.  As the program is designed and tested at greater scale, Beta continues to monitor it;  focusing specifically on the feasibility of using youth volunteers while seeking to iteratively improve program design using data collected from participating schools. At the same time, we are working with leading researchers including Harvard University’s Michael Kremer and Guthrie Gray-Lobe, and the University of Houston’s Willa Friedman, to explore the potential for a rigorous evaluation of the program aimed at analyzing its impact on children’s learning outcomes and finding appropriate ways to measure volunteers’ skills and inter-ethnic attitudes.

The Need: Moving from
Access to Quality

Over the last few decades, access to basic education has improved dramatically across the world. Unfortunately, the quality of basic education hasn’t improved in tandem. While more children are in class, they seem to be getting little out of it. In India, for example, despite a peak enrollment rate of 96%, only 47% of children in Grade 5 can read a Grade 2 level text, and less than 30% can do basic arithmetic. In Ghana, less than 10% of children in Grade 3 can read four-letter words, only 6% can read a basic paragraph, and only 20% can identify three-digit numbers, despite a 91% enrollment rate. In Kenya, enrollment increased by nearly 70% between 1999 and 2015 to 86%, but only 11% of children in Grade 3 can read and understand English (one of two official languages), and only 3.6% can solve an arithmetic problem.

“Age-Grade” Class
Structure: A Proven

Deficiencies in student learning within the developing world have been attributed to a number of factors, including high student-teacher ratios and a dearth of resources in public schools. While these arguments seem plausible, several studies suggest that simply increasing educational inputs—such as books and other learning materials—is not enough to improve  learning outcomes. One study in Kenya found that providing more textbooks to students had little impact on student performance—unless students were already top performers. Another Kenya-based study suggested that providing flip charts to schools was unlikely to positively influence test scores.

However, rigorous research by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) has offered at least one clear reason why children are not learning. It has to do with how classes are organized. Typically, students are clustered into age-based learning groups and taught from a standardized curriculum. All children who are six, for instance, are usually placed in first grade and taken through the prescribed content for their grade level before advancing to the next grade level, and they advance irrespective of whether they have achieved proficiency in the previous grade’s content. This formulation assumes that students of the same age generally start from the same baseline of skills and knowledge, and can therefore learn the same content at more or less the same pace; which, research shows, is not the case. In reality, the reverse is true: any given classroom consists of students operating at very disparate levels of competency. In a typical 8th grade class, for instance, students may operating at 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grade competencies. Grouping these children together simply on the basis of their age limits the attention that can be given to each learner’s unique needs. That’s especially true when teachers are obligated to cover a prescribed amount of content within a defined period of time. The result is that as curricula move forward, stronger students keep pace while struggling learners get left behind and, potentially, never catch up.

“As curricula move forward, stronger students keep pace while struggling learners get left behind and, potentially, never catch up.”

Winning Start: A Potential Solution

Winning Start offers a potential solution to the “age-grade” structure problem. Winning Start is a promising, simple, cost-effective intervention which connects lightly-trained volunteers to primary schools where they can offer specialized attention to struggling students. Through level-oriented sessions in which children are grouped according to competency, Winning Start volunteers meet students where they are to help get them where they need to be.  

The project is premised on two fundamental, evidence-backed ideas that originate from research conducted by JPALPratham and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). First: that orienting learning activities according to a child’s learning level rather than their age—teaching at the right level (TaRL)—leads to greater student success. Second: that using lightly-trained volunteers to deliver level-oriented supplementary learning sessions is highly effective at improving learning outcomes.

Notably, there are several different models for implementing TaRL: some models use existing class teachers in the place of volunteers as a way to minimize cost and secure access to students; some provide remedial support during the school term but outside of school hours; some provide remedial support during holidays and others offer support within standard class time. A variety of permutations have been tested. 

Winning Start is designed around evidence showing the volunteer-led, after-school support model to be the most effective. The notable drawback of this particular model—the need to cost-effectively recruit a large cohort of volunteers—doubles up as an opportunity low and middle income countries, where a dynamic but under-utilized young labour force abounds. Several Governments are already seeking to leverage the potential of their youth populace through strategic investments aimed at yielding a demographic dividend. In 2013, for example, eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa invested $241 million to operate youth civil service programs. Winning Start offers governments an innovative way to invest in youth while simultaneously achieving other public gains.

“Winning Start volunteers meet students where they are to help get them where they need to be.”

How Winning Start Works

Winning Start recruits young university graduates to join a volunteer, student-support crew that is deployed to selected primary schools. Using comprehensively-tested materials developed in conjunction with Uwezo and Zizi Afrique, these youth volunteers work with students in grades two and three to gauge individual learning levels, cluster learners into level-learning groups and deliver regular, interactive, level-appropriate sessions tailored to students’ competency rather than their age.

As part of the program, youth volunteers simultaneously receive opportunities to improve soft skills such as communication, problem solving, work ethic and time management, as a way to enhance their employability. Some preliminary studies—e.g. in ColombiaKenyaArgentinathe Dominican Republic—suggest a positive, causal relationship between transferable skills and employment outcomes but this research area is nascent and the existence of competing claims in available literature means no definitive relationship can be asserted at this time. However, hoping to contribute to the emerging evidence base, Evidence Action has identified the professional skills that employers consider most valuable and has developed the professional development component of the program to motivate volunteers.

Exploring the Evidence

Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) is an approach that has been rigorously tested through multiple randomized control trials in India, Ghana and Kenya. In India, leading education nonprofit Pratham piloted a landmark remedial education initiative known as the Balsakhi Program. They offered under-performing third and fourth grade students from randomly selected schools in Vadodara and Mumbai low-cost, half-day tutoring over the course of an academic year. Students were then tested mid-year and at the end of the year. Their scores were compared to their pre-tutoring test-scores and to the test scores of a control group that hadn’t received any help. Researchers found that the tutoring significantly increased test scores. At the start of the year, for instance, only 5-6% of children in the bottom third of their classes could add two-digit numbers. By the end of the year, 51% of children who received tutoring could add two digit numbers while only 39% of children in the control group could perform the same task.

(*graph created using data from Pratham’s Balsakhi program in India)

A similar program in Ghana recruited high school graduates as teaching assistants for grades one to three. The Teacher Community Assistant Initiative (TCAI) tested the impact of both in-school and after-school remedial support on test scores. It also tested two other permutations. First, the impact of using assistants to offer students learning support within the conventional classroom organization and using normal curriculum. Second, the impact of training teachers on the TaRL method and using them, rather than volunteers, to conduct level-oriented learning sessions. The program found that having high school graduate assistants provide either in-school or after-school remedial support raised test scores by 6.4% and 6.2%, respectively, with targeted students maintaining higher scores for up to a year after the intervention. Conversely, using volunteers to offer “normal curriculum” support did not have an impact, and neither did using teachers to implement TaRL. Crucially, the successful programs in both Ghana and India made use of informally trained volunteers who were not teachers.  

Teaching at the Right Level has been extensively evaluated in India, Kenya and Ghana—almost indisputably validating the link between offering level-oriented learning instruction and seeing improved learning outcomes. Evidence Action Beta expects that our testing of Winning Start will continue to confirm that link, while exploring how this intervention can be delivered at scale.

Learn more about Teaching at the Right Level

Support Winning Start

Winning Start is a big idea with a lot of promise. Teaching at the right level is a well-tried, rigorously-tested, instructional approach – and it is one of few interventions in education that has demonstrated measurable impact on learning outcomes in the developing world. Evidence Action is assessing the feasibility and scalability of a youth volunteer led model of implementing TaRL remedial sessions. We want to know that Winning Start is practical, has a consistently positive impact, and remains cost-effective at scale. Thank you for considering partnering with us to explore whether and how this project can serve millions of children around the world and set them up for success. Here are three ways you can support Winning Start:


Rigorously testing ideas is a lot of work that requires a range of resources. We believe it is worth it to find what works…and what doesn’t. Consider donating to Winning Start in the following ways: 

  1. An individual, financial donation to Evidence Action Beta. Your donation will go towards supporting the development of the program and our testing for impact.

  2. If you’re a Kenyan National and University graduate between 22-30 years of age, you can donate your time by applying to volunteer in G-United’s 2018 cohort.

  3. If you’re in Kenya’s private sector and interested in partnering with us to improve education and invest in Kenya’s next generation of leaders, please get in touch. There is lots of room to collaborate. 

  4. If you’re in the media, you can donate editorial space in your online/offline publication to feature Winning Start or discuss Teaching at the Right Level. Our team is happy to answer questions, supply information or connect you with our team and/or other resources. 

  5. If you’re a Government official interested in discussing how Winning Start can support your country’s education and development goals, please contact us. We would be glad to have a conversation.

Learn more

We’re proud to be part of a community of organizations working to advance TaRL in Africa and around the world, and to be contributing specifically to building a more robust knowledge base around how youth volunteers can be used to deliver this evidence-based pedagogical approach. Learn more about other TaRL initiatives around the world by visiting this website.

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