In the last decade the world has made remarkable strides in expanding access to primary education, with enrollment rates now averaging approximately 90% globally. For anyone interested in improving the quality of education, that’s phenomenal news: we now have the vast majority of kids centrally concentrated in places where we can easily reach them with effective approaches to learning.
Despite this incredible opportunity, over 250 million children globally struggle with basic reading and numeracy skills despite half of them having attended school for four years. Low and middle income countries bear the brunt of this challenge: 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. With every grade these children advance to, curricula become more challenging. As expectations of them rise (from reading letters, to words to paragraphs; from counting to addition, to multiplication) those without the most basic, foundational skills get left behind. They may show up to class, but they are not learning – although it’s easy to assume they are, which only compounds the problem.
Rigorous experimental research has shown that when children are taught based on their skill and competence level rather than at their grade level, their performance dramatically improves. Known as “teaching at the right level”, this simple but effective approach to improving learning outcomes involves assessing children to gauge their reading and numeracy level, clustering them into groups with other kids of the same level, and engaging them in specialized, interactive learning sessions aimed at filling their specific gaps in knowledge and skill. Teaching at the right level has been rigorously evaluated in India, Ghana and Kenya with consistently positive results. Today, teaching at the right level is one of the best vetted solutions available in the world of development; as MIT Professor Esther Duflo put it: “There are now several programs that are all trying some version of what we call teaching at the right level…and in developing countries they are all very, very positive.”
We know what works to deliver literacy among kids in low and middle incomes countries. The only question now is how do we act on this knowledge. At Evidence Action, we are putting this rigorous evidence to work through Winning Start—a project that aims to improve student literacy and numeracy outcomes by pairing post-university youth volunteers with remedial students.
Among the teaching at the right level models, using lightly-trained volunteers to deliver level-based remedial sessions consistently generates high impact. Winning Start is built to complement classroom learning and the hard work of hundreds of thousands of teachers: volunteers facilitate remedial sessions with kids outside school hours, helping them develop the skills they need to tackle grade-level content. In short, Winning Start volunteers meet students where they are to help them get where they need to be. Currently, Evidence Action is building and testing the program model in Kenya through the Government of Kenya-led G-United program. As we do, we’re considering how to make it more scalable, cost-effective and impactful, learning plenty of lessons as we go. We are looping our learnings back into our program design, with a view to piloting a more robust model in new countries, while iteratively improving G-United.
Ultimately, our aim is to scale an effective model: reaching millions of children with an intervention that sets them up for success, and contributing to the attainment of universal literacy among kids. This international literacy day, we’re asking you to join us. With your help we’ll be that much closer to getting Winning Start working and if Winning Start works, well, everybody wins.
To learn more, visit: https://www.evidenceaction.org/beta-winning-start#winning-start
If you would like to contribute to testing and scaling this evidence based solution that has the potential to set millions of children up for success, please consider doing the following:
1. Donate directly to our testing efforts and invest in helping to design and scale a cost-effective solution to the challenge of illiteracy.
2. If you are a Government official, we would love to have a conversation about how Winning Start can be adapted to serve your country’s needs.
3. If you’re a journalist, feel free to contact us to work on a feature of our program and let’s spread the word about one of the most rigorously tested education interventions in the world.
4. If you’re a Kenyan national between 21-30, consider applying as a volunteer with G-United, and spend a year serving to give kids a better future.
5. If you’re a private organization in Kenya interested in investing in youth – twice over (helping us reach children and equip volunteers with professional skills), get in touch to explore a potential partnership.