Young children take part in classes at the Madtasatul Al-Karim Nursery pre school, that is supported by UNICEF, in Fumba, Zanzibar , Tanzania Tuesday, April 8, 2014. UNICEF has carried out trainings with the teachers of this pre school in early childhood development and shown them how to create educational toys using recycled materials.

Want to Improve Education for Poor Kids Around the World? Here’s The Way

Education has been one of the lingering problems of global development. We have somehow managed to make huge strides in getting children enrolled in school without actually increasing the amount that children are learning. In development-speak, the focus has been on inputs, not outcomes. The result has been that children in the developing world are too often being credentialed instead of educated. That problem has produced hundreds of different approaches intended to improve the quality of education, from the traditional to the innovative to the just plain crazy, including but not limited to: Bigger schools, smaller class size, improving school leadership, giving a laptop to every child, and using biometric monitoring to track teacher attendance.

On the upside, Education also has convenient, measurable outcomes. We can prove or disprove educational approaches in a defined time frame. We know what we want from schools – literate, numerate students who are prepared for the job market. We can test for that. In a five to ten year period, good testing can show clear trends in student learning, which means we can identify which efforts to improve education actually work. A new review from Results for Development Institute suggests that output-based aid (OBA) has the potential to improve education for the students most likely to be left behind.

What is “output based” aid?

Output-based aid is a new development approach that funds results, rather than projects. For example, a school – or Ministry of Education – would receive a financial bonus for increasing the number of students who perform well on assessment tests or national exams. A vocational program might be funded according to how many students find work after graduation, or how much they earn.

The review finds that very few OBA education projects have successfully gone to scale, and evaluation data is minimal. However, it identified successful projects and found common characteristics – mainly government support and good targeting. With those in place, it states, OBA can be an excellent tool for improving education. To arrive at these conclusions, Results for Development did an in-depth literature review on output-based aid in education, and studied currently active OBA education projects. It identifies the circumstances most likely to lead to success OBA projects and the need for further research on the topic.

Few children attended school under the Taliban regime. Today, millions of boys and girls squeeze into overcrowded classrooms . Here, primary school stduent walk to school in Kabul.
Few children attended school under the Taliban regime. Today, millions of boys and girls squeeze into overcrowded classrooms . Here, primary school student walk to school in Kabul. Credit UNICEF

The projects that work

What, exactly, do government support and targeting actually mean here?

Government support does not necessarily mean financial support. In some cases, it is enough that the government shares and supports the goal of the educational intervention. You can’t work to improve the graduation of girls, for example, if local government officials promote early marriage among women. In other cases, the government may provide financial or logistical support. In one Ethiopian project, access to government data on national exams was key to identifying successful results for funding. In the case of the Bangladesh Secondary Education Improvement project, which provided financial incentives to schools for reaching and maintaining target exam pass rates, as well as student and teacher awards for exam performance, the government of Bangladesh actually approached the World Bank with the idea for the project.

Targeting address the question of what kind of education is chosen for support, and which kinds of students will benefit. Higher education or elementary? Vocational education, or focused on university attendance? Public schools, or private? Interestingly, the review found that private education was one of the most promising fields for RBA in education. Providers, students, and parents are already accustomed to the idea of fees, and private schools are often able to make rapid changes in order to meet goals when public schools are more constrained by law and regulation.

OBA projects were also especially effective in addressing inclusion issues in student populations that have historically had limited access to education. This included poor, disabled, and minority students. The review argues that the funding aspect of OBA helps to avoid the politics around broad inclusion targets. Political elites often refuse support to education inclusion goals; OBA financial incentives make that support less necessary and relevant.

Another major focus of the review is the severe lack of quality data on OBA education projects. The literature review and interviews with project managers found little reliable evaluation data. This is not, according to the authors, necessarily the fault of the projects. Collecting the data needed to verify the impact of an OBA project is extremely complex. This complexity is beyond the capacity of many local governments or education authorities, and building that capacity is both expensive and time-consuming. When outside evaluators are hired, the data process is faster but also very expensive, and no local capacity is built for the future. Often, it seems, evaluation falls by the wayside in the face of implementation.

What the report doesn’t mention

The elephant in the room is corruption. For any kind of results-based aid, there is always going to be a temptation to fake the data instead of actually improving performance. It’s faster, and will guarantee the funding. The review touches on some of the related issues, mentioning that schools may try to game their results by recruiting high-performing students instead of improving the skills of existing students. It doesn’t explicitly address corruption, though, or identify any ways to reduce the risk or identify corruption when it occurs.

One sentence takeaway

Paying for education results can benefit excluded students – if the government is on board with the plan.