Givology Staff's Blog

Training teachers to improve learning outcomes in the developing world

By Brent Harlow
In this series, I have been looking at the latest research on what actually works to improve educational outcomes in the developing world, with an emphasis on interventions designed to reduce gender, class, and geographical gaps in enrollment and get more kids into primary school classrooms. This particular problem— how best to increase enrollment— has received a good deal of attention from researchers, activists, and development organizations, and was reflected in the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 [url=](Link to source)[/url].
It is perhaps because this push to enroll every child, everywhere, in primary school has been so successful (even as certain enrollment disparities persist) that a new problem has arisen or, at least, become much more visible. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo have argued that as more children coming from less privileged backgrounds enroll in primary schools, it is becoming increasingly apparent that “teach to the top” approaches— in which classroom instruction is overwhelming geared toward elite students— are simply failing a large group of disadvantaged students ([url=]Poor Economics[/url] [ch. 4] and [url=]“Remedying Education: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments in India[/url]” [introduction]). Even if these children are attending school in greater numbers, too many are not acquiring the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need to rise out of poverty and help transform their communities.
Thus, while the “enrollment gap” has been significantly narrowed in recent years, certain “learning gaps” persist and continue to place poor, rural, and female students at a disadvantage. These learning gaps now raise a number of urgent questions that need to be addressed by researchers, activists, and policy-makers. While more research needs to be done, preliminary studies suggest that low levels of teacher skill, knowledge, and training in poorer, rural schools are often responsible for lower student achievement, and that the most promising way to reduce such learning gaps is through teacher training. ([url=]“Improving Early-Grade Literacy in East Africa: Experimental Evidence from Kenya and Uganda[/url],” p. 953) The question is, how should this be done?
[b]Training teachers: what works? [/b]
In a 2016 paper entitled [url=]“Training Teachers on the Job: What Works and How to Measure It[/url],” Anna Popova, David K. Evans, and Violeta Arancibia try to answer this question. After conducting an extensive review of the research on the effectiveness of various in-service teacher training programs, the authors conclude that there are four characteristics that effective programs tend to have in common.
First, they focus on specific subjects and equip teachers with pedagogies that are designed to be most effective in particular content areas.
Second, they provide all necessary materials— textbooks, charts, books, flashcards, electronic equipment and software, etc.— free of charge to ensure that the teachers can implement the program in their classrooms after the training.
Third, they include follow-up contact and mentorship to ensure that the program is being implemented appropriately and to provide ongoing teacher support.
Fourth, they link participation in training programs to professional advancement and teacher pay.
Beyond these recommendations, Banerjee and Duflo have proposed that the greatest gains are to be made by training teachers to more effectively implement basic skills curricula and improve learning outcomes for students at the bottom. As a growing number of remedial-level students are brought into primary school classrooms in the developing world, there is an increasing need to ensure that each child is being taught at an appropriate level and making progress in basic literacy and numeracy skills. Fortunately, many “basic skills” programs have been evaluated and shown to be effective improving learning outcomes, especially for children at the very bottom.
In a 2014 paper entitled [url=]“Improving Early-Grade Literacy in East Africa: Experimental Evidence from Kenya and Uganda,”[/url] Adrienne M. Lucas, Patrick J. McEwan, Moses Ngware, and Moses Oketch evaluate the effectiveness of the RTL (“Reading to Learn”) intervention in poor public schools in Kenya and Uganda. The program provides basic early grade level literacy instruction to kids whose scores on reading tests lag behind those of their grade-level peers. For the intervention, primary school teachers were trained in the RTL approach, supplied with literacy materials to use in the classroom, and given ongoing mentorship to help them implement the program effectively. The authors of the study found that the program produced positive results, leading to increased literacy rates among treatment groups.
In another study, entitled [url=]“Remedying Education: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments in India,[/url]” Abhijit V. Banerjee, Shawn Cole, Esther Duflo, and Leigh Linden evaluate the effectiveness of Pratham’s Balsakhi Program in two urban schools in India. The program provides struggling students with tutors who are trained to implement a standardized curriculum that focuses on instruction in core literacy and numeracy competencies. For this intervention, instructors were not only trained in the standardized curriculum and pedagogy, but were also given all the materials needed to implement the program, as well as ongoing support throughout the school year to reinforce their training and ensure high-quality instruction. It too was successful, resulting in significant increases in standardized test scores, especially for children who initially tested at the bottom.
Also administered by Pratham, the Shishuvachan program aims to improve reading scores among low-performing students. Teachers are trained in the Shishuvachan method and then supplied with all the materials they need— charts, books and flashcards— to implement the program in their classrooms. They are also given ongoing supervision from trainers. The program has been evaluated in Mumbai, where Fang He, Leigh L. Linden, and Margaret MacLeod have found it to be effective at improving literacy skills among students in a variety of contexts (in public schools, in stand-along reading classes, and in pre-schools). ([url=]“A Better Way to Teach Children to Read? Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial”)[/url]
[b]Givology partners and teacher training programs [/b]
Givology has also linked donors to programs designed to improve the quality and effectiveness of instruction as a means to improving learning outcomes for students. To take just two examples:
Givology partner Arlington Academy of Hope, with its “Help the Teachers” program, supports primary school teachers in the Bududa District in Uganda in what are very difficult circumstances. Classrooms are crowded (averaging around a hundred students), school facilities are inadequate, and teaching supplies are lacking. In response to these and other challenges, Arlington Academy of Hope is pairing its teacher training workshops with the provision of material support that is needed in such circumstances, and that research has shown to be so crucial. Teachers are trained, and then provided with the poster board, glue, personal lesson planning books, rulers and paper that they need to apply new methods and curricula effectively.
Another Givology partner, Beijing Western Sunshine Foundation, is especially worth mentioning. Operating in poor rural villages in the Gansu province— where teachers often lack the skill, knowledge and training needed to provide students with appropriate grade-level instruction— they deal with the learning gap problem every day, in one of the most internationally visible contexts. Much has been written about the negative impact of China’s growth and new demographics on educational opportunity in the countryside. A 2014 [url=]New York Times article[/url] drew attention to the “dearth of qualified instructors” in rural Chinese schools and as recently as last April, [url=]The Economist published a story[/url] illustrating the dire state of education in rural Chinese villages. The Beijing Western Sunshine Foundation is confronting this issue every day through its Village Teacher Training program. Since 2005, it has trained over thirty teachers, providing them with specialized training in English and Arts curricula (areas otherwise lacking in support). The program has been effective, with student test performance increasing by eight to ten percentage points. Since its founding, the Beijing Western Sunshine Rural Development Foundation has received accolades from organizations and research facilities from across China.
These and other organizations are doing important work to address learning gaps that negatively impact poor, rural, and female (and other) students in the developing world. While more impact evaluations are needed, there are a number of programs that have been proven effective at improving learning outcomes for the least advantaged students in the developing world.


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