Beyond Armed Conflict and Emergency: the Role of Education and Training in Tackling Urban Violence

By Jovana Carapic, and Luisa Phebo, Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) Programme, NORRAG.

Urban spaces are going to be the locus of future armed conflict and organized violence. The signs are inescapable.

One reason for this is that the nature of armed conflict is changing. Traditionally conceptualized as conflict between or within states, the number and intensity (in terms of battle deaths) of armed conflict has decreased since 1990. Although armed conflict is not going to disappear – as illustrated by the recent events in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine – evidence suggests that it is no longer necessarily the most important source of insecurity affecting the majority of individuals around the globe. Instead, ‘everyday’ forms of lethal (often armed) violence in non-conflict settings accounts for the highest proportion of insecurity.

There has also been a change in where organized violence occurs. Although historically armed conflicts tend to take place in rural areas, contemporary warfare, insurgencies, and other forms of organized violence are increasingly concentrated in cities. The ‘urban’ nature of organized violence is also evident in non-conflict settings.  Indeed, when national homicide rates are disaggregated, it becomes evident that lethal violence is now more prominent in urban areas than rural areas, and that it disproportionately affects certain sub-sections of the population like women and youth.

Another reason is simply that the world’s population is rapidly urbanizing, especially in the Global South. In 2025, the urban population in Africa is expected to be larger than in Europe and Latin America; although half of the world’s urban population already lives in Asia, urbanisation in the region is expected to continue and lead to the creation of at least five mega-cities; finally, and even though Latin America is considered to be the most urbanised region in the world, the region is seeing a rise in city-to-city migration resulting in the proliferation of medium-sized cities.

Uneven urban development is yet another reason. Urbanization is often considered to be an indicator of development. This of course begs the question: whose development? Historically urbanization was closely associated with the formation of the state, consolidation of the use of force, and economic development. This was especially the case in Europe. Today, many low and middle-income countries which are undergoing the highest rates of urbanisation are not experiencing these benefits.

Arguably, one of the main reasons for this is that many developing countries are unable to deal with the rapid demographic shifts resulting from rural-urban migration. National and municipal government have only a limited amount of resources for fostering civic engagement, economic growth, and social inclusion in urban settings. To make it more explicit, while urban spaces are expanding (both in population and territory), this has not necessarily been met with an expansion in municipal institutions and capacities – especially those related to the provision of services such as security and education.

Consequently, political, economic and social policies tend to be unevenly implemented resulting in the ‘fragmentation’ of urban space which leads to cities becoming sites of socio-economic inequalities and characterised by pockets of insecurity. Together these changes have been found to lead to social and political crises – including in Brazil, Egypt, Tunisia, and Venezuela – but also have the possibility of transforming into full-blown armed conflict – like in Libya and Ukraine.

In other words, as a result of the various dynamics of global urbanisation – from where armed conflict is fought, to increased rural-urban migration, to uneven and fragmented cities – it is likely that in the future more conflicts, violent or not, are going to occur in cities.

The recognition that urban violence is a considerable threat to the stability and development of states and the wellbeing of their citizens has led international researchers and policymakers to tackle urban violence. This is often been done through the support and implementation of various armed violence prevention and reduction programmes (AVPR) or citizen security programmes. Central to many of these programmes is the provision of various types of education and training to youth – especially young males who are the main perpetrators (but also victims) of urban violence.

Arguably, the ‘theory of change’ behind many of these initiatives is two-sided: on the one hand, it aims to provide ‘tangible skills’ which allow individuals to find valuable employment (getting them off the streets and out of the reach of gangs); on the other hand, it aims to change behavior by providing ‘life skills’ which would foster productive civil engagement and reduce the resort to violence.

Thus, education – conceptualized broadly to include formal, non-formal and informal schooling, training, and learning – is potentially a central feature of any comprehensive effort to reduce and mitigate violent conflict in society and its potential escalation into collective violence. A significant portion of the globally implemented AVPR and citizen security programmes can be found within a handful of countries.

Brazil and South Africa are particularly good examples. In the past two decades, these countries have not only been characterized by high levels of socio-economic development, but also acute urbanization, inequality and high levels of lethal (mostly urban) violence. Thus, rather than being something new or a possible scenario for the future, urban violence is a ‘constant’ in these societies. This is important because it means that the development of various programmes and initiatives for dealing with organized violence have not been developed from scratch – like they are in conflict or post-conflict settings – but have organically evolved as the rate or urbanization and urban violence increased.

Consequently, Brazil and South Africa have been described as ‘laboratories ’for the prevention of urban violence, highlighting both scenarios of success and failure.

Experiences in these contexts allow for an examination of existing AVPR and citizen security programmes that focus on education (broadly conceived), but also for insights into their successes and failures (given the availability of evaluation studies and data). Insights from these two countries are important for they not only pave the way for current (and future) cross-national cooperation and learning, but also can feed into the international policy dialogue on the role of education and training for dealing with urban violence.

In this context, NORRAG’s most recent Programme of Work – Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) – aims to critically engage in the debate and examine the role of education in situations of urban violence. In view of the need to further understand what education programmes and initiatives are being implemented to tackle (either directly or indirectly) violence in the urban context, the programme will engage in a ‘mapping’ exercise of projects in Brazil and South Africa. The initiative aims to foster the development of research on the relationship between conflict, violence, and education which will be able to feed into the development of effective educational policies in urban settings – both from an international and national perspective.

Jovana Carapic is Research Officer for NORRAG’s Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) Programme. She has extensive expertise in the field of conflict studies, in particular on urban violence and the relationship between various forms of armed groups and the state. Her research has taken her to East Timor, Nepal, and Serbia. Email:

Luisa Phebo is part of NORRAG’s Conflict, Violence, Education and Training (CVET) team. She has previously worked at Viva Rio’s project management department in Brazil, and recently spent one month in Haiti visiting the organisation’ programmes as an independent researcher. Email:

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Lessons From Chengdu (2): The Political Economy of Learning Metrics

By Trey Menefee , Hong Kong Institute of Education

pic3I argued in my previous NORRAG NEWSBite post, Lessons From Chengdu: The Case For ‘Open-Source’ Learning Metric Methods, that easily accessible non-proprietary learning metric methodologies would be a valuable asset to the international education community. What I argue here is that metrics themselves are not the problem. We are familiar with the adage that we cannot manage what we cannot measure, but to this we should add that metrics make for terrible managers. However, metrics go beyond just saying something – they seem to tell us what to do. An antidote to this is employing what might be called the ‘Scott Audit’, which answers three questions James C. Scott (2012) has proposed as a framework for navigating the politics and anti-politics of metrics. This post will use this auditing technique on our Chengdu research and conclude by showing how the issues addressed link directly with problems in the technical and vocational skills development (TVSD) sector.

  1. What is the relationship between the proposed quantitative index and the construct – the thing in the world – it is supposed to measure?

There is a risk that the metrics are measuring against the wrong norms or that they carry more symbolic weight than they can or should carry. Many rightly scoff at league tables associated with PISA which aim to offer a specific number showing how one school system is better than another. From another perspective, we see the Brookings-UIS Africa Learning Barometer doing an excellent job using learning metrics to expose the shallowness of another: enrollment rates. Their work shows that “37 million African children will learn so little while in they are in school that they will not be much better off than those kids who never attend school.”

In the Chengdu study, one of the earliest issues encountered was that Chinese English tests scores often have a low correspondence with a student’s actual ability to communicate in English. These tests measure what might be called “virtual English” – a reorganization of communicative English in ways that made it more accommodating to rote memorization and assessment. This fosters a justified concern amongst educators that focusing on communicative language teaching, usually considered best practice for language acquisition, might hinder student test scores.

Further, the merging of value-for-money approaches and performance-based development metrics lends itself toward breeding inequality within the unequal. There were substantial inequalities both between the private schools for migrants in Chengdu and within the classes. The easiest way for an NGO, school, or teacher to get measurable impact and ‘bang for the buck’ would be to ignore the struggling students and concentrate resources on the higher performing schools and students. A shallow analysis of learning outcome improvements, for instance an increase in the number of students ‘passing’ the Zhongkao English section, runs a high risk of identifying the most inequitable interventions as having the highest impact.

  1. Is a political question being hidden or evaded under the guise of quantification?

pic4Knowledge-based barriers to social mobility might be thought of as coming in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Illiteracy is an intrinsic barrier when someone can’t read the instructions, signposts, or maps that might lead to a better livelihood. By and large, white collar jobs exclude the illiterate because literacy is genuinely necessary to perform those jobs competently. On the other hand, my hometown denied many African-Americans the right to vote through the use of literacy tests until it was outlawed in 1965. It would be morally indefensible to approach this problem with the solution of increasing literacy rates, no matter how valuable literacy might otherwise be. This is amongst the most difficult but important issues when working with learning metrics: determining whether the metrics are genuinely of intrinsic usefulness or whether they are instead being used extrinsically as tools for social closure.


A primary mechanism of social closure with learning metrics is a very specific type of equality – an equality in expectations. In context to English, it begins with unrealistic and largely uncontested curricular assumptions that all students are performing at roughly the same level. These expectations move into the classroom and create an environment where every student studies the same material at the same time, regardless of their command of the subject. The idea of equality is contorted, such that many schools and parents believe that offering remedial classes would be inequitable.

In practice, this amounts to the academic equivalent of a death march. Students furthest away from this arbitrarily invented academic norm find themselves abandoned by their schools, teachers, and textbooks a little bit more every day. There is little sense of progress for many students: the curriculum appears to march three steps forward with every stride they take. English, in this view, is deployed in China as a tool of social closure more than a subject of intrinsic value. These Chengdu students were failing by design. There are lessons here for any post-2015 goal requiring minimum learning outcomes. Who, exactly, will pay the price for failing to meet these new standards?

  1. What are the possibilities for colonization or subversion of the index, such as misreporting, feedback effects, or the prejudicing of other substantive goals?

Theodore Porter (1996, p. 43) poignantly noted that, “quantitative technologies work best… if the world they aim to describe can be remade in their own image.” There is a constant and largely unacknowledged dialectic that prioritizing specific outputs transforms the inputs. Whenever new learning outcomes are deemed important for success we find teachers and administrators transforming curricula to meet these expectations. Scott (2012, p. 116) aptly calls these ‘colonizing metrics.’

The importance of English in Chinese academic testing elevates it to compulsory, rather than an elective, subject. It joins a handful of academic skills that become ever more condensed as students matriculate. Questions mostly revolve around how to increase quality and improve scores, rather than challenging the fundamentals of the situation. It is through this mechanism that students, parents, teachers, and civil society get trapped in playing perpetual catch-up in a game that is designed to exclude three out four Chinese youth from higher education access.

While parents and students should be expected to adapt to these situations, researchers and institutions involved in collecting and analyzing learning metrics are in a position to identify and critique situations of education-based opportunity hoarding. At this, we too often fail. The conceptual purpose of PISA, TIMMS-PIRLS, or SAQMEQ scores rarely seem to rise above showing how much a country, district, or a school deviates from others. There is a danger that the post-2015 learning targets, should they come to pass, might begin a process of transforming schools systems around the world into machines that produce higher scores of questionable value that attract more aid dollars, higher league table rankings, and electoral advantage. The metrics themselves too readily sideline contentious politics and become managers.

Collecting internationally comparable learning metrics are a valuable tool for understanding educational inequalities if it can put politics front and center. They are dangerous when uncritically mixed with positivism and teleological assumptions about performativity. It would have been problematic if the primary rationale for collecting our Chengdu data was to only answer how scores might be improved, rather than to look at how learning outcomes were being used against students. The ‘Scott Audit’ used here is one way of ensuring that the politics of educational performance and development stay in focus.

This analytical lens highlights the proverbial elephant in the room: while there are two streams of secondary education in China, only one is seen as viable: the college preparatory track. Problems in China’s second stream, vocational  education, make it unattractive to even the most marginalized families. In this view, the problem was not low English scores but a lack of educational options for the 75% of students who won’t make it to university. What our learning metrics data provided was snapshot showing how many students were likely to fall off and the limitations of improving academic performance to improve equity. The better question to take from our data is not how to universalize high quality English education for a hundred million children, but “what’s an equitable Plan B?”

Trey Menefee is Lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and is currently working on the primary statistical report for the 19th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, which focuses on educational quality and inequality. Email:

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Lessons From Chengdu: The Case For ‘Open-Source’ Learning Metric Methods

By Trey Menefee, Hong Kong Institute of Education.


A few years ago I tried to learn a research technique called Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) that is used to understand complex adaptive systems. The learning curve for ABM was high because it required researchers to learn how to code. This learning curve was made a little less steep with, a website dedicated to “improving the way we develop, share, and utilize” these models. The ethos of the website was that people could share the codes for their models using a Creative Commons license, describe how it works and what the known issues were, and open their models for critique and improvement from a knowledgeable user community. Arizona State University and the Sante Fe Institute managed the website, ensuring a degree of quality control.

During my involvement with the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) I came to see that the open-ended consultative style that Brookings and UNESCO UIS employed created something of a Rorschach Test. Nearly everyone exposed to the LMTF’s work saw something different in the inkblot. Among other things, what I saw was the possibility of something like for learning metric methodologies. It would be a place where discussions continued and methods evolve rather than having the settled finality of PISA. It would be free and have effectively no barriers to entry. Users would be people who might want to deploy these methodologies, and might need to make trade-offs between cost and rigor, and might need help in seeing the strengths and weaknesses of different assessment methodologies. Both results and methods would be shared by users.

Rebecca Winthrop of Brookings recently wrote that assessments should be seen as a “public good”, that “measures for the indicators recommended for global tracking must be considered a public good, with tools, documentation and data made freely available.” By definition, a proprietary good for sale on the market isn’t be a ‘public good’. The need for a non-proprietary and accessible toolkit like this was recently made apparent to me during a project working with migrant children in Chengdu. Condensing a very complex issue, migrant children in Chinese cities are denied the right to an education in urban public schools. Some can gain access, others enroll in low-cost private schools, and more than sixty million simply stay behind with relatives while their parents go off to work. Huizhi Social Work Service Center, an NGO that works with urban migrant populations, wanted to create a program to help some of these urban students. After consulting with stakeholders they identified English as the subject most in need of reform.

English is required for the middle school entrance exam (the Zhongkao), which was a make-or-break test to determine who would get to study for the National Entrance Exam (the Gaokao), which in turn determined higher education opportunities. My task to assist them with baseline observations and analysis was made difficult for two reasons: (a) comparative assessment methodologies for this demographic are in short supply, and (b) the contexts around student’s performance was political and needed data to be approached from this angle. The first issue is discussed in this post and the second will be addressed in a second post on NORRAG NEWSBite.

For the most part, English assessment is a business. While the Common European Reference Framework (CERF) provides an open and internationally comparable standard for assessing language proficiency, nearly all the tools for doing the assessment are either context-specific (e.g., for a school district) or proprietary (e.g., TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, etc.). The internationally comparable assessments are services for sale, not methods for researchers and organizations to use in contexts of poverty and inequality. That these tests have been developed for the market rather than the needs of educational planning or evaluation warped the assessments themselves. The market is almost exclusively focused on the upper end and occupied with issues like international university admissions. There are a dozen good options for assessing whether or not a Beijing adult speaks English well enough for an American graduate school, but there was little of relevance to the ten year old son of a Chengdu construction worker.

For me, this is the most compelling case for the LMTF: there was nowhere for Huizhi to find a high quality, internationally comparable assessment for their own staff to deploy. I was stuck in a maze of proprietary vendors. English assessment experts that I asked could think of no alternatives, usually designing their own assessments for specific purposes. At present, there are few good places to look towards to find the tools for the sort of ‘wake up’ Dr. Banerji called for on NORRAG NEWSBite in an August 2014 post.. TIMMS-PIRLS offers one open-ish model, though it’s arguably centralized, ‘one-size-fits-all’, and discourages innovation or adaptation to other learning subjects like English as a Foreign Language. The students already had such a purpose-built assessment in the Zhongkao, though its value in assessing actual English communicative competency is questionable (this is discussed in the next post on this blog). Ultimately I used a sample test for the TOEFL Junior, one of the few proprietary instruments developed for primary and secondary students, provided on the ETS website.

pic2We collected data in ninth grade classes in five schools in Chengdu. In my interpretation, the results showed that the vast majority of students were almost impossibly far behind in their English. On average, only one in twenty students crossed a threshold that could be considered lower-intermediate level (CEFR B1 equivalent, where they ‘can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, or leisure’). In some schools, almost half of the students told us that they found the assessment so difficult that they randomly guessed at answers without trying. These schools had systemically low quality with high turnover rates for teachers, crowded classrooms, and occasionally violent classroom management techniques. Using estimates of tertiary enrollment rates for this demographic, I estimated that out of five hundred students, Huizhi’s plan for increasing scores by 5% might send only six additional children out of 500 to university. The political contexts of what these results  mean are explored in the next post on NORRAG NEWSBite, Lessons From Chengdu: The Political Economy of Learning Metrics.

The ease, though ambiguous legal propriety of using ETS’s copyrighted material, of deploying the TOEFL Junior practice test allowed one of my students, Li Yixing, to conduct her own survey in Shanghai at a cost of only her time. Her preliminary findings suggested that similar students were doing significantly better than those I met in Chengdu, despite being two years younger. While I have doubts about the efficacy and ability to raise migrant English scores in Chengdu, these Shanghai metrics offer a new window into understanding what Shanghai is doing differently, how comparable the groupings really are, and ultimately whether there are lessons from either Shanghai or Chengdu that might be useful for groups like Huizhi. Were we to find a better assessment and share its methodology with other organizations and researchers, there is hope that we could create a more nuanced statistical snapshot of educational inequalities within China than anything that has yet been produced.

Trey Menefee is Lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and is currently working on the primary statistical report for the 19th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, which focuses on educational quality and inequality. Email:

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The Post-2015 Agenda: Examining the Youth Perspective and their Partnership Potential

By Nayantara Naik, Freelance International Education Consultant, New York, New York.

The voice of youth: Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth

The voice of youth?: Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth

At sixteen, I attended a National Student Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. Arriving at the program, I was skeptical. How could anyone teach leadership? Over the course of 10 days, I embarked on what was one of the most challenging journeys of my life. I began with grappling with basic principles of self-awareness and questions centered around: “Who was I?” “What did I have to offer?” “If the world did not use my academic achievements as a criteria for my competence, would I consider myself competent?” “What is self-empowerment?”

As if these questions weren’t maddening enough, I was then tasked to create action plans for my vision of helping communities succeed. To not only think about what I could do to help my community, but to implement my plan strategically. I was charged to act. After eventually organizing student volunteers to help a local farmer meet his annual quota of corn harvest for the year, I left the program invigorated. Years later, after receiving my Masters in International Education Development, I find myself watching debates around the post-2015 agenda and asking again, “What do I have to offer?” (as a self-described member of the youth demographic) and “What can I do?.”

The aim of this post is simply a think piece directed towards policy makers, foundation leaders, civil society members and corporation heads. My question is how can we, with respect to education initiatives, think more broadly about incorporating youth engagement in our policy endeavors in the post-2015 debates? Moreover, can we maximize partnerships with youth, to educate and simultaneously encourage these future economic, social leaders to act towards resolving key development issues?

Encouraging Milestones Towards Acknowledging Youth Perspectives

National and international bodies are taking significant steps to engage as well as understand the scope of youth contribution. The Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), for example, has set a precedent among the international community to refine the commitments made to realize equitable and quality based systems of education for children globally. With reference to youth, GEFI makes notable efforts in partnering with youth advocacy groups internationally to gauge their perspectives on relevant development initiatives. To this end, it was personally interesting when looking at youth (ages 16-30) responses in South Asia, to see that the top two preferred intervention areas seem to be 1) a good education and 2) an honest and responsive government. Mainly because education is vital in developing key temperaments for sustainable development and responsive partnerships with governments (and in general) seem like logical levers for substantial social change. It is encouraging that youth are independently identifying these areas.

In parallel, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban-Ki-Moon, has illustrated his commitment to youth by recently appointing a United Nations Envoy for Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi. Mr. Alhendawi, at 29 years of age is the youngest envoy in the history of the Organization. This move was unprecedented.

On national levels, there are also significant strides being taken to incorporate youth engagement. Taking India as a case study in South Asia, according to the National Consultation Report—Post-2015 Development Framework, according to the 2011 census, an estimated 358 million people (or approximately 30% of the population) are between the ages of 10-24. In February 2014, as part of the Development Framework’s study to understand the population more comprehensively, four NGOs conducted regional consultations with over 100 youth organizations in India. The qualitative findings showed: “The young people want to be an integral part of the process of deciding from planning to execution. Therefore the demand is for an investment with and in young people to ensure that they are able to realize their full human potential as leaders and decision makers/change agents today and tomorrow.” Recommendations from the Framework suggest multiple options from Ministry restructuring to include a more definitive division of Ministry of Youth from Sport, youth commissions, entrepraneurship workshops, media engagement, a focus on youth in fragile states, and legal aid for youth.

Additionally, Ms. Frederika Meijer, UNFPA Representative from India and Bhutan, has developed an interactive Youth of India Portal for various stakeholders in society to check in on vital statistics related to youth demographics. In general, a methodical attempt to track and assess hard data related to Indian youth is at minimum a solid start in researching youth trends.

Looking Ahead

While this is encouraging, the task of formally recognizing these youth partnerships as more then isolated endeavors or as segments to simply address mechanically remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, the factors are complex and there is genuine interest among noted professionals in thinking critically about these challenges. However, sustaining the momentum seems to be vital to future development success.

Internationally, sharing lessons learned and developing joint initiatives could be beneficial. Specifically, there is scope for foundations to partner with each other to exchange financial and intellectual resources. Partnerships between South Asian foundations and foreign companies, for example, could be productive. In essence, collaboration could generate powerful results. Domestic organizations might have the knowledge on what has worked best for their communities, why not allow those organizations to take the lead on tailoring youth specific plans? Or at a minimum, why not invite South Asian Foundations/ Entrepreneurs to the table when it comes to dialogue about future initiatives?

As noted by the earlier mentioned Indian National Consultation Report, there seems to also be untapped potential in forming partnerships domestically between civil society organizations, corporations and international bodies. Outcomes, for example, could be: entrepreneurship workshops, skills in strategic planning, or even earmarking education funding to understand how to interweave this focii into curriculum development. If agencies in the U.S., with a less numerous youth demographic, started incorporating similar initiatives on a state by state basis, the scope for sustainable development initiatives with youth could be extremely positive. To this end, it seems paramount that especially when considering the next steps of designing the post-2015 agenda, we address the need to psychologically prepare youth for development challenges through our commitments.

Further, governments can tangibly benefit by engaging in an intrinsic shift in their value system. Mainly, towards one that recognizes youth as potential architects of solutions to problems, rather than as passive constituents of society. Correspondingly, it seems logical that the subsequent government action plans should honor these commitments and incorporate youth as leaders in the quest to sustain relevant initiatives.

Nayantara Naik is a recent M.A. Graduate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her M.A. focused on International Education Development, Human Rights and Public Policy. She is currently working on a research team for the Global Partnerships Forum’s book project and is an independent International Education Consultant currently located in New York. Email:

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The Challenges of Implementing Assessment to Improve Learning – the Latest Report from the Learning Metrics Task Force

By Rukmini Banerji, Pratham and Learning Metrics Task Force.

LMTFAs is common on hot summer afternoons in villages in India, a man lay resting on a string cot under the mango tree. It was a Sunday.  His three sons were playing nearby. The father knew that there was a survey of children and education going on in the village. “Yes, they all go to school” he told us as we approached.  “May I ask them to read?” I asked. The father looked sceptical. “Yes, you can, but they do go to school” he explained patiently.  We took out the one page reading tool. The reading tasks were straightforward. The paper in my hand had four sections – some letters, common everyday words, a simple four sentence paragraph and a eight line little story – all in large black font.[1]  Even the story was easy; the text was no more difficult than the text in the Grade 2 textbook. Still resting on the cot, the father watched as we persuaded each child to read. The first son was still quite little, maybe six or so. He struggled even with the letters. The middle son was at least nine and was enrolled in third grade. He sounded out each letter aloud and could only read up to the word level. By this time, the father was sitting up, curious and startled.  The oldest son had finished five years of primary school. He went further in his attempt to read than his brothers. But he too found it difficult to read the story fluently. By this time, the father had got off the cot and was standing beside his sons. He looked shocked. “How is it possible, he wanted to know, “that children can go to school and still not be reading?”

The global discussion on education is increasingly moving beyond access to access plus learning. In this changing landscape, measurement of learning and its role in improving learning will grow.

Measurement is seen as critical for feeding into policy and practice decisions for improving learning, and the recently released report Toward Universal Learning: Implementing Assessment to Improve Learning (the third report in a series brought out by the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) convened by UNESCO Institute of Statistics and Brookings Institution) lays out the challenges that lie ahead.

In the education systems of many developing countries, until recently measurement has been mainly related to counting and recording information.  How many schools, how many teachers, how many children enrolled, how much money spent and on what, how many children “passed” which examinations, and so on. This accounting and reporting function has been done routinely by government education departments for many years and in essence is no different from the work done by many other government departments. But now, with children’s learning outcomes moving to the centre of the stage, the terrain is changing. Familiar formulae and routine methods that worked for enumerating enrolment and access will no longer work. Countries and citizens will be forced to go back to the drawing board to think about what is important to measure, how can it be done, who will measure and how will these measurements lead to improvement.

Like the father under the mango tree in a village in India, many countries will “wake up”. Assessments that lead to old assumptions being challenged will be needed. Like the father who simply assumed that schooling would lead to learning, countries and education systems will have to re-examine their assumptions about the actual relationship between schooling and learning. In many countries of Africa and south Asia, large numbers of parents have either not been to school or have had little schooling. Mechanisms and methods will have to be innovated on scale to enable such parents to effectively engage with children as they learn. In centralized and bureaucratic education systems where decisions are taken in the highest levels, discussions about children’s learning cannot only be left only to the highest levels.[2]  Debates and discussions about what children should be learning and how that can be improved need to happen in households, schools and communities. New kinds of measurement can be a way for un-locking new ways of understanding the problem of learning and of searching for solutions to help children learn well. Depending on who does it and how, measurement of learning will have a critical role to play in ensuring that policymakers, practitioners and parents “see” the learning crisis, “feel” the problem and prepare to deal with the learning crisis in a meaningful way.


Dr Rukmini Banerji is a member of the national leadership team of Pratham, and was a co-chair for the first phase of the Global Learning Metrics Task Force. Email:


[1] This reading tool is part of the ASER effort in India. ASER stands for Annual Status of Education Report. See Similar household based, citizen led national assessments of basic learning are now done in many countries (example ASER in Pakistan, Uwezo in East Africa, Beekongo in Mali, Jangandoo in Senegal).

[2] I have heard Carol Bellamy, the former head of UNICEF say that “education is too important to be left to educationists alone”.

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Rebalancing Progress in Education: How to Deliver on Improvements in Access and Quality?

By Leni Wild, ODI.

Rather than a sole focus on financing education and the debate over how much money is needed, Leni Wild suggests we shift our focus to building effective systems and political leadership that can deliver.

Political dynamics lead to differing gains in education access and quality

Political dynamics lead to differing gains in education access and quality

July began with new commitments to financing for education in developing countries, with the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education. Significant re-investment was raised ($28.5 billion for global education for 2015-2018), although the target for donor contributions fell short of what was expected.

This financing for education remains vital, but it is striking that the education debate continues to focus on how much money is needed. What’s missing for me is debate on how to best spend resources, and what else might be needed for sustained improvements in learning. Recent recognition of a ‘learning crisis’, with improved access to education but shortfalls in quality globally, reinforces the need to understand what else can rebalance progress in this area.

One emerging insight is striking: that the real issue might not be how much money, but how to build effective systems and political leadership that can deliver. What really matters here are the incentives of political elites – as ODI’s Director, Kevin Watkins, recently highlighted, Nigeria provides a classic case in point, in that its high economic growth rates have not translated into greater spending on education or improvements in quality and access. This reflects political choices in Nigeria – as Kevin notes, it is part of a wider political failure.

What shapes ‘political failures’ like this? In a recent Working Paper, we argue that the current emphasis on financing and the way in which progress has been measured to date may create a ‘perfect storm’. At the domestic level, political incentives can be skewed towards areas that are visible, targetable, and perceived to offer high political rewards. At the global level, this has been reinforced through Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets and an emphasis on what is more easily measurable. Our research draws on work by ODI and the University of Birmingham, which has mapped the technical characteristics of sectors like education that reinforce particular types of incentives and behaviours over others.

What does this mean, in a nutshell? Well, we find that while political prioritisation of education can drive progress, some activities or tasks can have greater political salience than others, offering higher political ‘returns’ to individual politicians. What matters is how easily politicians can claim credit for a particular output or whether citizens will connect improvements with political performance (i.e. how visible they are). Areas that are more complex, where it is harder for citizens to discern the role of politicians or government, may offer lower returns. This can translate into higher investment in more tangible inputs, like building more schools or hiring more teachers. Longer term investments in, for example, teacher quality or learning methods are less visible – and can be perceived as offering lower political rewards as a result.

At the global level, this focus on the visible has been reinforced, unwittingly, by an MDG framework that has reinforced an emphasis on access measures (such as enrolment numbers) rather than learning and quality measures.

While these are common dynamics, they are not fixed or inevitable. New Development Progress research highlights countries where domestic incentives have worked differently, and suggests that concerted political efforts and system-wide reform are needed for significant improvements in both education quality and access.

One common factor across these case studies is finding ways to make quality more visible on public and political agendas. Chile, for example, is one of the few countries to have improved the quality of its basic education significantly in recent decades. During the Pinochet era, an independent and rigorous national assessment system, the SIMCE (Sistema de Medición de la Calidad de la Educación), gave parents information on school performance, putting pressure on the education system to perform and developing a market for education to drive quality. In the democratic era, this strategy was maintained and augmented by regular participation in international assessment tests, with Chile’s poor performance in these tests used by the government to boost support for continuing and investing in education reforms. Other promising models of large-scale citizen-led assessment include the Annual Status of Education Report in India and Uwezo in East Africa , which test student competencies and publicise the results to create broad awareness, debate and momentum for change.

Another common factor is genuine efforts to create greater school-based management. In some parts of Indonesia, a country that has made huge efforts to improve educational outcomes, more effective school-based management as part of decentralisation efforts have provided greater flexibility on allocation decisions and has, in some areas, made quality issues more visible. While this isn’t the case uniformly throughout the country, it reinforces Lant Pritchett’s argument for the need for more flexible, locally based management of education provision, rather than top-down centralised systems, to put the spotlight on issues that matter most locally. This often requires the building or strengthening of coalitions to mobilise action, both within and outside the state systems.

At the global level, these findings suggest that proposals for a post-2015 goal on education quality could also help to re-balance global attention and efforts, but only if complimented by these types of changes at the domestic level.

These cases confirm that positive change is possible – but it means doing things differently and requires more than money. This needs to be the focus as we head into a year of major international agreements and pledges, and as funders like DFID invest more heavily in understanding how to secure quality improvements and more effective education systems…


Leni Wild is a Research Fellow in Politics and Governance at ODI. She is an expert in political economy and service delivery, accountability and aid, focusing on fragile and post-conflict countries.


This blog post originally appeared on the Development Progress Blog at the end of July 2014.

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From Government to Governance: Reflections on Global Education Governance and the Global South

By Barbara Trudell, SIL Africa.

globeGovernment is a funny thing. Sometimes it stands as the defender and protector of the vulnerable, and sometimes it is the perpetrator of all manner of injustices. We expect marvels from the state, and at the same time we find all kinds of ways to belittle it.

Where education is concerned, it’s no different. Poor exam results? Blame the government. Under-resourced and under-motivated teachers? it’s the government’s fault. I‘m told that in the UK, one can even blame the government for the weather!

Having said that, it has always seemed to me that the provision of education really is the state’s role. Curriculum content is supposed to reflect and reproduce national identity and values; the formal education experience is supposed to build well informed and productive national citizens. That is not how it always turns out, of course, and in fact the language development organization I work for spends a great deal of effort on advocacy with education authorities on behalf of those whom the state seems to be ignoring.

But something odd is happening in education.  Rather than supporting and strengthening the state’s ability to provide quality education for its citizens, we now see significant international power brokers supporting the notion that education provision can and should be open to “the market”. Private education provision is a major income source in the African country I live in, even as the public education system struggles with issues of quality inputs and quality outcomes. But moving responsibility for shaping the nation’s future citizens from the state to private, for-profit institutions is disquieting, especially given the hegemony of economic globalization around the world. When the OECD becomes a global arbiter of educational quality (with the promotion of PISA worldwide), the most important aspects of children’s learning are trivialized – swept aside in favor of the dubious promises of “education for economic growth”.

Hence we see the move from government to governance, where the state’s role is increasingly about regulating what everyone else is teaching the nation’s kids. Without denigrating the importance of private education in many countries, this move towards seeing education as a profitable transnational business, unlinked in any meaningful way to national goals and local civic realities, is scary. The for-profit motive is relatively amoral, unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of what it does – and such a motive is all right in its place, but not when you want to build a sense of ethics, civic responsibility and national identity into the children of the nation.

What makes it worse, I think, is the notion that a ‘global’ approach to education is actually going to serve the children of the educationally, economically, socially, and culturally marginalized. What we see instead is that ‘global’ priorities are readily taken on by national elites, but the “masses” are left behind. It is far too easy to look at a society and only see the people who are easiest to relate to, those who are familiar already with the ‘global knowledge’ on offer, those whose clothes, manners, language fluency and IT-literacy make them comfortable to work with.  But the uncomfortable fact is that these elites do not represent more than a tiny fraction of the population. In some quarters the notion of “humane” global education governance is being mooted. But how humane can global governance be, if by its very nature it ignores or denigrates the local educational realities of most of the Global South?

So it seems that global education governance is a great idea, if you are a global power player. If you are not, then maybe not so much. And when it comes to education, the people need a provider whose bottom line is accountability to society, not to the profit margins of investors. Any of us who engage with educational governance at the global level need to keep that fact front-and-center.


Barbara Trudell, PhD is the director of research and advocacy for SIL Africa Area.  She has lived and worked in Africa since 1993. Her association with NORRAG began in 2002, as NORRAG’s first “assistant for development”. Email:

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