Established in 2008, Palavra de Criança (in English, Word of the Child) is a program designed to ensure that children in Brazil’s poorest regions become literate at the right age. Its uniqueness is partly a function of its multi-dimensional approach: learning assessment data are used to guide instruction, in-service training supplements teacher competencies, and parent-and caretaker-focused strategies foster community support for literacy.
The success of the program has not only led to its expansion from a small pilot (based in two municipalities) to full-state implementation (224 municipalities in 2013) but has also influenced the establishment of a national literacy program for children in the early grades of primary school. As it continues to evolve, Palavra de Criança has expanded its focus to include pre-primary education and holistic child development and increased its geographic reach, with pilots either underway or being planned in other regions of Brazil.
An opportunistic response to demand and the availability of financing
A review of Palavra de Criança’s scaling suggests that its evolution and adaptation have been opportunistic: the program has grown in response to demand and the availability of financing. Even with a seemingly strong programmatic model and leadership, both luck and circumstances have proved critical.
The UNICEF “brand,” as referenced by several of those interviewed, has helped create critical buy-in, especially among government officials. Program stakeholders perceived UNICEF as conferring a high degree of legitimacy, derived both from its global brand and its significant presence in the field. Its involvement with Palavra de Criança served to cultivate initial interest and strengthen existing relationships (as with the secretary of education in Amazonas). The organization’s global appeal was cited by municipal officials and several mayors noted the symbolic importance of achieving the UNICEF seal. UNICEF has wisely used this credibility to “start the conversation” with those who may provide technical and financial support and, in one instance, incubate an organization (ProBem) to serve as an implementing partner.
The reputation of implementing partners has also been crucial, especially at the local level. For example, the program’s pilot in 14 municipalities in Amazonas became a reality not only because of the efforts of UNICEF, but also because of the reputation of its local partner, the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation (FAS). FAS’ network of relationships, cultivated from nearly ten-years of engaged regional presence, proved invaluable for Palavra de Criança’s expansion.
Human capacity matters at all levels
The apparent success of Palavra de Criança can be attributed to a number of factors, including the sound technical design of the program. But at the forefront have been the competence and passion of the program personnel. Strong leaders are present at all levels. To wit:
— Palavra de Criança possesses true champions from its regional UNICEF offices, who are keenly aware of and able to navigate the political economy of Northern Brazil. These leaders have not only generated buy-in for the program but also helped to create institutional norms and values, such as cultivating the culture of the child in the classroom, that have since been adopted.
— Leaders from UNICEF Brazil provided an enabling environment, one in which innovation was encouraged, and supported the application that led to program implementation in the Amazonas.
— Staff members from partnering organizations have brought to bear strong technical expertise, which has ensured that the program’s teaching strategies are grounded in robust evidence and are communicated to teachers in a digestible manner. In this role, they have served as a key intermediary scaling-up institution.
— The commitment of government leaders, as evidenced by the enactment of enabling policy measures (such as the new literacy policy) and financial commitments, has also been instrumental to the program’s success.
The relationship between individual competence and program success is consistent with existing literature, including Hartmann and Linn’s understanding that “more than anything else, scaling up is about political and organizational leadership, vision and values,” and Bing and Epstein’s assertion that “simultaneous achievement of excellence and scale under challenging developing country conditions requires an entire range of dedicated stakeholders with a strong belief in the organization and its mission.”
Defining scaling beyond the number of beneficiaries
As exemplified by Palavra de Criança’s evolution, scaling does not simply imply the growth of a program in terms of individuals reached. It should be viewed as a more dynamic process in which dimensions such as depth are as important as spread.
Applying Hartmann and Linn’s dimensions of scaling, Palavra de Criança has shown an ability to adapt and mature quantitatively, functionally, politically, and organizationally. Quantitative replication occurred as the program model spread within Piauí and has grown to the Amazonas and potentially other regions (in 2016). This quantitative scaling is the result of many factors, but has been particularly aided by the flexibility of the model: municipalities can customize the program to their needs, and as such, are more likely to support the program. Functional scaling, which refers to expansion in the set of programmatic activities, is evident in the inclusion of pre-primary grades and the addition of family-centered activities and training. Political scaling remains an ongoing activity, with UNICEF playing a key role in engaging municipal and state representatives in pursuit of sustainable financing, akin to what was done in Ceará to acquire set-aside funding in the form of a commercial tax. Lastly, organizational scaling has manifested itself in the incubation of Instituto ProBem and the partnership with FAS.
Discussions are underway to adapt the program to yet another state in the Northeast of Brazil. As it currently stands, the state plans to test the program in 15 municipalities. Funding for this pilot will be provided by the CSR arm of a local corporation, with the state working to create a fund earmarked for scaling the program, contingent upon improvements in scores.
State officials noted that the Palavra de Criança program is attractive because of its malleability—the program will incorporate content from the state’s existing literacy program. A state government representative also lauded Palavra de Criança’s innovative pedagogical approach, its impressive community outreach efforts, and its strong programmatic leadership.
Palavra de Criança’s dexterous, multi-pronged strategy has required significant time and effort, but it also appears to be paying dividends in Palavra’s efforts to grow. Their scaling up also serves as an example for the importance of not only forming diverse partnerships with stakeholders at every level, but truly empowering such partners so that expertise and relationships are effectively leveraged at each stage of scaling.
The Lessons Learned series highlights practical takeaways from CEI’s Journeys to Scale report, produced in partnership with UNICEF, that tells the story of innovative education interventions as they attempt to scale. To see past volumes of Lessons Learned, click here. To find additional details about any of these innovators’ journeys to scale and more, be sure to check out the Full Report.
Photo Credits: R4D ; Raoni Barbosa.See more blogs