Lessons Learned Series, Vol. 1: Urgency and ambition in Ethiopia

December 14, 2016The CEI Team

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 find additional details about any of these innovators’ journeys to scale and more, be sure to check out the Full Report.

Though improving, access and enrollment rates for pre-primary education are very low in Ethiopia, especially in rural areas. In response to a dearth of pre-primary offerings, the Accelerated School Readiness (ASR) intervention provides a 150-hour, two-month program with a focus on imparting pre-literacy, pre-numeracy, and social skills for children entering grade one who have not yet attended preschool.

The program, which leverages existing primary school infrastructure and human capital, has two delivery modes: one over the summer and another during the first two months of first grade. Educators receive pedagogical training for seven activities which employ engaging teaching methods, such as group activities, conversation cards, and games. ASR, which has the backing of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education, represents one prong of a broader strategy to scale pre-primary education through several delivery channels, with the goal of increasing the preprimary gross enrollment rate (GER) from 25 percent in 2014 to 80 percent by 2019.

Innovation and transformational change

Consulted stakeholders suggested that the impact of the ASR program could extend beyond those reached through the summer and grade one interventions. Teachers have, for example, adapted and applied ASR pedagogical techniques to non-first-grade classrooms. In addition, government officials expressed a desire to collaborate with the ASR technical working group to develop similar materials for O Class classrooms.

These unintended consequences have been accompanied by a more fundamental shift in norms and practices. ASR training participants reported that training was focused on pedagogy, rather than simply attempting to deepen subject matter expertise. If such a shift becomes more prevalent and spreads to teacher training colleges, it could serve to equip teachers to improve learning outcomes for many more children. Interviewees expressed confidence that the ASR program could have a catalytic impact along these lines. The program also appears to have brought a renewed sense of excitement – and a desire to revisit existing approaches – at least on the part of some teachers and administrators. Reports of these mindset shifts, while anecdotal, are an encouraging harbinger for the sustained success of the program. 

The notion that an innovation can contribute to transformational change – beyond what is stipulated in a theory of change – is one that has been proven across other experiences. As Coburn, referring to education reforms, notes, “scaling up must involve more than the spread of activity structures, materials, and classroom organization; it must also involve the spread of underlying beliefs, norms, and principles … not only … moving to more and more classrooms but also reform principles or norms of social interaction becoming embedded in school policy and routines.”

Balancing adaptation and fidelity to a model

Several stakeholders were quick to admit that the ASR program was not designed in an optimal way. While the teams involved in the design were strong (and included strong government representation) and the process leveraged available technical expertise, the timeline was quite compressed. As a result, technical working group members worked nights and weekends, some materials arrived late, and not all were translated to the local languages. In addition, conflicting summer training obligations necessitated that additional teachers be brought in from training colleges. Although the pilot appears to have produced positive outcomes, it is possible that its rushed nature resulted in some diminution of quality.

With more time, these shortfalls may not have been present. However, UNICEF staff, while acknowledging this risk, noted that it was more important to take advantage of the momentum generated by the recently passed ESDP V and the establishment of a clear scaling target. In short, there was a conscious decision to forgo a potential gain in quality of the program – to be achieved by pushing the summer program back by a year – to avoid the risk of losing the support of domestic actors.

There are parallels between the experience of the ASR program and that of other innovations. It is often the case that innovators work in resource-constrained environments, where the interest and support of key government actors may be ephemeral. In such instances, there is a tension between an immediate demonstration of the effectiveness of an intervention and the rollout of a carefully designed program. 

While the ASR decision was likely the right one, given that it has seemingly generated positive outcomes, this may not be the case elsewhere – where a rushed pilot could undermine the long-term success of a program.

The importance of a pilot site

The choice of pilot site on the part of UNICEF and government actors was a very intentional one. They wanted to choose a region where there was a particular combination of characteristics:  the real possibility of demonstrating positive results, but also a pressing need. 

Benishangul-Gumuz offered the possibility of success largely because of UNICEF’s prior involvement there. Already present was a cadre of technically strong UNICEF staff, who had good relationships with the Regional Education Bureau. The presence of strong relationships, developed through the launch of a successful Child-to-Child program in the region, suggested that an early grade education innovation could indeed generate positive outcomes in the region.

However, it was also important to pilot the ASR program in a developing region, where the need was great and there were some built-in challenges. As Trucano notes, if an innovation succeeds in a “privileged” environment, this may be the product of a number of characteristics that are not present in other, less advantaged areas. Benishangul-Gumuz fits this profile, in the form of an undersupply of high-quality teachers, low levels of learning (e.g., 54 percent of children in the region had grade two reading comprehension scores of 0 percent), and the presence of multiple local languages. 

As such, while having elements of an enabling environment are important for the choice of a pilot, a place rich in advantages may require that the elements which made the program successful in that location be put in place in another location to achieve a similar success. When that is not the case, it may imply that results may not be replicable elsewhere. The choice of a pilot site should thus be an intentional one – and one made with a long-term view.

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Looking Ahead

Innovators around the world are being asked to respond to challenges on compressed timelines. Immediate action is often needed, yet urgency need not narrow an intervention’s focus. Indeed, experiences like ASR show how programs, if designed with with intentionality, may effect behaviors and norms in the long-term while still responding to critical short-term needs.

Photo Credits: R4D ; Accelerated School Readiness-Ethiopia

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