Questions and Answers...and Questions: Reflections from the CIES Conference 2017

March 27, 2017Christine Wallace

I love listening to highly-intelligent people considering weighty problems and carefully building their hypotheses – especially if they, like Amber Gove (RTI International) or Albert Motivans (UNESCO Institute for Statistics), can explain these thoughts in a manner that I can actually follow and understand. But having spent three days closeted in subterranean rooms with jet-lagged academics and development workers at the 2017 Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Conference in Atlanta, I was punch-drunk.  I went to learn and to showcase some of the great work being done by the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) to raise standards in teaching and learning. I left with more questions than answers.

Do students learn more if you support them or their teachers? If students spend only 14% of their time in instructional activities, should we be thinking of Life-wide learning which takes place as people routinely circulate across a range of social settings and activities (STEM Teaching Tools, Practice Brief 38) and using some of the other 86% of their time to assist them to learn? Could some ostensibly successful interventions be exacerbating the inequity they were designed to address? Are EGRA literacy tests being used for the purposes they were intended?  Should we be adjusting EGMA numeracy assessments to take account of students’ informal learning of mathematics? Is there a results chain leading from increasing girls’ self-esteem through greater participation, independence and voice to improved learning? And although necessary for monitoring progress towards SDG4 (Education for All), is a universal learning scale actually possible? conference cies education learning international development r4d innovation

Then there was the frustration of the questions arising from studies which claimed increased learning, but were short term and with no control group – how valid were they? What did that mean for our Girls' Education Challenge (GEC) results? And what about the incredibly meticulous rigorous reviews, carried out by highly esteemed researchers, over a long period of time that finally concluded that ‘evidence was weak’. Obviously I wasn’t going to come away with all the answers. After all, the theme for the conference was ‘Problematising Inequality in Education’!

So, after a weekend of allowing all of this to sink in, here are my take-aways:

• All children need to be in school to learn but staying in the same grade for three years is not likely to lead to good learning outcomes and this is not picked up by many longitudinal studies which are not able to track individual children.  ("Estimating impact & understanding equity: The critical role of longitudinal data" ; Elliot W. Friedlander, Stanford University.)

• Scoring EGRA needs to be done with the context and rationale in mind. Looking at sub-scores is useful to point to specific areas where children are having difficulties, but generates too much data to use with policy makers; aggregation of all scores could be useful to point to areas that need to be prioritised across a school system, but some metrics (e.g. words per minute) aren’t easy to aggregate; and a total score may be easier for policy makers to interpret, but may lack real interpretability. ("Validity in test scores" ; Leanne Ketterlin Geller, Southern Methodist University)

• There seems to be a move away from being excited about the fact that we can measure learning, towards concern for the perverse incentives this might cultivate and enquiry into how we can use measurement of learning to assist in improving learning outcomes. (MELQO ; Amber Gove RTI)

• Effective Public Private partnerships are necessary but need an effective regulatory environment, clear and transparent policies that allow autonomy and accountability, cooperation between public and private provision (rather than legislative force) and governments need to maintain their side of the partnerships (Monaza Aslam, Justin Sandefurth), and finally:

• There is huge interest and respect for what is being done under the banner of the GEC. The programme is highly regarded for its rigour and accountability, its internal knowledge management and capacity building and for its results.  And even the subterranean gloom and the jet lag couldn’t dim the enthusiasm that GEC partners had for explaining their work to all that wanted to listen – and there were many!

For further information, please see some of these videos from GEC projects: 

PEAS, Uganda:

Education Development Trust, Kenya:

iMlango, Kenya:

VSO, Nepal:


Christine WallaceChristine Wallace is a senior technical adviser for the Girls’ Education Challenge. She has been working in international development for the last 30 years for INGOs, UN agencies, DFID and the European Union. She joined the Girls’ Education Challenge in 2012.

Photo credits: CIES 2017

See more Girls' Education blogs
Girls' Education

Add new comment

5 + 7 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Who we work with: