Literacy proficiency
Africa has made unprecedented gains in school enrolment in recent years. In 1999, only 59% of primary school-age children were enrolled in school in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 2016, 80% were enrolled.1
Due to the tremendous efforts of governments, local communities, non-profit organisations, and the international community, school enrollment rates in Africa are converging on universal primary enrollment. Yet learning levels remained low: in 2017, over 80% of Grade 2 students in Ghana, India, and Malawi could not read a simple word and over 60% of Grade 2 students in Ghana, India, and Uganda could not perform two-digit subtraction 2. J-PAL affiliated researchers have conducted over 200 evaluations in more than 40 countries to test the effectiveness of a wide variety of education programmes, with the aim of improve learning outcomes.3 Yet learning levels remain low…
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Many programmes aiming to improve the quality of education in Africa have been ineffective because they fail to address the needs of all students.

Not only is business-as-usual failing to improve learning outcomes in Africa, but many new innovative programmes from governments and non-profits have also been unsuccessful. Because schools tend to be overcrowded and have fewer resources than in developed countries, many programmes have sought to reduce class size, add inputs such as flipcharts or textbooks, or provide schools with cash to independently purchase inputs. Unfortunately, rigorous impact evaluations from J-PAL affiliates show that interventions of this type in Kenya , Sierra Leone, Niger, and The Gambia were not effective. 
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Despite the success in getting children to school, learning outcomes are still desperately low in many contexts.

A study which assessed the impact of textbook provision in Kenya, like other input interventions, found no evidence that textbook provision increased average test scores, or that it reduced either grade repetition or dropout rates. However, textbooks benefited students with higher average test scores before the programme: those in the top 40% of the class before the programme increased their test scores between 0.14 and 0.22 standard deviations after one year, compared to a control group. This insight combined with several other studies helped illuminate a key reality common to many contexts: teachers teach to the top of the class – the few students who are at the level of the curriculum – while most students are left behind. Given the structure of education systems across many parts of the world, this is unsurprising. Many teachers are faced with classes with a wide variety of learning needs, dense and ambitious curricula, and high stakes primary leaving exams which incentivise teachers to move at the pace of the fastest learners.
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Pratham’s mission statement is: “Every child in school and learning well.” Driven by this mission, Pratham began designing and implementing programmes which focused on providing children with basic skills by tailoring teaching to children’s learning levels.11 In 2001 J-PAL and Pratham partnered to investigate the impact of Pratham’s “Balsakhi” programme. Balsakhis (“children’s friends” – female secondary school graduates) pulled Grade 2 to 4 children who were struggling with the curriculum out of class for two hours a day to focus on basic reading and mathematics skills. The programme improved children’s learning outcomes by 0.14 standard deviations in the first year and 0.28 standard deviations in the second year. This was the beginning of a long learning partnership between Pratham and J-PAL, and the start of what we now know as Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL). Since then , Pratham has partnered with J-PAL affiliated professors to rigorously evaluate, adapt, and improve TaRL models which can be efficiently scaled. This process began with early proof of concept randomised evaluations which showed the effectiveness of TaRL and continued with subsequent iterations of the approach to understand how best to implement at scale with government teachers during the school day.
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Through this series of evaluations, researchers discovered that targeted instruction could be successful when delivered by tutors, volunteers, and government teachers, both in-school and out-of-school. Through this process, key programme components have been identified and strengthened. A recent paper by Banerjee et al 14  identifies two particularly strong models which work well at scale.

  • Tutor- or volunteer-led learning TaRL camps held for periodic bursts of time were effective in Uttar Pradesh, India, in a location with relatively weak government support structures. This model includes local instructors leading TaRL activities for forty days with supplementary support in summer camps.
  • Government teacher-led TaRL instruction throughout the school year was effective in Haryana, India, a state with relatively strong government systems. This intervention included a dedicated time for TaRL during the school day and support for teachers through strong mentoring and monitoring.
Impact of programmes targeting instruction to the level of the child
In addition to the extensive evidence from India, rigorous evaluations from Ghana and Kenya have also found that creating homogenous learning level groups allows instructors to target instruction and help children learn. In addition, evaluations on programmes involving adaptive computer-assisted learning, which adjusts to children’s current learning levels, and using targeted tutoring, show positive outcomes.

India: Volunteers pulled children out of school for 2 hours per day

India: Self-paced computer games

India: Volunteers led after-school classes for improving reading and mathematics

Kenya: Grade 1 classes divided by learning level, led by government teachers during the school day

India: One-month holiday camp held at school, led by teachers with volunteer support

India: In-school teacher-led programme for 1 hour per day throughout the school year. Strongly supported by government mentors

India: “Learning Camps” in government primary schools led by Pratham staff and supported by village vounteers

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