By David Evans and Amina Mendez Acosta
Education has expanded dramatically in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last half century. From 1970 to 2010, the percentage of children across the region who complete primary school rose by almost 50 percent (from 46 percent of children to 68 percent). The proportion of children completing lower secondary school nearly doubled (from 22 percent to 40 percent). Despite these massive gains, nearly one in three children still do not complete primary school. Efforts to measure the quality of that schooling have revealed high numbers of students who have limited literacy or numeracy skills even after several years of school (Bold et al. 2017; Adeniran et al., 2020). The international community has characterized this situation as a “learning crisis” (World Bank, 2018a). The last two decades have seen a large rise in evidence on how to most effectively expand access and increase learning, but actual changes in access and learning in that period have not shown dramatic improvements.
In this paper, we synthesize recent research on how to expand access to education and improve the quality of learning in Africa. Our analysis reveals two trends. First, we observe growing sophistication in evaluating education programs in Africa. An increasing number of studies examine not only whether a given intervention is effective but also test multiple permutations. For example, Mbiti et al. (2019b) test two alternative teacher incentive programs, and Duflo et al. (2020) report on four alternative programs to target instruction to students’ learning levels. Evaluations are also testing alternative combinations of interventions, such as teacher incentives, school grants, or the combination of the two in Tanzania (Mbiti et al. 2019a). Other studies compare alternative programs to achieve a common goal, as in education subsidies versus the government HIV curriculum to reduce sexually transmitted infections in Duflo et al. (2015b). Testing multiple treatments is certainly not unprecedented in African countries, but it is growing more common. Second, we observe growth in evidence that previously was largely confined to other regions of the world, including early child development, mother tongue instruction, and public-private partnerships.
In terms of substantive findings, we identify that certain multi-faceted programs deliver large gains in education quality: a program that includes teacher training, teacher coaching, semi-scripted lessons, learning materials, and mother tongue instruction delivered sizeable gains in literacy both as a pilot and at-scale (Piper et al., 2018a, 2018b); the average impacts for second-grade students in Kiswahili and English are both above the 99th percentile of education interventions (Kraft, 2020; Evans and Yuan 2020). A literacy program providing a similar array of supports delivered literacy gains in Uganda (Brunette et al., 2019). The combination of teacher incentives and school grants delivered higher learning gains than either on its own in Tanzania (Mbiti et al., 2019a).
We also observe consistent gains across various other types of programs: mother tongue instruction seems to provide consistent learning gains across programs, eliminating school fees offers consistent gains in access, and school feeding offers consistent gains in access and learning. There are relatively few studies, but school construction also offers gains in both access and learning. Other inputs are inconsistent: cash transfers are reasonably consistent in increasing access to school but not at improving learning, which may be unsurprising given that the programs may relax an economic constraint to access for the children but do not directly affect the learning process beyond that. Similarly, eliminating school fees has inconsistent impacts on the quality of education.
Our collection of evidence does not offer a single solution to apply in every school system. Programs adapted to new contexts will often yield distinct impacts. In our discussion section, we elaborate on factors to consider when translating a program from one setting to another. Still, this accumulation of recent evidence offers promising areas for investment and wide avenues for further study.
This review updates findings from earlier reviews with results from new research. Evans and Popova (2016b) synthesize evidence from six reviews on how to improve learning outcomes from low- and middle-income countries, only one of which—Conn (2017)—focuses exclusively on evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa, while others include significant research from the region. This review focuses on how research in Africa from the last five years updates our ideas on making education effective and accessible.
In section 2, we briefly review the current state of education in Africa. In section 3, we summarize earlier evidence on how to expand access to and improve the quality of education on the continent. In section 4, we discuss our strategy for collecting and analyzing new research. In section 5, we synthesize the findings. In section 6, we draw conclusions from our findings, highlight areas for needed future research, and discuss implications for policy.