What Africa Can Teach the World about the Role of Data in Education Transformation

The world’s largest gathering of national education leaders is in London this week. Ministers from around the world will be gathering a stone’s throw from the site of King Charles’ coronation in Westminster, at the Education World Forum (EWF). But there will be no pageantry. This global ministerial gathering has the sober task of debating the future of education.

This year’s Education World Forum is happening under the theme New Beginnings: Nurturing Learning Culture, Building Resilience, Promoting Sustainability. Stronger, Bolder, Better Education by Design. The influential conference will address how education has changed and what has been learnt from recent disruption and responses and also consider longer term challenges and change.

Over the years, EWF has developed a reputation as a place where learning leaders from around the world can talk openly and honestly with their peers and industry partners, sharing ideas and experiences about what is working in education development – and what is not.

And it is clear that these conversations need to be had.

World Bank Education Director, Jaime Saavedra, calls the current state of global learning “the most serious crisis in education in 100 years.” In addition, UNESCO estimates that more than half of children and adolescents around the world are not learning, failing to meet minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics.

Even in countries many might have assumed to have nailed down the workings of a successful education system, there are still problems. A recent New York Times article  paints a rather harrowing picture drawing attention to the fact that “about one in three children in the United States cannot read at a basic level of comprehension”, a statistic that researchers say can be put down to the fact that many children are simply not being correctly taught.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates 90% of 10-year-olds are unable to read a simple sentence with understanding – even though four out of five primary age children go to school. 

The learning crisis persists in Sub-Sahara Africa because many education systems have little information on who is learning and who is not. The lack of reliable data makes it difficult for governments to address the issue. There is an urgent need to provide more data and better evidence to help tracking and monitoring in the education sector.

A 2021 UNESCO report into gender parity in education found a complete lack of data on science education from low-income countries, exacerbating a situation where pockets of “extreme exclusion” still exist.

The report titled ‘Deepening the debate on those still left behind found out that limited data collecting capacity and a lack of systematic national assessments for learners prevent researchers from having a complete picture of how learning outcomes are developing in the global South. The report calls for a longer-term data monitoring programme that will inform the making of strong education policies. 

Knowing what is happening in classrooms across Kenya has long been a challenge. However, recent developments show that we are moving in the right direction. The Ministry of Education has established a National Assessment Centre which is domiciled at the Kenya National Examinations Council. It is mandated to carry out national assessments and monitor learner achievement studies under the National Assessment System for Monitoring Learner Achievement (NASMLA) framework. 

NASMLA evaluates the education system at various levels of basic education and provides empirical evidence in the form of data and insights to policy makers to allow for formulation of appropriate interventions.

Also, in Kenya we have organizations like Bridge International Academies tackling the challenge of learning poverty through implementation of data-driven technology solutions. Each teacher in every Bridge school is equipped with a handheld teacher tablet, loaded with expertly constructed lesson guides based on the national curriculum. Each one leverages effective techniques that have been tried, tested and refined for the greatest impact on learning. But as well as supporting each and every teacher, their tablets also deliver a treasure trove of data, including teacher and student attendance, lesson completion and test results.

Suddenly, education leaders can see what is happening in every classroom in every school – virtually in real time.

As UNESCO points out: “A common obstacle preventing the alignment of a vision with a realistic target is the lack of regularly collected data of good quality on learning outcomes”. 

But collecting data is only the start towards transforming learning outcomes. The data must be accessible, easy to interpret, and solution oriented. Recognizing this, Bridge and its affiliates are working with partner governments to create immersive visual education data experiences to help bring clarity to decision making.

One great example of this is the EKOEXCEL ‘Situation Room’. EKOEXCEL is the Lagos State Government’s flagship initiative transforming learning outcomes across every one of the State’s public primary schools, and the Situation Room has proved to amplify its success.

Launched in April, the Situation Room is a modern solution that visualizes the flow of data – direct from the classroom to dashboards displaying it in real time from all 1,012 primary schools under the program.

Armed with swaths of information, government leaders are able to intervene and support any school requiring attention with precision, but also make broader scale interventions as required.

The results of this data-led approach to learning transformation are unmistakable.

Bridge International Academies has recorded superb performance in the vital end of primary examination (KCPE), with students outperforming the national average for eight consecutive years, despite being drawn from some of the country’s most challenged communities

Even in the first eight weeks of the EKOEXCEL program launch, learning rates for literacy measured three times faster, and in numeracy two times faster, then schools that were not in the EKOEXCEL program.

In Edo State, the EdoBEST program, lauded by the World Bank, has successfully transformed learning outcomes for hundreds of thousands of children across the State’s primary schools. Students have the equivalent of 54% more schooling in English and 71% more schooling in maths, learning in one term what would have normally been learnt in one year. 

Behind such African success lies clear academic evidence. An independent study led by 2019 Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Michael Kremer investigated the Bridge methodology, and found  learning gains among the “largest ever measured in international education.” 

Results from the study of Bridge International Academies in Kenya found primary students gain almost an additional year of learning, learning in two years what students in other schools learn in nearly three. Early childhood development students had even greater outcomes, gaining almost an additional year and half of learning in two years.

The African programs that have adopted the Bridge model, underpinned by real-time data gathering, consistently demonstrate substantial learning gains through evidence-based improvements. If these kinds of results could be replicated at scale across public systems, students across the globe could see huge learning gains, pushing countries up education league tables to match those with incomes three or four times greater per person, and further strengthening countries with robust systems.

Over the coming days, national education leaders will debate and discuss the solutions to the global learning crisis. Data empowers leaders, informing them what is working well, and where improvements must still be made. And, Africa is demonstrating to the world what data-driven education transformation can achieve.