In the latest episode of the RISE Podcast, the Director of UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, Manos Antoninis, talks to RISE Research Fellow Jason Silberstein about the first report in the Spotlight Series. The Spotlight is a new initiative by the GEM Report and its partners to shine a spotlight on primary completion and the state of foundational learning in Africa. They discuss the report’s original research and clear recommendations for how to improve learning, with a focus on what the Spotlight has to say about politics, measurement, supporting teachers, and balancing investment in student-level inputs with systems-level reform.
Manos Antoninis is the Director of the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report since 2017. He was previously responsible for the monitoring section of the report. He coordinated the financing gap estimates for the 2030 education targets, the projections on the achievement of universal primary and secondary education completion, and the World Inequality Database on Education. He has been representing the report team in the Technical Cooperation Group on SDG 4 indicators, which he is currently co-chairing.
Prior to joining the team he worked for 10 years on public finance, monitoring and evaluation projects in education including: a public expenditure tracking and service delivery survey of secondary education provision in Bangladesh; the evaluation of a basic education project in the western provinces of China; the mid-term evaluation of the Education For All Fast Track Initiative; the annual reporting of progress in the implementation of the Second Primary Education Development Project in Bangladesh; a basic education capacity building programme in six states in Nigeria; the evaluation of an in-service, cluster-based teacher training programme in Pakistan; and the country study of the Out of School Children Global Initiative in Indonesia. He holds a DPhil in Economics for a study of technical education and the labour market in Egypt, completed at the Centre for the Study of African Economies of the University of Oxford.
Jason Silberstein is a Research Fellow for RISE at the Blavatnik School of Government. His research explores the relationship between schools and the communities they serve.
Before joining RISE, he worked as a consultant to the governments of Ethiopia and Ghana on reforms aimed at strengthening accountability in their education systems, and spent 18 months as a policy advisor in the Myanmar Ministry of Education. His understanding of international development was shaped by 3 years at Seva Mandir, a grassroots nonprofit in India. His first job was as a secondary school English literature teacher. Jason holds a Masters in Public Administration in International Development (MPA/ID) from the Harvard Kennedy School.
RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.
Producers: Joseph Bullough and Katie Cooper
Audio Editing: James Morris
Hello and welcome to the RISE podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education, research and practice. As part of the multi-country Research on Improving Systems of Education endeavour, funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Hello, and welcome to the RISE Podcast. I'm Jason Silberstein, a Research Fellow with RISE and today I'm speaking to Manos Antoninis. Manos is Director of UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring report, the GEM report. And in this episode, we talk about the first report in the Spotlight series, a new initiative by the GEM report and its partners to shine a spotlight on primary completion and the state of foundational learning in Africa. We discussed the reports clear and compelling recommendations for how to improve learning, we get into politics, measuring learning and supporting teachers. And I especially enjoyed this conversation because it challenged some of my preconceived notions. So for example, Manos shares why he feels the term, quote, The Learning crisis end quote is not an entirely accurate representation of the problem that many African countries are facing. Enjoy and I hope you also have your mind changed during this rich conversation. We're really lucky to have Manos from the GEM report with us today. Manos, thanks so much for being here and welcome to the podcast.Manos Antoninis, Guest:
Thank you very much for the invitation.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Great, so we're talking today, of course, about the Spotlight Series. So, I thought I'd just start off with a big picture question about what is the spotlight report series? Can you tell us about its goals and how you're going about achieving those goals?Manos Antoninis, Guest:
So the spotlight first of all, is a partnership between the Global Education Monitoring report, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, and the African Union. And of course, each of the three partners comes to this with their own specific angles, but all joined in the ambition to ensure that primary education receives a higher level of attention at the highest political circles, something that has not been let's say, happening quite that much in recent years. From the GEM reports perspective, it is part of our regional report series. Since 2019, we have launched a regional edition of the Global Report where we take the theme of the Global Report, and we go in depth in one of the world's regions. We are essentially covering all regions by next year. But in the case of Africa, we felt that we really needed to focus on universal basic education completion and foundational learning. Because this is, of course, an issue that is of particular relevance for Africa, and essentially, for the world. It is essentially a three-part series, we are planning to have three editions of a continental report, and each cycle is focusing on six countries, five or six countries, one per region, African region. And that's complemented with case studies and background papers, again, from different parts of Africa. And it is the first time we work at the country level as a global report. And that's quite an important innovation. But we felt it was really necessary. And the reason is not that we as a report have country expertise by any means we work with local partners to enable that to happen. But we have a comparative advantage in elevating the debate at the country level to the continental and global level. And that's ultimately what we're trying to achieve.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Yeah, terrific. It's both a very focused effort, I think, in the spotlight that, you know, it's shining on these issues of universal primary completion and low foundational learning, but it's also so ambitious, you know, both in the in the depth and the geographic, you know, deep dives into these different country experiences. Great. So, I wanted to talk next a bit about the these major educational challenges that the spotlight is surfacing. And, you know, one of these, of course, is the low levels of foundational learning across the continent. And Manos, I wanted to ask you about a specific, the phrase learning crisis. I know, you and the report are not necessarily a fan of this phrase, the learning crisis or there's there's something that that implies that it's not quite right. So can you tell us a bit about how you think about the phrase the learning crisis, and whether that adequately captures the picture of low foundational learning in Sub Saharan Africa.Manos Antoninis, Guest:
I mean, first of all, let's say that the GEM report, when it was still, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report back in 2012, used the learning crisis as a term. But one could say that it was a crisis when the extent of the challenges that countries faced, especially the poorest countries, in ensuring that all children achieve a minimum level of proficiency. At the time, around 2010, it was the first time that we could really put together information on learning achievements from different parts of the world and start getting a global picture, a process which is, of course, continuing to this moment. But the thing, it's also important to not forget what crisis means. What's the definition of a crisis? And a crisis tends to be a negative trend, we are at a certain level, and then things suddenly deteriorate. And we have a crisis, a financial crisis is the deceleration of the economic growth rate or even moving into recession. I don't think it's fair to say that we have enough information that a deterioration has been happening in the world, in fact, funnily enough, the only part of the world where we know for sure that learning levels are declining, is the global north. Rich countries have been observed over the last 20 years to actually lose ground. And that's, of course, a complicated set of factors primarily related to immigration. And increasingly, these more disadvantaged populations in societies will of course struggle to integrate in different countries or trying different routes. But what we tried to do, and let's also not forget that the real crisis, just to continue that logic, the real crisis that we have faced is COVID. And it's a bit ironic that after crying wolf for a number of years about the looming crisis, suddenly a real crisis came and people were struggling to find the term to describe it. What we have tried to do knowing that we have very little evidence and I think we're not the only ones who did it. I think also the Center for Global Development did a similar study. We have only one source really offered information on levels of proficiency at the most rudimentary level. These are the questions on literacy that the Demographic and Health Surveys and multiple indicator cluster surveys have been using to measure literacy. Directly, there's a very simple sentence that adults aged 15 to 49 tend to be asked. Interestingly enough, this used to be asked only of people who had only done up to primary education. So, it was assumed automatically that those who had attended second education were literate. But unfortunately, the evidence was that sometimes they were not even literate after seven years of education. And we looked retrospectively, at a very particular group, what was the literacy rate of those who left school after five or six years of education? Now, let's not forget, this is not the same group over time. Over a period of 40 years, those who were leaving school after primary, were probably what we might call middle class or it was normal to finish school and leave 40 years ago. In parts of Africa, those who leave school with five or six years now, are among the poorest so clearly, it's a self-selected group. But we looked at all countries in Africa. And we found three categories. We found those countries, which had high inverted commas, because of very high basically around 60 or 70% of those who have done five or six years, over the last 40 years, were literate. And these tend to be monolingual societies. You find that a country like Rwanda, Madagascar, Lesotho, know can have improved literacy rates of this group, it was stable over a period of 40 years. Then you have a second group, which are countries that also had stability over 40 years, but at extremely low levels. We're talking about just 10 or 20%. So these people, and we're looking at adolescence of 15 to 19 years a very specific age group. After six years of school, only 1 in 10 or 2 in 10 could read a sentence of 10 words, but again, stable. This was primarily countries in Anglophone Western Africa. And then there's a third group, which is about a third of countries where these literacy rates for this particular group have been declining indeed, over time. But then the question is, does this decline represent a learning crisis over 40 years? And we're talking about decline, let's say from 60% to 40%? Or does this only represent the fact that this group has been progressively a more disadvantaged group, children whose parents had never been to school before, where there might have been in the previous generation, or other changing socioeconomic conditions. So, this is the only evidence we have over time. And I think the only other evidence we have from the very patchy data is that learning levels are extremely low. But if anything, stable, if not slightly increasing over the years. So just a bit of caution, how we use the term crisis, the levels are extremely low, that we should not forget, but the crisis is about the decline.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Absolutely, no, that's, that's great. I think that provides a lot of really useful nuance and, you know, problem description that shows this problem has been around for a long time. Things haven't been getting better in most places. But you know, the problems in different countries are very different, right? The country experiences over time and the problem in those countries is very different. That's, that's great. So, I wanted to talk next about the Spotlight's recommendations for what we do about some of these challenges we've been discussing. So let me just briefly recap the spotlights, kind of major top line conclusions, and I'm not going to do them justice but just to get them on the table quickly. There are three student level recommendations, top line recommendations and then three kinds of systems level, top line recommendations. So, the student level recommendations are: one, give all children a textbook; two, to teach all children in their home language and; three, provide all children with a school meal. So those are the student level recommendations. And then three accompanying system level recommendations: make a clear plan to improve learning; five, develop teacher capacity, and make sure teachers use classroom time effectively; and then six, prepare instructional leaders. So, this is really talking about the support that's offered to teachers and schools. So, there's a lot there, I think maybe we can unpack some of those recommendations in a few different questions. And first, I wanted to just zoom in, on the system's level recommendation that is about making a clear plan to improve learning. And, you know, within that top line recommendation, the spotlight report has a lot of detailed and specific actions that are great: defining learning standards, measuring progress against standards, making sure the standards match other parts of the system, like the curriculum, like teacher preparation and textbook design. So, there's lots and lots of depth in the reports. And this also has lots and lots in common, by the way, I think with RISE's recent campaign and paper on five actions to improve learning progress. But a big, I guess, challenge in from RISE's research is that even prior to getting a country to make this clear plan around improving learning, there's this prior issue of you know, politics in a country needing to prioritise and care about learning. Right. So, I guess my question here is, have you faced challenges in increasing political support for foundational literacy and numeracy and in getting governments to see foundational learning as a key part of their vision for national development? And, and how has the spotlight kind of grappled with those more political challenges?Manos Antoninis, Guest:
This is, of course, the heart of the matter when it comes to this type of work. Just a reminder that in our country reports, we are collaborating directly with governments, which as I mentioned, is the first time we're doing that, and of course, entails some opportunities and some constraints. We're not going to talk politics with the governments inevitably. But the main constraint we see in elevating the political priority that is given to primary education is the terms of the debates in autonomy. There are many ways of course of influencing the politics, but at least what comes to the areas that we could potentially help influence. We would like this debate to be framed in positive terms. Because often there's a tendency to focus on the problems and the challenges and the weaknesses and how countries are lagging behind. We think countries would see it as a positive challenge, because it is a positive challenge, and bring to the table, that experience of what they feel they're doing well, and they're progressing, and share that at the continental level. So that's really an essential way of changing the nature of the dialogue. From our sides, we see the spotlights as helping implement a broader framework that we have been introducing with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. This is a commitment that goes back to 2015, when all countries signed up for the framework for Action for Education 2030, to set intermediate benchmarks. And the way we have been working with UIS, over the last three, four years is to first of all agree on the indicators that are of significance for all countries and have the largest potential to be monitored. And in this case, the minimum learning proficiency is one of the seven indicators that have been approved. And then we have been inviting countries to set targets, national targets, for 2025 and 2030. Not necessarily set the menu share them from their own national plans. And since this year, we have started reporting on the progress countries are making, of course, make making progress on foundational learning is very complicated, because the data points are limited and discrete. And we don't have anything, most recently. But in the first place, what has been a major challenge is that countries have not really known very well where they stand, and what is the level they can achieve. I think the progress rate in particular is very important. It is really a key element that has been missing. We know more or less how fast countries grow in terms of their enrollment and their completion rates, but we don't have enough information, how countries, how fast countries can improve the learning achievement. And this is a key element I think that is missing in the debates. And by drawing attention and by comparing countries ambition when they set these targets and by rooting them in real data, that's, I think, a major way forward for really seeing any opportunity for dialogue, and what solutions work and how realistic we need to be about how fast we can improve. Because even the fastest countries that have improved have improved with certain in certain rates. So we cannot expect miracles to happen. But the thing is better to know, what is possible, before setting targets that can mobilise a whole society.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to just bring in one sentence from the Spotlight that speaks directly to this kind of lack of information on foundational learning and the need for that to really drive, you know, like you're saying, drive political expectations to drive realistic targeting and all that kind of thing. So, the Spotlight states, "...there's no information on learning levels of two thirds of African children, currently". Right. And to address that, you were talking about this SDG 4 benchmarking process that both the GEM report and UNESCO more broadly are leading and I guess, just a follow up question may be: Can you tell us a little more? How is that process going are many countries setting foundational learning goals through that benchmarking process and starting to commit to measuring them?Manos Antoninis, Guest:
Yes, 1 in 2 African countries have set targets for 2025 and 2030 on learning. And we in the SDG 4 scorecard that we published on in January, we also saw a very interesting graph which shows how richer countries differ in terms of their goal setting and we find that poorer countries tend to be a little bit more over ambitious and richer countries tend to be under ambitious compared to what we know is potentially feasible. But the benchmarking process has several objectives. One of them is to draw attention to data gaps. And in that sense, it's not only the responsibility of the government themselves, because measuring learning is a very costly exercise. Many people have a question, "How much should we be investing in that?" given, I mean, if you think of the budget of many African countries and the budget of a learning assessment, many people would naturally question how much money can one dedicate to that. But it is a force for reflection. And it is really very important. Of course, you would not expect to hear anything different from the Director of the Global Education Monitoring report. But we also draw attention to the responsibilities of external partners, donors, who have not been particularly strategic over time in directing resources so that countries participate in robust assessments, and in fact, helped build institutions in the countries so that these can be sustainable. In fact, one of the case studies is focusing on Sierra Leone, for instance, where we saw that there has been an incredible amount of resources spent over the last 8 to 10 years. And yet the country is still not reporting on the global indicator, because essentially, what funders tend to do is that they focus on their own short-term projects, a little bit self-interested. And they have not really paid attention to efforts to have a global proficiency framework be able to report on that. And of course, global comparability is not the most important thing. But it helps anchor questions of quality, it helps build processes, and it helps bring a certain degree of continuity, without which, of course, target setting becomes less meaningful.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Great, I wanted to make sure we also spend some time talking about the other recommendations in the Spotlight. So, I wanted to move on to two of the recommendations at the system level, which are about supporting teachers, both, in particular through developing teacher guides, and then also through reorienting school administrators and district staff into focusing on instructional leadership. And again, I just wanted to say this exactly agrees with I think what a lot of RISE research has found and certainly is one of the five actions that was present in RISE's recent paper and campaign on improving progress in learning. And I think there's this broader increasing movement across the sector that you can't just ask current teachers who often don't have good training and preparation and often don't have high content knowledge to just get better and hold them accountable for getting better unless you also offer them lots of support and often very tightly structured support. So, can you talk a little bit about what the Spotlight finds about the need for supporting teachers?Manos Antoninis, Guest:
Teacher support is really in the heart of the changes that education systems need to prioritise if we are to see improvements in foundational learning anytime soon. And I agree with you how you describe this in a broader sense, not just thinking of the teacher, but also of the institutions that will support those teachers. And District Education Officers are one of the seven factors we also had in our analytical framework. And we had a case study from Kenya, where I think we were also impressed by the way to solve the problem. by way of a supported officer for years, really heavily invested in empowering this level of the administration to really help schools. And I think that's definitely an example that deserves more attention. But the first cycle of the spotlight, which essentially it was launched in October , when we had the publication of the continental report, and the five Country Reports, is focused on all seven factors of the analytical framework. So, it was quite broad as we tried to introduce the approach. Moving into the second cycle, which we hope will be completed a year from now, we are reviewing a little bit, the focus to maybe sharpen it and look more closely in some areas. And that's also related to the Learn network, which is focusing on three clusters of the African Union's continental education strategy, some curriculum on teacher development, and on planning and assessment. So, given the work on the teacher development cluster, we will focus specifically on that question of teacher support. And teacher guides, we believe is a neglected aspect. It's an area where countries could learn perhaps a bit more from each other. You know, what is the current arrangement? What are the types of documents that are very when they were last updated? And were they aligned with what teachers are expected to teach? Are they in the format that helps them plan the lessons? Or are they actually available printed and reaching teachers? Which is often a major question. So, there's more that we'll be able to say, at the end of this cycle once we compare the experiences of the six countries that are participating.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Great, well, we'll look forward to further findings around how best to support teachers and the other country experiences that are forthcoming in the next round of the spotlight. One last question I wanted to ask, maybe it's a bigger picture question about the Spotlights six big top line recommendations. And that's whether there's an order that you think countries and governments might pursue those recommendations. So, the motivation behind this question is, you know, RISE is a systems programme and we often argue that you can't make much progress improving the student level stuff without first addressing the systems level stuff. And, you know, to make this very concrete, there was this interesting point that I noticed while reading the Spotlight about textbooks that surprised me a bit. And the Spotlight, you know, is very strong on providing a textbook to every child, which is in tension, I think a little bit with some studies, that RISE often cites that just providing textbooks often doesn't improve learning, because those textbooks were not synced up with other parts of the system, you know, they were maybe at too high of a level for the students that were trying to use them or teachers might not be trained how to use those textbooks. So, I wanted to ask, at that big picture level, how do you think about inputs and student level stuff first, versus getting the system's stuff right first? And is there an order to those?Manos Antoninis, Guest:
I think the distinction between student and system factors is more a matter of presentation. Because inevitably, if you want to introduce school meals, home language, and textbooks, you also need to organise those at the system level. So, it's not necessarily a very clear conceptual distinction. But I think it helps to focus the idea that you need to reach every learner with these particular inputs. The question why we put so much priority on textbooks, I think, was, as you say, essentially provoked by the literature that RISE has used. Yes, and in fact, there's not that much literature if we want to really be frank. But the fact that an enthusiastic young researcher arrives in an African country and suddenly discovers that textbooks are not being used, but they're locked in the storeroom because the head teacher is concerned that next year they might not be available, is something that nobody should have been surprised about. Because if you have worked in an African country, you know that this is a reality. But to make that the main finding, and ignore the fact that still three students, on average, have to share a textbook in primary education Africa in 2020. The fact that these rates or actually these ratios are even worse in early grades, and to not make that the most important fact that needs urgent attention, we think is a mistake. So that's why we insisted so much. Because sometimes this pressure of using evidence that is robust, rigorous, etc. can mislead things is an important message. There are other more important facts and so, the fact that students do not have a textbook is a major shock. What we need to realise is this problem that needs to overcome because learners cannot learn without textbooks and textbooks. Unfortunately, however much we want to believe otherwise are not in students’ hands. So that does not mean that textbooks do not need to be improved, aligned and we feature of course, the example of Benin in the reports where there have been efforts to improve the design make it more compatible with modern understandings of how children learn. Also make them cheap and affordable, which is a very important dimension. But to say that textbooks are a bad buy, I think, to me seems sometimes like a shift of responsibility The fact that after decades of development work, we still have not been able to set up a textbook production and distribution systems, to ensure that every child has a book to be able to learn.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Great, no thanks for explaining that. And, yeah, it's a really interesting debate and intervention I think that that the Spotlight Series is making. That brings us to the question, we always end the RISE podcast with: What is one thing you wish other people knew about education systems?Manos Antoninis, Guest:
I mean, first of all, let me praise the RISE Programme for bringing this political economy aspect to education in such a forceful way, which I think is an essential read for anyone who is interested and cares about education reform and the improvement of children's learning levels. The fact that we may not be able to use it is the nature of the project that we're engaged in. And the fact that we, as I mentioned, work with governments, but knowing the backgrounds and different interests of organisations is, of course, absolutely necessary so that we don't make naive recommendations. But, at the same time, and if that could be a message, we also know that we need to be very careful when it comes to system engineering and making interventions from the top. There has been a lot of debates about the opportunities but also the limits and the constraints. So, education systems are very complex and we should not be perhaps carried away about how much we can influence from from the top. We need to be humble and try to recognise our limitations in making change and acting in those areas, incremental areas, where we can avoid at least the worst outcomes from happening.Jason Silberstein, Host:
Manos, thank you so much!RISE Programme:
Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at riseprogramme.org or follow us on social media @RISEProgramme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other work shared under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE Programme) through support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.