Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), an educational approach based on teaching students at their actual learning levels, rather than the level recommended by the curriculum, is one of the most promising solutions to improving education quality.1 TaRL Africa works with governments and other partners to adapt, embed and implement the TaRL approach within national or sub-national education systems on the African continent.
What problem are they trying to solve?
Practitioners and funders interested in improving education can focus on either increasing access to education (i.e. increasing the number of years of schooling) or on increasing learning outcomes (e.g. test scores, literacy rates). Many education practitioners focus on improving learning outcomes for two primary reasons: first, enrolment rates have increased in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) over the past few decades, with 91 percent of primary-school-age children enrolled in school in 2015.2 Second, a growing body of evidence suggests that the quality of education, rather than the quantity, is the primary mechanism by which education leads to improved outcomes.3
TaRL Africa works to improve the quality of primary education on the African continent, where learning levels are lower than in other regions (see Figure 1), and where spending on education is low, ranging from US$29.15 per student in Madagascar to $621.65 per student in Botswana, with an average government expenditure of $166.73 per student.4
Figure 1: Median percentage of students in late primary school who score above a minimum proficiency level on a learning assessment, by region.
Source: Adapted from figure O.5 in World Bank, “World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise” (World Bank Group, 2018).5
What do they do?
TaRL's approach focuses on the idea that students should be taught content which is appropriate for their education level - not just in terms of age, but in terms of their abilities and prior learning. Studies have long shown that children's learning and engagement in school is best served when they are taught content which is neither too easy nor too challenging for them, but is rather tailored to their own educational development.6 This is particularly relevant in LMICs, where educational inequalities mean that students of the same age often have radically different access to and experiences of school.7 The TaRL approach is, therefore, to group students together by ability and learning levels, rather than by age, and to ensure that all students learn with content that is appropriate for them as an individual learner, rather than simply learning what is prescribed by an age-based curriculum. Therefore, the approach begins by assessing students, in order to determine what level they should be taught at, before supporting teachers with appropriate learning content.
The TaRL approach was developed by Pratham, one of the world’s leading education NGOs whose work focuses on serving children in India. Working with researchers associated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), Pratham has evaluated multiple versions of TaRL implementation over the past two decades.
TaRL Africa is a formal joint venture of Pratham and J-PAL that was launched in 2019 to enable African governments and other partners to adapt, embed, and implement the TaRL approach within national or sub-national education systems. This initiative formalises work that J-PAL and Pratham have been implementing together on the African continent for the past three years, working with education leaders across Africa to understand local priorities and determine whether TaRL could help improve learning outcomes in specific contexts across the continent.8
While the precise nature of TaRL Africa’s work varies according to the needs and priorities of the government partners in each country, activities include:9
- Generating government buy-in for the TaRL approach by providing relevant assessment data and connecting policymakers to classrooms
- Co-designing content and training activities with government partners and co-delivering training
- Co-designing monitoring tools and data systems, and training government staff on how to use these tools for ongoing monitoring and evaluation
- Building financial models to incorporate the TaRL approach into future budget processes
- Supporting highly effective partners (e.g. Young 1ove in Botswana, JICA in Madagascar and Niger) working with governments to carry out activities like those listed above
TaRL Africa is providing direct support to the governments of Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Zambia to scale the TaRL approach, and works with partner organizations to do the same in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Niger, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.10 Despite the challenges of Covid-19, over 1,000,000 students were reached in 2021 due to TaRL Africa's work.11 At full scale-up, almost 10 million students could be reached annually by TaRL Africa and its partners.
In addition to the support activities TaRL Africa and its selected partners provide to governments, TaRL Africa also aims to build a network of at least 500 TaRL “leaders of practice” across the African continent. Leaders of practice are instructors, government supervisors, NGO staff, or volunteers who have been trained in the TaRL approach and have been involved in TaRL implementation. Leaders of practice will host annual training workshops and other opportunities for TaRL implementers across the continent to exchange ideas and learnings with each other. TaRL Africa aspires for these leaders of practice to lead a movement across Africa aimed at ensuring children gain foundational reading and math skills. To date, TaRL Africa has 200 leaders of practice in its target countries, and over 1,000 working with TaRL Africa's partners.
Why do we recommend them?
- The TaRL approach is one of the most promising strategies for improving education quality in LMICs
- The TaRL Africa leadership team is uniquely well-placed to scale up this approach, building on decades of program design by Pratham, along with J-PAL’s extensive experience conducting research and scaling evidence-informed programs in education and other sectors
- According to our cost-effectiveness estimates, TaRL Africa brings about a total increase in test scores of between 0.03-0.05 standard deviations per US$ donated, making them one of the most cost-effective opportunities to improve education that we’ve identified
- We have heard from many experts within the education sector that school closures caused by the pandemic have increased use of the TaRL approach
Evidence supports the TaRL approach
As discussed in our education cause report, TaRL is one of the most promising solutions to improving education quality that we have identified. Multiple high-quality studies have found that the TaRL approach is an effective way to improve learning outcomes, in most cases increasing test scores by 0.1 to 0.3 standard deviations per student, with impact estimates as high as 0.7 standard deviations in one evaluation.12 A recent randomized controlled trial (RCT) in Madagascar finds an average increase of 0.56 standard deviations per student.13 This gives us additional confidence that the TaRL approach can be replicated across different countries.
A strong and experienced team
Because TaRL Africa is a formalization of a multi-year collaboration between J-PAL and Pratham, the team builds on both organizations’ experience designing, evaluating, adapting and scaling impactful education programs. Pratham is one of India’s largest education NGOs, established in 1995 to improve the quality of education in India. Pratham developed the TaRL approach in the early 2000s and has collaborated with researchers, governments and other partners to refine, adapt and scale the approach to reach over 60 million students throughout India and Africa.14 J-PAL is a global research center working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and anchored by a network of 194 affiliated professors at universities around the world, J-PAL conducts randomized impact evaluations to answer critical questions in the fight against poverty. J-PAL Africa, based at the University of Cape Town, builds partnerships for evidence-informed policy-making and helps partners scale up effective programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
J-PAL Africa’s work to scale the TaRL approach began with a collaboration with Zambia’s Ministry of General Education, which aimed to develop a remedial education program, called “Catch Up”, for Zambian primary schools. Pratham, J-PAL and other partners (including the international research organization, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), and the international nonprofit, VVOB) worked with the Ministry to visit Pratham’s programs in India, design and pilot three versions of TaRL that could be appropriate for the Zambian context, and conduct a rigorous process evaluation of the pilot program to assess which version would be most viable for scale. After the pilot program, the United States Agency for International Development provided funds to scale up the most promising version to 1,800 schools across Zambia.1516
TaRL Africa has most recently established itself as a legal entity under the name of FiRM Africa, based in Kenya. It has also expanded its team, building capacity across the continent to help meet the increased demand for TaRL support from governments.17
High cost-effectiveness of donations
According to our cost-effectiveness calculation, TaRL Africa brings about a total increase in test scores of between 3 and 5 standard deviations for each $100 donated.18 This is the most cost-effective charity that we currently recommend in education.19
This calculation estimates the total expected improvement in learning outcomes in each of the countries that TaRL Africa has worked in, by estimating:
- The expected number of students reached: We estimate the potential number of students reached in each country and multiply this by the probability of successfully scaling up. This is based on various country-specific factors, such as whether the government has publicly discussed plans to scale the TaRL approach, successfully scaled up an evidence-informed program in the past, or has already carried out a pilot. This gives us a probability of reaching full scale-up. We then construct a linear function based on two points (students reached today, and expected students reached at full scale-up). This tells us how many students we expect will be reached in each future year (see ‘Scale Potential’ tab).
- The expected learning gain for each student reached: We estimate the learning gain for a student reached by the program by choosing the studies from the TaRL literature that are most similar to the version of TaRL being scaled up, and averaging their effect sizes (see ‘TaRL Studies’ tab).
- The proportion of the overall impact of the program that is attributable to TaRL Africa’s involvement: We estimate the impact attributable to TaRL Africa’s involvement based on TaRL Africa’s role in the scale-up. In some countries, TaRL Africa provides a support function to implementing partners focused on scaling up the program, whereas in others TaRL Africa is the main coordinator of efforts to scale up the TaRL approach with the government. In countries where TaRL Africa plays a supporting role to existing implementing partners, the program would have existed in some form without its involvement, so in these countries we have assumed an ‘attributability adjustment’ of 40%. In countries where TaRL Africa is the main coordinator, we have assumed that the entire impact is attributable to TaRL Africa, because in these countries TaRL Africa was the initiator of the program and we believe that there were no other plans to introduce the TaRL approach within these countries.
This calculation does not include other benefits from TaRL Africa's work:
- We have not estimated the benefits of the TaRL Africa’s community of leaders of practice, who have the potential to increase the reach of the TaRL approach beyond the countries where TaRL Africa is devoting significant resources.
- We have not estimated the benefits of TaRL Africa’s research on different TaRL implementation models, which have the potential to inform education policy in many countries beyond the places TaRL Africa is currently working. Our cost estimate does, however, include all of TaRL Africa’s projected operating costs, some of which will be used to establish and grow the leader of practice community, and some of which will contribute to answering the questions on their research agenda.
For this evaluation, we have not attempted to convert improved learning outcomes into increased income later in life. We believe that successful implementation of the TaRL approach at a national scale, or a scale sufficiently large to increase the skills of the average individual within an economy, is likely to lead to improvements in overall productivity and economic growth.20 However, we were not able to find estimates with sufficient certainty to make realistic projections into the future.
Increased demand for TaRL due to Covid-19
Leaders in the education sector believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has made investing in the TaRL approach more urgent than ever. School closures have exacerbated existing inequalities in terms of access to and ability to benefit from education, within and across countries.21 Bilateral and multilateral support for education in LMICs has fallen in the wake of the pandemic,22 and both government and household resources in sub-Saharan Africa remain heavily constrained.23
In response to this challenge, governments have embraced the TaRL approach. In Zambia, Covid-19 emergency funding from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has supported TaRL-style remedial teaching and accelerated learning for grades 1-6, reaching around 500,000 children. Similar catch-up education opportunities have emerged in other provinces and countries, meaning support for the TaRL approach is particularly high today.
Why do we trust this organization?
Our evaluation of TaRL Africa builds on substantial work carried out by Co-Impact, “a global philanthropic collaborative supporting locally-rooted coalitions working to achieve impact at scale in the Global South.”24 Co-Impact’s grant-making emphasizes both evidence of program effectiveness and likelihood of achieving policy success, which gives us confidence that TaRL Africa is likely to affect policy change.
What would they do with more funding?
TaRL Africa would use additional funding in one of two ways.
First, they could hire the staff to expand into new countries or sub-national areas. For example, TaRL Africa informed us that in 2022 they are launching several TaRL pilots in new countries, such as The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan. Future funding would help to scale up these initiatives.
Second, they could continue building their organizational strength. While Co-Impact has provided funding to support the initial stages of TaRL Africa’s work, the organization is actively fundraising to ensure its long-term sustainability. Additional funding would allow TaRL Africa to hire and train staff on the African continent, and to conduct outreach to potential government and other partners to increase the reach of the TaRL approach. Opportunities to establish new government partnerships can offer large opportunities for leverage, as governments themselves are likely to pay for some or all of the program implementation costs.
According to the information shared with us by Co-Impact, TaRL Africa could productively absorb at least $8 million by 2024 to support continued expansion of their work, development of the TaRL “leaders of practice” community, and high-quality research on the optimal TaRL implementation models. More recently, we have been informed that TaRL Africa requires $1 million in 2022 and $3 million in 2023 in order to carry out the plans listed above.
What are the major open questions?
Long-run macroeconomic benefits of education
As discussed in our education cause report, the long-term benefits of education are less certain than the benefits of global health interventions. There is relatively limited high-quality evidence providing credible links from education to outcomes later in life (e.g. health, household income). This is not to say that we believe education does not lead to positive outcomes later in life, but that we are unable to confidently predict how large those positive impacts will be.25
Additionally, this evaluation raised a question about quantifying the impacts of improving the entire primary school system within a country. It is assumed that increased education translates into increased income, because increased skills lead to improved job prospects and performance. Because TaRL Africa operates within entire regions, all students in a particular age cohort will experience similar learning gains from the program. This means that returns to individual students come through economy-wide increases in productivity, rather than micro-level improvements in employment opportunities. Given these substantial uncertainties, we have not attempted to convert predicted improvements in test scores into predicted increases in income.
Impact of counterfactual government spending
We are also uncertain about how to account for government spending related to the implementation of TaRL Africa. If TaRL programs successfully scale up, this may cause governments to spend funds on these programs. This funding will therefore not be spent on other government programs. This could potentially reduce the impact of donations to TaRL Africa (or any nonprofit that leverages govt. funds), although we believe that the programs that would otherwise receive government funding would have less impact-per-dollar than implementing a contextually-appropriate version of the TaRL approach. In this evaluation, we have not attempted to account for this.
Linearity of returns to investment in TaRL Africa
An additional uncertainty is whether there are decreasing or increasing returns to donating to TaRL Africa, and how to account for this. We often assume linear returns to donations; i.e. each dollar donated to TaRL Africa is equally useful. However, there may be reasons that funding received earlier is actually more or less valuable than funding received later. The TaRL Africa team informed us that their resource allocation decisions are made based on a combination of three major factors: where there is the most need for their support, where there is the most government buy-in for their partnership, and where the student population is the largest.
On the one hand, we would usually expect that organizations will have decreasing returns, because we expect them to spend early funding on the most useful or easiest to implement projects. In this case for example, TaRL Africa is likely to be well-placed to choose the most appropriate countries to initially expand in. This might mean that as they expand to other countries later on, these may be more challenging environments.
On the other hand, TaRL Africa may also have increasing returns, as the team learns with experience, the global evidence base for education grows, and the TaRL approach becomes more widely accepted and demanded across the African continent. This would mean that TaRL Africa is able to spend funds that it receives later more effectively.
On balance, we believe that linear returns to scale is a reasonable assumption. However, we also provide cost-effectiveness estimates if returns are increasing or decreasing.26
We are very grateful to the people who provided advice and feedback on this report, including:
- Luis Crouch, Senior Economist, International Development Group, RTI International
- Michelle Holmes, Foundation Director, Atlassian Foundation
- Ashleigh Morrell, Programs and Partnerships Director, TaRL Africa
- Sophie Pelland
- Lant Pritchett, RISE Research Director, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
- Laura Poswell, Executive Director, J-PAL Africa
- Robert Rogers, Senior Policy Associate, J-PAL Global
- Fabian Suwanprateep, Manager, Philanthropic Collaboration, Co-Impact
- Colin Vaida, Co-Impact
- Titus Syengo, Managing Director, TaRL Africa
Message from the organization
Message from Titus Syengo, TaRL Africa Managing Director:
I joined TaRL Africa as Managing Director in May 2020. After a career working in the development sector across Africa, I was captivated by the opportunity to work on an issue that has so centrally shaped my own path, enabling me to grow from a small boy herding cattle in rural Kenya, to the Regional Director of a global Health Organisation. I have always been grateful for the quality of schooling and support for learning I received, once my father agreed to enroll me in school at age 9. Today, being afforded the opportunity to learn basic reading or mathematics is still too often the exception, rather than the rule, for millions of children in Africa.
Each member of the TaRL Africa team is driven by our core mission to ensure children acquire foundational skills. Supported by the rich evidence base showing effectiveness, we are able to work with partners to develop programs that make sense in their contexts, building off a proven core model. I am heartened and energised to be part of a team of such creativity, integrity, humility, diversity, flexibility and hunger to continually learn and improve. Most importantly, I am excited by the possibilities TaRL Africa presents for the children of our region. Thank you for caring about our children’s education in Africa and for considering TaRL Africa as a worthwhile funding opportunity.
- Teaching at the Right Level: An Introduction (Video, TaRL Africa, February 2018)
- Evidence to Policy: Teaching at the Right Level to Improve Learning (Video, J-PAL, September 2019)
- Webinar and article on accelerating learning when schools resume after COVID-19-related closures (TaRL Africa, July 2020)
- Adapting to learning needs in the wake of COVID-19 using data and evidence (Brookings Education plus Development Blog, August 2020)
- Losing children from education has high costs—we must keep them learning when schools close (WISE Blog, October 2020)
Disclaimer: We do not have a reciprocal relationship with any charity, and recommendations are subject to change based on our ongoing research.
“Based on the evidence presented in this section, we ultimately think that the most promising interventions are 'Teaching at the Right Level' interventions, which consist of calibrating education more precisely to the level of the student.” Callum Calvert, “Cause Area Report: Education” (Founders Pledge, December 20, 2019), https://founderspledge.com/research/fp-education. ↩
The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), “Reducing Costs to Increase School Participation”, The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), February 2019, https://www.povertyactionlab.org/policy-insight/reducing-costs-increase-school-participation. ↩
Eric A. Hanushek et al., “Education and Economic Growth”, Education Next (blog), February 29, 2008, https://www.educationnext.org/education-and-economic-growth/; Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessman, “Education and Economic Growth,” in Economics of Education, ed. Dominic J. Brewer and Patrick J. McEwan, 1st ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010), 60–67, http://hanushek.stanford.edu/publications/education-and-economic-growth; Michelle Kaffenberger and Lant Pritchett, “Failing to Plan? Estimating the Impact of Achieving Schooling Goals on Cohort Learning” (Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE), May 12, 2020), https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2020/038. ↩
Vgotsky, L. (1978). “Interaction between learning and development”. From Mind and Society. pp. 79-91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ↩
Shimeles, A. and Nabassaga, T. (2018). “Why is Inequality High in Africa?”. From Journal of African Economies 27(1). PP. 108-206. ↩
Co-Impact, “Strengthening African Education Systems: Accelerating Learning for All Children,” Co-Impact Grant Opportunity (Co-Impact, 2019). ↩
Co-Impact, “Strengthening African Education Systems: Accelerating Learning for All Children,” Co-Impact Grant Opportunity (Co-Impact, 2019). ↩
For a definition of standard deviation as an indicator of learning, and a discussion of its benefits and drawbacks, please see section 1.2.2 of Calvert, “Cause Area Report: Education” (Founders Pledge, December 20, 2019), https://founderspledge.com/research/fp-education. ↩
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), “Teaching at the Right Level to Improve Learning,” The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), accessed August 13, 2020, https://www.povertyactionlab.org/case-study/teaching-right-level-improve-learning. ↩
Samantha Carter and Claire Walsh, “Increasing the Use of Data and Evidence in Real-World Policy: Stories from J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative,” The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), January 16, 2018, https://www.povertyactionlab.org/blog/1-16-18/increasing-use-data-and-evidence-real-world-policy-stories-j-pals-government. ↩
This partnership, and the role played by J-PAL’s Innovation in Government Initiative, is described in detail in Appendix 4 of our evidence-based policy cause area report, available at https://founderspledge.com/stories/evidence-based-policy-executive-summary. ↩
See [Public] TaRL re-evaluation sheets. In 2020-21, TaRL Africa increased test scores by around 3.4 standard deviations (SDs) for each $100 in funding. In 2022, we estimate an increase of 4.5 SDs per $100. ↩
For comparison, we find increases of around 0.5-1.5 SDs per $100 donated to other educational charities. ↩
Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessman, “Education and Economic Growth,” in Economics of Education, ed. Dominic J. Brewer and Patrick J. McEwan, 1st ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010), 60-67, http://hanushek.stanford.edu/publications/education-and-economic-growth. ↩
“Without targeted, evidenced interventions, the gap between rich and poor children — which will have widened considerably during the months of school closure — will continue to grow.” Shelby Carvalho and Susannah Hares, “Six Ways COVID-19 Will Shape the Future of Education,” Center For Global Development (blog), July 22, 2020, https://www.cgdev.org/blog/six-ways-covid-19-will-shape-future-education; "The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting school closures will likely only exacerbate these low learning outcomes; in fact, the World Bank estimates that globally the pandemic could result in a loss of between 0.3 and 0.9 years of schooling adjusted for quality”. Molly Curtiss, “Adapting to Learning Needs in the Wake of Covid-19 Using Data and Evidence,” Brookings (blog), August 11, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/08/11/adapting-to-learning-needs-in-the-wake-of-covid-19-using-data-and-evidence/. ↩
“As donor countries reallocate funds to deal with increased unemployment and enterprise bankruptcies, aid volumes will inevitably be reduced – not least because some of the donors will suffer the consequences of reduced revenues from taxes or natural resources…Donor priorities may shift to health or other emergency priorities. International student mobility, which accounts for US$3.1 billion of total aid to education, will be curtailed. Even without these final two effects, aid to education levels may not return to 2018 levels for another six years.” Global Education Monitoring Report, “Covid-19 is a Serious Threat to Aid to Education Recovery,” Policy Paper (UNESCO, July 2020), https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373844, p. 12. ↩
Samer Al-Samarrai, “The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Education Financing,” Text/HTML (Washington, DC: World Bank Group, May 12, 2020), https://documents.worldbank.org/en/publication/documents-reports/documentdetail; International Monetary Fund, “Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Economic Outlook Update, June 2020: A Cautious Reopening” (International Monetary Fund, June 2020), https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/REO/SSA/Issues/2020/06/29/sreo0629. ↩
Please see section 3.5 of Calvert 2019 for further discussion of this issue and our perspective on when donors should focus on education, relative to health or economic empowerment. ↩