Aligning the System to Improve Children’s Opportunities to Learn: Curriculum Studies in Tanzania and Uganda

Using examples in Tanzania and Uganda, this blog highlights how effective curricula reforms must pay attention to the quality of the proposed content reforms and to how they will be enacted to benefit the learning of most children.   


Image of Julius Atuhurra

Julius Atuhurra

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Education systems that are well-aligned to deliver learning portray two important attributes: 

First, curriculum content coverage and instructional pedagogies enable most students to gain from the classroom interaction process. When the curriculum is overambitious and leaves many children behind, only a few benefit from the experience and the education system is not well aligned to deliver learning for all (Pritchett and Beatty, 2015; Hwa, Kaffenberger and Silberstein, 2020). In this blog, I focus on two reform efforts which made changes in line with this principle. In 2015, the Government of Tanzania implemented the “3Rs” (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) curriculum reform to develop strong foundations by reducing the content load and slowing down the pace of coverage. Eight years earlier, a similar effort called the “thematic curriculum” reform was rolled out in Uganda. In this case, the goal was to achieve rapid development of foundational skills by organising content into themes of primary relevance to young children and delivering learner-centred instruction in the local language. Recent evidence suggests that the 3Rs curriculum reform was effective at improving foundational learning in Tanzania (Rodriguez-Segura and Mbiti, 2022). On the other hand, the thematic curriculum in Uganda faced implementation hurdles from the outset and there is no evidence of learning improvements attributable to this reform (Altinyelken, 2010; Ssentanda, 2014; Uwezo, 2016).  

The second important attribute, in systems well-aligned to deliver learning, is that the goals and objectives of the different system components reinforce each other. For example, the curriculum standards, national exams, and teacher classroom instruction are well-aligned with each other and with children’s learning needs. Using an innovative approach for diagnosing alignment and misalignment in education systems, Twaweza (an East African regional civil society organisation) uncovered evidence in Tanzania and Uganda of low alignment across these three key education system components (Atuhurra and Kaffenberger, 2022). The content covered in the curriculum standards and exams differed considerably, and teacher instruction did not align well with either. 

What happened?

Uganda and Tanzania have conducted major education curricula reforms targeting development of strong foundational skills in early primary grades as a launchpad for future educational and life success (NCDC, 2006; TIE, 2019)  

With global evidence highlighting curricula misalignment with learning as a prime factor perpetuating the learning crisis in developing countries, Twaweza collaborated with key education authorities in three East African countries to pioneer the adaptation and use of the ‘Surveys of Enacted Curriculum’ methodology to conduct curriculum effectiveness studies that identify and describe (mis)alignments in their education systems. 

Uganda’s thematic curriculum reform

Since gaining independence in 1962, Uganda has had five major primary-level education curriculum reforms in 1965, 1967, 1990, 2000 and 2007-2010 (Atuhurra and Alinda, 2017). Targeting the quick development of basic literacy, numeracy, and life skills for all children during the first three years of primary school, the 2007-2010 curriculum reform re-organised content from 12 independently organised subjects into 8 learning areas, synthesised into themes of interest and relevance to children’s lives. This thematic re-arrangement was expected to reduce curriculum load by elimination of content overlaps that were a common feature of the 2000 curriculum. Nevertheless, the thematic curriculum remained content heavy and never specifically targeted the slowing down of the curriculum pace in the lower primary grades. Several studies have described it as fast-paced, poorly sequenced, and imposing unrealistic demands on teachers (Altinyelken, 2010; Bunjo et al., 2013).  

Another key departure from the 2000 curriculum was the adoption of child-centred instruction and continuous assessment pedagogies (NCDC, 2006). Teachers were advised to use group work and involve learners in independent exploration and experimentation activities. To assess learning, teachers were expected to develop child-level profiles, update them regularly during the normal course of teaching, and use them to diagnose and remedy difficult areas. No separate tests or exams were to be used to assess learning in lower primary grades. With many lower public primary classrooms in Uganda typically overcrowded, it became very difficult for teachers to implement these pedagogies. Coupled with shortages of the required instructional materials and learning aids, it became impossible to do any meaningful group work. Moreover, teachers observed that adopting these classroom instructional practices required more time than previous approaches and yet the thematic curriculum reduced the daily duration for covering one learning area in a day from forty to thirty minutes (Altinyelken, 2010).  

Finally, the thematic curriculum adopted the use of local language for instruction in the lower primary grades, transitioning to English in Grade 4. This too proved a difficult policy change to implement especially in multilingual districts where it was not obvious which one was the clearly dominant local language to be used in school. Furthermore, many Ugandans continued to show ambivalence about the use of local languages for instruction in school due to the belief that this put their children at a disadvantage since the high-stakes national exams continued to be set in English. Moreover, the thematic curriculum allowed schools in urban areas to continue using English for instruction in lower primary grades. 

While the thematic curriculum reform in Uganda was described as a policy change that had great intentions for improving foundational learning in Uganda, it remained irrelevant for the contextual realities in Ugandan classrooms. In the context of large class sizes and inadequate instructional materials, child-centred approaches were viewed as ineffective. Without effective training and support, teachers lacked the required skills to conduct individualised continuous assessments (Altinyelken, 2010). Early exit from mother tongue to second language instruction imposed an unrealistic expectation on rural-based learners to acquire the necessary language skills for a smooth transition to English instruction in Grade 4. With only a small fraction of three-to-five-year-olds able to attend formal pre-school before enrolment into primary school, Uganda’s thematic curriculum has been described as presenting real obstacles to foundational learning for most children (Atuhurra and Alinda, 2017). 

Tanzania’s 3Rs reform

In the fifty-year period since gaining independence (1961 – 2011), Tanzania conducted five major education curriculum reforms in the years 1961-1964, 1967, 1979, 1997 and 2005 (Nzima and Mkumbo, ND). Starting in 2013 under the Big Results Now (BRN) package of policy reforms, Tanzania implemented the 3Rs primary curriculum reform in 2015. This reform entailed slowing down the pace and simplifying the curriculum with the objective of strengthening foundational learning for children in Grades 1 and 2 (TIE, 2019).  

Under the reformed curriculum, the instructional process switched from being subject-based to focusing on developing children’s foundational competencies in the 3Rs1 (Komba and Shukia, 2021). The narrowing of focus was targeted at cutting back on the amount of subject-based content covered in the two grades and creating a strong basis for further learning. Instructional materials were redesigned to support the emphasis on foundational competencies and widely distributed in schools in the whole country. From 2014 onwards, additional components to the reform covered all primary school grades and included the reduction in number of subjects covered in Grades 3 to 72 and dropping the teaching of English in Grades 1 and 2. Instructional materials including textbooks, syllabi, modules, story books, teacher manuals, handbooks, and guides were developed and distributed in all regions.  

In-service training for teachers of lower primary was re-oriented towards children’s acquisition of foundational skills and not syllabus coverage. Overall, about 13 percent of all primary school teachers in Tanzania were trained to deliver the reformed 3Rs curriculum.3 This reform made a large contribution towards in-service training of teachers by equipping them with critical foundational learning delivery skills (Rodriguez-Segura and Mbiti, 2022).  

To deliver the 3Rs reform, the Government of Tanzania collaborated broadly with nine institutions involved in the reform implementation, including NGOs, international donor organisations and other development partners4 (Komba and Shukia, 2021). A rigorous analysis of the impacts of this reform found positive effects on foundational literacy and numeracy learning outcomes for all categories of children. Even more encouraging, the reform did not negatively affect the learning gains of top performing children. In regions and districts of higher implementation intensity, mostly relating to teacher training, the learning gains were significantly higher (Rodriguez-Segura and Mbiti, 2022). 

Recognising that the learning crisis starts very early with children failing to develop the prerequisite basic reading and mathematics skills, the 3Rs reform was specifically designed to address this learning alignment need. After Grade 2, instruction would gradually become teacher-led, fast-paced, and focused on delivery of subject content rather than foundational competences. The number of subjects too would increase to six in Grades 3 and 4, and seven in Grades 5 to 7. Implementation of the 3Rs reform garnered broad national and international support, direct involvement of key players in global educational development, and high-level collaboration with the government of Tanzania. As a result, this reform avoided two major obstacles that had impeded effective implementation of previous curriculum reforms in Tanzania. First, teachers were adequately prepared and supported: each primary school in Tanzania had at least one teacher directly trained on the reform concept and oriented on the practice of implementing the reformed 3Rs curriculum. Subsequent studies have found that the training given to teachers was highly effective. Second, instructional materials needed for the implementation of the reform were adequately provided to teachers and widely distributed in all schools. A textbook ratio of 1:3 and children’s story book ratio of 1:1 were achieved. 

Twaweza’s Surveys of Enacted Curriculum (SEC) studies in Tanzania and Uganda

Starting in 2015, Twaweza initiated studies to examine the effectiveness of education curricula in the three East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.5 These studies were conducted in close collaboration with key education authorities,6 in-service primary school teachers, and researchers from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). Twaweza’s studies adopted the ‘Surveys of Enacted Curriculum’ (SEC)7 approach from WCER, adapting the SEC tools to the relevant East African country contexts. These tools produce measures of alignment between different instructional components, providing a basis for establishing the extent of content overlap between components (Atuhurra, Chaudhry, and Kaffenberger, 2023).  

Focusing on Uganda and Tanzania, three key findings have emerged from the SEC studies (Atuhurra and Kaffenberger, 2022). First, there is a predominance of low alignment between the curriculum standards, national exams, and classroom instruction. On a 0-1 alignment scale, only in 2 out of 10 occasions did the alignment measures between two instructional components exceed 0.5.8 That misalignments are widespread across components in the education system suggests that key education authorities are pulling in different directions, making it difficult for the system to coherently coalesce around the learning goal. Low alignment measures between curriculum standards and national exams imply that teachers face conflicting content coverage demands from the curriculum and examination bodies (Atuhurra and Kaffenberger, 2019).  

Second, the articulation of the prescribed content in the curriculum standards across grades and cycles was found to be non-systematic. Examples included major omissions of important foundational level content areas and use of a non-cumulative ‘drop-and-reinstate’ content coverage pattern—both of which meant that content layout was not well sequenced. Misalignments in content layout impedes learning by making it difficult for students to meaningfully engage with content in the higher grades due to learning gaps in the earlier grades. A well sequenced and naturally spiralling content layout structure ensures that children are cumulatively being subjected to content that builds on knowledge they have already acquired. This allows the teacher to make incremental stretches to cover new areas reflecting progression on content.  

Third, classroom instructional practices focused on covering broad strips of content without regard for depth, even when the curriculum standards prescribed the opposite. These instructional misalignments could result from lack of teacher capacity to deliver the prescribed content pedagogies or an outright rejection of the curriculum standards if teachers find them inappropriate for the classroom realities they face. In Uganda, teachers of lower primary grades spent a significant amount of time covering foundational reading topics that are not prescribed in the curriculum standards. The assessments heavily emphasised performance of procedures on routine problems such as explaining concepts learned in the classroom. This heavy focus of the exams on testing students’ abilities to reproduce acquired knowledge, rather than demonstrating conceptual understanding (e.g., through conjecture and application to real-life novel situations), could encourage teachers to adopt rote teaching and learning methods that will leave students devoid of conceptual mastery.     

Twaweza’s SEC studies in East Africa powerfully demonstrated the latent possibility for high-level collaborations between governments and civil society to undertake independent and high-value education system alignment studies in developing countries.  

What can we learn?

Both curriculum reforms in Tanzania and Uganda were aimed at improving foundational learning for children in early primary grades. The contrasting differences in outcomes between them seem to have emerged partly from critical alignment considerations relating to reform design and implementation. While the 3Rs reform involved a major reduction in the curriculum load, the thematic curriculum did not explicitly target content load reduction other than the avoidance of cross-subject duplication that characterised the previous curricula. Another clear design distinction between the two reforms related to the pace of content coverage. Recognising that children must first acquire high levels of basic proficiency in Reading, wRiting and aRithmetics to achieve and sustain better and faster learning in upper primary, the 3Rs reform emphasised slowing down the pace of the curriculum in the first two grades and focusing most coverage on these skills. Conversely, the thematic curriculum targeted rapid development of these skills in the lower primary grades. The Tanzanian curriculum reform was better aligned with children’s learning needs. 

Curriculum reforms propose changes of both ‘what’ (content) and ‘how’ (pedagogy). At every stage of the reform, ensuring these two are well aligned is important for the reform to achieve the goal of yielding better learning. It does not matter how well intentioned the reform design is; if the ‘how’ of implementing that reform is not comprehensively addressed, the reform will likely not achieve the learning improvement goal. Effective curricula reforms, therefore, must pay attention both to the quality of the proposed content reforms and to how they will be enacted to benefit the learning of most children.   

Twaweza’s curriculum effectiveness studies in East Africa demonstrated that it is possible to diagnose and describe education system (mis)alignments in developing countries through a structured and systematic methodology. To overcome the existing capacity constraints for conducting such high-value studies in developing countries, collaborations across government, civil society, and academia are important. The evidence from Tanzania and Uganda point to the likelihood that misalignments exist in other countries, too. 

Policy implications

  • Carefully consider curriculum load and pace of content progression when reforming the curriculum for lower primary grades. An effective reform needs to ensure these two are well aligned with children’s current learning levels, ensuring they acquire and master basic literacy and numeracy skills first in order to lay strong foundations for subsequent learning. 

  • Ensure the proposed curriculum reforms are implementable in the existing context. Proposing well intentioned curricula reforms that are nevertheless not implementable in the existing context is a form of curricula over ambitiousness and education system misalignment. 

  • Conduct curriculum effectiveness analysis studies to diagnose and describe the forms of misalignments affecting the education system. Misalignments are common in education systems and affect their ability to deliver learning for all children. Identifying and diagnosing misalignment is an important step towards overall system improvement.


  • Nzima, I. and Mkumbo, K. ND. Review of curriculum reform processes and outcomes in Tanzania: implications for learning outcomes. Twaweza report (not published). 

  • Pritchett, L. and Beatty, A. 2015. Slow down, you are going too fast: matching curricula to student skill levels. IJED.  

  • Porter, C. A. 2002. Measuring the content of instruction: Uses in research and practice. 2002 presidential address. Madison: University of Wisconsin. 

  • Rodriguez-Segura, D. and Mbiti, I. 2022. Back to the basics:  Curriculum reform and student learning in Tanzania. RISE Working Paper Series. 22/099.  

  • Ssentanda, M. 2014. The Challenges of Teaching Reading in Uganda: Curriculum guidelines and language policy viewed from the classroom. Apples - Journal of Applied Language Studies, 8(2), 1–22. 


  • 1This focus on foundational skills development covered 80 percent of the instructional time, the remaining 20 percent focusing on building in readings about other subjects during the literacy lessons.
  • 2The reform reduced the number of major subjects from nine to six (for grades 3 & 4) and seven (for grades 5 -7).
  • 3These were 22,993 teachers for grades I-IV out of the total 179,341 primary-level teachers in Tanzania as of 2018.
  • 4These nine specifically identified institutions are Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE), Ministry of Education Science and Technology (MoEST), Presidents Office – Regional Administration and Local Government (PO-RALG), USAID-Tusome Pamoja, UNICEF, Agency for the Development of Education Management (ADEM), GPE-Literacy and Numeracy Education Support (LaNES), Right to Play and Education Quality Improvement – Tanzania (EQuIp-T).
  • 5At the time, the 3Rs curriculum reform was well underway in Tanzania and a curriculum reform framework had been developed to adopt a competence-based curriculum in Kenya.
  • 6These included government bodies responsible for curriculum development, national learning assessments, teacher education and school inspections.
  • 7The Surveys of Enacted Curriculum are a set of tools for collecting, processing and reporting the educational content embedded in different instructional components such as curriculum syllabus standards, learning assessment or test items, classroom instruction, and other instructional materials such as textbooks, etc. (Porter, 2002).
  • 8A situation of no content overlap between two instructional components leads to an alignment measure of 0, and perfect alignment is reflected by an alignment measure of 1. The alignment measures for primary math in Tanzania were: 0.44 (standards vs. exams), 0.44 (standards vs. instruction) and 0.33 (exams vs. Instruction). The corresponding measures for primary English in Tanzania were: 0.11, 0.32 and 0.11 respectively. The alignment measures for primary math in Uganda were: 0.57 (Standards vs. exams) and 0.65 (Standards vs. instruction). The corresponding measures for primary English in Uganda were: 0.36 and 0.15 respectively.

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