Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
This blog series reviews major policy reforms and interventions to showcase real-life examples of the ‘five actions to accelerate progress in learning’ identified by Pritchett, Newman & Silberstein (2022). In this third blog, I discuss how the Tusome programme substantially improved literacy outcomes for primary school children in Kenya by aligning education components around the goal of literacy, in line with the third action of ‘align systems around learning commitments’ under the five actions.
Tusome was an ambitious programme designed to improve literacy outcomes for primary school children in Kenya. This donor-funded programme ran from 2014 to 2022 and reached 7.8 million children in Grades 1 to 3 across the country (USAID, 2022). The programme sought to improve literacy outcomes by aligning the different components of the Kenyan primary education system. It did this by (i) revising class content and pedagogies, (ii) providing universal access to learner and teacher resources, (iii) building the capacity of teachers, and (iv) providing continuous support, mentorship and professional development opportunities to teachers on the ground. A midline evaluation of the programme found that, after five years of the programme, the fraction of students in Grade 2 who could read at the Grade 2 standard increased by around 30 percentage points for both English and Kiswahili (from 34 percent to 65 percent for English, and from 37 percent to 66 percent for Kiswahili) (Freudenberger & Davis, 2017).
Learning levels (and literacy outcomes in particular) were a cause for concern in Kenya. Just over a decade ago, less than a tenth of children enrolled in Grade 2 could read according to their national grade-level benchmarks in Kenya’s official languages: English and Kiswahili (USAID, 2019). Piper and Mugenda (2012) estimate these figures were even lower at only 5 percent of students in Grade 2 reading according to national fluency and comprehension benchmarks for Kiswahili and only 7 percent meeting the same benchmarks for English.
At around the same time, the Government of Kenya launched the Kenya Vision 2030—an ambitious blueprint to transform Kenya into a middle-income country that provided “a high quality of life to all its citizens”. Low learning levels and literacy outcomes were a direct threat to realising Vision 2030, prompting the country to embark upon an ambitious intervention to improve literacy outcomes at the national level.
The Government of Kenya entered into a partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International as its implementing partner. Collectively, they designed a national programme called Tusome (Kiswahili for “Let’s Read”) with the aim of improving literacy outcomes for around 7 million children in Grades 1 to 3 in primary schools across the country (RTI International, n.d.).
The Tusome programme ran from 2014 to 2022 in all public primary schools across Kenya (around 23,000) and over 1,500 low-cost private primary schools (USAID, 2022). The programme recognised that in order to achieve results at scale, Kenyan schools must simplify their focus and align their education system around the goal of improving literacy. Tusome identified four key levers for achieving its goal:
The first stage of Tusome was to review the content taught in classrooms and the pedagogies being used. Overall, this led to revision across two categories: (a) resources for the learner and (b) resources for the teacher. Upon a study of existing resources, Tusome learned that currently resources were neither fit for purpose nor user friendly.
Resources for the learner were then revised to make them more “organised, age-appropriate, culturally relevant and diverse, well-aligned to learners’ developmental needs and capacities”, and visually appealing, which ultimately would lead to greater use by and relevance for learners (USAID, 2019). Resources for the teacher were also revised to make them simpler, easier to understand, better fit for purpose, and based on actual teacher feedback and engagement, which would lead to these resources being more effective at supporting teaching (USAID, 2019). These efforts led to revisions in existing teaching and learning material (such student books) and the development of new training manuals and teachers’ guides (RTI International, n.d.).
The Tusome team realised that revising instructional content and classroom pedagogies had little use unless universal access was provided to the materials developed. That is, unless every child had access to the resources for the learner and every teacher had access to the resources for the teacher, Tusome could not effectively be implemented.
As a result, the project team undertook the ambitious goal of ensuring a 1:1 student-to-book ratio for access to books in Kiswahili and English by delivering 26 million books to schools participating in the programme across the country (RTI International, n.d.). Further, the same approach was taken to maintaining a 1:1 teacher-to-resource ratio for access to teacher guides. This ensured that every student and teacher in every classroom had access to resources that were actually useful and that would support improving literacy.
Under the Tusome programme, the focus of teaching was shifted to foundational literacy. Effectively implementing this shift required building the capacity of teachers to embark upon this focused role, especially given the shift in classroom content and pedagogies being used.
To support this pivot to focused teaching, a six-day training was designed for every public-school teacher in Grades 1 to 3 to participate in at the beginning of the Tusome programme (Hwa, Kaffenberger & Silberstein, 2020). This training directly supported teaching that was aligned with the goal of improved literacy.
The Tusome programme also recognised that teachers would benefit from ongoing support, mentorship, and professional development in their day-to-day activities. The programme thus devised a three-pronged approach for this purpose, which included: (a) the designation of Curriculum Support Officers (CSOs) as mentors and monitoring personnel, (b) the training of administrators and CSOs on the new instructional approach, and (c) targeted support and actions based on data collected.
Firstly, CSOs were given the mandate of conducting school visits during which they conducted classroom observations and assessed the literacy levels of three randomly chosen students. These visits were low-stakes, focused on the new content and pedagogy and on providing real-time and effective feedback to teachers (Hwa, Kaffenberger & Silberstein, 2020). Further, CSOs were also given tablets upon which they collected real-time cloud-based data during each visit that led to accountability and allowed for wider analyses (USAID, 2022).
Secondly, the administration (such as head teachers) and CSOs both were trained on the new content and pedagogy that teachers would be implementing so they could appropriately support teaching and mentor teachers. CSOs were given particularly rigorous trainings due to their extensive role as mentors, resulting in thrice yearly CSO trainings (Hwa, Kaffenberger & Silberstein, 2020).
Lastly, the data being collected by CSOs was collated and analysed at the county and national levels in a low-stakes and formative manner to identify areas that required further support (RTI International, n.d.). Further, data was also collected that was then used to iterate upon the teaching and learning material, especially the teacher guides, to make them as effective as possible for learners and teachers.
While many education systems are tempted to design programmes that are extremely innovative or “flashy”, the Tusome programme instead chose to simplify an already complex approach and focus on the basics. By aligning the components of the education system around improving literacy, Tusome was highly effective. The programme reached 7.8 million pupils and saw that, even after just five years of the programme, the fraction of students in Grade 2 who could read at the Grade 2 standard increased by around 30 percentage points for both English and Kiswahili (from 34 percent to 65 percent for English, and from 37 percent to 66 percent for Kiswahili) (Freudenberger & Davis, 2017). The gains seen in English reading skills were equivalent to students attending one additional year of schooling (USAID, 2022). In addition to these macro results, the Tusome team was also successful in implementing the programme overall (Piper et al., 2018):
Reflecting on the Tusome programme and its impact, it is clear that aligning the system around a focused goal is a very effective method. The programme also illustrates the importance of focusing on less and doing it well (such as focusing on literacy), rather than stretching limited capacity over numerous competing goals.
The Tusome programme is illustrative of the need to align systems around focused goals. This case yields the following policy implications:
Freudenberger, E., & Davis, J. 2017. Tusome external evaluation—Midline report. Prepared for the Ministry of Education of Kenya, USAID/Kenya, and the UK DFID. Available at: https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00MS6J.pdf
Hwa, Y., Kaffenberger, M. & Silberstein, J. (2020) ‘Aligning Levels of Instruction with Goals and the Needs of Students (ALIGNS): Varied Approaches, Common Principles,’ RISE Insight Series, 2020(022). Available at: https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2020/022
Piper, B., & Mugenda, A. 2012. The Primary Math and Reading (PRIMR) Initiative: Baseline report. Prepared under the USAID EdData II. https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pa00hx75.pdf
RTI International. (n.d.) ‘Improving Early Grade Education Across Kenya’. Available at: https://www.rti.org/impact/tusome-improving-early-grade-learning-kenya
USAID. (2019) ‘Tusome Case Study: Final Report,’ Long-term Assistance and Services for Research (LASER) Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine (PULSE). Available at: https://www.edu-links.org/resources/tusome-early-grade-reading-case-study
USAID. (2022) ‘Kenya: Tusome Early Grade Reading’. Available at: https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/2022-05/Tusome_Fact_Sheet_2022.pdf
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