Episode 2 of the RISE Podcast: Rachel Glennerster on Interventions, Evidence, and Incentives in Education

Dr Rachel Glennerster, outgoing Chief Economist of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), tackles the question: how can we ensure our interventions will really help as many kids as possible?


Image of Lillie Kilburn

Lillie Kilburn

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

In the second episode of the RISE podcast, we were very excited to welcome Dr Rachel Glennerster, outgoing FCDO Chief Economist, to discuss the lessons she’s learned about education reform from her work both within the UK civil service and in varied other organisations such as J-PAL and MIT.

Research as a source of “generalisable principles,” not templates

In her conversation with Laura Savage, also of FCDO, Dr Glennerster speaks about the persistence of low learning levels and the process of finding the most cost-effective way to address them.

What she has found is that it’s essential to understand the context of the education system in which you are working: “You've got to design interventions that are realistic about the practical constraints on the ground,” she says.

That means it’s usually not productive to ‘copy and paste’ reforms that were designed for a different context. Yet the mistake of implementing interventions that are crafted to function within a different system is common—as RISE Research Fellow Yue-Yi Hwa also points out in a previous RISE blog.

We are not reaping the full benefit of evidence on education, Dr Glennerster says, because of this tendency to view the evidence as a source of templates for imitation rather than of broader principles that can inform decisions.

Pushing toward scale

Dr Glennerster explains that a dramatic improvement in learning in just a few schools can be more appealing to all stakeholders than an incremental improvement in learning at scale. But this creates incentives for both development partners and governments to focus on small, glamorous improvements rather than the large-scale, slight improvements that are necessary in order to increase learning for all. She says:

[T]he main institutional thing I've taken away is just how ingrained the incentives are to work in a little patch and try and make it beautiful, rather than try and improve the system as a whole.

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So how can we promote a focus on nationwide learning levels and ensure that policies and interventions are designed to fit the practical constraints of their systems?

Hear Dr Glennerster’s thoughts on these questions and more in the full podcast below. You can also subscribe to the RISE podcast via Spotify, Apple PodcastsTuneInGoogle Podcasts, and Stitcher.


RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.