Research to Improve Student Learning Worldwide Will Study National Education Reform Package in Ethiopia

RISE in Ethiopia
© Young Lives/Antonio Fiorente

Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) - an initiative aimed at conducting high-quality research to build evidence to enhance children’s learning levels throughout the world - announced today that it will expand by undertaking analysis of education reforms in Ethiopia.

The £3.9 million, five-year research project will examine whether and how a large package of national reforms works to improve learning equitably in one of the world’s poorest and most diverse countries.

In recent years, Ethiopia has rapidly expanded primary school enrolment to achieve near-universal attendance. Yet, learning levels are poor, and appear to have stalled in recent years. As a result, even when children finish many years of schooling, they still lack needed skills.

In-depth, multi-year projects by RISE in a diverse group of countries - India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Vietnam, and, now, Ethiopia - aim to shed light on ways to address a global learning crisis, and to emerge with lessons for nations around the world.

“The fact that more children are in school than ever before represents an enormous victory for humankind,” said Lant Pritchett, RISE Research Director, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Now that they are there, let’s continue that momentum to make sure that every child in school is learning.”

The situation in Ethiopia offers an emblem of the problems facing many countries in the developing world. Over the past decade, as the country has experienced tremendous economic growth, net enrolment in primary schools has soared from 25 percent in 2000 to 94 percent in 2015, government figures show. Despite national efforts to improve and to invest more in education, girls from poorer backgrounds and rural areas particularly continue to face problems in learning once in school, and in completing primary school. These issues present tremendous challenges for a nation in which more than 80 indigenous languages are spoken, and where many children live in remote areas and as ‘pastoralists’ – in nomadic, herder communities.

“Ethiopia offers researchers a chance to explore the ways to expand universal education with a true push on learning, and, at the same time, to understand how to emphasise equity for all,” Pritchett said. “Ethiopia is in many ways thriving and bursting with aspirations, but at the same time, it is confronting a legacy of poverty. Primary school enrolment increased only recently, so the stock of educated people is very low, and many students in school are first-generation learners.”

The Ethiopian Country Research Team is a multidisciplinary group with expertise in economics, education, political science, development studies, anthropology, and psychology. The project is an international partnership of researchers at universities and research centres worldwide, and is coordinated by the Ethiopian Development Research Institute and University of Cambridge’s Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre. Partner institutions include the Institute of Educational Research at Addis Ababa University, and the Ethiopian Education Strategy Centre. Other partners include the University College London Institute of Education, Cornell University, and Stockholm University.

The RISE project will examine the government’s flagship education programme, the General Education Quality Improvement Package (GEQIP), a complex and evolving series of reforms intended to facilitate sustainable improvements in learning. Researchers will seek to understand the nature of the political levers brought about change, the ingredients of sustainability, and, ultimately, the effectiveness of the reform package.

“We want to know the impact on student learning from the programme of reforms’ – basically, what works, and what does not work,” said Tassew Woldehanna, the project’s principal investigator. He is a professor of economics and vice president for research and technology transfer at Addis Ababa University; a research fellow of the Ethiopian Development Research Institute, an organisation established to conduct research that can support Ethiopia’s development; and a principal investigator for Young Lives Ethiopia, which is part of a 15-year-long, international study of childhood poverty. “Ethiopia has the desire to learn from the evidence. We’re hoping that the evidence we provide will help to strengthen the education system, and provide an evidence base for future reforms’ so that we can understand why any changes succeed or fail.”

The research will analyse how a complex array of political forces affects the selection, design, implementation and success of reforms. Researchers will seek to understand the incentives, opportunities and barriers at work in the process. By conducting quantitative and qualitative research, the team intends to gain insight into the extent to which reforms work at scale, why certain reforms work or fail, and how to overcome any impediments. The team expects to examine a national reform package collectively intended to raise learning outcomes. The package includes:

  • Teacher education, development and retention – The government is boosting teacher salaries, and offering improved teacher training.
  • Preparation for school – A year of pre-primary school is being introduced nationwide.
  • Teaching methods – Educators are being encouraged to use more active teaching methods
  • School nutrition – Schools are offering students free meals in an effort to improve both attendance and the ability of students to concentrate.
  • School support – Reforms are providing school support in the form of enrolment-based grants, school planning assistance and educational leadership training; and increasing transparency about and sharing of students’ achievements.

“We want to understand the consequences of the quality reform package, particularly with regard to marginalised populations – girls, children in extreme poverty, pastoral populations, children who speak various minority languages, and children with disabilities,” said Pauline Rose, who coordinates research project with Tassew Woldehanna. She is a professor of international education, and the director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge. “We hope to understand the solutions for addressing the problems of learning for all, but particularly for these, the most disadvantaged children. Ethiopia has a diverse, geographically disperse population, and the challenges are to find equitable, inclusive and effective policies.”

The potential benefits of the research project extend beyond Ethiopia, which is in some respects a forerunner for other large education systems now seeking to make a transition from expanding attendance without leaving children from disadvantaged backgrounds behind.


Launched in 2015, RISE is supported by £27.6 million in funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), which has dedicated £21 million to high-quality research in up to five countries, and £6.6 million to support expert advice and management; and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), whose commitment of A$9.85 million has allowed RISE to incorporate a sixth country.

RISE is managed and implemented through a partnership based in Oxford, UK, between leading international development consultancy Oxford Policy Management, and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Research is led by Professor Pritchett and a team at the Center for Global Development, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, DC.