The next generation of rigorous education research: J-PAL launches the Learning for All Initiative

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Teacher with children in a classroom.
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In response to the current crisis in education and the increasing demand for actionable evidence, and with the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates FoundationDouglas B. Marshall Jr. Family Foundation, and Echidna Giving, J-PAL is launching the Learning For All Initiative to identify education solutions for parents, schools, and governments. LAI will generate research in key open areas related to foundational literacy and numeracy and holistic skills, and summarize lessons for policymakers to incorporate into their decisions.

Pre-pandemic, more than half of children in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read a simple story by age 10. In the poorest countries, this figure was as high as 80 percent.

School closures, which affected over one billion children during the pandemic, have exacerbated low learning and inequity in education systems. In addition to disrupting learning, school closures deprived students of social interactions and upset routines, limiting their development of social and emotional skills. 

While many countries have pursued online learning, less than half of households in low- and middle-income countries have internet access. Data also shows that school closures, reduced financial resources, and other effects of instability can disproportionately impact women and girls.

Global demand for evidence in education has rapidly increased during the pandemic recovery. In 2020, UNICEF, along with J-PAL and other partners, launched the Foundational Numeracy and Literacy Initiative to make the evidence more accessible to policymakers, while a joint effort by the World Bank, FCDO, and Building Evidence in Education (BE2) synthesized “smart buys” in education through the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel. Post-pandemic school openings offer an ideal window for research and evidence-based action as governments develop recovery plans to ensure high-quality and equitable education for all children.

Launching the Learning for All Initiative 

LAI seeks to improve global learning outcomes by uncovering the next generation of promising evidence-based approaches that can be tested, replicated, and adapted by policymakers to their local contexts. The initiative is chaired by Rachel Glennerster (University of Chicago), Karen Macours (Paris School of Economics) and Karthik Muralidharan (University of California, San Diego).

In addition to evaluating new innovations, the Initiative will also evaluate evidence-based interventions at a larger scale and in new contexts in order to better understand their generalizability, mechanisms of change, and pathways to scale.

The Initiative will achieve this through two core activities:

  1. Generating high-quality, rigorous studies across pre-primary, primary, and lower-secondary ages, with a focus on improving foundational literacy and numeracy and holistic skills for children in low- and middle-income countries, especially marginalized children.
  2. Bridging the gap between research and policy by summarizing research insights and supporting policymakers to use evidence when designing and scaling innovative education reforms to meet SDG 4 by 2030.

LAI will fund evaluations led by researchers in the J-PAL network across early childhood, primary, and lower secondary education that aim to improve student attendance or learning in five thematic areas. Priority will be given to research in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia for thematic areas 1-4, whereas all low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will receive equal priority for thematic area 5. 

  1. Foundational literacy and numeracy: LAI will encourage interventions focused on improving children’s foundational literacy and numeracy. Children across low- and middle-income countries often lag below grade level in literacy and numeracy skills, and once children are far behind, it can be very difficult to catch up. Though children’s enrollment and attendance in school has improved in recent decades, more research is needed on how to best develop children’s foundational literacy and numeracy skills in and outside the classroom.

    We hope to see interventions that intersect the development of foundational literacy and numeracy skills with innovative pedagogies (per thematic area 2), as well as holistic skills development (per thematic area 5).                                    
  2. Pedagogy: LAI seeks to understand what instructional practices are most effective for developing foundational literacy and numeracy skills in children of all ages. LAI will emphasize pedagogy as a key priority area and will prioritize research teams with experience and/or training in evaluating teaching-and-learning programs.

    Pedagogical innovations may include well-known approaches such as structured pedagogy and Teaching at the Right Level (as detailed in Cost-effective Approaches to Improve Global Learning by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel), as well as other interventions to improve teaching and learning, including play-based learning, remedial programs, distance learning, teacher professional development, and integration of technology into curriculum. 
  3. Gender and Social Inclusion: Education inequality and marginalization appears across a range of demographic factors, including but not limited to gender, income level, location, ethnicity, race, language, citizenship status, disability, and at the intersection of those factors. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the global learning crisis for all children, with adolescent girls and other marginalized groups, such as students with disabilities, at particularly high risk of not returning to school.

    Even in locations that have achieved gender parity in educational attainment and learning, research suggests that girls must often achieve higher education than boys to attain equal labor outcomes and that educating girls can yield greater positive social externalities than educating men, according to the Center for Global Development’s report, Girls’ Education and Women’s Equality (2022).

    We are particularly interested in supporting evaluations that aim to address how exclusion and inequality manifest locally. For example, proposals may seek to answer key open questions in girls’ education, as highlighted by the Population Council’s Girls’ Education Roadmap, including: Does engaging communities improve girls’ enrollment, attainment, and/or learning on its own? What are effective strategies to reduce school-related gender-based violence and does that improve girls’ participation and learning? How can schools address gender-inequitable environments or barriers related to menstruation, and do these interventions improve learning outcomes? Proposals may also aim to answer key questions related to other marginalization factors, such as: Which interventions designed to improve school participation and learning are most effective for students with different types of disabilities? What combination of interventions is most effective at improving education outcomes for children in extremely remote areas?
  4. Scale-relevant work: LAI is focused on supporting projects that have carefully considered the potential implementation of a proposed intervention at scale. This includes cultivating active partnerships with governments, developing connections with local researchers and practitioners, and using these partnerships to gauge the compatibility of interventions with pre-existing in-country structures to bring ideas to scale. 
  5. Breadth of skills: LAI will fund some projects related to a wider range of skills beyond standardized test scores in math and reading, such as cognitive thinking, creativity, and socio-emotional skills, as described in the LEGO Foundation’s white paper on Learning through play at school.

What’s next?

J-PAL is hosting a webinar to introduce LAI to policymakers, program implementers, and practitioners interested in learning how randomized evaluations could benefit education programs and about potential research partnerships with J-PAL affiliated researchers. 

If you are interested in learning more about J-PAL and LAI, please register for our webinar on Wednesday, February 1, at 2:00 pm UTC.

Register Now

LAI plans to work closely with a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, service providers, and policymakers that seek to improve student learning by addressing foundational literacy and numeracy, and breadth of skills. Over the next few months, we will share additional opportunities to learn more about LAI—stay tuned!