Three Takeaways from #CIES2019

The Comparative International Education Society (CIES) is one of my favorite conferences to attend each year. Researchers, practitioners, funders, government representatives, and more come from countries all over the world to discuss the most pressing issues in education globally. Sessions range from research on identity of immigrant children in the U.S. to Sesame Street programming for building socio-emotional skills in Syrian refugees to libraries in primary schools in Southeast Asia. After a few weeks of gathering my thoughts and reviewing my notes, I wanted to share three takeaways I had from this year’s conference April 14–18, 2019 in San Francisco.

1) Failing to reach the “Bottom of the Pyramid”

I attended about 15 sessions at CIES this year, and most were very good, but one stood out above the rest. In a cramped room off the main lobby area, Amy Jo Dowd from Save the Children chaired a panel session titled “Learning at the bottom of the pyramid: the gateway to sustainable development”. Moses Oketch from University College London, Pauline Rose from the University of Cambridge, and Amy Jo Dowd from Save the Children presented longitudinal data from Kenya, Ethiopia, and other countries around the world that showed inequality in educational attainment, opportunities, and achievement was remaining stable over time and in some cases growing. In particular, those at “the bottom of the pyramid” from impoverished households, girls, ethnic minorities, etc… were not making significant gains compared to their wealthier and traditionally more privileged peers. The presentations were excellent, but the discussion that followed led to people asking the questions “So what do we do about it?” and “Is schooling simply replicating the social, political, and economic structures that cause inequality and inequity in the first place?”

There were no easy answers, but a few potential solutions did arise. Elliott Friedlander who co-designed Save the Children’s Literacy Boost program and conducted extensive research on its components pushed for more research and initiatives outside of school. Children, especially in developing country contexts, are not in school for many hours during the day and when they are, their instruction time is limited. By increasing the frequency of learning activities outside of schools and looking more holistically at a child’s life in the context of their family and community, there may be more opportunities to close the inequality gap for those at the bottom of the pyramid. In her presentation, Amy Jo Dowd showed examples of displaying data in different ways, so the distribution and lack of growth of students at the bottom of the pyramid would be more evident to policymakers and practitioners. In this way, people are confronted with inequity and inequality instead of hiding behind mean score growth that is driven by the top 10–30% of children. Ultimately, there was agreement and consensus that there needed to be more discussion, but also action taken between now and CIES 2020 to ensure that the vast majority of the world’s children are not being left behind.

2) Where is Sustainability?

The theme of the 2019 CIES conference was “Education for Sustainability”. As a development practitioner, I was excited because sustainability is always at the forefront of my mind, but I was disappointed when I found the topic largely missing from the presentations I attended. There may have been a bullet point or two in the “Next Steps” section at the end of pa presentation saying they were hoping the project would continue or talks were ongoing with local government about scale, but many presentations did not tackle the issues of sustainability head on. Sustainability is a large topic and defined differently by different groups, but I tend to think about it in three aspects: 1) Systems and processes 2) Leadership 3) Impact. Without good systems, processes, and great leaders programs and initiatives will not continue. What are projects and organizations doing to ensure those things are in place? I know there’s a lot of great work in system building and leadership development, but I think sometimes those systems, processes, and yes, leaders are not shared enough at events like this and more generally across the sector to ensure that projects are sustainable long-term.

What is addressed more often, though not often enough, is the issue of impact sustainability. Do project impacts last long-term? Do impacts grow post-intervention? We can all have “the best laid plans”, but ultimately projects have funding cycles, a select few are extended, and less are followed up after the end of the project. While there were not many examples of discussions of impact sustainability in the medium to long-term, one stood out. Ben Piper of RTI presented longitudinal findings of an early childhood intervention in Kenya called the Tayari Project that followed a very successful national early grades reading program called Tusome. There were initial positive findings of children engaged in early childhood programs under Tayari, but by the time those children were in Kindergarten and first grade the effects of the Tayari program were no longer present. There are many possible explanations for this lack of sustained impact, but the most cited and potentially most policy relevant one was that early grade teachers were not able to differentiate instruction or activities enough to take advantage of these gains and children essentially reverted to the same track once they reached primary school whether they had been in the Tayari program or not.

First, I’d like to appreciate RTI being candid and open with results that were not so positive. We need more of that transparency and openness in the sector when things do not go as planned. Second, I thought the discussion and potential conclusions for why the Tayari program impacts may have “faded out” or “converged” was very important when it comes to impact sustainability. When we are implementing or developing programs, are we thinking about the connections our project has to other aspects of the education system or children’s lives? Certainly an early childhood program cannot be expected to solve the problems of primary or secondary schooling, but is their alignment and knowledge of what is going on at all levels? Have there been disucssions to prepare schools for the transition of students with new skills at lower levels to higher levels? Are we thinking about how a secondary school intervention impacts primary school education? Are the right domains being measured to determine if an early childhood intervention “worked” for children in primary school? RTI is pushing itself and asking these questions. I think we can all challenge ourselves to do the same.

3) The silo of education

This might be my personal soapbox coming from a background in integrated development at Nuru International, but what are we doing as a sector in education to look holistically at a child’s life? As noted in the bottom of the pyramid discussion, the majority of children are being left behind and not reached by school-related interventions. We know there are so many factors outside of school that affect a child’s life and ability to learn. Continuing to engage parents and community members in interventions is critical. Sesame Workshop and the IRC’s 100&Change Grant to work with Syrian refugees includes a home visit component that is carried out by community health workers to work with parents and caregivers on creating learning and supportive environments for their children in very challenging contexts. We as an education sector must break out of our silo and stretch ourselves to combine educational outreach and learning programs with health, nutrition, WASH, and livelihoods initiatives to ensure that children are cared for holistically and have the best opportunities to take advantage of high quality school-based interventions when they are offered.