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"Foundations": A Q&A with Chloe O'Gara, Global Development and Population Program Officer

Sep 19, 2011


Chloe O'GaraChloe O’Gara is a program officer in the Global Development and Population Program. She helps direct the Hewlett Foundation’s grants to improve the quality of education that children receive in the developing world. Before joining the Foundation, O’Gara served as the associate vice president for education and child development at the Washington, D.C., offices of the Save the Children Federation. She has a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Swarthmore College, a master of education degree in early childhood education from the University of Rochester, and a doctorate of education in development, learning, and instruction, also from the University of Rochester.

For those who are not familiar with your work, would you recap why the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development Program (now the Global Development and Population Program) decided to make grants through the initiative it calls Quality Education in Developing Countries?

Sure. Too many children in too many places around the world haven’t learned basic reading, writing, and math skills by the time they are ten. In the 1990s, many developing countries committed to what they called “education for all” by building schools, but they focused on attendance, not learning. There’s a yawning gap between these two education goals; they just don’t equal each other. So although school enrollment has soared in the developing world, many students still cannot read or do basic math. Through the use of tests to assess mastery of these basic skills, our grantees demonstrated that students simply weren’t learning.

And the problems, particularly in much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, are worst in the earliest grades, which are most crucial to future success in school and life. So we’ve focused our grantmaking on these grades. They tend to be the most overcrowded and have the least qualified teachers and the fewest books and other learning materials. It’s very hard to learn to read if you have nothing to read.

How overcrowded is overcrowded?

Classrooms in Uganda when I was there a couple of months ago had 200 students in a single classroom. And they weren’t big classrooms. The students were just packed in on benches. Sometimes schools actually remove the benches because there isn’t enough room for all the children and the furniture. And that’s the least of it. Half the time students don’t have any books or worksheets to look at.

What is the Foundation doing about that?

We’ve done several things. First, we made sure we understood the problem and identified some consensus about it among experts. We did that by funding large-scale surveys of children aged five to fifteen to determine how much they know. In many of these countries, the vast majority of students in grades four and five can’t read a word. And if they can read, it’s well below grade level. In short, most children, particularly in poor or minority ethnic communities, are not reading by the time they are in third or fourth grade. And that’s if they haven’t dropped out, which many have.

We’ve also funded demonstration projects that show that children will learn if they are taught properly. An organization called Pratham ran the largest-scale demonstration project in India, which in large measure established the model. But we now have a small number of projects in East and West Africa as well. And each of them is being evaluated very carefully so we can see which approaches work and are economically practical for large numbers of students.

What is Pratham’s approach?

It’s been a mix of developing public awareness of the problem and then developing a program called Read India to address it. Read India is a series of exercises and techniques for teaching reading and math at a massive scale through volunteers and training. The specifics vary from state to state in India. Pratham has developed some ingenious approaches like market games in which students play with money and then link that to math and reading skills.

A lot of the program is just giving children the chance to have regular exposure to and practice with basic skills. Then Pratham adds volunteers to the mix, some in the classroom and some after school.

What have been some of the obstacles to convincing education officials that it’s important they ensure that children are actually learning? It would seem that’s the point.

Part of it simply is demonstrating that children actually can learn. For example, in Mali, we’ve found parents—and teachers!—don’t believe students should be able read until fourth grade. There are no expectations.

Changing perceptions of large numbers of people—whether by making them aware of the number of students who don’t master basic reading and math or by changing their expectations of what’s possible—is a key part of this work.

What have we learned to date? Have things changed much since the initiative started?

Things have started to change. We’re increasingly confident that several teaching models will be effective and inexpensive in very difficult circumstances. So we’re beginning to have proof of concept on these approaches. We’ve learned that people can be mobilized to support putting learning at the forefront, and we’ve developed ways to encourage that. Pratham has been doing this from the top down, starting with encouraging the educational establishment and the government to focus on learning. When our grantees introduced some of these learning approaches in East Africa, they adapted them to their cultures and took a bottom-up approach, starting with engaging the parents in these communities.

How is the Hewlett Foundation’s grantmaking for this work evolving?

We will intensify our efforts to learn which program approaches successfully improve children’s learning in different settings across cultures and socioeconomic circumstances, as well as how to make those approaches more cost-effective. We also want to learn more about how to make them widely available through partnerships with governments, donors, and civil society.

Outside the classroom, we have wanted to do more work related to educational budgets in the developing world to see if money is being spent effectively, but that hasn’t gone as quickly as the work on learning assessments. So we’ll push more on budget accountability. We want parents and communities to know that they can help children learn and to hold their schools accountable.

Do we think our approach to primary school learning will work in more countries and different cultural settings?

Whether we get to explore that depends on how the funding unfolds in the future. Next year, the Foundation is starting grantmaking for this work in West Africa. Mali is piloting an assessment of the public’s current thinking with regard to primary school learning.

What are the prospects for other funders joining us in this work?

In the past few months, we’ve been very successful in forming an international education funders group with other philanthropies and bringing more donors into this work. We’ve had great progress in spreading the word. The World Bank’s Africa strategy publication has a picture of one of our grantees on it. The World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Fast Track Initiative for Education for All (a global partnership to help low-income countries meet the Millennium Development Goals for education) each has learning targets for education.

We’re trying to change the conversation. It’s not about school buildings, and it’s not about what a country is putting into its education infrastructure. It’s about learning outcomes for children—what they can do. And I think we’ve been very successful in changing the international dialogue about learning. Funders and elected officials won’t say, “That’s a good school because it has a nice building.” They’ll say, “That’s a good school because every child can read.” That’s what we want.

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Read more about Chloe O'Gara here.

Read more about changing the focus to learning in Selling Learning