The global policy debate about education is in the midst of a “major pivot,” write Justin Sandefur and Mari Oye. The emphasis on increasing enrollment is being replaced by a focus on learning outcomes. The international development challenge is how to deliver quality, basic education to millions of kids worldwide. Enter the RISE initiative.
Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
The RISE initiative seeks to understand how education systems in the developing world can improve learning levels for all children, including the most marginalized. Although enrollment numbers are up, Amanda Beatty and Lant Pritchett report that millions of students complete their formal schooling without mastering basic literacy and numeracy.
RISE by the Numbers
- 6-year program funded by the Department for International Development (UK) with research coordination by the Center for Global Development (Washington, DC)
- £21 million available for research
- 16 researchers on the “Intellectual Leadership Team”
- 7 focus countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam)
RISE is soliciting bids from individuals and organizations for research projects on “learning-oriented reforms in education systems.”
RISE through a Nutrition Lens
A quick scan of the RISE call for proposals yields one mention of food:
Researchers have carefully calibrated the learning gains from specific interventions, like school feeding programs … And all countries have pockets of success where these tools are deployed effectively, with excellent schools and teachers delivering quality education.
In Ethiopia—one of the RISE focus countries—child undernutrition rates are among the highest in the world. And it’s well documented that chronic undernutrition affects learning outcomes. From RISE’s website, we learn that it hopes its research will “go beyond the proximate causes of test score performance to the underlying ingredients of both well-functioning and poorly functioning systems.” Consider the often-referenced UNICEF conceptual framework of maternal and child undernutrition, like the one pictured below from a previous blog post I wrote about Lisa Smith and Lawrence Haddad’s 2015 paper “Reducing Child Undernutrition: Past Drivers and Priorities for the Post-MDG Era.”
What are the immediate, underlying, and basic determinants of positive learning outcomes in developing countries? To be honest, I don’t know. Anecdotally, optimal learning takes place when my brain is fully fueled with food—and, truthfully, caffeine. I start to fade when either ingredient wanes. Joseph Steven from Malawi feels the school meals he received helped him concentrate better.
I learned about the two-day launch event (#RISElaunch) through Storify, which notified me that some of the scholars I follow on Twitter were in the roundup. I wrote this Tweet to Justin Sandefur.
So, is there potential for RISE research proposals to integrate nutrition and education to accelerate the rate of learning in developing countries? Are competency levels in reading, math, and science associated with nutrition status? If yes, how might education researchers control for this in a trial whose purpose is to assess education systems?
A trial-and-error search led nutritionists to conclude in the 2013 Lancet series that “nutrition-specific” interventions (e.g., vitamin supplementation) were insufficient in improving all forms of undernutrition.
That year nine of Ethiopia’s state ministries signed the overhauled National Nutrition Plan to reflect their commitment to multisectoral strategies to attain positive nutrition outcomes. Perhaps something similar is possible for learning outcomes.♦