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'Power of Persistence' helps transform education systems in developing countries

December 04, 2012

German scholar Martin Luther once said that "when schools flourish, all flourishes." Yet despite their central position in the development of most societies, schools have not always been empowered to succeed. For almost a decade, finding out why some educational systems have faltered — and how they could be rejuvenated — was the underlying goal of the EQUIP2 (Education Quality Improvement Program: Educational Policy, Systems Development and Management) project.

Managed by FHI 360 staff and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, EQUIP2 conducted research and provided technical assistance to educational systems in more than 30 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The project, which started in 2003 and ended this year, focused on making schools function more efficiently by improving policies, management and systems.

In many cases, EQUIP2 found that school effectiveness could be improved by focusing on relatively simple concepts: providing a basic opportunity to learn (for example, by having the school open every day, having teachers present and having the students in class and ready to learn) and using time wisely (for example, ensuring that teachers stay on task and that students use proper materials).

These findings led to the creation of the groundbreaking "opportunity to learn" (OTL) index, which was based on 12 factors that optimize the learning experience in schools. The success of the OTL index, used in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nepal and other countries, was based largely on its simplicity. "We were asking such basic questions, but no one had answers," said one member of the EQUIP2 team. The team asked questions such as "Why train the teachers if the school is never open or the students are not showing up?" and "Why revamp the curriculum if there are no books?"

EQUIP2 staff addressed such complex topics as burdensome school fees, decentralization, teacher shortages, as well as the cost-effectiveness of complementary education systems for children with limited or no access to government-provided schools. Some of this research led to shifts in attitudes. For example, donor organizations "are much more receptive to complementary education programs now," said a member of the EQUIP panel of experts.

'Power of Persistence'

In the end, project staff observed that it was the "power of persistence" that made a difference. EQUIP2 helped governments manage change by investing in structures, processes and leadership over long periods, as well as by understanding the political and institutional complexities of long-term educational reform. It was this long-term tailored support — not cookie-cutter solutions — that helped countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia and Nicaragua retool their education systems after civil wars and other crises. This approach was highlighted in a compendium of five country case studies on long-term education reform.

By the end of the project, EQUIP2 had become a key tool for the expansion of USAID's education portfolio and policy expertise in the policy arena. One program implementer said the project helped USAID to move "toward better design, with a focus on quality, and better monitoring and evaluation overall." EQUIP2 also was heralded as "a hugely significant wellspring of innovative thought and application" by a member of the panel of experts.