Where the rubber hits the road: Sub-national conversations and views on education.

In Tanzania, for many children schooling does not equal learning: official statistics have shown high rates of failure in national primary (as well as secondary) school leaving exams, and Uwezo, an independent monitoring mechanism, has over the last five years demonstrated that while millions of children attend primary school, the learning outcomes continue to be very low. In an effort to better understand the “production of education” in districts and schools, Twaweza commissioned a qualitative study to explore the state of debate and communication about education in general, and learning outcomes in particular, among district-level decision makers in ten selected districts in mainland Tanzania. The overall purpose of the study was to generate formative insights to enlighten Twaweza’s future communication and engagement initiatives, and inform the design of initiatives geared at improving learning outcomes for primary-school children.

The districts were purposively selected, and within each district, a number of key actors were interviewed, including District Education Officers, Ward Education Coordinators, and Head Teachers of selected schools. The insights gathered are illustrative, and not intended to be representative of Tanzania overall. The discussions with key actors centered on different themes, such as financial inputs and resource mobilization, options to provide support to teachers as well as support to pupils, the link between school inputs and learning outcomes, and engagement with Uwezo materials and results.

Highlights of the qualitative exercise include:

  • Understanding of quality of education is centred around the scores on the national exams (PSLE), as well as on the numbers (or proportions) of children advancing to secondary school. There is limited questioning of whether “passing” means that children have actually mastered the required skills.
  • On the other hand, a number of respondents discussed the importance of mastering basic skills (basic numeracy and literacy) in the lower primary grades. The government’s “3R” program, which trained many primary school teachers in enhanced literacy and numeracy for early grades, has very likely contributed to this.
  • Two main factors were given most commonly as rationale for learning outcomes not being at desired levels: lack of resources, and the “local culture.” In the latter, education stakeholders tended to single out parents as being “unsupportive” to education. In the former, all respondents noted that education resources received from central government are insufficient, as well as often untimely.
  • When discussing how to improve learning outcomes, most respondents focused heavily on inputs (such as desks, and books).
  • Much of the discussion around teachers centred around the support they are lacking (such as not being paid on time), and that they work under hard conditions (e.g. lack of appropriate housing, lack of teaching materials at schools).
  • Support to pupils was mostly discussed in context of extra classes to prepare pupils for examinations, especially the PSLE in Grade 7.
  • All districts in this study reported following the required administrative and budgetary procedures, however, a handful also reported some innovative management practices (for example, one district implemented a consultative process, drawing on a variety of stakeholders, to develop a jointly-owned plan on how to improve education).
  • Regarding Uwezo, it is clear that although the majority of respondents seemed aware of the Uwezo assessment reports, engagement with the data and use of the reports is low.

To contextualize the qualitative results, the available PSLE rates for the ten study districts (from 2012 – 2015) were examined, together with available Uwezo data for the same districts. PSLE data shows that the proportion of students passing the exam has steadily increased from 2012 to 2015 in the ten districts examined. However, according to Uwezo, the learning levels of children upon leaving primary schools (in Grade 7) have not demonstrably improved over the same time period. The disconnect between the two datasets invites further debate as to what is the actual status of learning in Tanzanian primary schools, and how is the production of learning understood and managed. 

There is much work to do overall, and it will require collaboration of a variety of stakeholders: national and sub-national government, civil society, teachers and head teachers. For Twaweza in particular, a few meaningful future steps emerge. In addition to advocating nationally for sufficient and well-managed resources, this study also shows that critically, our future engagement strategies on education at the sub-national levels should focus on shaping the attitudes of key stakeholders about what constitutes quality education. In particular, our engagement strategies ought to:

  • Galvanize stakeholders around the question of learning outcomes beyond the pass rates in final national examinations, and encourage inquiry into what actually improves learning outcomes, as based on research and evidence.
  • Study more closely districts and schools which are implementing practices that differ from the norm, and follow these over time to examine whether different management practices can be associated with improved learning outcomes. 
  • Challenge some of the “old truths” which are not supported by evidence. For instance, the focus on the importance of inputs as directly linked to improving learning outcomes persists, despite ample research showing that simply increasing inputs does not improve learning outcomes.
  • Thoughtfully widen the discussion on what teachers can do better; the picture of teacher dedication in face of adversity as reported in this study is at odds with other recent Tanzanian research showing that reality is much more varied, and it includes high absenteeism, low motivation, and a low skill base among teachers.    
  • Involve various stakeholders (e.g. district officials, journalists) in the independent assessment processes to provide a first-hand experience about children’s actual learning competencies, and to encourage a wider national debate on the subject.
  • Organise periodic discussions about education at the national but also district levels, and make use of the national and local media to discuss education results, various data and their meaning.
  • Draw on international evidence of what has been shown to improve learning outcomes (and what hasn’t), and translate and communicate that evidence clearly and compellingly to inform debate of where resources ought to be focused nationally and locally within Tanzania to improve learning.
  • Provide district based (and where appropriate and feasible even ward based) simplified Uwezo (and other) assessment reports, and encourage and enable various stakeholders to understand and engage with the data. Disseminate Uwezo results and materials more pro-actively. 

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Authors: Kitila Mkumbo



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