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Education & Development

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Super synthesis: Evidence of what works in education for development

A synthesis of research evidence identifies the impact of interventions that offer high value in meeting education’s greatest challenges in development contexts, as Jeaniene Spink explains.

A new at-a-glance report by ACER’s Education Analytics Service identifies what works when it comes to getting all children into school, keeping them in school, ensuring a quality education and ensuring they graduate with the knowledge, skills and abilities to make a positive difference in their own lives and in the lives of others.

Given the plethora of evaluations of intervention programs in education systems in the development context, as well as system-wide reforms, asking what works is not a simple question.

To address that, the education and development team at ACER and education team at Cardno have collaborated to develop a ‘super synthesis’ of evidence for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The super synthesis distils the findings from robust syntheses of the ‘what works in education’ research, in essence synthesising these syntheses into a brief, easy-to-use document.

ACER and Cardno’s super synthesis of evidence from 18 systematic reviews, meta-analyses and comparative reviews of what works in education for development identifies costed interventions that have the greatest impact on participation in education and on education quality.

The core of the eight-page super synthesis report is a two-page at-a-glance table of evidence addressing seven domains: economic incentives; sector planning and financial reform; infrastructure, supplies and facilities; the teacher workforce; health care and nutrition; educational programs; and school management, communities and classrooms.

Each of the seven domains is evaluated across a series of intervention types in terms of the evidence of impact and cost, with evidence of impact on student participation and student learning outcomes rated on a four-point scale.

So do system-level investments work? According to the super synthesis, ‘The weight of evidence...shows that the lowest “evidence of impact” is in the sector planning (and) financial reform domain.’

Does that mean that it is not worth investing in education sector plans, or strengthening education monitoring information systems, or supporting the professional skills of Ministry of Education personnel?

‘Not at all,’ the authors of the super synthesis conclude. ‘Detailed sector planning, robust education statistics and skilled personnel represent the critical backbone of a well-functioning education system.’

The super synthesis reveals that educational programs like the provision of reading materials, especially in the early years, targeted teacher training, the provision of teaching materials and curriculum reform, and teacher workforce interventions like recruitment and retention reforms, improved personnel management information systems and performance-based contracts are both high impact and cost-effective in education for development. ■

Further information:

The Education Analytics Service (EAS) was established by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through its Education Section, to improve the extent and quality of evidence and expertise used to inform its education policy and programs. The EAS is managed by ACER and the Australian-based international development company Cardno.

What Works Best in Education for Development: A super synthesis of the evidence by Jeaniene Spink, Elizabeth Cassity and Adam Rorris, with editorial support from Amy Denahy and Meredith Bramich.


About the author

Jeaniene Spink is the Research Director of ACER's Education and Development research program.

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View selected works of Jeaniene Spink

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