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FEATURE STORYJune 21, 2023

The critical importance of an education landscape driven by evidence

Students in uniform stand together in an outdoor corridor of their school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Zanaki Primary School is a public primary school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.It received a School Improvement Grant in 2016 financed by the World Bank for its substantially improved student performance on th enational Primary School Leaving Examination.

Copyright Sarah Farhat


  • The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP) is an independent interdisciplinary panel of leading global education experts that provides guidance on cost-effective approaches to improving learning for low- and middle-income countries.
  • The new “Smart Buys” report from GEEAP offers evidence-based recommendations on which interventions work and which should be avoided.
  • The report classifies numerous cost-effective interventions as ‘Great Buys’ and ‘Good Buys’ – interventions that include supporting teachers with structured pedagogy programs; targeting teaching instruction by learning level, not grade (in or out of school); and successful early childhood programs, such as proving parent-directed early childhood stimulation programs (for ages 0 to 36 months) or providing quality pre-primary education (for ages 3 to 5).

An estimated 7 in 10 of all children in low- and middle-income countries are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.  This is just the starkest of many indicators showing that global education is in crisis, a crisis that has sharply deepened with the pandemic.

So why aren’t we using evidence more effectively to solve the education crisis?

Some other sectors, such as health, have for decades enjoyed a wealth of research and evidence that has been used more frequently to support policy decisions. One reason for this is that independent expert panels have provided guidance to help busy policymakers make sense of the evidence. In the environmental field, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces new reports every few years to advise governments on the drivers and impacts of climate change.   

“The global education sector requires a multidisciplinary and independent space to permanently analyze the evidence about the interventions and practices that can move the needle of learning in a cost-effective way. The panel seeks to be a bridge between rigorous academic research and policymaking to help shape policy design and policy implementation,” said Jaime Saavedra, Global Director for Education at the World Bank. “A panel such as this is essential if we want to realize our aim of making learning accessible to all. This is why the Global Education Evidence Advisory Group (GEEAP) was established.”

What is the GEEAP?

The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), an independent expert panel co-hosted by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development OfficeUNICEFUSAID, and the World Bank, is made up of leading researchers and policymakers who have both contributed to and used evidence in education. Panelists have been drawn from multiple disciplines (including education, economics, and psychology) and countries. The panel provides guidance on all types of education interventions in low- and middle-income countries, so the panelists were selected because they have expertise in all areas of education. The panel is an independent body whose recommendations are based only on evidence.

Headshots of Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel

GEEAP reports

The Panel has published three concise reports aimed at policy audiences over the past three years.  The latest report, just launched, is 2023 Cost-Effective Approaches to Improve Global Learning - What does recent evidence tell us are ‘Smart Buys’ for improving learning in low- and middle-income countries?

Rachel Glennerster, Professor at the University of Chicago, former Chief Economist at FCDO, stressed that, “With this report, the Panel draws out the practical policy implications from the best, most up-to-date rigorous evidence in a user-friendly way. Their recommendations reflect what works, what is cost-effective, and what can be scaled. We’ve grouped many different types of education policies and programs into categories from ‘Great Buys’ to ‘Bad Buys’, with a discussion of what type of context a policy is most suited for. These individual policy recommendations are designed to complement broader system reform which we also discuss in the report."

For this new report, the Panel and its supporting research team carried out a systematic search of over 13,000 additional studies, bringing the total number of high-quality evaluations referenced in the ‘Smart Buys’ categorizations to over 550. The interventions covered by these evaluations were reviewed based on various criteria – most notably, how cost-effective they were at improving learning and other outcomes, and whether they had been successfully implemented at scale.

Smart Buy Graphic tree final

The report identifies eight interventions as ‘Great Buys’ and ‘Good Buys’.  For example, investing in parent-directed early childhood development interventions, which coach parents in how to provide early childhood stimulation, has been proven to have a significant impact on children’s future learning. Another key cost-effective recommendation highlighted in the report is support to teachers with structured pedagogy programs (consisting of a package that includes structured lesson plans, learning materials, and ongoing teacher support). Such programs have proven successful in increased learning – especially foundational literacy and numeracy – at relatively low cost in Kenya, Liberia, and South Africa. Similarly, another ‘Great Buy’ is targeting teaching instruction by learning level instead of by grade, which helps teachers to meet the learning needs of students more effectively.  Finally, providing quality pre-primary education also yields large long-term economic benefits in countries at all levels of income.

However, the report also shows examples of interventions that have had no or little impact on learning – the ‘Bad Buys’. Most governments would agree that funding inputs (e.g., laptops or books) alone, without addressing other issues (e.g., lack of training for teachers so they can use the new inputs), is not effective. But, unfortunately, there are still too many examples of these investments taking place. By underlining that this “inputs alone” strategy is almost never cost-effective, the Panel hopes to make policymakers rethink these investments.   

The recommendations are intended to help technical staff in Ministries of Education, donor agencies, local education groups, and nonprofit organizations in thinking through appropriate interventions. They should be used along with context-specific analyses and system diagnostics. The classification and descriptions are not definitive; instead, they allow for a sense of prioritization. They will be especially useful in thinking through where to invest additional marginal resources – for example, is it better to invest new resources in general teacher training, or in training focused on the use of structured lesson plans? They can also help in examining where large parts of the education budget are being spent and exploring whether that money could be used more cost-effectively.


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