(Varja Lipovsek (left) with her host mother, Mariam Msemo, and colleague Annastazia Rugaba-Marondo (right) for Twaweza’s annual immersion trip in northern Tanzania. Credit: Stella Msisiri)

We are sitting on plastic chairs in the dusty courtyard, chickens scratching about, ripe mangoes and fresh corn in a bowl. “Oh yes,” the father exclaims, “my children are doing very well in school!” He calls over to the boys kicking a ball in the dirt, and nine-year-old Hamis disappears into the house and then brings his notebook to me. I flip through the pages, noting a child’s labored handwriting practicing the same selection of phrases over and over again. A green teacher’s check marks each page. I praise the boy on his handwriting, and then ask him to read out one of the short phrases. He doesn’t respond. “Read,” his father says to him, “read to us.” “Book?”, the boy finally ventures a phrase, unsure, and I can see the tension in his shoulders. His father is troubled. His son is in third grade, and he can’t read from his own notebook. Is his son lazy or unable to learn? Is it the teacher who is not doing his job, or the headmaster who is not supervising the teachers? Or is the blame with someone higher up the opaque education chain?

This account from Varja Lipovsek, GOV/LAB research scientist and practitioner-in-residence, illustrates a conundrum that plagues governments and education-focused civil society organizations across East Africa: where does the breakdown in the education system occur? Problematizing, the act of framing an issue as a solvable problem, is a skill that Varja has honed over her years evaluating programs implemented by Twaweza East Africa in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda (and, before that, in various global public health programs).

Varja Lipovsek (left) with her host mother, Mariam Msemo, and colleague Annastazia Rugaba-Marondo (right) for Twaweza’s annual immersion trip in northern Tanzania. Credit: Stella Msisiri

Her experience meeting Hamis illustrates a larger problem of what it means to improve education. In East Africa, 35% of third graders attending public school cannot read or do math at a second grade level. Falling behind in early grades makes it increasingly difficult to catch up, and 28% of pupils finishing primary education (grade 7) in East Africa do not have basic literacy or numeracy skills. A critical component of whether a child learns in school is the presence of a teacher, specifically the face-to-face learning time. In Tanzania, World Bank data show that the average time teachers spend teaching in public primary schools is 2 hours, less than half of the 5.2 hours mandated by education policy.

Instead of thinking of missing teachers as the only problem, Varja proposes that absenteeism is the product of a combination of several issues in the education system. For teachers to be held accountable to the children and the communities they serve (i.e., be in school and teach lessons), the problem should be unpacked from the point of view of a range of actors, including the teachers and head teachers, but also the parents, pupils, ward and district education officials, and national-level actors. Understanding the interconnected forces that motivate teacher behavior can help practitioners identify entry points for intervention.

This approach brought Varja and GOV/LAB Faculty Director Lily Tsai together. As Twaweza’s Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation Director, Varja collaborated with three professors (Lily Tsai, Evan Lieberman, and Dan Posner) on an evaluation of one of Twaweza’s major education programs. The program independently tested children and provided parents with personalized, easy-to-understand information on their children’s capacity to read and do math, which was intended to empower the parents to hold the teachers accountable. However, the study found that the program had no effect on children’s educational outcomes: parents who received the information were no more likely to take any private or collective action to improve their children’s schooling than those who did not receive information. Despite the null results, a subsequent report by the Results for Development Institute influenced the national governments of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda to acknowledge the learning crisis within their schools. Specifically, policy dialogue began to to focus on learning outcomes, not just school enrollment or education spending, as measures of a successful education system.

Examples like this demonstrate the importance of understanding the motivations that drive citizens, teachers, and other civil servants to act in particular ways. In her new role at GOV/LAB, Varja will work directly with the Learning Collaborative, a network of Global South civil society organizations, to sharpen their theories of change, improve their organizational learning structures, and test hypotheses on accountability relationships. Varja brings an important practitioner perspective to GOV/LAB and there will be more to come on her approach to building a learning plan for civil society working on critical transparency, accountability, and participation issues.