The Puggle: August 2020 edition

Our last post was a bit gloomy, so we’re dedicating this month’s Puggle to discussing solutions that might help the education sector to come out of this crisis stronger. We’re moved by the way Arundhati Roy describes this opportunity: 

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Before we get into the opportunities for the education sector coming out of this crisis, we wanted to share a few resources we’re finding especially helpful in keeping a pulse on the fast-changing state of play:

  • The Global Partnership for Education highlights 8 tracking tools on COVID-19 data for education
  • As Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates so eloquently argue, girls deserve special focus in this crisis and this helpful guide from UNESCO and partners provides accessible and pragmatic advice for doing just that. 
  • The IPA RECOVR Research Hub is a useful repository of research projects, survey instruments, funding opportunities, and results related to the impact of COVID-19 on low- and middle-income countries. 
  • Specific to education, Dave Evans and Amina Acosta put together a running list of studies of COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries. The Building EdTech Evidence and Research (BETER) group also has a running list here.

With respect to where the education sector should redouble its efforts in order to come out of the pandemic and related crises on stronger footing, we’d like to highlight five possibilities:


The status quo of most children going to school has been broken over the last five months. The longer children remain out of school, the higher the risk that they will not return. Families will make difficult decisions about the returns of a return to school vis-a-vis the returns of other economic or household activities that children are engaged in now. As a comprehensive new report from the Mastercard Foundation on Secondary Education in Africa argues, “Now is the time to rethink what skills young people require, and to intentionally design secondary education systems with those skills in mind.” This includes 21st century skills, entrepreneurship, and work readiness. Recent experience with Delhi’s Happiness Curriculum suggests a wide array of skills that might be relevant for wellbeing. And life skills for adolescent girls are as relevant as ever. Increasing the relevance of education to economic outcomes and wellbeing may reduce the friction to returning to school. 


Perhaps chief among relevant skills are the foundational abilities to read and do math. In a joint statement (with a related blog & video) by the Douglas B. Marshall, Jr. Foundation, Innovations for Poverty Action, J-PAL, Pratham, Teaching at the Right Level Africa, and Young 1ove call for redoubled efforts on foundational learning in light of COVID. Even in pre-COVID days, too many students were being left behind without foundational skills. Now that schools will be forced to employ catch-up strategies to avoid devastating loss of learning, they can attend to gaps in foundational learning in ways that will benefit the system long term. There is good emerging evidence that focusing curriculum on the foundations pays off—the government of Tanzania dramatically simplified its first grade curriculum to focus on just reading, writing, and math and saw large learning gains for all students: girls and boys in rural and urban areas with low and high initial learning levels.


With students out of school, the main mode of learning available (to some) is through technology. But, as Dave Evans and Amina Mendez Acosta summarize based on recent education evidence in Africa, “edtech interventions continue to be a mixed bag;” some interventions support learning gains and others (like virtual teacher coaching), sadly have been less effective. Perhaps the biggest concern with edtech and remote learning is that to the extent it is effective, it benefits only those who have access to the technology. The key is to put equity at the heart of any edtech revolution. UNICEF draws out some promising practices for equitable remote learning based on lessons from 127 countries. And recent evidence from Botswana shows that low-tech interventions of SMS text messages and direct phone calls can be affordable and effective, translating into a reduction in innumeracy of up to 52%. Building more equitable technology solutions could benefit children through the crisis, and longer term could reduce delivery cost and enable individualized instruction.


The first years of a child’s life are critical years when it comes to development and our youngest children are suffering as a result of the current crisis. There have been large scale attempts to soften the impacts, including through tremendous effort to support parents of young children. Early childhood education has gotten increased attention, including in recent evaluations in Africa, and the evidence continues to mount that access to early education supports child development and improves long term education outcomes. Encouragingly, recent evidence from India shows that simply hiring an anganwadi (child care center) worker specifically tasked with early childhood education had a social return on investment 12x the cost. It increased math, language, and executive function scores (and also, surprisingly, nutrition), with slightly higher returns for girls. These efforts need to be sustained and built upon—protecting the young children of today is how we will get through the crises of tomorrow.


We’re also encouraged to think that the current crisis may challenge us to think about the default mode of operating in international development. When flying in experts from afar is more difficult than ever and organizations are getting on with serving the communities to which they are near, the sector may finally have an opportunity to shift power and reinvent itself.


Putting the opportunities above into practice will require leaning into leadership — school leaders play a crucial role and women in decisionmaking roles may be especially powerful.

Several of these themes are echoed in the UN Secretary General’s policy brief on Education during COVID-19 and beyond. For additional fodder in imagining what education can look like on the other side of the pandemic, check out a thoughtful piece from IDEO and Imaginable Futures: Learning Reimagined: Radical Thinking for Equitable Futures. It touches on several of the themes above, as well as providing frameworks to open up your own thinking. Let us know what other opportunities are on your mind in the comments section below.

We also hope you’ll check out an interview with one of our founders, Mary Obelnicki, and Managing Director Erin Ganju on the Women’s Funding Network Podcast.

Comments (1)

  • Renu Seth Thank you for sharing the Puggle each month. We look forward to more collective action on the ground, that will help us achieve more by sharing resources. says:


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