What Works to Improve the Quality of Student Learning in Developing Countries?

Publication Details

Masino, S. and Nino-Zarazua, M. (2015) What works to improve the quality of student learning in developing countries? World Institute for Development Economics Research. WIDER Working Paper 2015/033.

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Serena Masino, Miguel Niño-Zarazua
South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Educational Inputs, Pre-Primary and Primary Education, Secondary Education, System Reform & Capacity Building
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

Combining two or more policy strategies has the greatest impact on student learning; supply-side interventions are most effective when combined with community participation and/or incentives. 

Evidence Base

The authors included 38 studies, of which 23 employed experimental designs and 15 employed quasi-experimental methods. The authors identified three main drivers of change assessed in the studies: 17 studies assessed supply-side interventions, 15 studies assessed incentives for changing behaviours and preferences, and six studies assessed participatory and community management interventions. The studies were carried out in the following countries: Afghanistan (1), Bangladesh (1), India (9), Argentina (1), Chile (5), Colombia (4), El Salvador (1), Honduras (1), Mexico (2), Nicaragua (1), Kenya (7), Madagascar (2), Malawi (1), Uganda (1) and Zambia (1).

Implications for policy and practice

Supply-side interventions

Some individual studies showed that student achievement test scores improve as a result of supply-side interventions that provide additional resources for schools and teachers, but overall the research shows that such interventions are not sufficient to improve learning outcomes on their own. Supply-side interventions are often undermined by demand-side considerations; that is, the policies fail to reach or support the poorest students.

Incentives for changing behaviours and preferences

Incentive interventions that aim to change teacher, student and household behaviours and preferences have been extensively implemented in secondary schools. Paying incentives to teachers to improve their attendance and performance produces mixed results: some interventions are effective but only in the short term, while others are effective but only when combined with additional monitoring and enforcement.

Demand-side behavioural incentives (such as scholarships) improve student performance, as do policies that combine supply-side interventions with behavioural incentives (such as voucher programmes that provide a monetary incentive to poor students and resources to schools).

Participatory and community management interventions

Participatory and community management interventions involve policies that raise awareness, increase participation and involvement in the management of education systems, and spread knowledge among local communities, parent-teacher associations, and parent committees. These interventions can result in improved student test scores in some cases but the outcomes are mixed overall.

Implications for further research

The authors call for future research to examine the costs and social benefits of education policies.


Education plays an important role in economic growth and development; the creation of information and knowledge enables people to participate in economic transactions, social interactions and politics. Developing countries have been investing in education policies, with the support of foreign aid, for many decades, but over time opinions have changed as to which education priorities best support economic development. In the 1970s and 80s, education initiatives focused on increasing access through supply-side interventions, such as building schools, providing equipment and training teachers. Nearly half of bilateral aid went to secondary schools, as that was seen as the best way to enhance growth and development. In the late 1980s, primary education was found to provide the highest economic returns in developing countries and policies began to shift towards improving access to primary schools. More recently, Millennium Development Goal Two focused on achieving universal primary education. Post-2015, education policies are likely to move from improving access to improving the quality of education, as evidence has shown that quality is vital for economic growth and development. This review examines the evidence on policies that aim to improve the quality of education in developing countries.

Research objectives

To identify policies that improve the quality of learning at basic educational levels in developing countries.


The authors included experimental and quasi-experimental studies that assessed the effectiveness of policies to improve education quality in pre-school, primary and secondary schools in low- or middle-income countries, using student test scores as the main outcome measure. Studies using other outcomes measures such as school enrolment, student-teacher ratios and dropout rates were excluded.

The authors searched for published and unpublished studies, in English, from 1990 onwards. They searched the following databases: Econlit, Social Science Citation Index, JSTOR, SCOPUS, Eldis, 3ie database, J-PAL Library, and Google Scholar, and hand-searched the reference lists of previous studies. Lastly, they carried out narrative synthesis of the evidence. 

Quality assessment

This review provides a good description of inclusion criteria and the authors searched important databases and included published and unpublished literature over a sensible time period. Unfortunately, the review also has some major limitations. The authors do not identify how or by whom studies were screened or data was extracted. There are very limited details on what counted as an includable study design and no list of excluded studies. It’s unclear if experts in the field were contacted or whether references of included studies were checked. Furthermore, only studies in English were includable.  The authors do not report having assessed the quality of the included studies, either in the form of risk or bias or other methodological standard. Although the authors discuss effect sizes, the reported results were often in a form other than a standard effect size metric. It’s also unclear whether some meta-analysis may have been possible.

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