Why governments should use evidence to design girls’ education policies—and learn from Kenya about how to do it

Learning with Tusome program in Kenya
Editor's note:

This blog was updated on May 27, 2021 to reflect additional information about the Tusome program.

This July, the United Kingdom and Kenya will co-host the Global Education Summit to mark the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education—the largest global fund dedicated to transforming education in lower-income countries, as they seek to raise $5 billion over the next five years to fund their life-changing work. The U.K. is proudly working with Kenya to host the summit, especially given Kenya’s firsthand experience of cost-effective investments that can improve learning outcomes at scale.

There is much that can be learned from the Kenyan government, which has driven a range of far-reaching reforms. From online learning offered through the Digital Learning Programme to the new competency-based curriculum focused on what children can actually do rather than simply what they know, Kenya is embracing innovation, and some reforms are already delivering impressive results. A national early literacy improvement program called “Tusome”—taken from the Kiswahili word for “let’s read”—was designed to improve literacy outcomes for over 7 million Kenyan children in grades one through three. Under the leadership of the Kenyan Ministry of Education, recent external evaluations show dramatic improvements in reading. Alongside Tusome, the Global Partnership for Education-funded Primary Education Development Project—PRIEDE—has supported the launch of an impressive education data system that allows the Ministry of Education to keep its finger on the pulse of its data and progress.

Globally, we are seeing an increasing emphasis on the use of evidence on cost-effectiveness to design policies. The recent “Smart Buys” report by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel highlights Tusome as an intervention that has strong evidence, is cost-effective, and works at scale, potentially offering a useful example for other countries committed to improving their education systems. As recently announced by the U.K. prime minister, the Girls’ Education Action Plan highlights the U.K.’s commitment to leveraging its evidence and resources toward improving girls’ school access and learning.


Kenya has long stood out for the way it has prioritized education reforms. Whether sending young activists to the US to access universities so they could guide the country postindependence (through the African airlifts in 1959), being one of the first African countries to implement free primary education (in 1974), or serving as the birthplace of some of the most ground-breaking school models in the world (such as Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO’s) community-based schools for girls launched in 2009), Kenya has long led the way and shown what it means to value education.

More recently, in the past decade, the Kenyan government has emphasized the importance of designing reforms based on evidence. Since 2013, Kenya’s Ministry of Education has spearheaded large-scale reforms to the national curriculum. As documented by the Brookings Institution, these changes include reforms toward competency-based curriculums in primary and secondary schools and new curriculums for technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, both of which impact millions of girls. In addition, leaders such as Titus Syengo have led the scale up of Teaching at the Right Level in Kenya—an intervention proven to strengthen learning outcomes by placing students by skill level instead of grade.

One success story is the Tusome initiative, which strengthened government schools at scale. Primarily designed and funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), with support from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) (then DFID), and implemented by the Kenyan Ministry of Education in partnership with RTI, Tusome supports teachers and provides students with books in order to accelerate children’s progress in early-grades reading. Teachers use structured lesson plans and receive ongoing feedback to improve their instruction through coaching supported by tablets and software. The government launched the program in 2015 and scaled it to reach more than 24,000 primary schools. The journey to scale was complex and sometimes difficult, but offers lessons for other countries.


What made these efforts possible is that Kenya’s government took five key steps and valued evidence at every step of the process.

1. Leadership to prioritize reform. Presidents in Kenya have a long tradition of valuing education. The first president (Jomo Kenyatta), principal of Kenya’s first teacher-training college, was involved in the Kikuyu Independent Schools movement (an effort to challenge colonial schools) and abolished primary school fees in 1974. Fees were later reinstated, but in 2003, President Mwai Kibaki re-introduced free primary education, which was a major milestone. When Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, he too prioritized education. His administration’s national strategy for education includes a focus on competency-based education; the Ministry of Education promoted leaders who were committed to the curriculum reform process, such as Julius Jwan (formerly CEO of Kenya’s curriculum design agency and now principal secretary for Early Learning and Basic Education). President Kenyatta’s focus on evidence-based policy made it possible for Kenyan policymakers to be open to transformational reforms like Tusome.

2. Collaborate with experts outside government. Kenya’s recent reforms are the result of a long effort by Kenyan researchers to mobilize and strengthen its education system. Through the annual Uwezo study from 2010-2015, Sara Ruto, John Mugo, and the Twaweza team (now part of People’s Action for Learning Network) exposed the learning crisis in Kenya—and demonstrated, through clear facts, that although almost all Kenyan children were in school, many were not achieving Kenya’s ambitious learning goals. For example, they found, “1 out of 10 children in Kenyan primary schools are completing Class 8 without having acquired the basic competencies expected of a child completing Class 2.” As a result of these facts, the government became more aware of poor learning outcomes and decided to launch the PRIMR pilot in 2011 (a new initiative funded by USAID to strengthen math and reading, which served to inform the design of Tusome). Owing to her work with Uwezo, the government asked Sara Ruto to serve as chairperson of KICD—the agency with the mandate to guide the country’s curriculum reforms. By launching PRIMR and bringing in Ruto to shape curriculum reforms, Kenya demonstrated that it values evidence and external expertise to address the learning crisis.

3. Listen to evidence from government schools to make the case for scale. Kenya’s government valued development diplomats from USAID and FCDO, who, along with RTI, brought evidence to the decisionmakers. Kenyan policymakers assessed and analyzed the data about learning gains generated from PRIMR, which targeted 1,400 schools, and scaled the model into over 24,000 schools under the much-larger Tusome initiative. The government valued input from researchers, even when it exposed gaps in the existing system. The evidence created ripple effects across the next decade and led to the Tusome scale-up. The Kenyan government continued to develop the capability within the civil service to lead innovative education reforms.

4. Consider gender at design stage. Although Tusome was not explicitly designed to strengthen education for girls, it did so. Tusome achieved this by addressing systems issues and by scaling proven methods to raise the quality of teaching for all, such as coaches for teachers. In the process, it created impressive gains for girls. Gender was also considered as a factor in the program design process. For example, as government leaders, with Tusome support, chose which pictures and stories to include in student textbooks, they made sure to include both boys and girls. They intentionally included women working in a range of roles, and fewer women with roles in the home, because research has shown that the role models that girls see impact their career aspirations. Ultimately, because of this system focus and a rigorous program design, Tusome strengthened literacy for millions of Kenyan girls.

5. Define performance indicators and collect data to track outputs. As Ben Piper from RTI and others have noted, the government created clear “benchmarks for Kiswahili and English learning outcomes, and…these outcomes were communicated all the way down to the school level.” The government also created “accountability and feedback mechanisms to track performance” against these goals. Coaches (called CSOs) were given tablets that included dashboards with data, which were visible to county officials and Ministry of Education staff. As a result, leaders from the top of Kenya’s Ministry of Education all the way down to coaches and headteachers (school leaders) understood what they were collectively striving for, and whether or not they were moving toward those outcomes. In 2019, Director General of Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Elyas Abdi Jillaow, said “Tusome project has had a huge impact on the literacy of our grades one, two, and three students. So far since the start of the project, we have had over 26 million textbooks distributed.” These outcomes were only possible because the government built a culture of collecting evidence and holding actors accountable to improving every level of the system toward shared goals.


The story of Tusome is good news. But particularly following the COVID-19 crisis, inequalities to accessing a quality education have deepened. The tragic learning losses for girls from school closures due to COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. We can take Kenya’s government action on education as a model for other countries, paying careful attention to track ongoing impact for all groups.

Kenya is not the only country using evidence to design policy. The Brookings Institution’s Millions Learning Real-time Scaling Labs have partnered with many other ministries of education. Botswana is scaling up placement of primary students by skill level instead of grade for targeted numeracy instruction, in partnership with Young 1ove. Jordan is expanding a financial literacy course to all secondary students in the country, with support from INJAZ. And Tanzania is transforming schools with mentors who support girls learning, with CAMFED. Peru has even created MineduLAB, an innovation lab housed within its Ministry of Education, to test and gather evidence on education interventions with IPA.

In all of these countries, it is exciting to see how governments are committing to prioritize education reforms, listen to civil society, and partner with technical experts. They are all taking interventions that were proven to work and scaling them up to ensure that more girls can access the education they need to thrive in life and the workplace. We hope that more governments will follow in their footsteps and use evidence to design better policies. The gathering of ministers for the GPE summit will offer an opportunity to further learn from each other.

Photo credit: U.S. Agency for International Development