- Improving education in the developing world is not a matter of getting proven programs to those who can't afford them. Little is known about what programs are effective, and logical/well-intentioned programs can fail to produce results. (More)
- Our top-ranked international education charity is Pratham, which has performed high-quality studies of its impact in the past.
- We have not found other charities in this cause that have a compelling case for effectiveness or answers to our key questions.
What do international education charities do?
Charities run a large variety of education programs in the developing world. We feel that all these programs have potential to be helpful when carried out appropriately, but none have extremely strong track records of reliably improving student performance (or life outcomes).
- School building: Charities build classrooms or buildings for government-run schools, and build and run schools themselves. (Track record of this program)
- Scholarships: Charities sponsor individual students and fund schools so that students do not have to pay the school fees that are common in the developing world. (Track record of this program)
- Teacher training: Charities train new teachers and upgrade the skills of established teachers.
- Pre-primary schools: Charities run schools for children ages 3-6 to prepare them for primary school.
- Textbooks and supplies: Charities provide everything from pencils to chalkboards to uniforms and shoes. (Track record of this program)
- Computers: Charities fund computers in classrooms in schools and provide out-of-school computer training classes. (Track record of this program)
- Libraries: Charities build school- and community-based libraries.
What are the challenges to finding a great education charity in the developing world?
- Relatively little is known about what programs work, in terms of improving attendance and performance.
- The value of raising school attendance is questionable given evidence about the poor quality of school systems in the developing world. Teachers may be overworked, frequently absent, or abusive, and schools may be geared towards elite students.
- Well-intentioned, logical interventions (such as providing textbooks/supplies) can fail to produce results.
- Education outcomes are hard to assess. It can be difficult and expensive to assess the impact of a program (i.e., how program participants performed compared to how they would have performed without the program). In addition, test scores may not fully capture the results of a program and many of the relevant outcomes may not be apparent until years later.
- There are also questions about whether (and when) children in the developing world benefit from the skills and credentials that come with more/better schooling; we would guess that education is often highly beneficial, but that it also depends on the specifics of the education and the labor market context.
We recommend that you investigate the following questions for any developing-world education charity you are considering:
- Is the goal to improve attendance or to improve school quality?
- If the goal is to improve school attendance, what sorts of schools will beneficiaries be attending? What information is available on teacher attendance and quality of instruction? What evidence is available regarding the program's effect on attendance?
- If the goal is to improve school quality, is there evidence that similar activities have causally led to improved schools (in terms of attendance, test scores, graduation rates) in the past? Are indicators of school performance tracked over time, both before and after the interventions?
- What evidence is available regarding the likely impact of any improved performance/attendance on later life outcomes? (For example - what are the economic opportunities that will be available to students and how do education levels relate to them?)
- How would activities change if more revenue than expected was received? Would more revenue translate into more students served, and up to what point?
Where should you donate to improve developing world education?
Our top recommendation in this cause is Pratham, an India-based education charity that has shown an unusual commitment to rigorously evaluating its programming and generating better knowledge about what works. (See our brief review of Pratham.)
We have not identified any other charities in this area with compelling evidence of impact or answers to the other key questions above.