What Works to Improve Education in Low- And Middle-Income Countries? An Update on the State of Education Reviews

Eight years ago, Anna Popova and I analyzed the findings of six different reviews of “what works” in education. While the six reviews varied in their recommendations, two findings appeared repeatedly:

“Pedagogical interventions that tailor teaching to student learning levels—either teacher-led or facilitated by adaptive learning software—are effective at improving student test scores, as are individualized, repeated teacher training interventions often associated with a specific task or tool.”

The six reviews that we reviewed were the following:

A few general reviews came out around the time Popova and I published our review of reviews (but too late to be included):

Those are all from at least five years ago! What about more recent reviews?

The highest profile recent review of “what works” in global education is the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel’s 2023 report “Cost-effective Approaches to Improve Global Learning.” As the name indicates, this report exclusively focuses on learning outcomes. That report highlights three top investments:

  • “Providing information on the benefits, costs, and quality of education
  • Supporting teachers with structured pedagogy (a package that includes structured lesson plans, learning materials, and ongoing teacher support)
  • Targeting teaching instruction by learning level, not grade (in or out of school)”

The report is backed up by a systematic search, identifying hundreds of studies; that evidence was then incorporated into the report via discussions with authors of the report, “combining the new information from this emerging evidence with Panel member expert opinion.” (You can find all the included and excluded studies here.)

Is that the only one?

If I look at which reviews have cited our initial review of reviews and which reviews have cited the individual reviews that we reviewed (how many times can you say review in a sentence?), what mostly comes up are narrower reviews.

Some of those are focused on subsets of interventions, such as ed-tech (“EdTech in Developing Countries: A Review of the Evidence,” by Rodriguez-Segura 2022).

Or they focus on specific geographic areas (“Education in Africa: What Are We Learning?” by Mendez Acosta and me 2021; “Improving Learning Outcomes in South Asia: Findings from a Decade of Impact Evaluations,” by Asim and others 2017).

Or they focus on specific groups within education, especially girls (“What We Learn about Girls’ Education from Interventions That Do Not Focus on Girls,” by Yuan and me 2022; “Policies and interventions to remove gender-related barriers to girls' school participation and learning in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review of the evidence,” by Psaki and others 2022; “Girls’ Education at Scale,” by Mendez Acosta, Yuan, and me 2023).

Or they focus on solving particular problems within education, such as how to get teachers to remote schools (“How to recruit teachers for hard-to-staff schools: A systematic review of evidence from low- and middle-income countries,” by Mendez Acosta and me 2023) or how to boost teacher skills (“Teacher Professional Development around the World: The Gap between Evidence and Practice,” by Popova and others 2022).

As always, there are studies that blend review elements with original analysis, such as Schooling for All: Feasible Strategies to Achieve Universal Education (edited by Sandefur 2022), Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa (by Bashir and others 2018), “How to Improve Education Outcomes Most Efficiently? A Comparison of 150 Interventions Using the New Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling Metric” (by Angrist and others 2020), or the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018.

There’s a lot out there on how to improve educational outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. On the one hand, one may be tempted to lean into Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg’s critique: “There are so many ‘facts’ now available about how to fix education, that anyone…can easily gravitate towards data that confirms what they believe, and then select sources that deliver it.”

But there’s a more optimistic reading: the number of evaluations in education continues to grow rapidly every year. Those growing numbers may be why more reviewers are slicing the evidence by problem or by country. This means not only that there are more studies overall to seek strong starting points to improve education, but also that it’s more likely that there are studies with greater relevance to a particular problem in a particular setting—if only you can find them.

If you have written or know of a great, recent review about education in low- and middle-income countries, please share it in the comments!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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