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The Use and Abuse of Data in Educational Planning in Developing Countries

Academic Festival Session 2013

The good news, if you like data, is that when it comes to education, there’s an incredible enthusiasm right now in developing countries for data-based decision-making. The bad news is that the data isn’t always reliable – at least, not when taken entirely at face value – and that the enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into effective action

To underscore their point, the presenters – Mark Ginsburg and Kurt Moses of FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization, displayed a photo of a flooded-out dirt road in South Sudan, captioned “accuracy is difficult to get to.”

Data in planning


“When you see a statistic that there a developing nation has 1,490,633 students – well, no, not exactly,” said Ginsburg, Senior Advisor for Research, Evaluatno and Teacher Educatyno at FHI 360, who is serving this year as a visiting professor in TC’s Department of International and Transcultural Studies. “It might mean that in 2006 we think there were between 1.34 and 1.89 million. Which means the ministry of education may not know whether enrollment is actually rising or falling.” They might think it’s rising -- but if the government shuts off the oil again, all bets are off.

Moses, Vice President and Director of Education Practices, described the vagueness that can underlie the use of the concept of a statistical “average.” For example, an average student-teacher ratio of 45 to 1 could mean that all school districts in a sample have that exact ratio, or that one district has a ratio of 90 to 1 and while another has 9 to 1 – or all manner of variation in between. 

“The challenge of education planning is to make sure that some of what you do bears some semblance to what you’re seeing,” he said, displaying a photo of a packed classroom in in the African Republic of Djibouti. “This,” he said, “is what 100 to one looks like.

To prompt effective action, researchers must employ different ways  of representing data  to leaders, including maps, dashboards, report cards, and even Google earth satellite photos that can reveal schools that have no rooftops. At the same time, understanding the backstory behind the numbers is absolutely critical. For instance figures suggesting robust school spending in Liberia were undercut somewhat by the revelation that the money was often ascribed to “ghost schools,” of which there were an estimated 400 to 600. 



Still, the field is changing dramatically. New technologist are enabling distribution of “just-in-time” data to mobile devices. 

“That’s revolutionizing how quickly we can verify things,” said Ginsburg. “During the refugee camps in Ethiopia, we were getting data in Washington that was an hour old.”

Published Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013