What We Measure Matters
Photo: Students in Kakama, UNESCO
The global indicator for SDG 4.2.1, the goal focused on early childhood, is the “percentage of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being.” The most recent SDG 4 Data Digest from UNESCO evaluates progress against creating the right measures for this and clearly identifies that we “need a definition of developmentally on track.”
A recent trip to Kakuma Refugee Camp, as part of my work on behalf of a family engagement reading program, highlighted not only the challenges of collecting the right data but the need. There is an old saying in business that “what gets measured, gets managed.” In the case of using aid money well, “what gets measured, gets done."
Kakuma Camp in Northern Kenya is a well established camp, originally created in 1992 to house the Lost Boys of Sudan. It now provides a place to live for roughly 148,000 refugees, with more coming in every day. Of this group, approximately 20,000 are children under 5.
These young children can attend one of about 10 early childhood centers in the camp. The center I visited was a small compound, created by buildings around three sides of an open square. Near the gated entrance was a small, one-room building that housed the office of Lillian, the center’s head. She had an incredibly kind, grandmotherly face and a desire to help me understand what she thought she could do with the right resources.
To make her point, she led me from her office to one of the long classroom buildings that served as a boundary wall of the compound. There, inside each large room, with fading murals painted on the walls, I was greeted by row upon row of bright, curious children, neatly dressed in uniforms and sitting at bare tables. One class had 61 children. In the next room over, there were 70. And in front of each class was a blackboard with the schedule for the day – letters, numbers, recess, then more classes. When I asked the young teacher at the head of one classroom about toys…he reached around his neck for a key on a string. With this key, he unlocked a box at the front of the room, a box that contained neatly packed toys donated through UNICEF.
While the sight of the eager faces of the four year olds was deeply moving, I couldn’t help think about how different the picture would be if I were visiting an American preschool. Google “American preschool” and instead of uniformed children quietly sitting in neat rows, you find images of small groups of children with painted faces, often with some sort of toy in their hands. The American scenes feel vaguely chaotic, very different from the more ordered, disciplined classes at the center.
So why the difference? A Kenyan adult working at the NGO that hosted my visit made a powerful point when she shared fond memories of her own preschool years. She talked of making trucks out of bottle caps, of walking as a class to a river and digging out clay to mold whatever they wanted. Simple, hands-on formative experiences she has remembered for 30+ years. She reminded me that the challenge to create a quality ECD program in a refugee camp is less about addressing a lack of western-style toys and more about providing permission. The way that donors measure the use of their funds dictates what happens.
ECD stands for “early childhood development” and “development” does NOT equal “education.” Numbers and letters are important to learn – and mastery of them relatively easy to measure - but the magic of early childhood is its unstructured, sensory exploration. Unlike outcome metrics appropriate for older children, capturing the journey of ECD may be better accomplished through process measures. Does the student – teacher ratio allow for reasonable supervision of play/creative activities? Are there physical objects to play with and explore? Is there time specifically set aside for make believe or telling group stories? Children are naturally curious and, following UNICEF’s MIC surveys for the home, measuring that they have the right stimulation in pre-school may be a reasonable proxy for assuring they have achieved a certain level of development.
Certainly, Lillian wanted me to know that more teachers can support classrooms with smaller groups of children, which will lead to more creative and appropriate use of classroom time. I suspect the teachers, and their charges, would be happier with evaluation metrics that gives them the freedom to mold with clay instead of drilling the alphabet, as well.
Amanda Welsh is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Scholarly Culture, which promotes healthy reading cultures. The Foundation’s first project, PopUpBookShops.org, works to get books into the hands of eager readers through novel and entrepreneurial means. They have just launched a PopUpBookShops.org program in Nairobi supporting street booksellers there.