Research as a basis for NGO programs | Inquirer Opinion
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Research as a basis for NGO programs

HOW DID the 31-day Reading Program of Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation pass muster under the scrutiny of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (MIT J-PAL)? In the interest of sharing SAS’ experience with other literacy programs of nonprofit organizations and the many possibilities and implications such an independent evaluation survey opens, I am outlining the highlights of the two-year study.

The MIT J-PAL/SAS Reading Survey Study was composed of four phases that lasted two years from  2009 to 2011. In June 2009, J-PAL conducted a Baseline Survey in 100 public elementary schools in Tarlac Province. Tarlac was chosen because J-PAL’s initial research showed it to be a socio-economic microcosm of the country. All local surveys were done by TNS Philippines, the local arm of TNS Global, the world’s largest market research specialist.

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Next, J-PAL randomized the schools and divided them into two groups of 50: the Treatment Group, which would receive the SAS Reading Program, and the Control Group, which would not. I was part of the teacher training team for the public school teachers of Tarlac. From October to November 2009 SAS implemented the Read-A-Thon in the 50 Control schools. A Post-Implementation Survey was run across all 100 schools in December.

In February 2010, SAS returned to Tarlac and completed the End-of-School-Year Survey measuring the medium-term effects of the intervention, seven months after the conclusion of the Reading Program.

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These are explained in greater detail with accompanying statistical data in “Improving Reading Skills by Encouraging Children to Read: A Randomized Evaluation of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Reading Program in the Philippines,” the 34-page academic publication written by Ama Baafra Abeberese and Todd J. Kumler, both from Columbia University, and Dr. Leigh L. Linden from the University of Texas at Austin. The full text of the study is available online at  www.povertyactionlab.org. Click the Evaluations tab, then select Country: Philippines.

The major conclusions of the study are: (1) Encouraging the use of age-appropriate reading materials increased the students’ propensity to read; (2) The most significant positive effect was on word recognition and general improvement in other tested skills: letter and sound recognition, oral and silent reading; and (3) “The program had large and statistically significant impacts on the reading habits of students.”

The results of the survey demonstrated that the short-term SAS reading program is an effective way of “cultivating good reading habits in children and, hence, improving their reading ability.”

The study especially mentions that considering the brief period of the Reading Program (a little over a month, counting the launch and the reading celebration as a culminating activity), other similar reading interventions the Poverty Action Lab has studied in other countries do not show the same significant gains. SAS is both relieved and elated to have this validation of the past 11 years (and still counting) that SAS has devoted to promoting literacy.

Conducting research as a tool for the evaluation of not-for-profit initiatives cannot be disputed. The title of a recent May 13 Weekly News Blast of the Public Education Network in the United States says it all:  “A+ funding, C-minus results.” School districts which have received what is described as “education windfalls” from top education philanthropists were recently tracked in terms of test scores and graduation rates. There were mixed reviews, leading Vicki Phillips of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to say with a touch of humor, “When we started funding, we hoped it (good educational practice) would spread more readily. What we learned is that the only things that spread well in school are kids’ viruses.”

SAS knows the literacy issue is a complex one.  However, a study such as this helps it and others to maximize their effectiveness and leads us all to understand the issues surrounding the conditions of reading in the country.  May this be the beginning of more research leading to a landmark study and a genuine transformation in Philippine education to be spearheaded and mandated by the Department of Education. It was a welcome if unpleasant jolt to have an expatriate Unesco official candidly say at a public forum in March that we keep endlessly talking about issues confronting the system, and isn’t it high time we got going and buckled down to work? It has also been lamented with alarming frequency of late how many successful and commendable programs in education we have here and there, and if these have been proven to work, are these not worthy to be adopted into a system that badly needs to be revived? We do not even need to buy expensive reading programs from other countries.

Yes, where and how to begin? There is little time to lose and the DepEd’s unified vision and leadership are urgently needed.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is a member of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People, the Eggie Apostol Foundation, and a trustee of Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation.

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