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MIT’s J-PAL rates the SAS Reading Program

With the start of a new school year, nongovernment organizations that have consistently worked with the Department of Education again began their respective schedule of activities for the season. Acknowledged a few years ago by the DepEd as official partners under its Adopt-a-School Program by virtue of the quality and longevity of its programs were McDonald’s Bright Minds Read Program, Union Bank’s Reading and Values Education Program, Sa Aklat Sisikat’s Reading Program, Synergeia Foundation’s initiatives, and the DepEd’s Library Hubs.  It is interesting to see how these programs are faring after years of continuously refining their original concept.  Today, there are many other endeavors committed to raising the quality of public education and making it accessible to all.

With the variety of well-intentioned programs for public schools, one wonders what impact these really have on our young learners. During the ceremonial launch, it seemed enough to be making quality books available to students and scheduling teacher training workshops to enhance classroom instruction—fundamental learning components public schools woefully lack.  It was impressive to rattle off staggering statistics of how many schools in how many regions, teachers, students benefited.  But how do we quantify such goodwill?  How can we convince the benefactors that indeed, every donated peso is going a long way.  And the ultimate question, how does one know it has made the student a better learner?

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In 2009, Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation decided that after 10 years of running the 31-day Read-A-Thon, it was time to find out if all that effort, money and time spent in implementation was worth it. After all, the SAS’s mantra is to develop the love and habit of reading among the students (and yes, teachers and principals and supervisors, too).  For a grade 4 class, the Read-A-Thon can be costly and time-intensive  as it comes with a weekend  of teacher training facilitated by master trainers and group facilitators, an attractive bible of a manual and teacher’s guide, and a classroom library set (hooray—no sharing of resources needed) of at least 60 vetted local children’s titles so that every child will have a book to read when the time comes.

After a long period of proposals, a generous grant allowed SAS to formalize an independent study and program evaluation contract with the highly respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).  Dr. Esther Duflo facilitated the study that SAS had in mind. Duflo is a professor on poverty alleviation and development economics, and one of three MIT professors who founded PAL in 2003 with the support of the university’s Department of Economics.

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The concept behind PAL was to facilitate a larger number of evaluations by affiliated partners and professors, to “exponentially increases their impact” through shared methodologies and results. PAL is meant to be a repository of the best research being done using randomized evaluations (REs), all geared towards reducing poverty through policy changes based on scientific evidence.  Today, J-PAL is a network of 55 affiliated professors united in their use of REs  to test programs critical to poverty alleviation. It is running 38 ongoing evaluations in 40 countries at present.

The lab was renamed J-PAL in 2005 to honor Abdul Latif Jameel, father of MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, who supported the Poverty Action Lab with four major endowments.

J-PAL’s methodology of choice is “randomized evaluation” (RE) that seeks to measure the impact of a program and to quantify how large that impact is.  As in the case of the SAS Reading Program, it compares outcomes of those grade 4 students who received the program against those who did not.  Those in the industry know that there are many methods to measure this, but REs, according to J-PAL, are considered the most rigorous and “produce the most accurate (i.e., unbiased) results.”

MIT J-PAL is known to be the focal point for development and poverty research based on randomized trials. The studies it runs seek to reduce inequality by ensuring that policy is based on scientific evidence. It has run research for philanthropists in the league of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett who wish to know the ways in which their donations have been most beneficial.

After a two-year evaluation of the Read-A-Thon in Tarlac, selected as the survey site after J-PAL’s and SAS’s exploratory research deemed it a socio-economic microcosm of the Philippines,  the final draft of the study was received on May 29 with overwhelmingly positive results.  But even with that known, it was still a special thrill to Google Sa Aklat Sisikat on the J-PAL website and see, along with the rest of the cyberspace population, how our homegrown Read-A-Thon program is described: “(It)  increased children’s test scores significantly, and these effects persisted several months after the program was finished.”

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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TAGS: education, featured columns, nongovernment organizations, opinion, quality of education, sa aklat sisikat program
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