What Works Best in Education for Development: A Super Synthesis of the Evidence

david-coleman  By David Coleman, DFAT Senior Education Adviser

There are things that every policy maker and development partner working in the field of education want to know: what works?  What are the best ways to get kids into school, keep them there, and learn?  Which options have the best evidence of their effectiveness?  And what are the costs?

These are critical questions, because the world is facing critical challenges.  More than 264 million children, adolescents and youth are out of school.  Of children who start primary school, the Global Monitoring Report estimated that at least 250 million are failing to learn the basics.

The Australian Government prioritises education for development.  Australia’s development investments in education support the systems and policies that enable full participation in good quality education. The Strategy for Australia’s Aid Investments in Education, 2015-2020 outlines how we work with partner countries in support of comprehensive and high-quality education.


There is no shortage of good ideas out there, and it can be daunting to determine the best response to specific challenges.  To help make sense of the evidence, a large number of meta-analyses of ‘what works’ in education for development have been completed, pointing to the ‘best’ types of investments.  While excellent resources, the findings are typically presented in long form reports.  David Evans and Anna Popova at the World Bank did a useful analysis of this broader literature.

We know that Ministry officials and development practitioners are notoriously time poor, and so at DFAT we set about creating a tool for decision makers drawing on this evidence base.  Our ambition?  To extract the findings from the ‘what works in education’ literature, and then to synthesise their collective findings into a short, easy-to-use document.  Our working title was the ‘Super Synthesis’, and it stuck.

Our ‘Super Synthesis’ of the evidence draws from 18 systematic reviews, meta-analyses and comparative reviews.  Collectively, this encompasses the key findings from more than 700 rigorous studies and their supporting research.  By condensing this vast literature into an operational guideline, the Super Synthesis identifies which interventions have the greatest impact on student learning and education participation in developing country contexts.

The result of a collaboration between DFAT, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and Cardno, the heart of the Super Synthesis is a two-page ‘evidence table’.  The table is organised in the following way:

  • There are seven ‘Domains’ (e.g. infrastructure, economic incentives and teacher workforce)
  • Under each ‘Domain’, a series of ‘Intervention Types’ are identified (e.g. new buildings, cash transfers, HR reforms for teachers).  A total of 39 ‘Intervention Types’ are identified
  • For each ‘Intervention Type’, the evidence of impact on student participation and education quality (student learning outcomes) is rated on a four point scale
  • For each ‘Intervention Type’, the evidence on relative costing is identified by the point of investment (e.g. per school; per student), and on a three-point costing scale.


The ‘evidence table’ is supported by brief information on the methodology, strengths and caveats, a discussion of system-level investments and a complete reference list.

In essence, the Super Synthesis is designed to be a decision maker’s friend.  It groups the evidence visually to enable decision makers – national governments, development partners and involved stakeholders – to easily assess possible interventions by the level of impact on participation and student learning outcomes, and the likely associated costs.  This Super Synthesis cannot provide all the answers, but it is our hope that it will assist in asking informed questions about what may work best in a given country context, underpinned by powerful evidence.

The Super Synthesis of what works best in education for development is an accessible eight pages, and is available for download. You can find further information and resources on DFAT and education here.

David Coleman is Senior Education Advisor at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  He has extensive education for development experience in Asia and the Pacific.  David has previously served as UNICEF Chief of Education in Cambodia, Education Adviser with the New Zealand Aid Program, and Education Specialist with the AusAID Education Resource Facility.  He holds a doctorate in international education policy and program evaluation, and is co-author of the book ‘The United Nations and Education: Multilateralism, Development and Globalisation’.

One thought on “What Works Best in Education for Development: A Super Synthesis of the Evidence

  1. Julie.Affleck

    Hi David
    Well done for creating this comprehensive(but brief) summary of a complex topic – as we head into the design phase for the education sector in Samoa, this is a valuable resource and I will be sharing it with my Samoan colleagues.

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