Written by Julianne Norman, Jonathan Stern, Yasmin Sitabhkan and Wendi Ralaingita

The Learning at Scale Initiative

Improving learning outcomes at scale has always been difficult, which is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Learning at Scale Initiative in 2019. The first phase of this activity, led by our team at RTI International, studied eight literacy programs from around the globe, producing findings highlighting the classroom ingredients, instructional supports, and system supports that are essential for improving early grade reading outcomes at scale. As a follow-on to this effort, we have recently embarked on a new study: Numeracy at Scale.

As the study’s title implies, this effort focuses on mathematics programs. Over the past several months, our team has worked diligently to gather evidence on six successful large-scale early grade mathematics programs (see figure below). We have sought to understand not only the extent of these programs’ success but also why they are so successful

We are in the midst of analyzing the findings in depth and we wanted to offer a few highlights from each of the six programs as a preview of the overall findings to come later this summer.

Highlights from Six Successful Numeracy Programs at Scale

Nanhi Kali, India

Nanhi Kali is an after-school program for girls that, though implemented in schools, operates mostly outside of the government education system. This allows the program to use unique and innovative approaches for improving student learning outcomes rather than relying on government personnel, systems, and curricula. The program is facilitated by women from local villages who are known as community associates (CAs). Unlike most programs that require educated and trained teachers in the classroom, Nanhi Kali does not require CAs to have higher education qualifications or teaching certifications. This is due in large part to the fact that instructional content is delivered through a tablet-based application called MindSpark.

Potential Levers for Success

  • By design, MindSpark’s instructional approach is based on questioning (rather than lecture) and focuses on the application of concepts, which helps students move toward learning with understanding.
  • The software has a built-in adaptive flow that uses a child’s response to automatically and immediately decide if the child needs additional practice on a given topic or sub-topic. The software doesn’t teach content according to a child’s grade level, so there is no restrictive focus on “getting through the curriculum.” Instead, children learn at their own level and at their own pace.
  • Outside the classroom, CA review meetings, led by Nanhi Kali program officers, are held twice a month in every block. These daylong meetings are a forum for CAs to share and discuss challenges and best practices. This institutionalized use of professional learning communities may be particularly important for facilitators with more limited education and training.

Grade R Maths, South Africa

Grade R Maths in South Africa is a pre-primary play-based numeracy program that began as a foundation-led pilot. For the initial design, WCED solicited technical support from the University of Cape Town SDU and provided clear parameters for the development of a concept guide and a set of activities. Additionally, funding was sought and provided from multiple funders. More recently, however, the program has been owned and operated solely by the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) and scaled to all schools as the system approach for professionalizing the role of pre-primary (grade R) teachers and improving the teaching of mathematics in grade R. Therefore, one of the unique successes of this program was the WCED’s ability to effectively institutionalize and sustain an approach that was designed to be implemented with external technical and financial support. Ultimately, this accomplishment boils down to strong will and good planning.

Potential Levers for Success

  • Once the initial project was set up and materials and training were provided, the WCED role for sustainability was primarily for recurrent training costs (for new grade R teachers and subject advisors) and for continuous professional development for existing teachers.
  • The WCED created a new oversight position to ensure that subject advisors (coaches) continue to coach and monitor and to ensure that all new teachers are trained. 
  • By budgeting for the recurrent needs of the program and creating a new role to ensure that continued support is provided, the project’s evolution from a multi-partner endeavor to a wholly WCED program was relatively seamless.


Project for the Improvement of Mathematics Teaching in Primary and Secondary Education (ESMATE), El Salvador

ESMATE is a nation-wide mathematics program implemented by the Ministry of Education with technical support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Although the program began in a small number of regions with funding from JICA, The ESMATE team leveraged its position within the ministry and the strong results from the initial impact evaluation, to convince the Ministry to dedicate funding and implementation support to adopt the program nationwide. This included printing student workbooks every year and providing them to students, while removing the separate ESMATE teacher training component. This is one way in which the program was able to be scaled within the government system.

Potential Levers for Success

  • ESMATE focuses on three main factors: (1) high-quality student workbooks and teacher’s guides; (2) daily student independent work; and (3) pedagogical support in the form of teacher reflection meetings. These three factors come together under a common delivery theme: consistency.
  • The materials are particularly interesting due to their focus on a four-step instructional process: A – analiza, S – soluciona, C – comprende, and R – resuelve. This approach provides a predictable structure for teachers in which students are encouraged to first attempt to make sense of a problem (“A” and “S”) before moving on to what typical lessons look like, with teachers explaining and modeling (“C” and “R”).


Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Initiative (RAMP), Jordan

The USAID/RAMP program consists of what is referred to as a structured pedagogy program. This seven-year initiative was designed on the heels of a smaller pilot intervention and has since been implemented in all public primary schools in Jordan. The focus of RAMP is to ensure that evidence-based early grade learning materials are integrated into every classroom from kindergarten 2 to grade 3, while improving teachers’ and administrators’ instructional skills through training, mentoring, and supervision. Despite its familiar design, RAMP’s “reflective approach” sets it apart from its peer programs: throughout its life-cycle, the program relied on M&E data to shape its program decision-making and worked relentlessly to garner ministry buy-in, eventually leading to its widespread institutionalization.

Potential Levers for Success

  • Midline findings from the program provided evidence that children’s numeracy skills were not improving as hoped. RAMP used this evidence to restructure its approach to improving numeracy instruction and continues to use regularly collected data on teacher attitudes, fidelity of implementation, and student outcomes to adjust its approach.
  • Teachers in Jordan historically taught mathematics with a procedural focus. RAMP has introduced teachers to a different approach that embraces (1) a conceptual understanding of mathematics; (2) learning progressions; (3) an initial focus on foundational skills; and (4) targeted remediation.
  • The program provides a range of structured materials to teachers, including teacher’s guides, student workbooks, formative assessments, remediation worksheets—all designed to incorporate more discussion around conceptual learning of mathematics in the classroom and to provide teachers with guidance for using differentiated instruction approaches.
  • Early on, RAMP recognized that teachers had concerns about being asked to use a new approach in the classroom that was seen as “extra” work. Therefore, the program worked alongside the Ministry of Education to ensure that the RAMP approach was integrated into the ministry’s official curriculum and materials. In this way, the RAMP approach became synonymous with the country’s official approach to early grade instruction.


TAFITA, Madagascar

TAFITA (“Tantsoroka ho an’ny Fitantananany sekoly” in Malagasy) means “participatory and decentralized school management support,” which provides an idea of what this JICA-funded program is about. TAFITA aims to strengthen the capacity of school management committees (known as FEFFIs) to lead extracurricular remedial activities using Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach. The program began with a pilot phase in two regions and is now operating at a larger scale in nine regions. It includes two parts: (1) trainings designed to strengthen FEFFIs and help them develop and carry out school action plans, including plans that address remediation, and (2) training and ongoing support to local actors on the implementation of TaRL remediation in reading and mathematics for children in grades 2–5.

Potential Levers for Success

  •  Many education projects in Madagascar work in select schools within a district or education zone and utilize parallel structures (rather than preexisting structures) for implementation. TAFITA is different in that it is carried out with and through the education system, with system actors carrying out all key roles in its implementation.
  •  The TaRL approach, adapted for the Madagascar context, focuses on using assessment to provide instruction at the learners’ level and ensuring teachers are able to support conceptual understanding through appropriate use of materials and engaging learning activities. Trainers and teachers highlight the practical nature of the training, which incorporates substantial modeling and practice.
  •  Importantly, TAFITA’s focus on FEFFIs bolsters ministry policy, which states that all schools should have these democratically elected committees and should develop school action plans; indeed, the granting of funds is tied to this requirement. Thus, TAFITA not only strengthens the education system’s ability to provide remediation to struggling students but improves the function of schools’ very own school management committees to carry out these efforts to improve foundational literacy and numeracy.


Ganitha Kalika Andolana (GKA), India

Teacher and student GKA is a math program for students in grades 4 and 5 in the state of Karnataka, India. The program aims to enhance math education by emphasizing problem-solving skills, conceptual understanding, and real-world application by using math kits that contain a comprehensive set of materials (e.g., number line, fraction strips). GKA is a partnership between the Akshara Foundation and the state government. The Akshara Foundation developed the model to work at scale from the onset and funded the initial pilot, and the state government funds the training of teachers and math kits and communicates expectations to districts and schools. The program is well integrated into the state education system, as system actors play an active role in all aspects of the program, including cascading training to teachers and monitoring implementation. The state government is currently scaling up the program to grades 6–8 using its own resources and with technical assistance from the Akshara Foundation.

Potential Levers for Success

  • The teacher handbook addresses all of the concepts in the government syllabus.  This alignment between the program’s content and government policies is one likely reason for GKA’s success.  
  • In lieu of asking more of overburdened teachers, the program engages community members to help monitor the use of the math kits and student learning.
  • The GKA model is based on the premise that learning is active, dynamic, and social (through group collaboration and peer learning). This focus on student engagement is an essential component of the program’s theory that learning happens when students have hands-on experiences.


From Preliminary Insights to Rigorous Findings

As described above, the six programs selected for the Numeracy at Scale study represent a wide variety of designs, from providing instruction to at-risk girls via interactive software to a national-scale numeracy initiative integrated into all public primary schools.

Despite their differences, however, these programs share a large number of common elements—for example, a focus on teaching both procedural and conceptual mathematical knowledge, the use of student discussion of math concepts, and assessment-informed instructional approaches.

We look forward to sharing more comprehensive results in the coming months through a variety of briefs, reports, and events.

For additional information, please visit the Learning at Scale website and stay tuned for further updates.

About the Expert

Jonathan Stern's picture
Dr. Jonathan Stern is Research and Evaluation Lead for RTI’s International Education division. He has 20 years of experience and published research in educational policy, measurement and assessment, quantitative methods, research design, and program evaluation. He serves as Principal Investigator for two cross-country research initiatives: Learning at Scale (Gates) and Play Accelerator (LEGO). He has provided technical expertise and assistance to education programs in more than twenty countries throughout his career, with an explicit focus on supporting project staff and ministry counterparts on their use of monitoring and evaluation data and applied research findings for evidence-based decision-making. Since joining RTI in 2014, Dr. Stern has worked extensively in the education assessment space, leading research efforts and innovations in standard setting, benchmarking, and educational measurement for early grade reading and mathematics.