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Room to Read’s Secret Weapon: Metrics and Impact Studies

In the second part of our interview with Room to Read co-founder John Wood, he explains how performance metrics and impact studies are revolutionizing how his NGO is rolling out its Girls’ Education Program – often with stunning results.

Written by Edith Terry Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
John Wood, Room to Read co-founder, celebrates the opening of a school with students in Laos.Room to Read

Now that Room to Read has grown to scale, using data and performance metrics to adjust its programs has become more important. Among its current projects is a randomized control trial (RCT) for its girls’ education life skills program, taking the NGO’s use of data to a new level.

The RCT trial aims to develop monitoring tools that will deliver assessments using several indicators. The evaluation of girls’ life skills and academic progress will include 2,500 girls from 119 schools in Rajasthan, India, who entered the sixth grade in 2016, and will run until 2018.

Here, the Room to Read co-founder John Wood reviews some of the successful metrics behind his organization, as well as the challenges that they face now and in the future.

Women and Girls Hub: What have been your biggest successes?

John Wood: We have two major focus areas, literacy and gender equality. Gender equality is really our depth intervention. There’s 37,800 young women to date who have participated in the program. We know them by name, we know their family situation, we interact with them on a regular basis.

If you look at literacy, literacy is really our breadth intervention. We’ve brought our literacy program to more than 10 million students, in 10 countries. We have very, very great quality metrics – we can track the number of words per minute young girls and young boys can read.

In the early years, we often found that when we opened a library, and started running a literacy program, more boys showed up than girls, and that was especially true as you got to the later years of school. So the gender equality program was really set up to try to address that inequality between boys and girls.

Number two is that we’ve been building out strong local staff; I would really like to stress the word local, because a lot of NGOs are run by expats. We want to build out local teams who are working with local communities and local governments, and I think we’ve been very successful at that. Eighty-seven percent of our employees worldwide are local nationals. They are what I would call close to our customers, close to the students, close to the families, close to the community. So that would be number two.

I would say number three is the scale of our program. We’ve been able to work with more than 20,000 communities to date. We’ve opened 18,700 libraries, we have done professional development for more than 10,000 teachers, and we’re working now in thousands of communities with our literacy instruction program. And this is all coming from an NGO that was cash-strapped. Nobody knew who we were: we were, in what you’d call in Silicon Valley, a total bootstrap.

Women and Girls Hub: What kind of performance metrics do you use to measure success, and how do you use those metrics?

John Wood: One example, in the schools in India that we work in, is that we have kids in grade two reading at 41 words per minute, whereas in the control schools, schools with similar demographics where we don’t work, kids are reading at 14 words per minute, so we’re at about three times the number of words per minute. In Bangladesh, we have kids in grade two reading at more than 50 words per minute. Using girls’ education as an example, 71 percent of the girls who finish secondary school with our support are moving on to university.

The key thing is making sure that our global teams are paying attention, and that they’re visiting the schools often enough, and talking to the teachers and parents, so that we do have an early-warning system and can make sure they aren’t falling off the rails. Our social mobilizers spend a lot of time in the field, and they have conversations, so that if a girl hasn’t showed up at school for a certain number of days, or they hear the girls are being pressured to drop out, our social mobilizer can go talk to the parents, talk to the guardians, and assure them that we will continue to support the girl.

And I think our interventions definitely work. Our retention rate in our Girls’ Education Program in the last year has been 91 or 92 percent, and we track that very meticulously. When girls do drop out of the program, we also go and do surveys to find out the reasons why they drop out and we then use those surveys and that research data to modify our program design.

An example of this – in Zambia, a number of years ago, we found that two of the top reasons girls were leaving school were early marriage, as early as age 14 or 15, and pregnancy. We looked at the statistics and realized that we were bringing girls into the program at age 13 or 14, and maybe that was too late, and bad habits had already been formed. So the team made the decision to actually bring the entry age into the program forward three years.

Women and Girls Hub: What are the key challenges you face?

John Wood: The challenge is that there are thousands of communities that need our program. The challenge is that we have governments around the world asking us to come into their countries. We have literally thousands and thousands of communities that want to work with us, but we don’t have the budget to do so. The toughest thing when you’re an NGO like Room to Read is that your biggest constraint is how much money you’re bringing in.

We know that we’re in a race against time, because every day we lose is a day we don’t get back. Every day that a young girl or a young boy does not go to school and is not gaining literacy, not going on to secondary school, is a lost opportunity. So I think what our team most loses sleep over is that. While we’re very proud of how far we’ve come, we’re also aware of how many bright young minds are out there that we have not been able to reach yet.

That’s what I lose sleep over, and I don’t want to get too dramatic, but I’ll say it just from a human perspective, I don’t want to let these kids down. There are so many forces in the world that are negative, from trafficking to child soldiers to ISIS and Boko Haram, and I look at it and say, shame on us if we don’t get every single kid everywhere in the world in school. Just as we want our kid to go to school, a child born in a low-income country deserves that opportunity.

Women and Girls Hub: If you look ahead over the medium and long term, what are you hoping to achieve?

John Wood: Just to give you the background, when we originally started Room to Read, my co-founders and I said that what we thought of as the BHAG, the “big hairy audacious goal,” was to reach 10 million students by 2020. I was trained at Microsoft and one of the things that [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer used to say was: “Go big or go home.” We really wanted to make sure that we went big with Room to Read and sent a signal to the world that we wanted to grow this organization to be hugely impactful.

If you look out longer, if you look out say 20 years, our big goal is really to help lead a global movement. And my belief is that we should no longer live in a world where any child is told, you were born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong family, and you therefore will not get educated. We believe that idea belongs on the scrapheap of human history.

This thing exists called the lottery of life. Where you are born and to whom you are born are completely random, you have no control over them, yet those two things determine your fate from a young age. Room to Read wants to work at scale, to work in tens of thousands of communities and be able to tell every single child that you were born in the right place at the right time, because Room to Read was there for you.

Those of us who are educated were there for you, and those us who are educated are going to do everything in our power to make sure our little brothers and our little sisters in low-income countries have the same opportunities that we have, and gain that lifelong gift of education, and with that comes independence, and with that comes their full human potential. So, in the long run, I’m a total optimist, but optimism only works if you roll up your sleeves and work hard, and there’s a lot of things that need to be done in the world today.

This is the second part of a two-part interview. The first part can be read here.

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