Making Research ‘EQUAL’ to Address the Global Learning Crisis

women and men of different backgrounds sitting at a table

The world faces a learning crisis. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) indicates that 230 million adolescents – 61% of the world’s youth – will not reach minimum proficiency levels in lower secondary schooling. This is a colossal tragedy for the world’s sustainability. Without a next generation with the capability to participate in communities and advance solutions for the challenges of our time – ranging from poverty, social and economic inequality, climate change effects, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice, as outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – our planet’s future is at risk.

Why are we failing to support children’s learning? Why do some education systems have better learning outcomes than others? While these questions may have different answers in different countries. At Global TIES for Children, we use research as a tool to serve low- and middle-income countries through program and policy interventions. Our international work confirms our belief that a key component to education reform is rigorous research. Without rigorous measurement and evaluation of inputs, implementation and outcomes of education systems, it is unlikely that schooling can address the global learning crisis.

The EQUAL Project

The EQUAL (Education Quality and Learning for All) Network for Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to identify and develop research networks, provide seed grants and increase research-practice partnerships in two regions of the world affected by the learning crisis – the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). EQUAL is capacity building of networks of scholars so that the evidence bases in measurement and evaluation relevant to the lifelong learning goal of the SDGs is advanced at the country level and across countries within the two regions. 

In 2016, the Ford Foundation and Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education provided funding to begin the project. With a clear focus on building researchers’ capacity in the MENA and SSA regions, the project had two phases:

  1. Identify and provide research grants to early-career scholars (those who obtained their PhDs within the last 8-10 years)
  2. Provide grantees with a rigorous, multi-generational mentorship program.

Mentoring Scholars from the Point of Grant Writing

The application process for EQUAL seed grants uses a mentoring approach, provided by an Advisory Board made up of 19 scholars from the MENA and SSA regions. Their input helps us evaluate applications with contextual and cultural specificity as well as research rigor. We ran two application cycles in both SSA and MENA, disseminating widely in Arabic, French and English, and are currently running our third MENA application cycle.

We have funded 22 research scholars (16 from SSA and 6 from MENA) and look forward to expanding our EQUAL network. Our belief in mentorship is embedded in the heart of our EQUAL model. Scholars identify both senior mentors and more junior mentees in their proposals, which focus on measurement or evaluation relevant to advancing SDG 4. They also identify NGO or government partners so that the mechanism for productive use of research occurs in the context of a research-practice or research-policy partnership in their countries.

EQUAL in the Middle East:

Our six MENA grantees come from different countries within the region: Palestine, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The topics include measuring the quality of education for sustainable development; developing a professional development plan to improve students’ critical thinking; examining and developing interventions to counter school violence; analyzing curriculum innovation in an Arabic curriculum and evaluating the impacts of teacher professional development. We partner with local organizations like Shamaa (Arab Education Information Network) who help us advertise our call for applications.

EQUAL in sub-Saharan Africa:

Sixteen grants are being awarded to applicants from SSA. Our grantees come from different countries: Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal, Zambia, Malawi and Cameroon. Topics include measuring quality in preprimary and primary education; addressing non-formal sources of learning in child and youth development; and studies assessing program effectiveness in education. Our partners in this region include the African Early Childhood Network (AfECN).

We look forward to expanding our EQUAL network, further developing research capacity building initiatives and also instituting the consolidation and implementation phase of EQUAL activities. All these will be embedded within the EQUAL model of multi-generational mentorship, application to practice and policy, and regionally-based support to address the global learning crisis and advance quality education for all.

If you are interested in applying for the EQUAL seed grant, please read our Request for Proposal to determine your eligibility. If you are eligible, download and submit the Letter of Intent. For any questions, please e-mail Joyce Rafla at joyce.rafla@nyu.edu.


Joyce Rafla is Project Associate for EQUAL and Sesame Seeds at Global TIES for Children.

Dr. Paul Oburu is Research Associate Professor at NYU Steinhardt and Project Director of EQUAL.

Dr. Hirokazu Yoshikawa is the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education at NYU Steinhardt, and Co-Director of Global TIES for Children.