14 February 2017

LSE on the UK gov’s new housing plans

"The fundamental problems with housing remain the same as in the last fifteen years and of those the most fundamental is the lack of land for development. Only fundamental reforms of our housing supply process will help and this proposes none. Indeed it in some ways goes backwards. It goes from a set of (not very good) mechanisms delivered in 2007 with the Regional Spatial Strategies to a set of aspirational gestures. Frankly the Secretary of State could build more houses with a magic wand."
From the Spatial Economics Research Centre blog

03 February 2017

Cash-on-Delivery Aid for Trade Facilitation

One of the new ideas in our CGD trade-for-development-policy-after-Brexit paper was using the "Cash on Delivery" approach for trade facilitation. "Cash on Delivery" is an idea well developed by Nancy Birdsall and William Savedoff but still under-actually-piloted, and as yet not proposed for use in trade facilitation, for which it may actually be a really good fit. From the paper:

"The UK can improve upon its existing Aid for Trade offer by making increased use of results-based programmes. “Cash-on-delivery” aid (paying for outcomes, not inputs) is most appropriate where local contextual knowledge matters, where the best combination of inputs is uncertain and local experimentation is needed, and where precise design features and implementation fidelity are most critical (see, for example, the discussion by Savedoff [2016] on energy policy). All of these criteria also apply to Aid for Trade.

A typical Aid for Trade programme might carry out an extended diagnostic project to identify the constraints to change, and then design and contract a project to address these constraints. The payments would typically be made for activities (for example, technical assistance for improving a certain process) that, according to a theory of change, should lead to the desired outcomes. But contracting for activities and inputs doesn’t allow for sufficient experimentation and change.

A better approach is to contract for outcomes (i.e., to offer cash on delivery) and allow those with the required information the flexibility to determine the best way of achieving those outcomes.

Common concerns around cash on delivery focus on exactly what outcomes are contracted for, how they are measured, and whether there is any risk of distortion of priorities according to what is measurable or gaming of indicators. Indicators should be quantifiable, ideally continuous (to allow for variable payment in proportion to the degree of progress), and independently verifiable. Another common concern is how governments might fund any up-front investment costs. Here, then, the proposal is not that cash on delivery should replace all aid, but simply that it replace a portion of aid in a piloted manner. Further, if the outcomes are focused on “soft” rather than “hard” infrastructure, these up-front costs should be limited.

With trade, contracts could be based on the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ indicators. We have reasonable econometric evidence (Hoekman and Nicita 2011) that these indicators of the cost of importing and exporting (in both time and money) are associated with greater volumes of imports and exports.

An alternative but similar set of possible indicators that could be used as outcomes for contracted payments are the OECD Trade Facilitation Indicators, which probe border procedures in more detail. Moïsé and Sorescu (2013) estimate that streamlining the costs represented by these indicators could reduce trade costs by 15 per cent for low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Rather than trying to tell a specific country how best to reduce that time and cost, we could instead just write a contract to pay a specified amount for each hour the country reduces the time it takes goods to clear the border and exporters and/or importers to comply with documentary requirements.

The potential gains to developing countries are high. The estimated gain to a low-income country from reducing its cost of exporting to that of a middle-income country is 2 per cent higher exports (Hoekman and Nicita 2011). For a typical low-income country, such as Malawi, with total annual exports of around US$1.5 billion, a 2 per cent increase would be worth US$30 million a year. The expenses associated with reducing export times would almost certainly cost less than this amount.

In summary, the UK could take the lead in applying a more innovative and potentially much more effective approach to Aid for Trade by using cash on delivery. It could be used as a complement to the other proposals in this note and, as a relatively new approach, could be established relatively promptly as a pilot."

25 January 2017

How to spend aid in fragile countries

The classic dilemma in figuring out how to spend aid money is the trade-off between:

     a) achieving scale and sustainability by supporting national government systems (but losing control), and
     b) keeping more direct control by working through NGOs, but sacrificing scale and sustainability.

This trade-off is less acute when the recipient government is an effective service provider and respects human rights. Often however the countries that most need external assistance do so in large part precisely because they aren’t blessed with well qualified governments.

One possible solution to this dilemma is providing mass cash transfers - a route to supporting poor individuals whilst side-stepping their government. Another (neglected?) route is supporting local service providers directly. An example of this is the Girl’s Education South Sudan provision of ‘capitation' grants to schools (full disclosure, I was hired to do some analysis). This pipe provides both government and donor (currently DFID) finance direct to the school bank account (held by the school’s governing/managing committee).

Here is a ring-fenced pipe, separate from the main government treasury, at scale, that can send money direct to every school (whether public or private) in a country, with receipts, full government engagement in delivery, in-person monthly reporting, and disaggregated real-time data. All of which potentially an exciting opportunity for donors if they want to fund education in emergencies.

What does the money do? Overall measured enrolment has been trending upwards over the last few years. My analysis suggests that at least some of this aggregate enrolment growth can be attributed to the grants. First, looking at the individual school level, schools tend to report higher levels of enrolment and attendance the year after receiving a grant, after allowing for school fixed effects by conditioning on past attendance or attendance. Second, I exploit a natural experiment whereby the government-financed component of the grants (not the donor-financed component) was arbitrarily held up by state governments for a set of (~control) schools that had gone through all the same hoops as some other (~treatment) schools that did receive the grants. The estimated effect of receiving grants on enrolment and attendance levels remains similar. Similar gains are found for schools that qualified to receive cash transfers for girls. The results are robust to measuring enrolment using the national remote SMS reporting system (sssams.org), or the smaller in-person sample survey.

What about learning outcomes? The focus of the cutting edge in global education research is rightly on what kids actually learn at school rather than just getting bums on seats. But there are still a few countries, including South Sudan, where access and enrolment in school is still a major issue. You should probably take most statistics on South Sudan with a grain of salt, but one estimate of the Net primary enrolment rate is just 43%, which is really pretty low.

However, one of things that does seem to really matter for student learning outcomes is how teachers are motivated and held accountable. Private schools tend to get more effort out of their teachers, largely because they are paid directly by the school and not by a remote government office. For example in Uganda, teachers in private schools spend more time in the classroom teaching than their counterparts in public schools. But this isn’t an inherent feature of the ownership and management of public versus private schools. In principle all public teachers could be hired and paid directly by schools, financed by a single central government school grant, rather than all teachers being put directly onto a single national payroll. This might inadvertently be happening in South Sudan anyway, as recent rapid inflation is reducing the value of local currency denominated teacher salaries, whilst the donor (hard currency) -financed school grants maintain more of their absolute value (and increase in value relative to teacher central payroll salaries). Shifting more funding directly to schools and allowing the list of eligible schools to include non-state providers could open the door to quality-focused international NGO chains such as Peas.

It’s very easy to just be incredibly depressed by news coming out of South Sudan, including warnings of a potential new genocide, but as ever, sanity lies in the stoic serenity prayer - we should focus on what we can change (and on the evidence needed to enable the distinction be made between what we can and can’t change).

24 January 2017

You don’t need to be a cosmopolitan to support more migration

New from Dani Rodrik:

"how strong a preference must we have for our fellow citizens relative to foreigners to justify the existing level of barriers on international labor mobility? More concretely, let φ stand for the weight in our social welfare function on the utility of domestic citizens relative to the utility of foreigners.

When φ=1, we are perfect cosmopolitans and we see no difference between a citizen and a foreigner. When φ→∞, foreigners might starve to death and we wouldn’t care.

For the policy in question [allowing the movement of 60 million workers from poor to rich nations] to reduce social welfare in the rich countries, it turns out that φ must be larger than 4.5. Is a welfare premium of 450 percent for fellow citizens excessive? Is it reasonable to think that a foreigner is worth less than 22 percent a citizen?"

17 January 2017

How the UK can lead the world on trade for development

Prime Minister Theresa May has said that the UK will be a "global leader on free trade”.  How can the UK use that opportunity to give the biggest possible boost to global development?  If the UK wanted to be the world leader on trade-for-development, what would the policies look like? 

There are options to consider not only on tariffs, quotas, and preferences, but also on improvements in UK systems and aid for trade as well as taxation.

I suggest some answers in a blog and paper with Ian Mitchell and Michael Anderson at CGD.

10 January 2017

Experimental Conversations

When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, probably the most enjoyable book I read I think I happened to stumble across in the library (back in the day when you had to actually go to the library to find book chapters and physical copies of journals to read), called ‘Conversations with Leading Economists’. The conversational style, discussing in conversational language how ideas came about and how theorists interacted with each others' ideas and with data, was an amazing breath of fresh air, and a world away from the weirdness of the textbooks which often appear to pass down strange and seemingly grossly unrealistic theories and models of the world as if they were some kind of natural law. The list of interviewees includes Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas, Gregory Mankiw, Franco Modigliani, Paul Romer, Robert Solow.

That conversational style can probably be slightly more commonly found these days in the post-blogging social media world, but there are still plenty of important thinkers who don’t very frequently blog or write op-eds (they’re busy being important thinkers), so Timothy Ogden has provided the wonderful service of writing up a series of interviews with some of the leading voices in both academia and policy on the use of randomized evaluations and field experiments in development economics.

You can buy the book 'Experimental Conversations’ here.

Read the chapter with Angus Deaton for free here

And subscribe to Tim’s weekly newsletter here.

21 December 2016

I miss being wrong

My favourite morning cycle commute podcast at the moment is probably the Ezra Klein show, and the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is excellent. The podcasts are usually about an hour long, but perhaps in tribute to the 4.5 hour interview that Coates just did with Barack Obama, this particular episode is a glorious 1 hour 40 mins long. This is exactly what the unlimited space in the long tail of the internet is for.

There’s a good discussion near the end on the recurring Ezra Klein theme on changes in media and the death of blogging.

"Because nobody wants to hear it. I used to blog, as you used to blog. And blogging, as a form, is open to this real-time, ongoing learning process. That went away. But in addition to that, as your profile rises, people say you must have this high profile because you know, because you’re an authority."

That’s Ta-Nehisi. Ezra adds that for him podcasts are the new blogs, because the core of the death of blogging is in the inability to be wrong - and he feels more comfortable saying stuff off-the-cuff that might be wrong on the podcast than on the blog.

Clearly I’m a long way from the level of ability or prominence of either of these guys, but I don’t think I’m alone in blogging much less than I used to and really missing the habit. And I’m almost certainly not going to start a podcast. Perhaps then an early New Year resolution to start being more wrong?

28 October 2016

The Case for Restrictions on New Charities

"Drawing upon the all-pay auction literature, we propose a model of charity competition in which informed giving alone can account for the significant quality heterogeneity across similar charities. Our analysis identifies a negative effect of competition and a positive effect of informed giving on the equilibrium quality of charity. In particular, we show that as the number of charities grows, so does the percentage of charity scams, approaching one in the limit. In light of this and other results, we discuss the need for regulating nonprofit entry and conduct as well as promoting informed giving."

Information, Competition, and the Quality of Charities, by Silvana Krasteva and Huseyin Yildirimb

12 October 2016

How much of a jerk do you have to be oppose aid?

Angus Deaton wrote a few months ago about “Rethinking Robin Hood” (he was also on EconTalk a couple of days ago).

His argument is that a) the poorest in the US are maybe worse off than we think, and b) we should rethink the "cosmopolitan” ethical rule that places an equal weight on foreigners as co-nationals. Of course, he says, we shouldn’t totally disregard foreigners, we just have lower obligations to them, and greater obligations to people in the same nation as us. Which is all fine and everything, but its also a bit of a straw man. The interesting question, if we can agree that we have lower but not zero obligations to foreigners, is *how much* lower are our obligations to them?

In one of my favourite ever blog posts (now offline, but summarised on Dani Rodrik’s blog), the anonymous blogger “YouNotSneaky” calculates how much you have to value the welfare of a foreigner in order to oppose immigration (or “How much of a jerk do you have to be to oppose immigration”). The answer is you need to think that our obligation to foreigners is less than 1/20th of our obligation to co-nationals in order to oppose any immigration. Personally, I’m not at all comfortable with that low of a weight, but I suppose your mileage may vary.

In principle you could make some kind of similar calculation with regards to foreign aid, but I’m guessing that the less than 0.7% of GDP we so generously lavish on the global poor isn’t anything close to how much we would spend if we were actually really anywhere close to being "cosmopolitan prioritarians” and treating our obligations to foreigners as equal to those to co-nationals.

11 October 2016

The Education Commission & RISE

This post first appeared on the RISE blog

The recently launched report by the Education Commission has confirmed that a "business as usual" expansion of inputs is not going to fix the global learning crisis.

The recently launched report by the Education Commission, led by Commission Chair Gordon Brown, a star-studded cast of global leaders (including Center for Global Development affiliates Larry Summers and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala), and guided by Commission Directors Justin Van Fleet and Liesbet Steer, has brought fresh data and support to the research agenda at RISE. There is a global learning crisis on a massive scale and a “business as usual” expansion of inputs isn’t going to fix it.

First, we’re very happy to see the high frequency of the word “learning”. Although educationists highlighted learning deficits of those in school (eg the 1990 Jomtien Declaration’s opening paragraphs stressed: “...millions more satisfy the attendance requirements but do not acquire essential knowledge and skills”), the UN Millennium Development Goals distorted the agenda onto an exclusive focus on enrolment and primary completion. Learning is, of course, harder than enrolment to reduce to the thin measures that are easy for states to “see,” but that is a weak excuse.

We knew already that the majority of children who can’t read are now *in* school (eg Spaull and Taylor for Southern Africa, the Global Monitoring Report), but the Commission report draws out the implications of current trends for 2030. Their calculations suggest that if current trends continue, 69% of school-aged children in low income countries will not have learnt basic primary level skills by 2030 - despite high enrolment rates. Even in middle income countries, half of children will attain primary level skills only. Millions of children are going to sit through hours of school day after day, and still not acquire the skills they need to prepare them for the complex and rapidly changing world they will face.

Second, what can we do about the global learning crisis? The Commission report leads with a discussion of the need for reform to systems which are coherent around learning performance. They provide new evidence that simply spending more money alone cannot be the answer. For example, Vietnam spends less money on education than Tunisia, yet scores much better in terms of learning outcomes (one of the reasons RISE picked Vietnam as a focus country). The same pattern is observed across cities in Pakistan, where Khanewal spends a fraction of other cities and yet achieves better results.

Even more shocking are the results from Africa. The Commission digs into an important new paper by Tessa Bold and co-authors (the draft presented at the RISE Conference) looking at the World Bank’s Service Delivery Indicators survey in seven countries. Analysis by the Commission reveals that less than half of spending on salaries and materials is actually used in teaching.

It is clearly possible to use existing resources more efficiently, and do more with less. RISE aims to understand the efficiency of schools in creating learning through a systems based approach. The best measure that is currently available for measuring features of systems, such as policies on teachers or student assessments, is the World Bank Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative. Each of our RISE Country Research Teams will carry out a baseline assessment of the system they are studying, based on SABER instruments. Analysis by the Commission report highlights the importance of systems in explaining performance - countries with stronger system features, as measured by the SABER surveys, score better on learning assessments.

The Education Commission report strengthens the case for research into how to reach high performing education systems to accelerate learning progress. It would be a tragedy if their “business as usual” projection becomes the sad reality, and when the end of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is reached in 2030, the majority of children emerge from school unprepared for the challenges they will face.

For more analysis listen to CGD Senior Fellows Bill Savedoff and Justin Sandefur discuss the report on the CGD podcast with Rajesh Mirchandani.

28 September 2016

The best teachers usually don’t know who they are

"Nobody tells me that I'm a strong teacher”.

That’s what the best teacher in Los Angeles, Zinaida Tan, said in 2010 after the LA Times published the first ranking of teachers based on student progress. As the Guardian reports:

"Tan taught at Morningside Elementary, a decent if unremarkable school with an intake of mainly poor students, many of whom struggled with English. Year after year, students were entering Tan’s class with below-average ability in maths and English, and leaving it with above-average scores. You might imagine that before the Los Angeles Times published its rankings, Tan would have already been celebrated for her ability by her peers – that her brilliance would be well-known to fellow teachers eager to learn her secrets. You would be wrong on all counts.

When the Los Angeles Times sent a correspondent to interview Tan, they found her quietly carrying out her work, unheralded except by those who had taken her class and knew what a difference it had made to their lives. “Nobody tells me that I’m a strong teacher,” Tan told the reporter. She guessed that her colleagues thought her “strict, even mean”. On a recent evaluation, her headmaster noted she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. It was as if Lionel Messi’s teammates considered him a useful midfielder who needed to work on his tackling."

We just found the exact same thing in Uganda. Ark Education Partnerships Group came up with the idea of doing a ranking of Secondary Schools based on value-added (adjusting for student’s starting point) rather than the current system of just looking at test scores at the end of school, which tends to reward schools that are able to select the best students, rather than necessarily teach them the most.

The Daily Monitor reports:

"Some of the 200 schools ranked best in the country yesterday, reacted to the news with shock and awe"

One of these surprise top-performing headteachers seems to have almost accidentally stumbled across a fundamental principle of modern education thinking, that all students can make progress if you teach to their level instead of focusing on just the brightest kids in the class.

"Mr Rajab Nsubuga, the head teacher of Hope Boarding Secondary School Lutembe, off Entebbe Road, the best Secondary School in the country, also said the ranking shocked him, adding that the school works on a philosophy that every student is a learner only that they accommodate slow, average and fast learners at their school."

Phil Elks and I wrote up a paper with the methodology here. One thing in particular we note is that from a quick count we found at least 24 other countries that have official national primary and secondary exams that could be used for similar analysis. And for all the technical flaws of value-added models, they’re a pretty clear improvement on what currently happens, which is rankings of schools based on raw test scores.

27 September 2016

Is the EU Financing Genocide in Sudan?

Update on the Worst Aid Project in the World:

Yasir Arman, the main opposition leader in Sudan, alleges that EU money to support “migration management” in Sudan is actually being used to arm the Janjaweed Forces that carried out the genocide in Darfur.

"We received specific and detailed information about a plan drawn by Omar El Bashir and his security apparatus to finance the Janjaweed Forces, reconstituted as the Rapid Response Force, from funds provided to Sudan by the EU, especially funds from the German Government and technical support from the Italian Government.

This plan is under the direct supervision, control, and command of the Presidency of The Republic. It is executed by the National Intelligence and Security Service, of which the Rapid response force is part.

This devilish plan, which was hatched and implemented over the past three months, has put the Rapid Response Force in charge of guarding Sudan borders with the false intention of curbing immigration to Europe, stopping human trafficking, and fighting terrorism. The goal is to link these forces to European interests through what is called “The Khartoum Process” to stop human trafficking. The objective is to ultimately add international legitimacy to the Janjaweed Force and hide its crimes against humanity and the killings of Sudanese civilians, but under European Countries’ and the international community blessings.

So far this plan has already been put into action and was widely covered in the media. The Commander of the Rapid Response Force has held several press conferences and meetings where he claimed the loss of over one hundred and fifty (150) trucks while carrying out its border control duties at the Libyan and Egyptian borders. He did not give details of the forces he was fighting, the times and locations of these fights, or images to support his claim.

The timing of all of this is planned in such a way to receive more funds from Europe to buy more military equipment while it is still the rainy season to prepare for using them during the coming dry season in conflict zones. This means more killing of civilians, especially in the three conflict zones. It is clear that the Government of Sudan is aiming to fund its wars against its own people with European money and support from the international community.

These Janjaweed Forces have attacked and committed atrocities against civilians from Sudan and neighboring countries at the Sudanese Egyptian and Libyan borders. We therefore urge the EU to be aware of this plot and to stop funding these forces because that amounts to supporting genocide and prolonging the suffering of the people of Sudan.

We call upon our offices in Europe and in the United States to raise and highlight this issue in the European and the British Houses of Parliament and in the American Congress by officially writing to these bodies since this is a matter of great urgency. We also call upon all Sudanese people and Sudanese activists inside and outside of Sudan to give great importance to this matter, which supports the continuation of genocide in Sudan. We also draw the attention of the ICC that this issue relates to wars against humanity in Sudan.

It is strange that, lately, the Rapid Response Force (Janjaweed) started talking about fighting terrorism and it is expecting to receive American funding after it guaranteed the flow of European funds.

It is worth-mentioning that the Janjaweed force was the primary source of terrorism in Sudan. We must not forget that it was originally formed for the sole purpose of ethnic cleansing in Dar Fur, and over the years it has committed atrocities against Sudanese civilians all over the country, including many women rape cases in Dar Fur, which was well documented. The Janjaweed was recently reconstituted from Janjaweed to Rapid Response Force and got attached to the Sudan National Intelligence and Security Service to hide its past and give it legitimacy, hoping that we will forget its criminal past.

We are confident that the European and the world public opinion will not be caught off guard while General Bashir implements this criminal plot."

HT: John Ashworth

19 August 2016

What should NGOs say & do about private schools?

Susannah Hares from Ark and I attended a meeting with the senior staff of an INGO last week, along with a couple of other external invitees, to help them think through their position towards private schools and fees in education. We wrote up our recommendations & takeaways on the Huffington Post.
First and foremost, it should reaffirm its principles: that education should be free; that government should be the guarantor but not necessarily the sole provider of education.

 it should focus its education reform efforts on setting high expectations for all children and improving accountability for all schools, whether public or private. School inspections, good data, robust assessments: these are all critical components of a good system accountability and should apply to public and private schools alike.

, in contexts in which substantial numbers of children already do attend private schools, the INGO could see if there are any clear market failures in the private sector that could be improved by government or NGO intervention. For example, training of teachers, or addressing information asymmetries through better community engagement.

, where public-private partnerships are planned or in place, the INGO should challenge government and private sector partners to place equity and quality at the heart of any programme. The UK academy programme started out under the Labour government with a very clear objective: to turn around the 200 worst performing secondary schools in the most deprived areas. This laser sharp focus on closing the achievement gap between rich and poor has changed the conversation about education in the UK: a school cannot be rated as “outstanding” anymore unless it can show it is delivering learning gains for children on free school meals.

, and perhaps most radical of all, the INGO could set up its own network of non-profit PPP schools in a developing country. Demonstrating what high quality education for disadvantaged communities looks like would be a significant value add to any system, particularly if delivered through a PPP with the sustainability and public accountability that should bring. The experience of PEAS schools in Uganda shows that it is possible for an NGO to deliver better management practices and improve performance, at the same cost as local operators and with the inbuilt sustainability that comes from domestic government financing. And Ark’s own experience of running a high performing network of non-profit PPP schools in the UK shows how much an organisation can learn from actually running a set of schools, and how much more effective advisors to governments this can make them. Finally, establishing more non-profit providers in this space might calm some of the heated rhetoric around some of the international for-profit providers.

Why School Systems Matter, and How We Can Fix Them

This post first appeared on the CGD blog Views from the Center

Accountability in school systems is essential to deliver better learning and accelerate progress in developing countries. What is still really lacking—and what RISE is working towards (such as with Lant Pritchett’s coherence paper)—is a coherent and complete analytical framework capturing the key elements of a system of school accountability that can explain the divergent experiences we have seen in school reform.

The latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives has a great symposium on schools and accountability, covering much of the research that motivated the development of RISE. Here are a few of the research highlights:
Here though I’m going to focus on Ludger Woessmann’s article, "The Importance of School Systems” to help break down the possible reasons for the differences in performance across systems.

1. Why school systems matter: Your country matters for your test score

Woessmann starts by documenting the size of the gap in learning performance of 15-year-olds across countries, using combined PISA and TIMMS scores. As a rule of thumb, children learn on average between 25-30 points per year on this scale, which means that the average 15-year-old in the best performing countries (Singapore & Hong Kong) is roughly two years ahead of the average OECD country (for comparison, the UK scores roughly around this OECD mean).

Down at the other end, the average 15-year-old in Peru or Indonesia is well over 100 points below average—at least four years behind the UK. Ghana and South Africa are more like 200 points below average—6-7 years behind the UK/OECD average. This means that if a typical UK 15-year-old is in year (grade) 10, then the average Ghanaian 15-year old is just at grade 3 level.

Whilst the data for the poor countries we do have is really really bad, for most poor countries we don’t even have any data. In his blog post, “The Case for Global Standardized Testing,” Justin Sandefur highlights just what a tiny percentage of the population of low-income countries are covered by any internationally comparable standardized assessment. It’s essentially indistinguishable from the zero percent of students included in international assessments. Even the regional assessments (which provide some comparability) only cover 40 percent of kids from low-income countries, and only at primary school level. By contrast, 80 percent of children from high-income countries are covered at both primary and secondary level in international tests.


2. Country or school factors?

Is the difference in test scores among countries really about school quality though, or rather is it just national wealth, culture, or something else? Woessmann presents a mammoth international “education production function” exercise looking at correlates of test scores across over 200,000 students in 29 countries.
He finds that specific features of systems (such as school autonomy or centralised leaving exams) do correlate with student performance. Further, together these school system variables seem to matter more than student’s family background or school resources.
Moreover, features of the education system seem to matter 3-5 times more as additional variables in explaining outcomes than the level of school spending (adding 0.259 vs. 0.045 in explanatory power).

He also cites Abhijeet Singh’s research (part of the RISE India team), who demonstrates that gaps between students across countries are small when they enter school, and grows as they progress through the school system.

3. Correlation or causation?

The “education production function” approach that Woessmann takes here is explicitly based on correlations as it is difficult to impossible to nail causality down at the aggregate level.
But one first step is to look at changes in variables rather than levels. Take spending: whereas you might be able to find a positive correlation between GDP or the level of education spending and student learning, when you look at increases in spending, there is no correlation with increases in learning—which suggests that just looking at levels rather than changes is confounded by something else (e.g., while richer countries might spend more and have better test scores,  it’s not the spending that causes the test scores,  but insteada third factor correlated with both).


4. Money aside, what about other “inputs”?

Spending aside, Woessmann goes on to review what the rest of the literature says about three key inputs (for a look at other inputs, see the RISE working paper by Paul Glewwe & Karthik Muralidharan).
  • Class Size: has “a limited role at best"—for example, a 2002 paper by Woessmann used quasi-random variation in small sizes to demonstrate the generally small and heterogeneous effect of class size in different countries.
  • Instruction Time: is better, and "can increase educational opportunities.”
  • Teacher Quality: (as measured by gains in student performance) "is related to better student achievement." (It’s worth noting that none of the “thin input” measures of teacher quality (such as qualifications or experience or pay) have substantial effects on learning.)

5. So what features of *systems* leads to more of these inputs and better performance?

  • External exams: "A large literature has shown consistent positive associations between external exams and student achievement” (including cross-country analysis but also a cross-subject diff-in-diff approach within Germany).
  • School autonomy: "School autonomy has a significant effect on student achievement, but this effect varies systematically … part of the negative effect of school autonomy stems from a lack of accountability” (including with a country fixed effects approach looking at changes over time).
  • Private competition: "Cross-country evidence suggests a strong association of achievement levels with the share of privately operated schools” (robust to exogenous variation based on historical differences in religion).
  • Tracking: "earlier tracking tends to raise the inequality of educational outcomes."
All of these points reiterate those made in various RISE-framing documents. School systems really matter—the differences in performance across systems are huge, and much of the gap seems to be attributable to real differences in school quality across systems, rather than other country-specific characteristics. And much of the discrepancy in school quality seems to be related to aspects of systems around accountability.
RISE is continuing to sort out and analyze these diverging experiences in school reform—and more importantly how developing countries can accelerate their progress towards global standards of learning.