31 July 2013

Probably the best finance Minister in South Sudan yet

Congratulations and good luck to my old boss and one-time guest blogger Aggrey Tisa Sabuni on his appointment as the new finance minister of South Sudan. This is an incredibly difficult job, not likely to be helped by a possible second oil shut-down, but Aggrey Tisa is one of the smartest people I know and probably the best qualified person technically for the job that there is. I wish him well. 

30 July 2013

New DFID Education Policy

DFID released a new "position paper" on education policy yesterday, with lots to like, and lots that chimes with how we are thinking about education at OPM.

First and foremost, the paper rightly places learning front and centre. It's really quite astonishing how neglected actual learning has been in the race to get kids into school, though as this paper shows this is starting to change.

Then there are mentions of the importance of noncognitive skills, of conceiving of education as a process of lifelong learning - including early child development, preschool, through to tertiary and technical education - and focusing on value for money*.

Then there are interesting innovations, such as Payment by results (reminiscent of CGD's "cash on delivery"), and exploring new ways of working with low cost private schools in Lagos and Sindh (OPM is working on research and evaluation for the Lagos project).

And lots of emphasis on research, including highlighting the Young Lives survey, talk of further longitudinal surveys, and a mention of the ESSPIN Nigeria survey some of my colleagues have been working on.

So what's missing?

Although the paper is right to place learning at the heart of the agenda, I don't think it really acknowledges just how little we actually know about how to improve learning. As Lant Pritchett demonstrates in his new book - if you add up all of the results from individual evaluations of various inputs, the total impact on learning outcomes just doesn't come close to getting us to where we want to be. 

This implies we need some radical experimentation. Payment by results and low cost private schools are two promising avenues, but given that this is, in DFID's words, a "learning crisis" - are these enough?

So what to do? Well firstly just more experiments, both large and small, and urgently. 

One idea would be to listen to the one thing that J-PAL and IPA are really pushing. After over a hundred large scale experiments and evaluations of education projects, they have one big idea, which happens to fit pretty neatly with DFID's agenda. This is remedial education, using young low-cost teaching assistants to help the weakest kids catch up. This is an idea developed by Indian NGO Pratham and with rigorous experimental evidence of impact, which IPA has taken and is working with the Government of Ghana to replicate and evaluate on a national scale, working through government systems. Why isn't DFID funding the next programme like this?


*As a sad little footnote, unsurprisingly DFID's worst value for money in education seems to be coming from, you guessed it;
"The cost of classroom construction, for example, ranges from $1,400 in Ethiopia to $30,400 in South Sudan, where years of conflict have dramatically increased the cost of materials and the mobility of skilled personnel.

25 July 2013

What would Einstein say about schooling for all?

From a letter to his 11-year old son 
I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.

24 July 2013

How to make maps

It's not new, but thought I'd share this handy tool "StatPlanet" for mapping country-level and sub-national state-level data. It took me half an hour to download and figure out, and then all you have to do is import your Excel spreadsheet in the right format, and it spits out pretty maps. The list of countries with sub-national maps built-in is here. The interactive flash maps are pretty cool too. 

Nigeria: Primary School Net Attendance Ratio (%)
Source: Nigeria Education Data Survey 2010

21 July 2013

Evidence-based policy-making US-style

Based on our rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.
Since 1990, the federal government has put 11 large social programs, collectively costing taxpayers more than $10 billion a year, through randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation. Ten out of the 11—including Upward Bound and Job Corps—showed “weak or no positive effects”
Just in case you thought that there was any danger of the whole results agenda and RCT-fetishism taking over in American politics. From an excellent piece in last month's The Atlantic, which by the way is generally fantastic, I just bought a paper copy for the first time and the whole thing was full of interesting - a critical look at the evidence on over 35 female fertility, a thing about how much health food is actually really unhealthy, a note about how recycling can actually increase carbon emissions because it needs more trucks on the streets, and a piece discussing relationships and gender politics and family from the perspective of a man who has sacrificed his career for his wife's. 

20 July 2013

The one thing that does get delivered in India's government schools

Excellent writing by Abhijeet in the Guardian providing some perspective on the recent deaths in Bihar from school meals.
the midday meals, which reach about 120 million children on every school day, are probably the most successful of all interventions in education that the Indian state has delivered in the past decade. On any school day, a quarter of teachers are absent from government schools (pdf), only 45% of those in school are teaching, but in 87% of schools, a hot meal is served (pdf).

15 July 2013

The revolution might not be televised, but what about development?

One of the latest big things in education research is the importance of what economists have labelled "non-cognitive skills," psychologists call "psychosocial competencies", and humans have been known to call "character." Various studies have found that "cognitive skills" - literacy, numeracy, etc, actually don't do a fantastic job of explaining success later in life, and that it is a bunch of other soft skills which really do matter - things like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control (perhaps someone should tell Michael Gove?).

All of this was the subject of Stefan Dercon's plenary at Young Lives last week (slides here). The good news is that these characteristics appear to be malleable even into adulthood.

Apparently there is one question to measure "locus of control" which correlates highly with aspirations and investing in the future. The question is simple - which of the following two statements do you most agree with:

  1. “Each person is primarily responsible for his/her success or failure in life.”
  2. “One’s success or failure in life is a matter of his/her destiny/fate.”

If how you think about this question determines how much you save and invest for the future and your attitudes towards this can be positively shifted, then maybe there is a "fatalism trap" which intervention can break. Stefan presented results from an experiment run in Ethiopia to see if optimism could be cultivated by showing poor remote villagers mini-documentaries of inspirational success stories on TV. The shows told the stories of local people who had worked their way out of poverty. The experiment also included both a regular control group and a "placebo" regular TV show, without the particular success stories.

Six months later - the villagers were still talking excitedly talking about the TV show, and more importantly actually spending more on investing in education for their kids.

Of course, the tragic danger is whether these newly raised aspirations will turn out to be a false hope if the economic opportunities to make these investments pay off aren't available.

Yet another reason why TV will save the world?

10 July 2013

How would you spend a billion dollars on children?

The final session at Young Lives yesterday was really fun, and put this question to all of the plenary speakers - given everything you know from all your research, what would you do? A video of the session is up online here along with the other sessions here, and with apologies to the speakers for butchering their arguments into 140 character chunks, I thought I would reproduce my tweeted summaries here: 

Costas Meghir: An integrated preschool programme - from prenatal, stimulation, ECD, preschool

Jere Behrman: Start a program to improve information about education systems - including costs as well as impacts

Karthik Muralidharan:
First get rid of the things that don't work - starting with teacher education, then
1: appropriate curricula and pedagogical materials for teachers,
2: contract teachers - The challenge is how to manage political and legal barriers - the solution is teaching assistants. Build a 4-year teacher training programme into teaching assistant contracts. At end of 4 yrs, some assistants pass exam to become full teachers, ones that fail get an exit payment 3 months salary. 
And a general point - for scale-up - need to work through government systems but need an intermediate step - start small with a district or a state. 

Lant Pritchett: The key is really moving political focus from access to learning outcomes. Do country studies which are a detailed plan of how to reach a set country-specific learning standard. Frame this as a problem that we can solve.

Orazio Attanasio: No easy answers. We don't yet really understand what works, why, and how to do things at scale. (implying more research?)

Paul Glewwe
1. Do TIMMS and PISA for every developing country
2. Pay for performance - e.g. cash on delivery for african gvts if they reach learning outcome standards
3: More Research

Pedro Carneiro: Need some solid plans from ECD people about practical details.

Richard Morgan (UNICEF): Coincidentally, exactly what UNICEF is doing now - including focusing on underexplored areas at this conference - child survival,  stunting (with WASH as an input), and child protection.

The audience vote at the end was unclear (though apparently Richard got most of the non-economists...), so I'm stealing Duncan Green's polling habit - Make your choice in the side-bar! 


Update: The final results:

  0 (0%)
  1 (5%)
  8 (40%)
  4 (20%)
  1 (5%)
  3 (15%)
  0 (0%)
  2 (10%)
These are all rubbish, something totally different
  1 (5%)

Measuring learning

Here’s the key slide from Karthik Muralidharan’s presentation at Young Lives that I mentioned yesterday (full ppt here).
I was actually looking for a chart like this a couple of months ago for a policy brief we were working on about education and labour markets. I’m not sure my colleagues really believed me that this kind of chart just did not exist, and weren’t really happy with the alternative proxies, so I was quite relieved to hear that this really is amongst the first of its’ kind. But also kind of depressed that work this important hasn’t happened yet on a wider scale.

In India, the average child just about reaches grade 1 standard in maths by the time they reach grade 4. For the bottom 10%, they are learning absolutely nothing from grade 2 onwards. 

08 July 2013

Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!

Matt has a post up on the clear highlight of the first day of Young Lives 2013 - the final plenary by Lant "Dude is so famous he doesn’t even bother wearing a name tag" Pritchett.
Pritchett’s point was fairly simple: in many settings school can be a pretty awful place to be, especially if the curriculum is moving faster than you can keep up with it. Eventually, all but a select few are left behind, leading to a “flattening out” of the learning curve. At this point, you can’t really learn anything when you are this far behind, so why stick around? At one point – and without warning – Pritchett presented an entire slide in Spanish, to give the audience a sense of how this must feel.
The bottom line is really quite depressing - there are thousands and thousands of kids out there sitting in classrooms learning absolutely nothing.

The other highlight for me was Karthik Muralidharan's plenary - apparently one of the first papers to measure and illustrate the learning progress (or lack of) of individual children as they progress through school years - on a comparable ordinal scale. The approach is smart, borrowing from the "Item Response Theory" used in GRE tests, and allows you to estimate for example whether grade 5 students can answer grade 1 questions without having to ask them. The key policy take-away was that clearly we need more of this kind of testing being done with the same kids on an annual basis. At present, we have a few snapshot surveys of learning outcomes in random years in random countries, and almost nothing in most countries that can reliably tell you something meaningful about the progress that children are making. Part of this will hopefully be solved in a few years as countries sign up to a new post-2015 development goal on learning outcomes and then realise that they have committed to figuring out a way of actually measuring them. This stuff is important. As Karthik noted, all of the RCT randomista experimental literature looks at how much an intervention impoves treatment schools compared with control schools, but misses the larger point that nobody has a clue how much progress the control schools are making over time if any (as you might expect given general economic growth).

Naureen Karachiwalla and Abhijeet Singh both presented really interesting papers, documenting in detail the role of caste in determining learning outcomes in Pakistan, and differences between public and private schools in India, respectively (bottom line: they perform similarly, but private school teachers cost around a fifth of public school teachers so private schools are a lot cheaper to run).

The nonparametric bayesian econometrics (I think that's what it is...) was maybe a bit much for me first thing this morning, but the point to note for survey designers emphasised by Costas Meghir was that the cutting edge Heckman "latent factor" model tools for estimating human capital, cognitive and noncognitive skills, or whatever you want to call it, are data hungry. You need a few (at least 3) different measures of each concept that you are trying to proxy for.

That's all for now, time to sleep. 

Young Lives 2013 (pre-match analysis)

Good morning from Oxford. As you'll already know from reading AidThoughts, the inaugural Young Lives Conference is happening today and tomorrow, and Matt and I will be furiously blogging (like this guy) and tweeting all the good bits at #younglives. You can see the programme and papers here.

First a bit of background: Young Lives is a project at Oxford University which is following thousands of children from Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam, talking to them and their households every 3 years for 15 years as they grow up, with quantitative and qualitative components. RCTs aside, this kind of longitudinal survey is pretty rare in developing countries to begin with, but in addition to all the standard demographic and socio-economic information, this survey also measures malnutrition, learning outcomes (language and maths), and asks the children directly about their experiences, hopes, and aspirations. (I just tried to see if I could download the actual questionnaire to see what the wording of the questions was, but apparently you need to be part of an academic institution to use the UK data archive where they are kept, which is a bit annoying).

The conference seems to be all economists, which I'm obviously not really going to complain about but it might have been interesting to see some of the fruits of the qualitative work. There are some really big names in the economics of education; Paul Glewwe, Lant Pritchett, Karthik Muralidharan, Jere Behrman, Stefan Dercon, and also some guy called Abhijeet Singh.

Now a bit of a quibble: the conference is organised around the theme of inequalities in children's outcomes. I remain unconvinced about the whole inequality narrative which is being pushed at the moment. You don't have to agree with Mankiw (I don't) to recognise that talking about inequality turns off a lot of people on the right. I still think the last UK Labour government made a great tactical move by tackling inequality and doing redistribution by defining child poverty by a measure of inequality. You can argue with caring about inequality, it's much harder to argue with caring about child poverty. But the focus here is not income inequality but inequality in outcomes. But in a sense isn't it still true that "we are all poor here?" Should we focus on the differences in health outcomes between the children who are only a bit malnourished and the ones who are totally stunted for life, or just despairing about how badly off they all are?

Finally, on my last count there were close to 60 papers being presented here, so we're going to struggle to even scrape the surface here, so do take a look yourself. I think the plan is also to stream the plenaries online. And just as a warning, if Matt is off his best blogging game today, you should cut him some slack, it might have something to do with all the rigorous qualitative research he was doing yesterday into the positive impact of post-war caribbean migration on contemporary British culture (the Cowley Road carnival in the baking heat yesterday might have been the best thing that has happened in Oxford in 1000 years, well worth missing Wimbledon for. So no pressure Young Lives but this conference better be good).