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.

16 August 2016

Reaching universal secondary school won’t solve the learning crisis

Secondary school graduates in Jakarta, urban Ghana, and urban Kenya, have worse literacy skills than primary school graduates in rich countries. More here on the RISE blog.

08 August 2016

What can we learn from Sociology about learning?

My summary on the RISE blog of the working paper from the RISE team main sociologist Susan Watkins (& Amy Kaler):

"One of the key things that should strike you from this particular framework and this way of disaggregating the WDR04 accountability triangle, is that the Delegation aspect of accountability relationships in education systems is probably the least studied. The WDR04 has spawned a range of literature looking at the role of better information and better incentives for performance, and there has been plenty of research looking at financing and resourcing. But there’s next to nothing on delegation - what do parents and governments actually expect from schools? Much of the research on the economics of education looks at the effects of schooling on later outcomes, for example on earnings or health, but that is not the same question as what was initially intended. 

This is where the RISE working paper by Susan Watkins and Amy Kaler comes in. Their paper focuses on the collective understandings of education by teachers, parents, and students."

In praise of universalisation (& why it is distinct from Westernisation)

This is great from Scott Alexander:

"the incorrect model of “foreign cultures being Westernized” casts Western culture as the aggressor, whereas the model of “every culture is being universalized” finds Western culture to be as much a victim as anywhere else. Coca-Cola might have replaced traditional yak’s milk in Mongolia, but it also replaced traditional apple cider in America. A Hopi Indian saddened that her children no longer know the old ritual dances differs little from a Southern Baptist incensed that her kids no longer go to church. Universal values have triumphed over both."

29 July 2016

Update from the UK government about the Worst Aid project in the world

So I emailed my MP Meg Hillier about this EU aid project for detention camps in Sudan, who kindly wrote to the Foreign Office Minister for Africa, and sent me his reply.

My response:

Dear Meg, 

Thank you for raising this issue with James Duddridge. Unfortunately his reply does not reassure me at all. 

The "Better Migration Management" project description notes that "2 reception centres in Gadaref and Kassala, with custody rooms" could "in principle be funded" , and that one of the main risks of the project are that "Provision of equipment and trainings to sensitive national authorities (such as security services or border management) [could be] diverted for repressive aims; [leading to] criticism by NGOs and civil society for engaging with repressive governments on migration (particularly in Eritrea and Sudan)."

Clearly Mr. Duddridge's response, that training will be provided by Western NGOs, and money will not be given directly to the Government of Sudan, does not alleviate this risk of repression. What steps is the government taking to ensure that no irregular migrants will be subjected to repression by the repressive government of Sudan with the use of equipment financed by UK taxpayers? 



20 July 2016

Answering THE big question in global education: Why is Vietnam such an outlier?

This post first appeared on the RISE website

Why do Vietnam school children score over 100 points better on comparable tests than the average for low-income countries?

Vietnam is basically the only low-income country in any of the internationally comparable tests that performs at the same level as rich countries. Vietnam is a massive outlier, performing substantially better than should be expected for a country at that level of income. Rich OECD countries such as the UK and US flock to see the top performing places in the world on the PISA test to try and understand what is so special about education systems in Shanghai and Finland that enables them to perform 100 points better than the OECD average. Vietnam scores over 100 points better than the average for low-income countries.

And this isn’t just on one test – other research by Abhijeet Singh has linked the Oxford Young Lives survey with the international TIMSS test, and again Vietnam massively outperforms the other low-income countries (see chart). Singh’s study shows that the advantage starts early, with Vietnamese children slightly outperforming those in other developing countries before they even start school at age 5, but this gap then grows each year. A year of primary school in Vietnam is considerably more ‘productive’ in terms of skill acquisition than a year of schooling in Peru or India, the paper finds. The question this research raises – and the Vietnam experience suggests - is: “Why is learning-productivity-per-year so much greater in some countries than others?” Or to put it more simply, why are schools so much better in some countries?

new paper by World Bank researchers Suhas D. Parandekar and Elisabeth K. Sedmik shows just how difficult the “Vietnam effect” is to unscramble. With a statistical decomposition using available measured factors, the research suggests that a combination of targeted investments and “cultural factors” explain roughly half of the huge ~100 point gap between Vietnam and the other low-income countries on the PISA test.

The main factors are:


  1. Higher level of access to pre-school.
  2. Investment in school infrastructure, especially in cities and small towns.

And Cultural factors

  1. Students work harder – skip fewer classes, spend the same or more time in school, plus substantial extra time studying after school. Students are more disciplined and focused on their studies.
  2. Teachers appear to benefit from closer supervision of their work by the school principal and others.
  3. Parents may have an important role to play, by taking an active part in combining high expectations of their children, following up with their children’s teachers and contributing at school.

All this only gets us part of the way toward explaining the Vietnam phenomenon. The other half of the answer remains a Vietnam enigma, which we’re hoping the RISE Vietnam research team can help to unravel, ultimately possibly even providing some useful lessons for other low-income countries.

* The chart here shows the average proportion answering a TIMSS question correctly, averaged across 6 questions focused on the number content domain, taken from the 2003 TIMSS assessment

21 June 2016

Grit: Probably not that important in developing countries

“Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance has been launched with great fanfare, reaching number two on the NY Times Nonfiction bestseller list. She recently gave a very polished and smooth book launch talk to a packed audience at the World Bank, and is working with World Bank colleagues on improving grit in classrooms in Macedonia.”
That’s David McKenzie in a great book review, considering what development economists can learn from this hot psychology research trend. Grit – the ability to keep going when things get tough and you aren’t successful straight away – can help explain all sorts of individual outcomes beyond tests of skill or ability. David notes amongst other things how U.S. - centric the research on grit is, and questions how large the effect of grit is even in this context.

So what do we know about the importance of grit in developing countries?

Fortunately, a separate team at the World Bank has recently been rolling out a series of surveys measuring psychological traits including grit alongside measures of skills, income, and other demographics. Data is currently available for 10 countries; Armenia, Bolivia, Colombia, Georgia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Yunnan Province (China).

Here’s what I found from some very quick analysis.

Grit and income

I started by looking at the relationship between adults’ grit and their earnings. For seven countries there is no relationship. For the three where some relationship exists, grit explains very little of the variation between the income of individuals. (That is, in the table below, the r2 statistic is less than 0.005.)  Adding in a few basic control variables (age, parents’ education and socio-economic status) makes even that weak correlation disappear altogether.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 18.23.35.png

Grit and schooling

Moving next to years of schooling, something more substantial emerges. Grit has a statistically significant relationship with schooling in every country, and throwing in a bunch of control variables doesn’t seem to make it go away. I’m not sure what to make of the magnitude though - less than half a year of extra schooling for a 1-standard-deviation increase in grit. Maybe that’s a lot, maybe it isn't. I suppose the policy-relevant question is how responsive grit might be to interventions.

Grit and learning outcomes

Finally, looking at the correlation with answers on a reading comprehension test. Grit scores pretty poorly here too; one positive correlation, one negative, and eight statistically insignificant. Other control variables by comparison do have the kind of statistically significant relationships you might expect - people tend to score better with more schooling and if they grew up in wealthier families.

I’ll spare you some of the snarkier comments from the office, needless to say that unsurprisingly to some, from a quick look the data does not seem to suggest that grit is all that important in explaining important outcomes in developing countries. Unsurprising, because all the grit and resilience and perseverance in the world is unlikely to help a child succeed at school if they haven’t eaten that day and their teacher hasn’t turned up due to a dysfunctional school system. Similarly in the labour market, individual motivation and grit by itself isn’t going to create any well paying jobs in places where the demand for labour is low because of systemic factors such as bad infrastructure and bad governance.

I will offer one caveat – this measure of grit is based on only three questions rather than Duckworth’s preferred ten, so it is possible that a better measure of grit would matter more. But I doubt it.

And finally – this is not meant as a counsel of despair. For individuals living in low-income countries, of course they should try and persevere as hard as they can to try and achieve their goals. But when it comes to making policy – we should focus on the systemic constraints that are critical to shaping people’s opportunities, rather than just telling them to try harder. Bad schools, infrastructure, and governance, are all fixable public policy problems.

17 May 2016

Markets not in everything [if you’re Pakistani]

From a Facebook friend:

So, it turns out that Pakistanis are not eligible to purchase travel insurance online with any insurance company. We are simply not on anyone's list of "eligible countries''. Someone has decided that in addition to not being allowed to enter most of the world, we also do not deserve access to basic financial services. Pakistanis wanting to travel can just f@‪#‎k‬ themselves.

Struggling for the right words… contender for absolute worst ‘aid’ project in the world

Der Spiegel reports… the EU is planning to provide training, equipment, and DETENTION CAMPS to the government of Sudan, which is led by a wanted war criminal, in order that they can prevent human beings from crossing the border out of Sudan in the direction of Europe. The project is to be coordinated by the German development agency GIZ. Wow I feel sorry for the idealists at GIZ who signed up in order to help people, and now they’re building detention facilities for war criminals.

"The ambassadors of the 28 European Union member states had agreed to secrecy. "Under no circumstances" should the public learn what was said at the talks that took place on March 23rd … Europe wants to send cameras, scanners and servers for registering refugees to the Sudanese regime in addition to training their border police and assisting with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants."

Let’s recap that arrest warrant for the wanted, at large, alleged war criminal who is the President of Sudan, the man we are apparently hoping to pay to do our dirty work:

"Charged, as an indirect (co) perpetrator, with ten counts of crimes: five counts of crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape: two counts of war crimes: intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities, and pillaging; three counts of genocide: by killing, by causing serious bodily or mental harm, and by deliberately inflicting on each target group conditions of life calculated to bring about the groups’s physical destruction, allegedly committed at least between 2003 and 2008 in Darfur, Sudan.” (my emphasis)

I mean, certainly you can criticise things like sanctions and aid conditionality, but is there any point at which we might consider it to be a bad idea to do business with this government? Is there any moral threshold here? Does Sudan need to get to be charged with 4 counts of genocide before we stop giving them stuff? Is only 5 counts of crimes against humanity not quite enough??

Note that the arrest warrant refers only to Darfur, ignoring all the other confirmed bombings of civilian and humanitarian targets by military forces in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, ignoring deliberately destroying crops during a famine, and ignoring the reports of slavery and child soldiers in Northern/Central Sudan.

I despair.

ht: John Ashworth

12 May 2016

Content knowledge vs pedagogy in Teaching

A fascinating abstract from Roland Fryer. In many school systems you have a single teacher for most subjects in primary school, but increasingly specialised different teachers for each subject in secondary school. This RCT tried out having subject specialist teachers in primary, finding that this worsened outcomes, in theory because at least at primary level it is more important that the teacher knows the kids’ and their ability and is therefore better able to target their teaching, than that they have more specialised knowledge of the subject matter.

Starting in the 2013-2014 school year, I conducted a randomized field experiment in fifty traditional public elementary schools in Houston, Texas designed to test the potential productivity benefits of teacher specialization in schools. Treatment schools altered their schedules to have teachers specialize in a subset of subjects in which they have demonstrated relative strength (based on value-add measures and principal observations). The average impact of teacher specialization on student achievement is -0.042 standard deviations in math and -0.034 standard deviations in reading, per year. Students enrolled in special education and those with younger teachers demonstrated marked negative results. I argue that the results are consistent with a model in which the benefits of specialization driven by sorting teachers into a subset of subjects based on comparative advantage is outweighed by inefficient pedagogy due to having fewer interactions with each student. Consistent with this, specialized teachers report providing less attention to individual students (relative to non-specialized teachers), though other mechanisms are possible.

The 'Pupil' Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools, Roland G. Fryer, Jr

05 May 2016

Does “the Economist” know what a “market failure” is?

Apparently not. "Do British housing markets suffer from market failure”? The answer is no.

Here’s a quick refresher - a market failure is when the market - left alone - doesn’t produce an efficient or pareto optimal solution. Good examples are externalities such as pollution or congestion, or public goods such as new vaccines. The London housing market is not a good example of a market failure, where poor outcomes are the result of clumsy government regulation restricting supply. The fact that the market is responding to insane restrictions on new supply by focusing what little building they are allowed to do on expensive rather than affordable houses is not a market failure. Yes it is a market, and yes it is producing poor outcomes, but it is failing because of over-regulation. That is a government failure not a failure of the market mechanism.

It’s one thing when ordinary people use economic jargon in a colloquial sense with a totally different meaning to the economic term, but you expect better from a magazine called the Economist.

02 May 2016

A rare non-ideological argument against for-profit schools

To [Samuel] Abrams, the problem with for-profit operation of schools is not that businessmen are making money off the provision of a public service such as education. Textbook publishers, software developers, and bus operators all make money from schools and should, he said, but they are all providing a discrete good or service that can be easily evaluated. “School management, on the other hand, is a complex service that does not afford the transparency necessary for proper contract enforcement,” he said. “Without such transparency, there’s client distrust: parents, taxpayers, and legislators can never be sure the provider is doing what was promised; and the child as the immediate consumer cannot be in a position to judge the quality of service. Regular testing has been promoted as a check on quality. But teachers can teach to the test. And worse, as we know from cheating scandals in Atlanta and many other cities, teachers can change wrong answers to right answers on bubble sheets once students are done.”

From the International Education News blog at Teacher’s College, Columbia.

The trouble with the argument is that it rests on the empirical question of whether student test-based accountability systems for schools can work, and though the question is not conclusively settled, my reading is that the evidence seems to be leaning in the direction of roughly “yes".

28 April 2016

Top 10 Must-Read Articles on Education & Development

What should you read first if you’re a new policy advisor in a Ministry of Education? Here is my response to a couple of recent emails along these lines on the CGD blog.

06 April 2016

Does it help to be African to study Africa?

For sure there is tacit local knowledge, but how you define “local” matters. Ken Opalo writes:

"As a social scientist, my knowledge of Kenya is largely informed by my experience as a Nairobian. Over the years I have had to learn a lot about the rest of Kenya, in much the same way an Australian would. In doing so I incurred a lower cost than a hypothetical Australian would, for sure, but the cost was not zero. And who is to say that I would necessarily be able to articulate a research agenda on whatever subject in Malawi better than a Southern Californian? What proportion of Kenyans can locate Bangui on a map?"

30 March 2016

The right to education is a right to learning

Kishore Singh, the "UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education” is totally freaking out that apparently the government of Liberia is planning to outsource all of its primary schooling to Bridge International Academies.

“education is an essential public service and instead of supporting business in education, governments should increase the money they spend on public educational services to make them better.”

Kishore is of course commiting Mike Munger’s unicorn fallacy. The public primary school system in Liberia was frankly pretty rubbish, even before the Ebola crisis hit, and there is no evidence that just spending more money is likely to improve things.

RTI did a baseline for their early grade reading intervention project in 2008. They found that children in Grade 3 in Liberia could read 28 words per minute. To put this in perspective, in the US children are considered to be at risk if they can read fewer than 70 words per minute at the end of Grade 2. Clearly there is nothing inherently wrong with Liberian children, the schools just aren’t working (I should also be clear that I’m not beating on Liberian teachers either, it is the system that is not functioning - don’t hate the player, hate the game). The children attending free public primary schools in Liberia might be exercising a right to schooling, but they certainly aren’t exercising a right to learning or any meaningful definition of the word education.

It should be in this context that we note that AllAfrica reports that "The deal will see the Government of Liberia paying over $65 million over a five-year period.” That is $13 million per year then, to cover a full population aged 5-14 of 920,000, or roughly $14 per student per year. That’s an absolute bargain. That’s an absolute bargain, even if Bridge are only actually covering a small fraction of that full population (Normally Liberia spends around 2.5% of GDP on education, which is around $47.5 million).

Clearly the jury is still officially out on whether independent estimates will show better learning outcomes from Bridge schools, but there is a hell of a lot of research which backs up elements of their theory of change, from how teacher qualifications and experience matter so much less than the type of contract a teacher is on, to the importance of feedback for teachers on student learning.

Meanwhile over at Kishore Singh’s website, he highlights 8 key priorities, none of which include the global learning crisis, in which there are 250 million children without basic skills, the majority of whom have already sat through 4 years of school. I’m frankly baffled by the inordinate amount of hostility shown by campaigners to social entrepreneurs who are still educating absolutely tiny proportions of the global poor, and how little attention is paid to the totally failing free public systems of schooling that millions of children are enduring.

26 February 2016

Tom Kane on Education RCTs

"If our goal is to change behaviour and drive policies towards more effective solutions, what we have done so far is a complete failure. People who are running the What Works Clearing House don’t even have a theory [of how evidence would affect policy], or to the extent that they have a theory, its been proven wrong. … We’re just deluding ourselves if we think the 5 year, $15 million studies are having any impact whatsoever."

That’s Tom Kane (somewhat echoing Lant) on the Education Next podcast. His preferred alternative to the RCT+systematic review approach though has nothing to do with crawling on any design spaces. Rather it’s doing much more quick turn-around quasi-experimental research using the multitudes of outcomes data now being collected in the US for teacher and school accountability purposes. All that’s apparently really missing is data on the actual inputs - there is amazingly rich longitudinal data on student test scores, but no record which could be matched of what textbooks are being used in different schools, or what training courses different teachers are going on. Sounds pretty sensible to me.

What’s the single biggest growth opportunity that no-one really tried?

Paul Collier and Astrid Haas just wrote an IGC blogpost “Why Kampala holds the single biggest growth opportunity for Uganda.” Single biggest? Well indeed, the first rule of blogging is HYPERBOLE, but then the first rule of reading blogs should be a heavy dose of scepticism. Second, I’m reminded of Michael Clemens’ presentation on The Biggest Idea in Development That No One Really Tried. Might migration (the kind that Paul apparently thinks is harmful for poor countries) hold a bigger growth opportunity for Uganda than better urban planning in Kampala?

At present, around 1% of Ugandans live and work overseas (roughly 400,000 of a population of 37.6 million). This 1% of the population send home 4% of Uganda’s GDP in remittances. According to a Gallup poll, around 35% of Ugandans would permanently move to another country if they were allowed to. If they all could, and sent back as much as current Ugandans abroad do, that would be a one-off 140% increase in Uganda’s economy. Or if Uganda had the same level of emigration as the UK does (8%, 5.2 million of a population of 64.1 million Brits live and work overseas), that would be a 28% increase in Uganda’s economy. And that’s totally ignoring the increase in income for the actual migrants themselves. Median income in Uganda is $2.5 per day (in PPP), so even a job on UK (“relative-") poverty pay levels of around $23 per day would be a NINE-FOLD increase for them. Needless to say, the main reason that more Ugandans don’t work in high-wage economies, is that the governments of high-wage countries impose restrictions on the entry of people, particularly those from poorer countries.

Brain drain I hear you say? Michael Clemens killed that one too (ethically it is pretty unreasonable to restrict individual's freedom to such an extreme extent, even if there were any real evidence that emigration of highly-skilled people hurt an economy, which there isn't anyway).

So yes, clearly planning Kampala’s urban development is important for growth. But does it really have more “potential” than something that could double the country’s economy overnight?

26 January 2016

The reductive seduction of OPP (Other people’s problems)

Courtney Martin has an interesting post at the Development Set about the “reductive seduction” of other people’s problems. Problems we know something about (gun control in America as her example for the Americans) seem complex, political, and intractable, whereas problems we know less about (rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia in Uganda) seem more straightforward.

Which reminds me a little of the difference between statements from leaders on education in their own country and in other people’s countries.

Here’s Julia Gillard on education in Australia:

"We need a commitment to transparency and accountability. It's my strong view that lack of transparency both hides failure and helps us ignore it. It feeds a culture where all the adults involved – the teachers, the principals, the community leaders and the members of parliament – avoid accountability. And lack of transparency prevents us from identifying where greater effort and investment are needed. Importantly, transparency and accountability are overwhelmingly supported by parents."

And Julia Gillard on education in developing countries:

"More money.

Constantly improving ways of working.

An even greater embrace of the power of partnership."

Gordon Brown on education in the UK

"we will focus on classroom standards, ensure that we monitor exam standards rigorously, reform the qualifications system … World class education, we know, achieves high standards for 100% of the children when there are systems of accountability, funding and pupil tracking that leave no child behind and personalised learning is tailored to the unique potential of every child with one-to-one tutoring and support. That world class education depends on a systematic intolerance of failure and a preparedness of public authorities to intervene and to innovate to eradicate failure"

And Gordon Brown on education in developing countries

"The biggest obstacle to what would be a spectacular achievement – as is so often the case – is a shortage of money."

Applying behavioural insights to impair life chances

David Halpern, Chief Exec at the Behavioural Insights Team (aka “Nudge Unit”) has a new blog up about how behavioural science can be used to improve people’s life chances.

"Why is it that a Kenyan market seller spends half her profit on money lenders rather than saving a tiny sum each day to escape such debt? Or why does a low income family in the UK or USA spend twice as much on a stove (cooker), bought on expensive hire purchase, than a middle class family?"

The thing is, as we know from Branko Milanovic, the country that you are born in matters more for your life chances than everything else combined. "A proper analysis of global inequality today requires an empirical and mental shift from concerns with class to concerns with location,"

So what does the BIT have to say about the movement of people? As Matt points out, the Home Office is currently paying the BIT to find ways to convince illegal migrants to voluntarily leave the UK. That is, to support the Home Office in its agenda of shutting down the single best way that exists of improving someone’s life chances. Perhaps someone could instead work on a clever “nudge” to make people less scared of foreigners?

21 January 2016

The Political Economy of Education in Uganda

This post was first published on the CGD Views from the Center Blog

Uganda goes to the polls in 30 days to elect its next president, but there is little sign so far in the public debate on education of the need to shift focus from inputs and enrolment to actual learning outcomes.

I was in Kampala last week piloting a survey on school management (more on that later), and spotted in the Daily Monitor feature on the candidate’s campaign promises on education, reading as follows:

Yoweri Museveni

  • One primary school per parish (to reduce average walking distances)
  • Continue to increase the budget allocation for text books

Kizza Besigye

  • Introduce compulsory universal primary education
  • Increase remuneration for primary school teachers

Amama Mbabazi

  • Recruit and train new teachers with the aim of reducing the teacher-student ratio
  • Build more schools and classrooms

That’s zero mention of actual student learning outcomes from any of the leading candidates, and a complete focus on spending more money and providing more of the inputs that have been showntime and again to bear little relationship with improved learning outcomes.

NYU Professor David Stasavage published a paper in 2005 exploring how the introduction of elections in Uganda in 1996 helped lead to the removal of school fees in 1997. He also published a follow-up in 2013 noting how elections focus politicians on those things that are easily visible to voters. Fees for tuition at public schools are very visible to voters, and so one of the first things democratic politicians address. School quality is much less visible to the average voter, leading to much less focus on teaching and learning by politicians.

All of this suggests that one way to improve student learning is to get citizens and politicians more focused on learning by better measurement and spreading of the insight that despite high enrolment, student skills are very poor. This is a key part of the theory of change behind the global ASER/Uwezo/PAL-Network movement of citizen-led student reading assessments. What sadly seems clear from Uganda is that this message has not yet got through. We’ve known since Uwezo’s 2010 assessment that children in Uganda are way behind where there should be (only 2 percent of grade 3 children could read and understand a grade 2 story).

My tip for anyone with the opportunity to grill the candidates on education policy would be to borrow Paul Atherton’s mantra:   “But can the kids read?”

20 January 2016

Are good teachers ‘born’ or ‘made’?

There’s a strong argument for “made” from Elizabeth Green.

"Russ: But there is a view out there, and you talk about it at some length in the book, that some people believe great teachers are just born and not made. And that there is a certain 'it' quality that teachers have that make them more effective in the classroom in all kinds of dimensions. What do you think of that argument, and why is it an important argument in the debate? 

 I think that that argument is embedded in the way we talk about education policy, teacher policy. We say, there are good teachers and then there are bad teachers, and then what we need to do is either find more of the good teachers, people who are destined to become good, by doing a better job of recruiting good teachers. Or, we need to incentivize good teachers to stay, or we need to create better, easier, more effective ways to remove bad teachers from the classroom. And I think that what that construct is built on is, as you say, this assumption that teaching quality is something that's natural born in people--that it's about personality traits or character traits. But in fact every research study that's tried to connect character traits and personality traits to who becomes an effective teacher fails to find that any of them make any difference. So, an extrovert or an introvert doesn't matter for how effective you'll be in the classroom. So, I think that what instead is more convincing to me for what matters is what teachers do, and what they know. And that's very different from a natural born trait, something that you need to learn. 

 So, we're going to talk about Doug Lemov, who was a guest here on EconTalk. He plays a large role in your book. But one of the things he emphasizes, of course, is practice. So, one view says the reason we don't have better teachers is they don't practice. What do you think of that argument? 

 Yeah. So, Doug is obviously, for people who listen to your show, they know that he's a former teacher who became the leader of a group of schools called the Uncommon Schools network. And he encountered the same realization, that what he called the 'Build it, Buy it' problem. So, at first, early on, he tried to improve the quality of teaching in schools by buying teachers who are already good. But over time that became unsustainable, and he realized he had to help build good teachers from all of--any person that he could recruit. So, he couldn't just recruit his way to excellence; he had to build it"