Poor Education

I’ve been reading Poor Economics, from Abhisit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  The book that has been raking up awards and recommendations in 2011 (The Economist, Financial Times & Goldman Sachs, The Guardian, De Tijd).  It’s an engrossing read that contains loads of interesting information making you want to read it again as soon as you put it down, for fear of losing all the interesting insights the book contains.

The authors, affiliated to MIT and its impact evaluation spin-off J-PAL, take an evidence-based approach to poverty reduction, providing an overview of recent research in various domains of development economics (health, demography, finance, food, entrepreneurship…).  There’s a separate chapter on education.

The book highlights the frequent disagreement with “supply wallahs”, experts who focus on supplying goods and services to combat poverty, versus “demand wallahs”, who favour creating demands for goods and services by the poor themselves and creating free-market conditions.  These two viewpoints are highlighted for different topics of the book.  In education, for example, the supply wallahs focus on providing financial support to build schools, pay teachers and provide conditional cash transfers to parents to send their children to school.  Conversely demand wallahs see more benefit in increasing the (perceived) benefit for parents of sending their children to school by providing relevant skills, informing parents or increasing job opportunities.  When the benefits of education become high enough, enrolment will rise without the state having to push it.  People will send their children to cut-throat private schools (like in Cambodia), or if that is too expensive, they will demand that local governments set up schools.

The authors refer to the 3 I’s as the enemy of an evidence-based approach.  Many policies are driven by ideology, often clash with ignorance of ground-level realities and inertia at the level of the implementer.  Instead of starting from a grand vision to poverty reduction, they focus on evidence collected from (but not exclusively) randomized-trials in developing countries.  This evidence forms pieces of a puzzle that can inform us in designing sensitive development policies and creating incremental improvement in poor people’s lives.

“it is possible to make very significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps, each well thought out, carefully tested, and judiciously implemented…The political constraints are real, and they make it difficult to find big solutions to big problems. But there is considerable slack to improve institutions and policy at the margin…These changes will be incremental, but they will sustain and build on themselves. They can be the start of a quiet revolution”.

Often interventions are based on the intuition and experience of local aid workers, accepted wisdom and (cherry-picked) academic research.  A monitoring & evaluation programme is set in place, but is often more geared towards satisfying donors’ reporting needs than towards creating sound evidence for making informed changes to the project design.

Could we use randomized trials in our education programme in Cambodia?  Our main objective is to reduce the number of drop-outs from primary and lower secondary schools.  For example, we could try out various strategies and measure the effect on the drop-out rate in similar school clusters in the country:

  • School cluster 1: We provide cash to parents who keep their children at school
  • School cluster 2: We train teachers in using student-centred pedagogies to make lessons more relevant and interactive.
  • School cluster 3: We provide schools with ICT and multimedia
  • School cluster 4: We give teachers a topping-up to their salaries if a certain percentage of students pass their exams at the end of the year and enrol for the next one.
  • School cluster 5: We focus on outreach activities to parents and mass organisations to make them aware of the benefits of education.
  • School cluster 6: This is our control group, where no measures are taken.
Cambodian teacher trainers measuring

the Sun’s apparent movement

This kind of programme design would allow us to compare various measures to address high drop-out rates.  After a few years we could compare results in an objective way and scale up the most successful solution.  Or not?

When I think about the potential for applying similar rigorous testing in the education programme in Cambodia I see some obstacles:

  1. The field of development partners is very crowded in ‘donor darling’ Cambodia. This makes it difficult to create a level playing field in which measures can be compared with each other and with the status quo.
  2. Interventions in education aim at mid and long term effects. Some strategies such as focusing on teachers’ or teacher trainers’ teaching skills might take year to resort effects. Other policies, like building more schools may create immediate effects, making strategies hard to compare within the limited lifetime of most development programmes.
  3. Response and culture bias are important challenges in Cambodia, characterised by high power distance and the importance of avoid ‘losing face’. Honest evaluations of a programme are hard to achieve and require trust and strong facilitating skills. Often people say, write or do what they think you want to hear or what they think would yield them most benefit, ready to switch back to old habits as soon as the intervention stops.
  4. Even if an randomized trial that takes into account long-term effects, culture and response bias and the crowded development field would point out that conditional cash transfer is more effective than improving teachers’ pedagogical skills, would that then imply that we – as VVOB – would better switch our attention to conditional cash transfer programmes? Various strategies can be complementary. Results from randomized trials illustrate a measurable correlation at a given time and place in a particular culture, but do not necessarily proof causation. In other words, they don’t always have much predictive value in other contexts.

I find Poor Economics an invitation to look more closely at development interventions and try to avoid the lazy thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of principles.  Details matter.  The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us – lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination.  We need to force ourselves to understand the logic of people’s choices, tailor interventions and be prepared to learn.

Some interesting (development economics) concepts from the book with relevance for education

Time inconsistency

 “In the present we are impulsive, governed in large part by emotions and immediate desire: Small losses of time or petty discomforts that have to be endured right now feel much more unpleasant in the moment than when we think about them without a sense of immediacy.  The reverse, of course, goes for small rewards that we really crave in the present; when we plan for the future, the pleasure for these treats seems less important.” (p. 65)


The use of incentives to give people a reason to act today, instead of convincing them first that the action is the ‘right thing to do’.  The key challenge is to design nudges tailored to the environment of developing countries.

Elite bias among teachers and parents

Teachers tend to pay only attention to their best students.  They ignore children who have fallen behind and focus on preparing the best students on the final exam.  Education systems in developing countries fail generally in their two basic tasks: providing children with a sound basic set of skills and identifying talent.  As a consequence, many parents stop taking interest in their children’s education. This behaviour creates a poverty trap even where none exists in the first place.  Many parents believe the returns to education are low at low levels and only high at higher levels, and that it is unlikely they will ever get to the higher levels, they may not want to make the effort to invest in the lower levels or hedge all their bets on one child. Parents seem to see education primarily as a way for their children to acquire wealth.  They see education as a lottery ticket, not as a safe investment.  Research indicates that each year of education has a similar value.  The combination of lack of information and incorrect expectations create an illusory poverty trap.

On Technology in education

“The current view of the use of technology in teaching in the education community is, however, not particularly positive. But this is based mainly on experience from rich countries, where the alternative to being taught by a computer is, to a large extent, being taught by a well-trained and motivated teacher.  This is not always the case in poor countries.  And the evidence from the developing world, though sparse, is quite positive.” (p. 100) 

This highlights what is particularly good about the computer as a learning tool: each child is able to set his or her own pace through the program.

On the poor as so-called natural entrepreneurs

Enterprises of the poor often seem more a way to buy a job when a more conventional employment opportunity is not available than a reflection of a particular entrepreneurial urge.  The emphasis on government jobs suggests a desire for stability, which brings a transformational effect: access to loans, higher value assigned to education, ‘mental space’ by reduced uncertainty.

PS The Economist has run a discussion on Poor Economics on its “Free Exchange” blog.

One comment on “Poor Education

  1. […] having a good teacher does matter more for them than for well-off kids.  Banerjee and Duflo have suggested that unlike disappointing results in developed countries ICT may have stronger benefits in […]

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