Poor Economics, by Banerjee and Duflo, Reflections and Key Lessons

The question of governmental intervention in the educational systems of the developing world?  In the case of education in the global south, the market functions do not create the conditions for all children to have a basic chance at progress, this is the stark fact. Pure market conditions, instances in which those who are rich will continue to have opportunity in countries where governments cannot provide for public goods, will continue to doom the disadvantaged to poorly educated lives, without the simple human right of personal enrichment and progress through the freedom to improve. 

“…leaving it purely to the market will not allow every child, wherever she comes from, to be educated according to her ability.” (81)

…according to UNICEF, between 1999 and 2006, enrollment rates in primary school in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 54% to 70%. In East and South Asia, they increased from 75% to 88% over the same period…even among the extremely poor, enrollment rates are now above 80% in at least half the countries for which we have data.” (75)

Again, we need to look at these figures through a critical lens. Numbers do not directly translate, as I have stated time and time again when looking into matters of teacher quality and school enrollment in the Global South, to actual learning. And a bad school environment, which is, in fact, the default setting in most of the development world, is often worse than no school at all, when we look at the opportunity cost for the student and the student’s family in using scarce resources to send them to school.

Getting children into school is a very important first step: that’s where the learning starts. But it isn’t very useful if they learn little or nothing once they’re there. Somewhat bizarrely, the issue of learning is not very predominantly mentioned in international declarations: the MDG’s do not specify that children should learn anything in school, just that they should complete a basic cycle of education.” (75)

“Overall, 50% of teachers in Indian public schools are not in front of a class at a time they should be. How are the children supposed to learn?” (75)

In the rich world, education is mandated by the state, and is a provision of public good. “But this clearly does not work where state capacity is more limited and compulsory education cannot be enforced. In such cases, the government must make it financially worthwhile for parents to send their children to school. This is the idea behind the new tool of choice in education policy: The Conditional Cash Transfer.” (79)

Income matters highly in education decisions by households. Spending increases faster than a household’s total consumption, showing that education is an investment unlike others.

“If parental income plays such a vital role in determining educational investment, rich children will get more education even if they are not particularly talented, and talented poor children may be deprived of an education. So, leaving it purely to the market will not allow every child, wherever she comes from, to be educated according to her ability.” (81)

Evidence and trials have shown that, worldwide,  “…despite the poor quality of education, schools are still useful.” Every year of primary school enrollment does lead to an overall increase in wages.

Parents will focus their resources on one child (a lottery approach) when these resources are limited; however, “Education is valuable at every level,” and parent, thus, create an education-based poverty trap; in addition, teachers will have low expectations for lower-class children, and will often not even try to educate them, behavior that actually also creates a poverty trap. Children will also do this to themselves in assessing their own abilities, and can negatively reinforce their own futures.  (89)

Pratham, of India, has worked in remedial education programs by training teachers to work with their materials, and by training volunteers to work as Teacher Assistants in these classes; this has led to very positive results.

…most school systems are both unfair and wasteful. The children of the rich go to schools that not only teach more and teach better, but where they are treated with compassion and helped to reach their true potential. The poor end up in schools that make it very clear quite early that they are not wanted unless they show some exceptional gifts, and they are in effect expected to suffer in silence until they drop out. This creates a huge waste of talent.” (95)

“A combination of unrealistic goals, unnecessarily pessimistic expectations, and the wrong incentives for teachers contributes to ensure that education systems in developing countries fail their two basic tasks: giving everyone a sound basic set of skills, and identifying talent.” (96)

“…all the evidence we have strongly suggests that making sure that every child learns the basics well in school is not only possible, it is in fact fairly easy, as long as one focuses on doing exactly that, and nothing else.”

The focus needs to be on basic skills, and on the idea that. “every child can master them, as long as she and her teacher expend enough effort on it.” Children need to be given the chance to catch up, quite simply put.

It takes relatively little training to be an effective remedial teacher, at least in the lower grades…” While comforting, this also implies that many primary school teachers in the developing world simply do not exert the energy in their jobs that is so sorely needed. This could be a harder problem to fix than the problem of basic teacher training; the problem of basic teacher motivation. Curriculums need to be improved so they are not daunting to teachers with only basic skills; this is a strong factor that turns many off to even attempting to work hard. These curriculum also need to allow children to learn at their own pace, so they are not left behind. “…and in particular to make sure the children who are lagging behind can focus on the basics. Tracking children is a way to do that.” Students should be assigned to classes based on ability, not on age; but in this, lower-level students and their teachers will need added incentives. (98)