Ideas to Action:

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Views from the Center


What should you read first if you’re a new policy advisor in a Ministry of Education? I’ve had two emails with this question in the last week alone. So, here is a quick (RISE-heavy) Top Ten.

  1. To start with, I genuinely think Lant Pritchett’s book The Rebirth of Education is a great overview (I work with RISE because I read that book first and not vice-versa). Controversial, thought-provoking, big picture explanations for a multitude of research findings, with a radically different perspective from the mainstream education world-view, including fascinating political economy questions. Not a single article, but well worth it, covering a lot of ground, most of it available for free on his website.
  2. When I started working as an education policy consultant, the first book recommendation I received was Making Schools Work: New Evidence on Accountability Reforms (available in full free online) by Bruns, Filmer, and Patrinos. 
  3. Also by Barbara Bruns (and Javier Luque), Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning offers a good overview of teacher policy (where 80-90% of education budgets get spent). Theory and Evidence on Teacher Policies in Developed and Developing Countries by Emiliana Vegas and Alejandro Ganimian also covers this topic well.
  4. The meta-systematic review from Dave Evans and Anna Popova sums up six different systematic reviews of interventions to improve learning in developing countries. If you’re keen on these, check out the recent series of “Rigorous Literature Reviews” on specific policy areas from the UK’s Department For International Development (DFID). Be warned, though: Evans and Popova conclude their review by calling for fewer straightjacketed, over-structured systematic reviews, and more considered, thoughtful narrative reviews. Which is exactly what’s up next;
  5. The RISE working paper Improving School Education Outcomes in Developing Countries by Paul Glewwe and Karthik Muralidharan is slated to be published as a chapter in the forthcoming “Handbook of the Economics of Education” (another good source for overview survey papers). Their bottom line: the interventions that work are those that are focused either on changing pedagogy, or improving management. 
  6. Another important critique of the RCT + systematic review approach is Scaling Up What Works: Experimental Evidence on External Validity in Kenyan Education by Bold, Kimenyi, Mwabu, Ng'ang'a, and Justin Sandefur. They provide experimental evidence that external validity is a critical concern, even within the same country. Most studies of education interventions lack a theoretical or conceptual framework for predicting why and when effects might differ. This is where Lant’s latest RISE working paper comes in.
  7. Lant Pritchett’s Creating Education Systems Coherent for Learning Outcomes provides a conceptual framework, based on an elaborated accountability framework, which can in principle help us move towards an understanding of what are – and are not - binding constraints, and therefore when certain policies will - or won’t - likely work.
  8. Taking a further step back and providing some more technical theory, in On the Specification and Estimation of the Production Function for Cognitive Achievement (ungated version here) Petra Todd and Kenneth Wolpin provide an important grounding for the “education/learning production function" approach. 
  9. Circling back to teachers, a large and quite controversial literature, mostly from the United States, uses learning production functions to estimate the quality of individual teachers. Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin provide a useful overview of the technical issues (measures are unbiased but quite noisy) and some of the policy implications (variation between teachers is large, and better selection of teachers would have big payoffs in terms of both educational and economic outcomes for students) in The Distribution of Teacher Quality and Implications for Policy.
  10. Finally – there is a relatively small set of papers providing a rich narrative description of some specific education systems. Two good examples are the Peru country study by Luis Crouch and the LEAPS report from Pakistan by Andrabi, Das, Khwaja, Vishwanath, Zajonc and the LEAPS Team.

Hopefully this list will look a little different in five years when the RISE country research teams wrap up their work. We’re hoping the teams will produce a little bit of each of the different kinds of studies in this list – lots of new survey data, informed by theory, along with rich description of how systems actually operate, and all expressed in a coherent set of concepts and language. Watch this space.

This is one of a series of blog posts from “RISE"–the large-scale education systems research programme supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Experts from the Center for Global Development lead RISE’s research team.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.