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Views from the Center


What do parents and students care about? Ask them! Watkins & Ashforth synthesize insights from 83 interviews of parents, teachers, and district education managers in Malawi. The stories that the interviewees tell signal a rich array of areas for deeper research. Here are a few that stood out:

  • Why do students drop out? “The main reason given for students dropping out was persistent repetition of classes: a student may have to repeat a class three or four times. This is costly for parents and embarrassing to overage students in classes with much younger children.”
  • Do parents value quality education? “We found no evidence of a demand for a higher quality of schooling other than pass/fail – e.g., that learning to read and to add and subtract well might be valuable skills, regardless of success in exams.”
  • What are teacher working conditions like? “To make things worse, their salaries are often late (as are the salaries in urban areas).”
  • How are teachers doing? “Parents complain, mostly privately, about absent teachers, drunken teachers, violent and sexually abusive teachers—but not much about the quality of learning.”

There’s much more (and pages 42-44 have a nice summary of the results). The high value that parents seem to place on passing exams rather than learning specific skills may suggest that either they see schooling as principally a signal to employers, rather than an opportunity to pick up a range of skills.

If you want to pay teachers based on performance, what’s the best way to do it? In Tanzania, Mbiti et al. tested two different systems. The first system—“pay-for-percentile”—is a sophisticated system that groups students based on their initial ability and then rewards improvements based on those groups. This way, teachers assigned to disadvantaged students are not penalized, and teachers don’t have incentives to focus on students who are already close to passing a particular exam. The second focused on the proportion of students that teachers could get to master specific skills, so it was simpler. To avoid teachers focusing on students already close to mastery, the system included multiple skill thresholds. The simpler system was at least as effective in the first year and significantly more effective the second year. (Here’s an open-access version of the paper.) So don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Early child education is the gift that keeps on giving. Perhaps the most influential intervention in early child education is the Perry Preschool Project in the US, despite it just reaching 128 children. Now the original participants are in their mid-50s, and Heckman and Karapakula check in to see how they’re doing in two new studies. In the first, they find reduced crime rates (especially violent crime), improved health, and better socioemotional skills among participants. “Improvements in childhood home environments and parental attachment appear to be an important source of the long-term benefits of the program.” In the second, they show that these benefits in the lives of the participants extend into their children’s lives. “The children of treated participants have fewer school suspensions, higher levels of education and employment.”

Get parents involved in early child education. A pilot in Kenya tested two models of getting parents involved in their children’s education. Parents received an activity pack and instructions, encouraging them to read aloud, play a memory game, a counting game, and an alphabet game with their children. Parents in the first group participated in a kick-off meeting, weekly meetings where they learned how to do the activities, and a wrap-up meeting at the end of five weeks. Parents in the second group just had the kick-off and wrap-up meetings. Parents used the activities more and were more satisfied with the program in the more intensive group. Across groups, reading aloud was a big hit: “During conclusion meetings, parents at a majority of schools reported that the read-aloud activity was the most impactful. In fact, in several schools, parents noted they had bought storybooks for their children since the pilot started.”

The hard part about teaching reading: “The hard part about reading instruction is not figuring out how to teach reading.” Jared Myracle argues in EdWeek that at this point, there are plenty of well-tested systems of reading instruction. They aren’t that expensive. No, “the hard part about reading instruction is leading a highly effective implementation and sticking to the plan long enough for the work to have a meaningful impact.” Teachers need time to learn to implement a new curriculum, and students need time not only to learn how to decode words but also the background knowledge to understand what they’re reading. Myracle proposes the path forward and cautions school systems: “the hard part about reading instruction is leading a highly effective implementation and sticking to the plan long enough for the work to have a meaningful impact.”

Figure of the week: Girls have caught up to boys in education access in much of the world, but gaps remain.


A girl looks at a map with her mother

Source: UNESCO eAtlas on Gender Inequality in Education

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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.