In a bid to provide quality education for all, several programs to increase accountability in schools have been piloted. So far the evidence is sparse. Recent evaluations suggest that even in rural settings, school autonomy and accountability can help improve learning outcomes. This is further supported by a series of evaluations of programs that attempt to alter the power balance between consumers (parents) and providers of schooling services. Recent studies show that autonomy and accountability can improve education outcomes.
In 2009, I was part of a research team that co-authored a study  that found that the Apoyo a la Gestión Escolar (AGE – School Management Support) project in Mexico, which gives seed funds to parent associations, improved drop-out rates and test scores in schools . A randomized trial of AGE was implemented in 250 pilot schools during three consecutive school years, from 2007 to 2010. Half of these schools received double the usual amount – from around $600 to $1200 – to conduct school improvement projects. Funding was jointly provided by the Ministry of Education and the private sector as a public-private partnership. The aim of the project was to show the benefit of focusing on families, not just students, to improve school accountability and academic performance.
Preliminary analysis of the impact of the program shows a marked improvement in test scores for double-dose AGE schools, especially for indigenous schools. In some cases, the program helped decrease repetition and failure rates. Drop-out rates fell by over 1.5 percentage points and as a result students moved ahead by about a year in reading and math. At the school level, test scores for third graders increased by up to 20 points, or about 0.25 standard deviations in Spanish and by about 0.22 standard deviations in math. At the individual student level positive effects were seen in third, fifth and sixth graders. For example, all third grade students tested about 15 points higher in Spanish and about 13 points higher in math, representing about 0.15 and 0.09 standard deviations.
The AGE project shows just how much improvement a simple parental and community empowerment program can achieve when it is implemented properly. Although these results are encouraging, the AGE project alone will not be able to help Mexico catch up to match the superior learning outcomes of other OECD countries. The real issue is teacher quality and accountability, but the AGE program does not empower parents to take on teacher issues.
Click here for more information about Empowering Parents to Improve Schooling: Powerful Evidence from rural Mexico. For more information about similar initiatives, check out our Impact Evaluation Profiles page . Also, check out this feature in The Economist , about the AGE program.