In most economies, parents would like to see their children have a higher standard of living, and with it a better life, than they had themselves. When children are asked, they too tend to consider their parents a natural benchmark to compare their economic progress against (Goldthorpe, 1987; Hoschschild, 2016, Chetty at al., 2017). A simple measure that captures this notion of progress is the percentage of children who managed to surpass their parents, which we will refer to as absolute mobility. Chetty et al. (2017) find that the United States did exceptionally well by this measure for the generations born in the 1940s and 50s, when over 90 percent of children managed to do better than their parents in terms of income. Absolute mobility in the United States has since faded to around 50 percent for the current generation. How has absolute mobility fared elsewhere in the world? In which economies do children have the best chances to improve upon their parents? Are the highest rates of absolute mobility observed in economies that are starting from a low base?
In a sector where a proliferation of research seemingly has contributed at least as much to confusion as to progress, the 2018 World Development Report (WDR), Learning to Realize Education’s Promise sheds new light, and points towards fresh, hopeful pathways forward. It is a landmark contribution.
“Education for all” was the seductive promise of the millennium. Yet all too many children are attending school without acquiring even basic literacy or numeracy. Why?
In chapter 1 of book 1 of Adam Smith’s foundational economics book, The Wealth of Nations, he explains the concept of the division of labor. He uses the example of a pin factory.
To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade, nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty.
“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” Lord Kelvin
Despite the recent proliferation of standardized testing in education, there is still a significant number of countries that oppose it. I’ve heard many arguments against standardized testing from policy makers, teachers and school directors, but two of them seem persuasive at first glance. The first one is that the test’s main purpose is to hold teachers and school directors accountable, that is, to reward and punish them based on students’ performance and—per tests’ opponents—this is unfair. The second is that since standardized testing assesses few subject areas, it redistributes attention and resources to these subjects in detriment of other equally important areas of the curriculum. These are valid points, but, as I argue below, they do not justify incurring the very high cost of not testing.
A growing number of students in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in private primary or secondary schools. The World Development Report 2018 (on which I was a co-author) highlighted an array of potential benefits and risks associated with broad provision of basic education by the private sector. “The key challenge for policy makers is to develop a policy and regulatory framework that ensures access for all children, protects families from exploitation, and establishes an environment that encourages education innovation. Managing a regulatory framework to achieve this is difficult: the same technical and political barriers that education systems face more generally come into play.”
“Test and punish”?
There’s a debate raging in American schools today: how (and how much) should children be tested?
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act created a system where all children in all schools from grades 3 to 8 must be tested each year. Critics refer to this accountability architecture as “test and punish,” with stakes such as school funding (or closings!), bonuses for teachers, or grade promotion for students all riding on performance. There is evidence that NCLB improved learning outcomes, but improvements came at a high cost: In addition to teaching to the test, this approach can lead to a number of perverse incentives, like keeping weaker students at home on test day, narrowing the curriculum, or downright cheating. Worse, some have said they can serve to mask and contribute to the structural race and class inequalities in the United States.
The elusive quest to scale
Some 15 years ago, I was in a small town in Hoshangabad district (India) attending a workshop with government schoolteachers, where we were examining student test scores. Instructors from Eklavya, a non-profit supporting the government, were skillfully leading teachers through an intensely engaging session on why a child might have written a particular answer, what was right and what was wrong with the answer, how to grade it, and how a teacher could help the child improve. Everyone was sharing lessons and learning.
I Will Always Write Back is the true story of Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka, who became pen pals -- between Zimbabwe and the USA -- in middle (or lower secondary) school. Over time, they learn from each other, and ultimately Caitlin's family realizes the depth of need of Martin and his family -- living in a slum on the outskirts of the city Matate -- and provides support beyond the letters, all to an inspiring end (which I won't spoil).
This book is on many middle school reading lists, with good reason. My thirteen-year-old son just read and enjoyed it. It provides an introduction to life in Zimbabwe and a range of challenges that might never occur to a child (or adult, for that matter) in a high-income country. I've never worked in Zimbabwe, but I have studied education in many countries, including several countries around Sub-Saharan Africa, and the characterizations of life broadly rang true.