The latest in education research

I just posted a round-up of 30 recent papers on education. Check it out.


What I’ve been reading this month

the powerThe Power, by Naomi Alderman – Imagine if women developed the power to give off an electric shock, perhaps due to some environmental contamination. Suddenly the physical strength advantage that men have held (on average) is reversed. Does this new, female empowerment lead to utopian paradise of peace and wisdom? Or does power corrupt (“Why did they do it? … Because they could.”) regardless of gender? Alderman is unflinching in this page-turning (or in the case of the audiobook, “play-pressing”) novel of gender dynamics. Just awesome.

who gets whatWho Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin Roth – Roth shared the 2012 Nobel prize in economics for “market design, and in this engaging, clear book, he describes his experiences in creating “matching markets”: “None of these things — kidneys, places in competitive schools, sought-after jobs — can be acquired by the person willing to pay the most or work for the lowest wage. In each case, a match must be made.” (There are cases where sought-after jobs can be acquired by the person willing to pay – see Weaver’s work, but I see what Roth is getting at.) Roth has been at the center of this movement, and he has the stories to prove it. This book provides clear examples of economics at work to improve the world. It also demonstrates both “markets as a tool for coordinating complicated human endeavors” but also that “many markets fail to work well because of poor design … There’s an opportunity to make them work better.”

nutshellNutshell, by Ian McEwan – Imagine a thriller, with a woman and her lover plotting the murder of the woman’s husband (the lover’s brother), all narrated from the womb, by the woman’s unborn child. Sound gimmicky? Not in the hands of McEwan. This baby has a lot of opinions (his mom listens to a lot of podcasts, apparently) and an amazing handle of the English language. Here’s what the fetus has to say on pessimism, reminiscent of the optimistic global trends that Max Roser and Dina Pomeranz highlight: “Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived?” As Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote, “The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous.”

pushPush, by Sapphire – The almost interminably harrowing story of Precious Jones, an American teen who has suffered years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both her parents. There is no simple happy ending, but there is hope. “‘Open your notebook, Precious.’ ‘I’m tired,’ I says. She says, ‘I know you are but you can’t stop now, Precious. You gotta push.’ And I do.” You may have seen the film, entitled Precious. In light of the World Bank’s World Development Report on education highlighting a global learning crisis (I know, the WDR was far from the first to note that; but it’s salient because it’s new and I helped write it), I noted that Precious reaches ninth grade completely illiterate (having been held back twice). Art imitates life.

scrappyScrappy Little Nobody, by Anna KendrickThe actress from Up in the Air and the Pitch Perfect movies holds forth on her life and philosophy, endearingly and entertainingly. She reveals that she is a sophisticated hyperbolic discounter: “I just want to be a man-child for another three months. Perpetually.” And her take on advice reflect how I feel whenever people ask me for career or publishing advice: “If you are expecting to find advice, I will be no help at all. I have no advice. I do have a truckload of opinions, which I will happily prattle on about to anyone who gives me an opening. I’d just like to add the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer to everything in here, like I’m a psychic hotline.”

burning pointThe Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay – The author (a friend of mine) discusses her life with and subsequent divorce from a husband addicted to opiates, as well as single parenting an autistic child (and two other children!), her experience with government safety nets, and more. The memoir demonstrates over and over the power of social capital, the value and importance of support from social groups – church groups, quilting groups, blogging groups. These social networks, not built primarily as safety nets, ultimately have the potential to save lives. From reflections – “When you’re a kid you think adults know stuff. You think being an adult means you have answers, that you will understand things and people and mysteries. … Being an actual adult lets you in on the big secret: there are no answers. None at all.” – to anecdotes – “MOM! Look! I made a bracelet out of explosive caps from my cap-gun. I’m wearing it to church in case I hate the songs.”

fireFire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, by Peter Bagge – What a life! I knew Hurston from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she traveled America (and beyond) gathering folklore and was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. “She soon became willfully determined to celebrate all aspects of African-American life, to see and preserve the art and beauty in all of it. Yet this warts-and-all approach is the very thing that brought her criticism from most of her Black peers.”

fire clip

norseNorse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman – A retelling of the Norse myths: entertaining and surprising and kind of crazy (like all myths). In his introduction, Gaiman writes, “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this.” And I found myself doing just that, sitting with my family around the lunch table and retelling the story of Odin rescuing the mead of poets from the giant Galar.


Kids’ stuff

I have kids and so I have an excuse to read kids’ books, although I reserve the right to read kids’ books long after I’m no longer reading to my children, because why not? I’ll read whatever I want!

moominsThe Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson (translated by David McDuff) – When I was in Finland a couple of years ago, I asked people what book every Finn would have read, and the immediate response was, the Moomin books! This is the first Moomin book ever written (in 1945) and the last to be translated into English (in 2005). It is fantastical and whimsical and gorgeously illustrated. Reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh but with magic and more delightful absurdity. And this book in particular includes a candy house that would be reminiscent of Willy Wonka if it hadn’t been published 19 years earlier.

awkward coverAwkward, by Svetlana Chmakova – Penelope Torres, the protagonist of this empathetic graphic novel, is starting at a new middle school, and the travails that she and her friends experience feel authentic even as the plot entertains. And remember…

awkward clip

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, by Jeff Kinney – I have yet togetaway read a book in this series aloud and not have to stop because I’m laughing so hard, even as my kids demand, “Keep reading! Keep reading!” The Heffley family goes on an international vacation and – unsurprisingly – mayhem ensues. The art, the twists and turns of the plot, the way that every member of the family is deeply flawed, and the boldness of the story in skipping any redeeming sentimentality at the wrap-up: I love it all.

Does increasing teacher salaries improve student test scores?

Over at Development Impact, I just posted a piece — What do we learn from increasing teacher salaries in Indonesia? More than the students did — where I discuss recent work by de Ree et al. on an impressive policy experiment, where Indonesia doubled base pay for many civil service teachers.

Here’s the abstract of their paper:

How does a large unconditional increase in salary affect the performance of incumbent employees in the public sector? We present experimental evidence on this question in the context of a policy change in Indonesia that led to a permanent doubling of teacher base salaries. Using a large-scale randomized experiment across a representative sample of Indonesian schools that accelerated this pay increase for teachers in treated schools, we find that the large pay increase significantly improved teachers’ satisfaction with their income, reduced the incidence of teachers holding outside jobs, and reduced self-reported financial stress. Nevertheless, after two and three years, the increase in pay led to no improvement in student learning outcomes. The effects are precisely estimated, and we can rule out even modest positive impacts on test scores. Our results suggest that unconditional pay increases are unlikely to be an effective policy option for improving the effort and productivity of incumbent employees in public-sector settings.



The Best Movies I Saw in 2017 (and the Rest)

I saw 134 movies in 2017, across a variety of media – on planes, in cinemas around the world, and in snatches on my phone. (They did not all come out in 2017.) Movies are listed alphabetically within category, although Ixcanul really was my favorite film of the year.

Here are my absolute favorites:

Ixcanul A young woman rebels against the dreary life ahead of her and inequalities of all sorts manifest. Starts out seeming predictible but then is anything but. (My full review.)
Lady Bird Wonderful coming of age story. Funny and real.
Maudie Sally Hawkins is wonderful as a woman in a small town with few opportunities who makes beautiful art.
Okja Korean girl and Superpig on the run. Awesome.
Queen of Katwe A young school dropout in Uganda is inspired by chess. Inspiring and engaging. (My blog post.)
Sunset Boulevard The cruelty of Hollywood in 1950s noir.
The Big Sick Sweet, funny, surprising romantic comedy.
Thor: Ragnarok I love a film that is surprising and hilarious. This is that film.

Here are a bunch more that I loved, just not quite as much.

Baby Driver
Battle of the Sexes
Captain Fantastic
Get Out
Guardians of the Galaxy — Volume 2
Ha’khata’im [Past Life]
Hidden Figures
Human Flow
I Am Not Your Negro
I, Daniel Blake
Ingrid Goes West
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Le tout nouveau testament [The Brand New Testament]
Little Men
Logan Lucky
Midnight in Paris
Mr. Holmes
Mulholland Drive
Que Horas Ela Volta? [The Second Mother]
Song of the Sea
Still Mine
The Founder
The Incredible Jessica James
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Other Side of Hope [Toivon Tuolla Puolen]
The Red Turtle
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Wedding Crashers

Here are a bunch that I really liked.

Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont [The African Doctor]
Blade Runner [Final Cut]
Blade Runner 2049
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Despicable Me 3
Don’t Think Twice
Dr. Strange
Force Majeure
Guardians of the Galaxy — Volume 2
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Mr. Mom
On Golden Pond
Ruby Sparks
Spider-Man: Homecoming
The Dressmaker
The Fly
The Little Hours
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Squid and the Whale
The Town
Tropic Thunder
Uma História de Amor e Fúria [Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury]
Upstream Color
Wonder Woman

And here are a bunch that I liked reasonably well.

Bridget Jones’s Baby
Café Society
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Frances Ha
Friends with Benefits
La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil [The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun]
Lady MacBeth
Lost in London Live
Marjorie Prime
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates [airplane edited]
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Nocturnal Animals
Ocho apellidos vascos [Spanish Affair]
Saneamento Básico: O Filme [Basic Sanitation: The Movie]
Sky High
Sleeping with Other People
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Star Trek Beyond
The Last Man on Earth
The Lego Batman Movie
The Spy Next Door
The Tempest
Their Finest
To Catch a Thief
Tô Rica! [I’m rich!]
Trading Places
Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément [Blind Date]
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Here are a bunch that I thought were so-so. I don’t regret watching them, but I wouldn’t recommend them.

Bad Santa
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Daddy Day Care
Dr. No
Fast & Furious 6
Home Again
Mes Trésors [Family Heist]
Ocho apellidos catalanes [Spanish Affair 2]
Terminator Genisys
The Fast and the Furious
The Fate of the Furious
The Lego Ninjago Movie
Viy or Spirit of Evil
A Seed of Memories
Around the World in 80 Days
Boss Baby
Justice League
Nancy Drew
O Homen do futuro [The Man from the Future]
Suicide Squad

Here are four that I thought were pretty bad (especially Runner Runner)…but I still watched them through to the end. Make better life choices than me; avoid these films.

Des vents contraires [Headwinds]
Ghost in the Shell
Why Him?
Runner Runner

The Best Books I Read in 2017


Here are the best books I read or listened to in 2017 (out of a total of 42).

Best Fiction

  • #1 Overall Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo. Gorgeous novel: delicious prose, constant surprises, deep emotion.
  • Most Fun Overall – Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. Delightful update of an old tale of prison and revenge. Advice: Review the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest before reading (for example, on Wikipedia). (My review. And in case you want another economist’s endorsement, here’s Tyler Cowen’s.)
  • Most darkly funny and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya. This book will make you groan, cringe, and shudder as the protagonist goes to increasingly precarious lengths to maintain his pretense of success in America after emigrating from Nigeria. (My review at Brittle Paper.)
  • Most uncomfortably funny A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen). “Magnificently comic and sucker-punch-tragic excursion into brilliance.” -Gary Shteyngart in the New York Times.
  • Most frightening as a parent and a husband – The Dinner, by Herman Koch. Serious questions about inheritability of character and responsibility to our children versus others, all wrapped up in a thriller.
  • Most eerieFever Dream, by Samanta Shweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). “This powerful and at times deeply sinister tale is anything but straightforward.” -Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian
  • Awesomely craziest audiobook Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Audiobook incorporates 166 different voice actors, several recognizable. Wild ride. Won this year’s Man Booker Prize.
  • Best botany-themed The Seed Thief, by Jacqui L’Ange. A botanist travels from South Africa to Brazil “to infiltrate a religious sect and find some seeds.” Excitement and botany ensue. (My review.)

 Best History

Best Memoir

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay. Astute essays on living life as an obese woman in America. Powerful and traumatic. (My review.)
  • The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. Dual memoir of growing up gay and Mormon, and of taking buses from Washington, D.C., to southern Chile, en route to Antarctica. (My review.)

Best Economics and Social Science

Best Self-Improvement

Best Graphic Novel

  • Marvel (Volume 6): Civil War II, by Wilson and Miyazawa. This isn’t the best of the Ms. Marvel books (and I recommend all of them), but even so, it endearing and thought-provoking around the price we are willing to pay for safety, as well as family and friendship.

Best Children’s and Young Adult

What did I get wrong? What did you read and love?

I also read a number of books of religious history or religious thought. You can read about my favorites among those here.


Books by friends

One of the pleasures of getting older is enjoying the professional accomplishments of friends. This year, at least 10 friends wrote books. I’ve only read one so far, but I’m working on it!

dionne 1Global health — Doomed Interventions: The Failure of Global Responses to AIDS in Africa, by Kim Yi Dionne. Says Rachel Sullivan Robinson: “Dionne uses fascinating cases across a number of sub-Saharan African countries to demonstrate how the mismatch between donor and citizen priorities limits the effectiveness of HIV programming, as does the sheer number of actors involved at multiple levels of governance.”

boustan 1Economic history — Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, by Leah Platt Boustan. Says Amazon: “Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth.”

hendrickson 1Religious history — The Healing Power of the Santuario de Chimayó: America’s Miraculous Church, by Brett Hendrickson. Says Amazon: “Nestled in a valley at the feet of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, the Santuario de Chimayó has been called the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in America… The book tells the fascinating stories of the Pueblo and Nuevomexicano Catholic origins of the site and the building of the church, the eventual transfer of the property to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and the modern pilgrimage of believers alongside thousands of tourists.”

steenblik 1PoetryMother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother, by Rachel Steenblik. This is a beautiful collection of reflections on the divine feminine.

NovelArchaeopteryx, by Dan Darling. Says Amazon: “John Stick, zoodarling 1 keeper and giant, just wants to sit alone in a dark room with his pet tarantula. However, when ten thousand birds fall dead from the New Mexican sky, the woman he loves, an ornithologist with severe facial deformity, begs him to decipher the cause.”

black penguin1Memoir — The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans. My cousin (and good friend!) wrote this account of growing up, coming out, and traveling to Antarctica almost entirely by bus. (I raved more about it here.)

Another memoir — The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by Tracy McKay Lamb.lamb 1 Says Joanna Brooks: “For every woman who makes the heartbreaking but utterly necessary choice to leave, to start over, to make a new home, for her kids, for herself; for every woman who will wake up alone this morning and do by herself the hard work of holding a family together; for every woman who puts one foot in front of the other, this book offers a safe space of wisdom, warmth, and understanding.”

taylor 1Young adult science fiction — Twists in Time, by Angie Taylor. Says Amazon: “Grant and Ava begin a mysterious journey of love and risk that extend beyond their past and present and possibly into a future that transcends time.”

Bible studies — The Sun Has Burned My Skin: A Modest Paraphrase of Solomon’s Song of Songs, by Adam Miller. Says Amazon: “A loosemiller 1 paraphrase that aims more for the replication of a certain mood than for the correspondence of particular words and phrases. The songs themselves are a collection of age-old Israelite love songs, searing and intense, sung principally by a young woman who is bold, confident, and only just exposed to the tidal pull of love and sex.”

narayanan 2And a little something else — Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica, by Amrita Narayanan. Says the publisher: “The erotic tradition in India is thousands of years old. In The Parrots of Desire, the modern reader, to whom the anthology is dedicated, will find a wealth of Indian erotic writing—beyond the famously unbridled passages of the Kama Sutra and Koka Shastra.”

What I’ve been producing

I’ve been away for a while: here’s a little bit of what I’ve been up to. Last week, I gave a talk at Stanford University, entitled “The Global Landscape of In-Service Teacher Professional Development Programs,” which you can watch below.

I’ve put up a few new blog posts on other blogs, in case you missed them:


And a couple of my blog posts have made it into other language: