Read African Writers: The Journey’s End, by Ba’bila Mutia

journeys endcameroonTeacher salaries are a point of contention in many countries. But a particular problem in low-income countries is that salary payments will sometimes be delayed for lengthy periods. Ba’bila Mutia’s exciting novel The Journey’s End centers around salary arrears. (No, that’s not an oxymoron.) At the book’s opening, a retired school principal arrives in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé, to seek several years worth of pension payments. His first evening, he meets a younger man who advertises himself as a diviner but who provides detailed assistance on how to navigate the public bureaucracy. As we learn the younger man’s backstory, we find that years before, he arrived in Yaoundé in search of his teacher salary arrears, which he needed to pay his bride price. But in the capital, his life took a dark turn.

The Journey’s End has secret village societies, urban prostitution rings, crime lords, illicit fuel sales, and a tiny bit of magic. But it centers on government bureaucracy and corruption. Much of the book’s climax is dedicated to a retiree ascending and descending stairs in a government building, nudging his file along with a small payment here and there. Mutia manages to captivate (almost) throughout.

I had a few quibbles: The book needed a copy edit, and one twist in the last two pages didn’t quite ring true to me. But neither of those stopped me from enjoying Mutia’s twisty-turny saga.

This is book #23 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

A simpler way to communicate learning results

I have a new paper with Fei Yuan on how to communicate learning results more accessibly than in standard deviations. Here’s the paper. Here’s a summary blog post.

Here are the abstract and title of the paper:

Equivalent Years of Schooling: A Metric to Communicate Learning Gains in Concrete Terms

Abstract: In the past decade, hundreds of impact evaluation studies have measured the learning outcomes of education interventions in developing countries. The impact magnitudes are often reported in terms of “standard deviations,” making them difficult to communicate to policy makers beyond education specialists. This paper proposes two approaches to demonstrate the effectiveness of learning interventions, one in “equivalent years of schooling” and another in the net present value of potential increased lifetime earnings. The results show that in a sample of low- and middle-income countries, one standard deviation gain in literacy skill is associated with between 4.7 and 6.8 additional years of schooling, depending on the estimation method. In other words, over the course of a business-as-usual school year, students learn between 0.15 and 0.21 standard deviation of literacy ability. Using that metric to translate the impact of interventions, a median structured pedagogy intervention increases learning by the equivalent of between 0.6 and 0.9 year of business-as-usual schooling. The results further show that even modest gains in standard deviations of learning — if sustained over time — may have sizeable impacts on individual earnings and poverty reduction, and that conversion into a non-education metric should help policy makers and non-specialists better understand the potential benefits of increased learning.

What will drive future growth in Rwanda?

growth in RwandaOver the course of last year, I worked closely with counterparts in the Government of Rwanda to map what human capital investments would be most likely to lead to high economic growth in the coming decades. It was a satisfying, collaborative process, and it felt like our findings on the quality of education reached high levels of government decisionmaking.

That work is now included in a volume — Future Drivers of Growth in Rwanda: Innovation, Integration, Agglomeration, and Competition. Our chapter — written by Francois Ngoboka, Ignace Gatare, Rose Baguma, Jee-Peng Tan, Deepika Ramachandran, Fei Yuan, and me — begins on page 51.

Rwanda will not achieve upper-middle income status without a dramatic increase in school completion. Even the bottom 25th percentile of upper-middle-income countries have primary completion rates of 94 percent, about 50 percent higher than Rwanda’s current rate. The median primary completion rate in upper-middle-income countries is nearly 100 percent. Likewise, the median lower-secondary completion rate for upper-middle-income countries is 87 percent, more than 2.5 times Rwanda’s current rate. The disparity is even greater for upper-secondary completion. Expanding basic education, together with ensuring quality, is essential for Rwanda’s sustained growth.

Much more on the quality of education, stunting, fertility, training, and more, in the report.

The Factory of Policy Relevant Education Research that Is Ben Piper


Ben Piper is an education researcher with at least three outstanding qualities. He’s incredibly productive, with at least 11 publications in the last 12 months. His work is deeply policy relevant, answering questions that policymakers are asking: How can we implement teacher coaching at scale? How much scripting in learning is helpful for teachers? And he’s a really nice person, per my several interactions with him.

Here’s a cursory review of those last 11 publications. You can read about more here.

  1. How much does learning one language help you learn another? In Kenya, comparing kids instructed in Kiswahili to those instructed in English reveals that it goes both ways. “Cross-language transfer of reading skills: an empirical investigation of bidirectionality and the influence of instructional environments” (with Kim)


  1. Is it possible to scale up an effective education pilot? In Kenya, a scaled program showed impacts on learning. This paper documents how. “Scaling up successfully? Lessons from Kenya’s Tusome national literacy program” (with Destefano, Kinyanjui, & Ong’ele)


  1. In a decentralized system, how do countries provide resources for early child education programs? Qualitative evidence from Kenya “Scaling Up Early Childhood Development and Education in a Devolved Setting: Policy Making, Resource Allocations, and Impacts of the Tayari School Readiness Program in Kenya” (with Merseth & Ngaruiya)


  1. After comparing three models for improving literacy in Kenya, a combination of “PD, teacher instructional support and coaching, 1:1 student books, and structured teacher lesson plans” was most effective AND most cost-effective. “Identifying the essential ingredients to literacy and numeracy improvement: Teacher professional development and coaching, student textbooks, and structured teachers’ guides” (with Zuilkowski, Dubeck, Jepkemei, & King)


  1. Across 13 countries & 19 projects, “structured teachers’ guides improve learning outcomes, but that overly scripted teachers’ guides are somewhat less effective than simplified teachers’ guides that give specific guidance to the teacher but are not written word for word for each lesson in the guide.” “Effectiveness of teachers’ guides in the Global South: Scripting, learning outcomes, and classroom utilization” (with Sitabkhan, Mejia, & Betts)


  1. In the era of free education, why do parents choose private schools? “Drawing on parent survey and interview data, as well as interviews with national policy makers, we found that parents who chose LCPS for their children were more driven by quality concerns than were public school parents.” “Parents, quality, and school choice: why parents in Nairobi choose low-cost private schools over public schools in Kenya’s free primary education era” (with Zuilkowski, Ong’ele, & Kiminza)


  1. Are you a big fan of mother-tongue instruction? In Kenya, “assignment to the mother-tongue group had no additional benefits for English or Kiswahili learning outcomes beyond the non-mother-tongue group, and that the mother-tongue group had somewhat lower mathematics outcomes.” “Examining the secondary effects of mother-tongue literacy instruction in Kenya: Impacts on student learning in English, Kiswahili, and mathematics” (with Zuilkowski, Kwayumba, Oyanga)


  1. Summer reading loss: Not just for rich countries anymore. Big losses during school breaks in Malawi. “Is summer loss universal? Using ongoing literacy assessment in Malawi to estimate the loss from summer breaks” (with Slade, Kaunda, King, & Ibrahim)


  1. Is it possible for a large-scale education technology program to work? In Kenya, tablets went to 1,200 instructional coaches. This study documents usage and effectiveness. “Implementing large scale instructional technology in Kenya: Changing instructional practice and developing accountability in a national education system” (with Oyanga, Mejia, & Pouezevara)


  1. Here’s how we’re working to use research to affect large-scale education policy “Improving learning in Sub-Saharan Africa using rigorous research designs


  1. How does teacher coaching affect teachers’ attitudes and practices in Kenya? (I’m not sure, since this one ) “Instructional coaching in Kenya: Supporting teachers to improve literacy outcomes” (with Zuilkowski)

Ben and his co-authors are working in real time, in the real world, which means that not every study has a massive sample or a perfectly clean identification strategy. (Many do, but not all.) But policymakers are making decisions in real time, in the real world, and Ben’s work contributes to better policymaking. Don’t get me wrong: I love big samples and perfectly clean identification strategies. But I also posit that we can learn a lot from different kinds of studies.

You might have noticed Stephanie Zuilkowski as an author on several of these papers. She’s another extremely active education researcher, with lots of other interesting work. Maybe I’ll be do a full rundown another day, but in the meantime, check out her work here.

How does lowering the cost of schooling in early years affect later attainment?

School Costs, Short-Run Participation, and Long-Run Outcomes: Evidence from Kenya”: My paper with Mũthoni Ngatia is out as a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper. Here’s what we learned.

uniforms abstract

Even though primary education is “free” in many countries, families face many incidental expenses: uniforms, transport, and materials, among others.


In Kenya, we worked with an NGO that provided free school uniforms to children to reduce the cost of schooling.


I know that you’re going to say: Do we need another study of “giving stuff” for education and how it affects attendance? Aren’t we supposed to be focused on learning and pedagogy?


First, while attending school is no guarantee of learning, it’s a really important part of the process.


Second, we follow these students over 8 years. Few international education studies trace the time path of impact.


A school uniform can increase school participation by multiple means. Families don’t have to pay for the uniforms. AND students don’t feel stigmatized by being the only kid without a uniform.


What do we find? In the short run, providing a school uniform does increase school participation.


The impacts are particularly large for the poorest kids. Absenteeism drops by 15 percentage points for them, eliminating 55 percent of absenteeism for them.


But 8 years later, the children who participated in the program had no better educational outcomes than those who did not.


Some educational interventions have long-lasting impacts: Smaller early-grade classes in the USA have translated into better college performance.


But we can’t assume it. In this case, initial gains in school participation do not translate into more school completion.


And a few last words from the paper: “Take care when interpreting short-term results, taking into account these results and others which demonstrate that long-term impacts may vary – sometimes dramatically – from initial effects.”


“Gathering long-term data is costly, but without it, the trajectory of impacts resulting from the wide range of interventions currently being implemented remains a mystery.”


That’s it! Big short-term impacts for poor kids but disappointing long-term impacts. Check out the paper!

thank you


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: