texting improves literacy … in Niger, anyway

from the new paper ABC, 123: Can Mobile Phones Improve Learning? Evidence from a Field Experiment in Niger, from Jenny Aker, Christopher Ksoll, and Travis Lybbert:

"The returns to educational investments hinge on whether such investments can improve the quality and persistence of educational gains. This has often been a challenge in adult education programs, which are typically characterized by rapid skills depreciation. We report the results from a randomized evaluation of an adult education program (Project ABC) in Niger, in which adult students learned how to use simple mobile phones as part of a literacy and numeracy class. Overall, students demonstrated substantial improvements in writing and math skills, achieving a first-grade level within eight months of classes. Students in ABC villages achieved additional literacy and numeracy gains, with test scores 9-20 percent higher than those in non-ABC villages. Evidence suggests that there are persistent impacts of the program: seven months after the end of classes, average test scores are still higher in ABC villages. These effects do not appear to be driven by differences in class time devoted to students, teacher characteristics or teacher attendance. Rather they are largely explained by the effectiveness of mobile phones as a motivational and educational tool: students in ABC villages used mobile phones in more active ways and showed a higher interest in education. These results suggest that simple and cheap information technology can be harnessed to improve educational outcomes among rural populations."

the case for fiction

I have often wondered about "the case" for spending my time reading fiction, feeling guilty for not reading more economics articles, I suppose. But Roald Dahl wonders why anyone would read anything else:

"Why on earth would anyone choose to read an assemblage of detail, a catalogue of facts, when there was so much good fiction around as an alternative? Invention, he declared, was always more interesting than reality." -in Storyteller, by Donald Sturrock, p6

what I read and saw in March 2011


11. Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs – great, early 20th century pulp 7/10

10. Schooled, by Gordon Korman (narrated by a full cast) – Kid grows up on a commune but then has to enter public schools. Humiliation, followed by him teaching people how to love. I enjoyed it, but it’s no Stargirl! 8/10

9. The Camel Club, by David Baldacci – so-so political thriller 5/10

8. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson – Interesting narrative, jumping between stories told from one character to another and letters. That cut into the narrative flow a bit but I enjoyed it. Powerful metaphor for addiction (I think). 8/10

7. The Five Love Languages, by ?? (narrated by the author) – Great, readable book on the different ways that people experience love: physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time. One of the most directly helpful books I’ve read. 9/10


13. VIPs – My obligatory Brazilian movie in the theater. Guy wants to become a pilot, so he becomes a drug runner pilot. Something ensues that I couldn’t follow. (theater) 5/10 (only because I was sleepy and cannot understand Portuguese)

12. The Black Swan – Weird, dark story of obsession. Really liked it. 8/10 (DVD, on a bus in Brazil)

11. Descubriendo el pais de nunca jamas [Finding Neverland, dubbed into Spanish] – Story of the writing of Peter Pan. Sweet, if a little slow. 6/10 (DVD)

10. Slumdog Millionaire – Beautiful story, some of the slum elements remind me of Mistry’s A Fine Balance (one of my favorite novels). A few too many coincidences for my taste, but see it as romance and maybe it’s okay. 9/10 (DVD)

compounding effect of poverty on early child differences – evidence from Chile

This, from the International Journal of Epidemiology:

Torche and Echevarría compare twins in fourth grade in Chile to see whether differing birth weights predict differing test scores. "We merge birth registry information on birthweight with standardized Math and Spanish test scores for all fourth graders in Chile to create a prospective data set. Twin fixed-effects models are used to estimate the causal effect of intra-uterine growth on test scores."

What do they find?

"Birthweight differences within twin pairs have a substantial effect on test scores. A 400-g increase in birthweight results in a 15% standard deviation increase in Math scores. The effect is larger among (estimated) monozygotic than dizygotic pairs, reaching >20% standard deviation. The effect varies across family socioeconomic status. It is strong among disadvantaged families but it nearly disappears among advantaged ones."

So it seems that advantaged Chilean families are able to compensate for these early differences, but not poor ones! Another bit of evidence in favor of intervening to help poor children, especially those with a biological disadvantage to boot, to catch up.

The study is Florencia Torche and Ghislaine Echevarría, The effect of birthweight on childhood cognitive development in a middle-income country, Int. J. Epidemiol. first published online February 28, 2011.

what I read and saw in February 2011


* So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver. At the opening of the first chapter, we are introduced to Shepherd Knacker’s Merrill Lynch account, at a value of $731,778, money he has been saving his whole life to fulfill a childhood dream of moving with his family to some low-income nation where they can live the rest of their lives work-free, escaping the rat race. He has finally decided to leave when his wife is diagnosed with a rare cancer which his limited health insurance only covers the tiniest fraction of care for. We go on to follow his family and his best friend’s family (also with major health problems) through the ugly nether world of today’s American health care establishment. Every few chapters, we see the current balance of Shep’s account. It doesn’t go up. [Note: I read about half and then skimmed the rest, not because I wasn’t enjoying it but because there was a little more grown-up content than I was up for.]

6. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card (audiobook) – If only historians of the future could go back in time and explain to Christopher Columbus in a five minute conversation that he was being racist, maybe everything would all work out for the Americas and the world. Everyone will end up practicing non-violence and communal use of land. Maybe if we go back in time, not a single thing unexpected will happen and our plan (which includes the aforementioned conversation with Christopher Columbus, and also creating a new steel-enabled Native American empire by sending one historian back in time who dresses up like a Native American John the Baptist) will work out exactly as we planned.

Completely un-nuanced. Too much pretension, too many efforts at big ideas, not enough action (e.g., the time travel didn’t even happen until three-quarters into the book). My last Orson Scott Card book. 4/10

5. Faithful Place, by Tana French – Mystery takes place in Dublin and thereabouts. Detective finds out that the love of his life, who he believes left him to go to England twenty-some years ago, was actually murdered the night she left. Very detailed portrayal of difficult family dynamics. 7/10

4. The Old Testament! – I finally completed the entire Old Testament (maybe that should only count as half a book?). A number of dull patches, but overall, lots of fabulous material. Hope to repeat the experience in a few years.

* Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart – In the future, everyone walks around with äppäräts (the iphones of the future), scanning each others stats, including credit score, history, and ratings on personality and sexual attractiveness. No one reads books: Lenny – the protagonist – opens one on a plane but puts it away when the passenger next to him says it smells like dirty socks. The U.S.A. has become a semi-police state, with just one political party (the Bipartisan Party) which is losing the war in Venezuela. Many citizens watch FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra (I’m kind of surprised those channels don’t already exist). Companies are massive conglomerates like UnitedContinentalDeltamerican and AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit.

I found the picture of America pretty plausible while pretty hilarious: hyper-repressive, hyper-sexualized, and hyper-social networked. (It’s not numbered because I stopped about halfway through: It was a little too hyper-sexualized for my taste, not through graphic scenes but rather dialogue. And the world – which I’d seen – was more compelling than the plot.)

"Is he poor?" Eunice asked.

"I guess so," I said. "Middle class."


9. Unstoppable – Denzel and Chris Pine stop a runaway train. Perfect action suspense, cheesy dialogue but delivered by such likeable actors that I didn’t mind. 8/10 [plane]

8. L’Illusioniste [The Illusionist] – From the director of The Triplets of Bellville, this beautiful little French movie about changing times is engaging and moving. 8/10 [theater]

7. El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) – A little girl discovers a labyrinth with fantastical creatures while her fascist (literally, in this case) step-father tries to kill leftist rebels in Franco’s Spain. [Note: some intense violence, but predictable so one can self-edit.] 9/10 [DVD]

wild adventures of a private medical care provider in Cambodia

Alaka Holla, an awesome researcher at the World Bank, talks about her experience observing an unregulated, private-sector doctor in Cambodia.

"Seven patients passed through in 15 minutes. First, a baby with diarrhea. The doctor’s wife jabbed the baby’s legs with two injections. A middle-aged man who complained of stomach and back pain was diagnosed by a few pokes in the belly with “intestinal inflammation.” He received a lecture about his diet and drinking habits, and eight different types of pills and three injections. For the third patient, diagnosed with hypertension, the doctor drew blood intraveneously and squirted in on to a glucose strip, and then the doctor’s son administered two injections. The fourth patient was an elderly woman lying patiently on a free bed. Before I knew it, she was hooked up to an IV. The fifth patient was another baby with diarrhea, who was already crying, probably because he knew what awaited him: an injection in each leg by the doctor’s wife. The sixth and seventh patients also each received injections."

dietary patterns in early childhood and IQ, or Yes to fish, No to sugar (or maybe just have smart parents)

I just encountered this study of the link between dietary patterns in early childhood and eight-year-old IQ.

Methods: "The current study, based on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, uses data on children’s diet reported by parents in food-frequency questionnaires at 3, 4, 7 and 8.5 years of age. … IQ was assessed using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children at 8.5 years. Data on a number of confounders were collected, and complete data were available for 3966 children."

Results: "After adjustment, the ‘processed’ (high fat and sugar content) pattern of diet at 3 years of age was negatively associated with IQ assessed at 8.5 years of age—a 1 SD increase in dietary pattern score was associated with a 1.67 point decrease in IQ (95% CI −2.34 to −1.00; p<0.0001). The ‘health-conscious’ (salad, rice, pasta, fish, fruit) pattern at 8.5 years was positively associated with IQ: a 1 SD increase in pattern score led to a 1.20 point increase in IQ (95% CI 0.52 to 1.88; p=0.001)."

Of course, this kind of observational study is ripe for confounding factors. This is what they have to say: "A wide variety of factors were considered as potential confounders or mediating factors in the relationship between diet and IQ. The following variables were taken into account: gender; age at WISC assessment; the WISC administrator; the number of stressful life-events experienced by the child; breastfeeding duration (ascertained at 6 months of age), estimated energy intake at each time point, a measure of parenting (HOME score) assessed at 18 months of age, maternal education, housing tenure and social class recorded during pregnancy and maternal age at birth of the study child. Finally, maternal consumption of oily fish during pregnancy was included, as this has been shown to be associated with IQ in this cohort."

Unfortunately, they don’t have a measure of parent IQ. What is smarter parents have smarter kids AND give their kids better diets?

how does development economics fare in the American Economic Review’s Top 20 articles in the past 100 years?

The AER is celebrating its 100th birthday and identified the most important twenty articles from over that period. Development captured two!

Harris, John R., and Michael P. Todaro.

1970. “Migration, Unemployment and Development: A Two-Sector Analysis.” American Economic Review

, 60(1): 126–42.

This widely cited paper starts with the puzzle that in poor developing countries one observes individuals migrating from agricultural areas to urban areas, even though they would have positive marginal product in agriculture but face a substantial probability of unemployment in the urban area. The first step in the explanation is to note that there are politically determined minimum wages in the urban areas that prevent wages from adjusting to achieve full employment for all those who come to the urban areas. The equilibrium distribution of potential workers between the rural and urban areas equates the marginal product of labor in agriculture to the expected wage in the urban area, i.e., the product of the wage and the probability of employment.

Kuznets, Simon.

1955. “Economic Growth and Income Inequality.” American Economic Review, 45(1): 1–28.

Data from developing economies indicate that the earlier phases of economic development tend to be characterized by increasing income inequality, as those engaged in the small but growing modern sector of the economy pull away from those still left in agriculture and other subsistence activities. The degree of inequality reaches a peak, however, and then diminishes with further development, as the modern sector comes to dominate the economy and perhaps more so if it creates room for redistributive activity. The resulting “Kuznets curve” has been the subject of much empirical research and discussion within development economics.