6 degrees of Hugo

A recent article in Reuters talks about a new college course offered in Venezuela called “Studies of the Thoughts of the Supreme Commander Hugo Chavez.”  It was created by the military and so far more than 10,000 students have enrolled.  There are so many howlers in the article (even the name of the class is awesome) that I decided to just list my favorites:

1. “Students rise to their feet as a uniformed Venezuelan brigadier-general enters a large classroom at a Caracas military institute and proclaims: ‘Chavez lives!’ In unison, they reply: ‘The fight goes on!'”  Of course they do!  This seems appropriate for a college class.

2. “The course, which can form part of a degree or post-graduate studies, traces Chavez’s philosophical roots.”  And this is part of a degree or post-graduate studies?  Check out the incredible rigor of the course provided by this description: “The class analyzes Chavez’s boyhood in a rural shack, his love of baseball, his years in the military and failed coup attempt, the election victory that brought him to power, and the 1999-2013 presidency” 

or this (unintentionally hysterical) description by this student:Victor Flores, a military colonel, said he specially enjoyed learning personal anecdotes he had not heard before – about Chavez’s grandmother Rosa Ines, and another distant relative and revolutionary known as Maisanta.”

3. “‘At all times, he [Chavez] sought to imitate Christ in his actions,'” said Nerio Galban, secretary of the Bolivarian Military University of Venezuela where the course originated. Galban likened the Biblical story of Jesus feeding the five thousand to Chavez’s subsidized food programs. He compared Jesus’ healing of the sick to the “Miracle Mission” set up in 2004.”  Kevin says at this point Hugo has only miracle left in his bag! 

Maceo: Take me to the Bridge!

For $6/month, your kid gets an hour more of actual instruction than the public school gives in schools that average 35% higher scores in reading and 20% higher in math than the public schools do (I know, I know, selection bias and all, but still……).

This is the choice for many poor but not destitute Kenyans. Priced out of expensive private schools and seemingly condemned to horrid public ones, these parents now have another choice: The for-profit Bridge schools.

They accomplish this by giving their teachers 300 hours of training, then giving them semi-scripted lessons and closely monitoring performance.

To me, this seems like a huge win, but the Atlantic managed to find one Western nay sayer.

Meet Kate Redman of UNESCO:

“Such an education is unlikely to spur the imaginations of the students or encourage critical thinking or social mobility. It is more likely to lead to rote-learning, and would likely leave little flexibility. There is no evidence it can serve as a permanent approach.”

and of course she also adds this:

“The school curriculum is more than the inculcation of basic skills. It is also a reflection of culture and cultural diversity,” she said. “Only by creating a national curriculum, incorporating cultural understandings, can authorities address particular local and national challenges.”

The problem with Ms. Redman’s lines of attack are of course that in the 30 years since Kenya ditched their colonial era school system, their public schools have not been able to even master “rote-learning”.

People, believe me, “rote-learning” is a very very good thing. Especially when compared to “no-learning”.

I’d like to ask Ms. Redman how many years are Kenya’s poor supposed to wait. How many generations of kids have to get screwed over, before UNESCO gets Kenya’s public schools to work?

I am happy (and frankly stunned) to report that the article quotes a World Bank executive who strongly supports the Bridge’s program.

That’s Dr. Dis-Grace to you peons

The first lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe, enrolled in a doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe back in July.


Now word comes that, two months later, She has earned her PhD!


“According to the state owned Herald Newspaper, her thesis was on the changing social structure and functions of the family which involved a study in a children’s home.”


She was hooded by the Chancellor of the University. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, his name is Bobby Mugabe!


Greatness just runs in some families.


Hat tip to SS


An A for Effort, Peruvian edition

The World Bank has a round-up of the 2012 PISA scored that were just released.  There really weren’t any surprises in the top group, which consisted primarily of East Asian countries. But there was some good news for Peru, which has improved more since 2000 than any other country (by 76 points in math, 57 in reading, and 40 in science). Of course, they were starting from a low base, but it is still impressive.

Here are the countries that have improved the most in each category:



Cool education news from Mexico

I just got done covering education and the difficulty of reform in my Mexican economic development class and it was pretty depressing.  Given that, I was thrilled to read about some very cool news on the educational front in Mexico.

Wired has an article about a middle school teacher who was intrigued by the grannies in the cloud idea and decided to try to implement something similar in his class.  The result is something like a Hollywood movie.  Here’s the scene:

“José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”

Here’s the hero teacher of the story:

Sergio Juárez Correa started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.

Here are some of the (pretty big) obstacles he faced:

A key component in Mitra’s theory [the granny in the cloud guy] was that children could learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology instructor who visited each class once a week, but he didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like, “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”

As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, and brought back an explanation the next day. When they asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he told them he’d figure it out and report back.

The Hollywood ending:

The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.

The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez [the principle] looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. Paloma received the highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish.

That’s right.  Not only did the scores go through the roof after one year of the new teaching methodology, but Juárez Correa discovered that he had the smartest math student in the country in his class.

The evil administrator tries his best to denigrate Juárez Correa and his students’ achievement, makes an idiot of himself, and hopefully (but unlikely) signs his own letter of resignation with this dribble:

Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,” he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”

Our hero remains undaunted though and I can only hope that other teachers find inspiration in his story (and that administrators like Sánchez Salazar are canned).

“Atrocious, monopolistic state schools”

As I’ve mentioned on this site before, one of my favorite books in recent years on development is The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves by James Tooley.  I had no idea that there were low-cost private schools for the extremely poor around the world. It was an eye opening, fascinating book.

Now, in exciting news, Tooley’s oft-collaborater Pauline Dixon has a book on the topic called International Aid And Private Schools For The Poor: Smiles, Miracles and Market.  The title of this post is taken from a glowing review by Gurcharan Das and there are many more to be found on the book’s Amazon page.

Here’s a brief description of the book:

“Using India as an example, Dr. Pauline Dixon examines the ways in which private, for-profit schools might serve as a successful alternative to state-run systems of education in impoverished communities around the world.

The book begins with a thorough history of India’s government-run schools – based on the traditional British model – which are currently characterized by high levels of waste, inefficiency and subpar student performance. The author goes on to present comprehensive survey and census data, along with analyses of different school management types and their effect on student achievement, teacher attendance and quality of facilities. The book also tackles the problem of inefficient allocation and use of international aid, and offers recommendations on the development of new mechanisms for utilizing aid resources in support of low-cost private schools.”

This one is moving to the top of my reading list.

Schooling Ain’t Learning

Today is the official launch day for Lant Pritchett’s new book: The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning.

You can buy the book here,

You can read about it here.

While governments in the developing world have indeed managed to increase school enrollment rates substantially (as they were advised to do by rich country aid agencies and the MDGs), the payoff has been muted at best because of the often low to non-existant level of actual education available in the schools.

Development advice and aid often focuses inappropriately on the inputs at the expense of the outputs (though the RCT nation is changing this), perhaps nowhere more strongly though than in education.

To me it’s another example of “cargo cult” development (Lant is much more polite, well, ok a little more polite, and calls it “isomorphic mimicry”). Build a straw airplane and balsawood control tower and wait for the cargo to fall from the sky.

Of course in education policy it can be even worse as the balsawood control tower is frequently staffed by un-accountable, un-dismissable, personnel.

Lant doesn’t write in development-speak (the isomorphic mimicry phrase not withstanding). You’ll have no trouble figuring out what’s on his mind.

Both Mrs. Angus and I plan to use this book in our teaching and we highly recommend it to anyone interested in education policy and development.

(This post also appears at Kids Prefer Cheese)

Climbing the ladder in Sub-Saharan Africa

It’s not easy, according to the World Bank’s Thomas Bossuroy.

Here’s the money ‘graf:

Many African economies have grown quickly, and education has expanded dramatically. But growth has been mostly driven by extractive industries rather than labor-intensive sectors like agriculture or manufacturing, and educational systems are performing poorly. As a result, social mobility seems to have remained low, and the weight of the social background still determines most of individual trajectories.


Bossuroy also points out that while education is often an important factor in upward mobility, the overall low quality of education in many Sub-Saharan African countries makes this factor very weak in the region.



The Devil is in the Details: Teacher attendance policies in Uganda

While governments have made a lot of progress in enrolling children in primary schools, trying to hit the 2015 goal of universal primary enrollment, there is a lot of concern about the quality of education these children are receiving. In other words, we wanted to increase education, but we incentivized only schooling and there can often be a big difference between those two constructs.

One of the reasons postulated for poor performance is high teacher absenteeism, especially in harder to monitor rural schools.

Over at Brookings, Ibrahim Kasirye describes an ongoing research project that searches for cost-effective ways to improve teacher attendance.


The project employs monitoring by the Head teacher, by parents, and by both groups with and without financial incentives for teachers.

Here’s a summary of preliminary findings:

When head teachers are in charge of reporting and financial incentives are attached to these reports, independent spot checks show a statistically significant gain of more than 10 percentage points in teacher attendance.  By contrast, effects of non-incentivized schemes and schemes managed by parents alone (because parents on average overstate actual presence more than head teachers)  have weaker and statistically insignificant effects.

We also find that both head teacher and parent monitors systematically understate true teacher absenteeism…   Interestingly, and perhaps more worryingly, truly absent teachers who are reported as present make up about 10 percent of all reports, irrespective of the identity of the monitor or the financial stakes involved. 

So monitoring without financial incentives doesn’t work, and financial incentives can improve attendance, but financial incentives also create opportunities for corruption (presumably when Head teachers report an absent teacher as present so that teacher can get their 30% bonus, there is a kickback to the monitor involved somewhere).

While teacher attendance is most likely to be universally preferred to teacher absenteeism, even increased teacher presence is no guarantee of improved outcomes, as the quality of the teacher and the infrastructure of the classroom are also very important.

Hat tip to Justin Sandefur




The kidnapping of Mexico?

The Mexican Senate passed the education reform bill today and Mexican teachers are not happy.

One senator, Mario Delgado, supports the protests, arguing that “when Congress is rendered void, the only thing that remains is the streets.”  I’m not sure why Congress is void just because it passes a reform bill that you don’t like, but whatever Mario.  I’m guessing logic isn’t your strong suit.

The bill itself is riddled with concessions that threaten to dilute the strength of the reform, but I’ll write more on that later.  For now I’ll leave you with this great image of the striking teachers denouncing “the kidnapping of Mexico.” Wow.