Mexican education reform should start at the top

ABC, in a news article yesterday, quoted Trump from January saying about Mexico “We send them practically nothing and Mexico is the new China. I hate to say it. The Mexican leaders are so much smarter than our leaders.” There is so much wrong with that statement that it’s hard to know where to start.  But it’s even more ironic given the recent news out of Mexico about President Peña Nieto plagiarizing almost one-third of his law thesis.

Here’s the Huffington Post on the scandal, “Of the 682 paragraphs that made up the 200-page thesis, titled ‘Mexican Presidentialism and Alvaro Obregon,’ 197, or 28.9 percent, were found to be plagiarized. In a statement, government spokesman Eduardo Sanchez sought to play down the accusation of plagiarism, instead calling the omissions “style errors.” He added that Peña Nieto met all the requirements needed to graduate as a lawyer from Panamerican University.”

I love the government spokesman’s excuse.*  I’ve only seen bits and pieces but as a professor with a lot of experience (unfortunately) of spotting plagiarism, I can assure you that we are not talking about “style errors.”  Nice try though.  I wonder what the higher-up at Panamerican University think about Sanchez’s last statement now that the plagiarism has been revealed!

Compare that to Obama’s educational pedigree (from Wikipedia): “Obama is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review. He was a community organizer in Chicago before earning his law degree. He worked as a civil rights attorney and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School between 1992 and 2004.”

Now education does not necessarily equal smarts, but Peña Nieto was not exactly very smart in hiding his plagiarism**, so I’d have to give Obama the big advantage between the two.

*To his credit, he has had a lot to deal with lately (click here for the most recent corruption scandal that EPN is facing)

*See this story in the Atlantic for some examples.  Perhaps my favorite part is the fact that EPN plagiarized a former Mexican president, Miguel de la Madrid.  lol you can’t make this stuff up.


Priorities, Zimbabwe edition

Thanks to @ali_naka for this gem from Zimbabwe.  Here is a photo of at least one Zim school that could badly use some funding:


and here is a photo of Cabinet Ministers’ Benzes:


Maybe they could hold small tutorials in the air conditioned cars!




Language & Human Capital

One of my favorite former students, Priscilla Gomes, is now working as a technical adviser to PASEC in Senegal.  PASEC stands for Programme for the Analysis of Education Systems and, amongst other things, it has just published an assessment of primary education in 10 Francophone Sub-Saharan Countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad,Congo,Côte d’Ivoire,Niger,Senegal andTogo).  It was quite an undertaking, involving about 40,000 students and almost 2,000 schools.

Here is an executive summary of what they found, entitled “Education System Performance in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa:  Competencies and Learning factors in primary education.”  The summary is worth checking out in full because the results are really interesting.  What most caught my eye though was some good news about a country that has seen very little good news of late:  Burundi.

Overall, the study found that “70% of early primary pupils are below the “suficient” threshold in language” in these 10 countries.  Burundi stands out in two ways:

  1. “the language of the test, which is also the language of instruction (Kirundi) is familiar to pupils, and
  2. almost eight in ten pupils achieve the “suficient” threshold in language, and seven in ten pupils achieve the mathematics threshold.

The results also show that student results in language and math are highly correlated.  That is, “whatever the country, pupils and schools that are successful in language achieve high scores in mathematics, and vice-versa.”

I have always found the language of instruction to be an interesting issue in human capital formation.  One of my earliest articles studied differences in economic development across British and French former colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I found that ex-British colonies tended to have higher levels of education and hypothesized that it might be because British colonial policy was to train native educators to teach in the local vernacular.


How much is that lady in the window? Female education and bride prices in Indonesia and Zambia

I just came across this interesting paper by Ashraf, Bau, Nunn & Voena on the upside of bride prices.

Now, I and I think a lot of people, have the intuition that the practice of bride prices is unmitigatedly bad. It feels exploitative, degrading, and just yucky.

Howver, the paper shows that increased school construction raises educational attainment for girls from ethnicities that pay significant bride prices and that increased female education significantly raises the paid bride price in those groups.

These surprising results are found both in Indonesia and Zambia leading the authors to conclude that,  “while there may be significant downsides to a bride price tradition, our results suggest that any change to this cultural custom should likely be considered alongside additional policies to promote female education.”

Their larger point is that, “our findings also highlight the importance of the cultural and social norms of a society, and how they can be critical in determining the success of large-scale development policies.”

Interestingly, this U of Chicago piece on one of the authors suggests that the idea for the paper came from unsolicited comments from Zambian parents saying that increased education of daughters raised their bride price.

One question that I had which the paper doesn’t seem to address (I say “seem” because it’s 52 pages and I read it in like 20 minutes) is what is driving the demand side of the market? Why do men pay substantially more for educated women in these societies? The premium can be very large, in Indonesia, the premium for a college degree is like 100%. Is this just assortive mating? Educated men want educated women and educated men are richer? I also wonder what is the social benefit of female education in cultures where it is used to sell off daughters for a higher price.

Liars Poker: Mexican Education Reform Edition

Wow. This is a weird story. EPN and the PRI have actually outfoxed the great majority of the unionized teachers in Mexico.  One of his major initiatives for education reform was teacher evaluations (by way of written tests) that would form a basis for getting rid of “bad” teachers. The teachers union CNTE was dead set against this and vowing to fight/protest/disrupt the recent national elections.

So the PRI suspended the testing process in the lead up to the elections, only to reinstate it the week after the elections occurred without significant disruptions.

OK, well played, EPN, right? The CNTE shoulda known better, they’d spent decades in the PRI camp and had to know what EPN’s word was worth.

Not so fast.

This week, the government announced that teacher testing was re-suspended in Oaxaca and MIchoacan, two states with fairly radicalized branches of CNTE. Here’s Robin on the state of the Oaxacan teacher’s union.

I wonder what happens now? Will the Government just write off Oaxaca and use the test to bludgeon teachers in the other 30 states? Will the “radicals” end up bringing down the whole process?

However it turns out, I still marvel that the Mexican people have put the PRI back in power and kept them there in the recent mid-terms.

LOL, Mexico edition

The Catholic Church performs a nation-wide exorcism on the country of Mexico. Seriously, I’m not making this up.  The Pope offended the Mexican government in February when he expressed his hope that “his homeland Argentina could avoid “Mexicanization.”  The Pope apologized, saying that no offense was intended (ha!).  And now this.  I wonder how offended the government is now that the Church thinks the whole country needs to be exorcised from its demons.  Here are a couple of my favorite parts of the report:

“This isn’t the first time the Catholic Church has tried to mitigate violence in Central America.”  Um, the writer does know that Mexico isn’t in Central America, right?

“The church, however, knew the ritual wouldn’t change the country in a single day. ‘It would be a big mistake to think that by performing a full scale exorcism of the country everything would automatically change right away,’ Father Fortea said.”  Got to cover your bases, that’s for sure.  No use promising miracles or anything.

In other LOL news:

(1) The Mexican President assures the people that the country has never had a dictatorship.  I wonder how hard it was to say that with a straight face.  And I wonder how dumb they think the public is. Maybe the Church should give EPN an exorcism while they’re at it.


(2) the state of Oaxaca has gone back on their promise to not pay striking teachers for the weeks that they were on strike.  EPN’s Education reforms seem to be fully on track.

Getting more with less: Private Schooling in India

Robin and I are supporters of low-cost private schools in developing countries ever since reading Tooley’s incredible “The Beautiful Tree”.

So I was both happy and saddened to see this awesome paper by Lant Pritchett and Yamini Aiyar, called Value Subtraction in Public Sector Production:  Accounting vs. Economic Cost of Primary Schooling in India.

It turns out that the median public school spent 14,600 rupees per pupil in 2011-12, while the median private school cost around 6,000 per pupil. In other words, Public schools require twice as much resources to deliver a year of education that the private sector. When you consider how many school kids there are in India, that is quite a large amount of “wasted” resources.

But the story gets weirder, because private school kids learn more than public school kids! Lant and Yamini use test scores to create an amount learned metric and then show that given the structure of public schools, it would cost almost 30,000 rupees per pupil to get their learning up to the level enjoyed by the private school kids (which is achieved at a cost of only 6,000 per pupil).


Now any of my grad students reading this will be yelling “selection bias” at their screens at this point.

The paper acknowledges the issue:

“we don’t adjust for student selection effects and hence our estimates are not estimates of “true” learning productivity effects across the two sectors. It is obvious that if higher socio- economic status of a child’s household is associated with better learning outcomes (and it typically is) and if children in private schools are more likely to be from higher socio- economic status (and they typically are) then the differences in costs and learning outcomes reflects both higher productivity of private schools and the demographic composition of students.”

and argues from other studies that the composition effect can account for something between 20 and 60 percent of the observed gaps in public / private outcomes.

Schooling ain’t Learning, India edition

I love the NY Times Fixes column, and the one yesterday from Tina Rosenberg is a definite keeper. In it, she describes the enormous gulf between student enrollment and student learning in India.  She writes,

“96 percent of school-age children are enrolled — in part due to a 2009 law making education free and compulsory for children ages 6 to 14. India is winning the battle to get children into school. But last year, only 40 percent of third graders could read a first-grade-level paragraph and more than one-third couldn’t even read words. Of fifth graders surveyed, fewer than half could read a second-grade-level story — and 5 percent couldn’t even recognize letters.”

It is thanks to a program called ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report, that we know how little these students are learning.  Much more importantly, their parents and communities now know too.  Here is a description of how the program works:

“Right now, all over rural India, this is happening: Two local volunteers with a few days’ training come into the village. They knock on randomly selected doors, asking to see all children ages 6 to 16 who live there. In the front yard of the house, they test the children one by one in reading and math. A crowd gathers: parents, neighbors, sometimes the whole village. Children jump up and down, shouting, “Test me! Test me!”

Each test is a single sheet of paper. The volunteers record the highest level in reading and math the child can manage comfortably. Then they to go another house: 20 chosen at random from various parts of the village. During October and November, volunteers will test between 600,000 and 700,000 children, including some in every rural district in India.”

There are myriad reasons that Indian students are attending school but not learning, but the leader of the ASER project believes it’s mostly due to a law that says teachers must teach from a textbook appropriate to that year of schooling.  While that seems pretty reasonable, it actually is damaging if students are falling behind.  By the time they get to the fourth grade, for example, they may have no chance of mastering the material for that grade.

So what to do about the situation?  Well, the Fixes column isn’t titled that by chance.  Rosenberg details a really interesting initiative called Read India. Here’s some of their innovative ways to battle this problem:

“Volunteers run weeklong Read India learning camps in thousands of villages each year. They test every child in the village, then share the results at a village meeting. At camp, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade children who are far behind in reading or math spend three or four hours a day using activities, games and colorful materials to work on the basics. Children almost always move up at least one level during the course of the week. Camp comes back to the village two months later.

Read India also works in the classroom. In parts of Haryana, Bihar and Uttarakhand states, teachers set aside the last hour or 90 minutes of the day to use Pratham’s methods. The same teachers who were getting zero results with their normal methods saw big gains when they grouped children by level and worked on basic skills.”

Very cool stuff.

Room for improvement, Mexico edition

The OECD recently published “Education at a Glance: 2014” for Mexico.  While Mexico is part of the OECD and it makes some sense to compare education results to other members, I think we should also remember that Mexico is one of the poorest members and the comparison may be a bit unfair.  Having said that, Mexico still has lots of room for improvement when it comes to education.  Here are the main conclusions:

First, the good news: 15-year-old Mexicans are doing better in school. In 2012, Mexican 15-year-old students scored 413 points, on average, on the PISA mathematics assessment – an increase of 28 points since PISA 2003 and the biggest improvement among OECD countries. This improvement coincided with a decrease in the proportion of students who failed to reach the baseline level of performance in mathematics from 66% in 2003 to 55% in 2012.”

Not so good news: Enrollment rates for 15-19 year-olds remain very low. While access to education for 5-14 year-olds is universal in Mexico, it has one of the smallest proportions of 15-19 year-olds enrolled in education (53%) among OECD and partner countries, despite having the largest population of this age group in the country’s history.”

in fact, “Mexico is the sole OECD country where 15-29 year-olds are expected to spend more time in employment than in education.”

In worse news, More than 20% of 15-29 year-old Mexicans are neither employed nor in education or training.”

Perhaps one reason that enrollment rates are so low is because secondary education doesn’t always bring about higher income in the labor market.  The report finds that “employment rates in Mexico tend to be below the OECD average among people with higher levels of education. For example, 72% of people with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education in Mexico are employed, compared with the OECD average of 74%.”

Ghost schools and ghost teachers, it’s Teacher Appreciation Day in Mexico

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day in Mexico, but a new report by a Mexican think tank is not likely to make the public any more appreciative of teachers.  Here are some nuggets:

1. “More than 7,100 teachers earn more than the equivalent of $93,100 a year. Seventy are paid more than the $180,000 or so earned by President Enrique Pena Nieto. One teacher, identified only as A. Ramirez Z., earns the equivalent of $561,865 a year at his post in the poor southern state of Oaxaca. Most teachers average slightly under the equivalent of $2,000 a month.”

2. Ghost schools.  “812 schools in the state of Guanajuato that receive funding but don’t in reality exist.”

3. “536 secondary schools that are supposed to operate through satellite teaching and digital hookups with computers but don’t have electricity.”  That would seem like an obvious necessity.

4. Ghost teachers to teach in the ghost schools!  “In Hidalgo state, the payroll shows 1,440 supposedly active teachers aged 101, all with the same birthday, Dec. 12, in the year 1912.”  Hmm, that seems likely.  What do they put in the water in Hidalgo?

An additional summary of the report (in Spanish), identified the most expensive school in the country.  It’s a preschool in the state of Guerrero that has two teachers and one student.  The monthly payroll for this preschool is equal to about $7,000, which makes the cost per student even higher than Stanford University.  The summary piece helpfully posted pictures of the two schools so readers can see with their own eyes what their tax money is buying.


h/t @timjohnson4