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Education sector: The smartest investments

Bjorn Lomborg | Published: April 30, 2016 19:55:39 | Updated: October 21, 2017 23:42:05


It seems like a great idea: to improve education in Bangladesh, we should equip classrooms with computers, moving the next generation to the cutting edge of knowledge. But while such an idea is alluring and has gotten wide traction around the world in the last decade, we need to look at the evidence. And it is surprising.

A recent OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) study finds that over the past 10 years, there has been virtually no "appreciable improvement" in student achievement in developed countries that have invested heavily in computers and other technologies for education.

Throughout the political conversation, there are many ideas that seem attractive. But confronting them with data can help us spend much less on current fads and instead focus on the education solutions that actually work.

For Bangladesh to make progress toward a better education system, it will have to focus on the very best investments for the future. What are the smartest next steps that can improve education? Bangladesh Priorities, a partnership between the Copenhagen Consensus Center and BRAC, aims to discover the most effective solutions to challenges ranging from health and migration to air pollution and nutrition.

The project has commissioned dozens of top economists from the country, region, and world to study which solutions can produce the greatest social, environmental, health, and economic benefits for each taka spent on development efforts.

Looking at the challenge of education, new research by economist Atonu Rabbani of the University of Dhaka estimates the costs and benefits of a number of solutions. Perhaps one of the most important findings is a cautionary one: fewer than half of the solutions examined showed any positive effects on child-learning outcomes.

In other words, you are more likely to do nothing than to get it right when it comes to strategies aimed at improving education and learning.

Like the OECD report, Rabbani's analysis looks at the effects of computer-assisted learning. Based on studies from Colombia, Peru, and India, the research finds that the average computer-assisted learning programme will not have positive results on net. And the analysis uncovered the same finding when it came to programmes that give students more textbooks.

The uncertainty over what works and the lack of cost-effective results from the majority of educational investments stand in stark contrast to one strategy: a programme designed to help young kids overcome stunting and turn them into smarter students.

Stunting, or being shorter than normal for a child's age, is often caused by poor nutrition or repeated bouts of infection early in life. The effects include delayed cognitive development, lower productivity, and increased risk of certain diseases-and they often last a lifetime.

Of course, it would be better to avoid stunting in the first place by getting children better food. But the analysis takes its starting point that six million kids right now are stunted, and stunting is likely to affect millions more in coming years. How can we help them? It turns out that a study from Jamaica holds great promise.
At the beginning of the two-decade study, stunted children under age two had lower levels of learning and productivity compared to non-stunted kids.

The proposed solution was a psychosocial stimulation programme to help these children overcome their early-life setbacks. Education specialists visited the stunted children every week to lead play sessions that help develop cognitive, language, and psychosocial skills. The visits lasted for two years, and the social workers then taught the children's mothers how to do the same stimulating activities with their children into the future.

At the 20-year follow-up, the researchers could hardly believe the results. The psychosocial activities had helped the affected kids completely overcome the negative effects of stunting. Adults who had participated in the programme as children had closed the entire gap to their non-stunted peers, as demonstrated by their equal wage levels. But stunted children who were not part of the programme earned 25 per cent less as adults than the treated and non-stunted groups.

The activities allowed stunted children to become just as healthy and productive later in life as their peers. Translating these findings to Bangladesh, such a programme would cost Tk 12,450 per child each year, to pay for one hour per week for a social worker for each child. The benefits turn out to be much larger. Over each child's working career, the resulting wage increase-estimated to be nearly 20 per cent-is worth more than Tk 1.5 million (Tk 15 lakh). So each taka spent on psychosocial stimulation programmes for stunted children would do an impressive 18 takas of benefits.

The stimulation programme promises the most benefits of all educational investments analysed, but other strategies hold promise to do good as well. "Streaming," or grouping students into classes according to their initial levels of educational achievement, has proven to be beneficial and cost-effective in various contexts, particularly in programmes in India and Kenya.

When children are grouped according to achievement level, teachers can provide better and more attentive teaching, which results in higher students test scores. The reassignment of pupils also allows teachers to give remedial students better-tailored assistance.

Translating this to Bangladesh, reassigning students according to their achievement levels would cost Tk 7,800 per student, but it would also increase the student's test scores by two standard deviations. The investment would be spread across the first five years of primary schooling and would provide the means to hire additional teachers.

The improvement in schooling quality would boost students' yearly earnings by an estimated 8.0 per cent over the course of their working lives.

The analysis finds that in Bangladesh, reassigning students according to their initial achievement and knowledge levels would do an estimated 12 takas of good for each taka spent.

A third potential solution involves training for people at a later stage of life: managers who work in various industries. Surprisingly, the schooling levels for managers and supervisors of many sectors have either remained stagnant or decreased over recent years, particularly in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector.

RMG factories employ four million people in Bangladesh, most of whom are women, but the productivity of the sector is low compared to regional competitors such as China, India, and Sri Lanka. There is an opportunity to improve this worker productivity, however, through on-the-job professional training. And there is already a pool of potential future supervisors who work in the sector: female employees.

Women account for 70 per cent of line operators in the country's RMG factories but only about 5.0 per cent of supervisory positions. Social norms and the perception that women lack technical skills often prevent them from being hired as managers. But evidence suggests that this perception is misplaced, and that management training can increase worker and firm productivity in a cost-effective manner.

Women who could apprentice in supervisory roles and increase their skill levels through training would increase productivity for their companies. Such training would also give many women the skills to become full-time supervisors eventually, raising their wages.

Professional training may not provide returns as great as investments in education earlier in life, but it might be more in line with firms' incentives. Each taka spent toward on-the-job training to make managers more productive would do 5.0 takas of good.

The wide range of results from these educational strategies show we should be wary of just trusting our intuition-sometimes the things that are trendy simply do not work. That's why Bangladesh Priorities looks to the data to find out which solutions can do the most good for each taka spent.

A recently popular anti-poverty strategy, for instance, is unconditional cash transfers. But our research finds that these transfers do less than 1.0 taka of good for each taka spent.

We similarly find that using liquefied petroleum gas cookstoves is not the best way to fight household air pollution-the stoves burn very cleanly, but the costs are so high that they do not justify the intervention, given that there are much cheaper alternatives that can do much more good per taka spent.

Many trendy development strategies end up costing more than the amount of good they can do. What do you think is the best way for Bangladesh to realise its development goals?

Learn about more the solutions for education and many other challenges at bangladesh-priorities.com. In the coming weeks, I will continue to write about various other exciting solutions for the country here in Financial Express. We will identify both the costs and benefits of the proposals, which will reveal the solutions that can do the most good for Bangladesh for each taka spent.

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, ranking the smartest solutions to the world's biggest problems by cost-benefit. He was named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time Magazine.

author's e-mail address: ea@lomborg.com
 

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