Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Using libraries and reward incentives to improve learning outcomes

I've been a little late on these two recently published NBER working papers on education.

In the first paper Evan Borkum, Fang H, and Leigh L. Linden find that providing schools with library facilities (containing high quality reading material designed to support the existing language curriculum) does not have any impact on children's language skills (as measured by student scores on a language test administered 16 months later). The authors also find no impact on test scores in other subjects or on school attendance rates. In fact, their results are "remarkably consistent across individual language competencies (grammar, reading comprehension, punctuation, and vocabulary), mode of implementation, and also within individual subsets of the student population (gender, grade, baseline test score, demographic characteristics, and existing school resources)".

They speculate, from the intensity of treatment in other similar input side interventions which show considerable impact on student learning outcomes, that the intervention can be effective only if the librarians have significantly more contact with students (the study students interacted with the librarian only twice a month on average).

I am not sure whether even this conclusion is valid. Given the abysmal learning baseline student learning levels, library facilities, however intense the interaction between students and the library, may not have much impact, except maybe on the small top percentile of students. Further, government schools have no librarians and expecting a teacher to double up on that role would surely take away from his/her regular teaching duties. The finding therefore again raises the question of how scarce resources and effort should be prioritized in public schools environments.

I strongly feel that, conditional on the availability of a basic minimum on facilities/requirements, given the very low learning levels, scarce resources, and even scarce teacher mtoivation/energies, instead of spreading things too thin, education buraucracies should prioritize their efforts exclusively and directly on the issue of improving learning levels by focusing on classroom instruction.

In the second paper Steven D. Levitt, John A. List, Susanne Neckermann, and Sally Sadoff examine how behavioural insights can be deployed to incentivize students on their learning outcomes. In particular, they study the impact of reference dependent preferences, hyperbolic  preferences, and the value placed on non-financial rewards on educational outcomes.

They conducted field experiments involving thousands of primary and secondary school students by testing them and offering them financial and non-financial incentives (announced just before the tests), to be delivered immediately and one month afterwards. In the loss condition, both financial and non-financial, students received the reward at the start of the testing session and were informed that they would keep the reward if they improved (and that they would lose the reward if they did not improve). They write,
First, we find that incentives framed as losses have more robust effects than comparable incentives framed as gains. Second, we find that non-financial incentives are considerably more cost-effective than financial incentives for younger students, but were not effective with older students. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consistent with hyperbolic discounting, all motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay.
At a theoretical level, I have no problems with the findings of the study. In fact, they have great relevance in the performance management toolkit in several fields and sectors. However, the issue of deploying rewards, especially financial ones, to incentivize students to improve learning levels, may, for a variety of reasons, be a near non-starter in developing countries like India. It not likely to work even with rewards for parents to ensure their wards' academic performance improves. I have blogged earlier about the hazards of financial incentives and their use to improve teacher performance.

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