Here’s the evidence that low cost reading programs can have a big impact

The importance of literacy for economic growth and development is already well established in economic research.  Literacy enables people to access information and improve their productivity.  I believe that literacy is crucial to the diffusion of new technologies, especially among the poor. It produces high economic returns, so much so that early literacy is viewed as a threshold for economic development.

Previously, I blogged about an innovative program (implemented by the World Bank and financed by the Global Partnership for Education) in Papua New Guinea (PNG) – known as READ PNG – where reading outcomes increased by 0.51 standard deviations—a substantial increase, given its cost of $60 per student.

In 2010, the READ PNG program contained an early grade reading assessment of young elementary school students.  It revealed that many students struggle with some of the most basic reading skills like knowing what letters and words sound like and the ability to read familiar words.  To address these difficulties, the PNG government and the World Bank started the Reader Booster Program, a remedial reading program for young children. The program is part of the $19.2 million READ project.

Supporting teachers

The Reader Booster Program employs a new teaching technique to help students learn letter and word sounds more easily.  It provides special teaching and learning materials and teacher training coupled with teacher monitoring and evaluation. Teachers in the treatment group received scripted instructional materials supported by a simple instructional model (more about this below), lesson observation with feedback from a coach, on-going remote support using mobile phone text messages, student reading books, and lesson plans.

A training model that was responsive to teachers’ needs was developed. Key elements of the training included:

  • New pedagogical knowledge and skills;
  • Relevant, participatory training;
  • Teachers are given opportunities to practice new skills and instructional approaches;
  • Regular feedback and support; and
  • Monitoring of teachers as they apply their new skills in the classroom.

Measuring the impact on students’ reading abilities

Students were randomly assigned, at the school level, to either a treatment group that received the program or a control group that did not.  The randomized-controlled evaluation ensured that the characteristics of students in the control and treatment groups were similar. This allowed for any differences in subsequent reading skills to be attributable to the program itself.

The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) was applied both before and after the program for both the control and treatment groups.  The program’s impact was significant: initial sound identification increased by 0.91 standard deviations, letter sounds knowledge increased by 0.58 standard deviations, while familiar word reading increased by 0.04 standard deviations or an average of 0.51 standard deviations for all three domains.

The link between literacy and a person’s future earnings

To put the magnitude of this impact in perspective, a review of the link between cognitive ability and earnings in several countries found that one standard deviation increase in test scores among adults corresponds to an increase of annual earnings between 17 and 22 percent on average.

In PNG, such an impact would yield additional earnings with a net present value between 5,585 PGK ($1,765) and 7,322 PGK ($2,346), discounted at 5 percent, equivalent to nine to 12 percent of lifetime earnings.

This is a remarkable benefit given that the cost of the program is only 186 PGK ($60) per student.  The reading intervention boosts reading scores by 0.51 standard deviations at a cost of 186 PGK ($60) per child, thus raising reading scores by 0.009 SD per dollar.

I asked the World Bank’s Senior Education Specialist overseeing the program, Binh Thanh Vu, how the PNG government values this program.  Vu informed me that the Government is not only proud of what has been achieved, but that the results of the pilot have had a direct impact on the development of the new Standards Based Curriculum (SBC) which the government is now implementing.

Vu went on to explain that another benefit of the PNG program is that it directly proves that reading outcomes can be measured under an education project.

I firmly believe that we need evidence of what works to improve reading proficiency in developing countries in order to build programs better. The Reading Booster program proves to be timely, relevant and cost-effective – not just for PNG, but for all countries struggling to achieve learning for all.

Check out this feature story and slideshow about READ.

Follow Harry Anthony Patrinos on Twitter at @hpatrinos.

Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.


Estimating the return to schooling using the Mincer equation

IZA World of Labor, 2016

Mincer equation gives comparable estimates of the average monetary returns of an additional year of education

The Mincer equation—arguably the most widely used in empirical work—can be used to explain a host of economic, and even non-economic, phenomena. One such application involves explaining (and estimating) employment earnings as a function of schooling and labor market experience. The Mincer equation provides estimates of the average monetary returns of one additional year of education. This information is important for policymakers who must decide on education spending, prioritization of schooling levels, and education financing programs such as student loans.

The Mincer equation suggests that each additional year of education produces a private (i.e. individual) rate of return to schooling of about 5–8% per year, ranging from a low of 1% to more than 20% in some countries. Globally, the returns to tertiary education are highest, followed by primary and then secondary schooling; this represents a significant reversal from many studies’ prior results. Policymakers can learn much from Mincerian results; for instance, further expansion of university education appears to be very worthwhile for the individual, meaning that governments need to find ways to make financing more readily available, and that high rates of return are found through investment in girls’ education.


Average and Marginal Returns to Upper Secondary Schooling in Indonesia

Pedro Carneiro, Michael Lokshin and Nithin Umapathi

Journal of Applied Econometrics

Early View (Online Version of Record published before inclusion in an issue)

This paper estimates average and marginal returns to schooling in Indonesia using a semiparametric selection model. Identification of the model is given by geographic variation in access to upper secondary schools. We find that the return to upper secondary schooling varies widely across individuals: it can be as high as 50% per year of schooling for those very likely to enroll in upper secondary schooling, or as low as −10% for those very unlikely to do so. Average returns for the student at the margin are substantial, but they are also well below those for the average student attending upper secondary schooling.


After the Big Bang: Estimating the effects of decentralization on educational outcomes in Indonesia through a difference-in-differences analysis

Jane Leer

International Journal of Educational Development 49 (July 2016): 80–90

Proponents of decentralization argue that bringing decisions closer to the people improves school quality and efficiency by ensuring that schools are more responsive to local educational needs. In practice, the effects of decentralization vary substantially, given that the implementation of these reforms relies on local resources and management capacity. In this paper, I estimate the effects of decentralization on educational outcomes in Indonesia using a difference-in-differences model. I find no overall effect on achievement, but a negative effect on teacher effort, particularly in rural areas and among schools with inactive school committees.


Reliability and validity of a computer-based assessment of cognitive and non-cognitive facets of problem-solving competence in the business domain

Rausch A, Seifried J, Wuttke E, Kögler K, Brandt S

Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training 2016, 8:9 (19 July 2016)

To measure higher-order outcomes of vocational education and training (VET) we developed a computer-based assessment of domain-specific problem-solving competence. In modeling problem-solving competence, we distinguish four components of competence: (1) knowledge application, (2) metacognition, (3) self-concept, and (4) interest as well as thirteen facets of competence, each of which is assigned to one of the four components. With regard to ecological and content validity, rather than apply highly structured items (e.g. multiple choice items), we developed three authentic problem scenarios and provided an open-ended problem space in terms of an authentic office simulation. The assessment was aimed at apprentice industrial clerks at the end of a 3-year apprenticeship program and focused on the domain of controlling (i.e., support of managerial decisions, cost planning, cost control, cost accounting, etc.). The computer-based office simulation provided typical tools (e.g., email client, spreadsheet software, file system, notebook, calculator, etc.). In order to assess the non-cognitive components in our competence model, we implemented an integrated measurement of self-concept and interest that we refer to as ‘Embedded Experience Sampling’ (EES). Test-takers are requested to spontaneously answer short prompts (EES items) during the test that are embedded in typical social interactions in the workplace. The empirical section is based on a study with 780 VET students from three commercial training occupations in Germany (industrial clerks and apprentices from two similar VET programs). The focus of the contribution is on testing a theoretically derived competence model based on item response theory, the implemented scoring methods and reliability of the instrument. Fine-grained response patterns from automated codings and human ratings were condensed into one partial credit item for each scenario and each of the facets in the cognitive component ‘knowledge application’. The multidimensional Rasch analysis revealed satisfactory EAP/PV reliabilities, which are between .78 and .84 for the ‘knowledge application’ facets and between .77 and .85 for the non-cognitive facets. Furthermore, the achievement differences between the industrial clerks and their comparison groups are as assumed. In our study, we introduced an innovative method to measure non-cognitive facets of problem-solving competence in the course of complex problem scenarios. Furthermore, by using authentic problem scenarios and providing an open-ended and authentic problem space, our assessment of domain-specific problem-solving competence focuses on ecological validity but also ensures reliability.