What can education economics teach mainstream education research?

by Guest Blogger, 14 January 2019
As the Centre for Education Economics launches an expanded monthly research digest, guest blogger Lee Crawfurd explains how the discipline of education economics has much to teach mainstream education research.

Evidence-based policy has become somewhat of a catchphrase in politics. Everybody’s for it and nobody’s against it. But of course there’s evidence and there’s evidence. Anybody can find a study proving their point – but not everyone can find good studies that prove their point.

This is where the discipline of education economics has much to teach mainstream education research. While descriptive studies can be useful for generating hypotheses, economics brings a strongly quantitative approach and a set of methodological tools for establishing the causal relationships between variables and outcomes.

Since the Spring of 2014, CfEE has been producing an (almost) Monthly Research Digest, intended to give interested parties a direct view into the policies and practices that rigorous economic research suggests work, and do not work, in education – from structural reform interventions, to institution-level responses, and what goes on in the classroom. Essentially, the Digest monitors and disseminates global research output to improve stakeholders’ understanding of what is and what isn’t impactful, highlighting for wider attention papers of particular importance for wider attention.

This month, with support from Cambridge Assessment, the Centre launches a new and improved version of the Digest to add value for our existing subscribers and broaden the publication’s purview and reach. Following the success of CfEE’s 2018 Annual Research Digest, focusing under my editorship for the first time on the developing world, I take on the role of Deputy Editor, with a view to beefing up the section on research from low- and middle-income economies.

"Developing" countries (those below the $12,000 per capita income threshold for rich countries) make up 36 per cent of the world economy, but 83 per cent of world population, and 87 per cent of the world’s school pupils.

The barriers to educational success that many countries face, even at the level of basic competency, often seem intractable, and their scale overwhelming. As RISE director Lant Pritchett reported in his contribution to the 2018 Annual Research Digest, in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, despite 15 years of concerted effort to improve teaching and learning, and a tripling of spending, progress in schools has stalled, and at shockingly low attainment levels. Similarly, in Pakistan, as Jishnu Das, Lead Economist at the World Bank, reported in the same volume, a recent World Bank study found parental background persisting over student test scores as the better predictor of university attendance.

In December 2018 new “PISA for Development” results were released for eight developing countries, linking them to the international PISA scale. In Zambia, just five percent of 15-year olds in school met the minimum competency threshold in reading. Just two percent met the threshold for mathematics. And that is almost certainly an over-estimate for the full population, as many 15-year olds in Zambia are not in school at all. Less than ten percent passed these thresholds in Cambodia and Senegal.

Against this dismal backdrop, research, at least, is progressing. Reports on studies of interventions in developing countries are increasingly represented in the top economics journals, Randomised Control Trials are on the rise, in part due to the relatively low cost of monitoring experimentation at scale in the developing world context.

Better understanding of where to prioritise reform efforts is critical in developing countries. In the Digest we aim to make the latest research more readily available and accessible for educators, researchers, and policymakers alike.

Lee Crawfurd
Fellow, The Centre for Education Economics (CfEE)

The Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) is an independent think tank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research.

Lee Crawfurd is a CfEE Fellow. He is Strategic Advisor at the Rwanda Ministry of Education and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He is also a PhD candidate in education economics at the University of Sussex, and has worked on global education policy as a civil servant, consultant, and researcher. He has published in the Journal of African Economies and Development Policy Review, and blogs regularly in a variety of contexts, as well as on a personal site.

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