measuring educational outcomes

Our paper provides a comparative perspective on the development of public primary education in four of the largest developing economies circa 1910: Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). These four countries encompassed more than 50 percent of the world’s population in 1910, but remarkably few of their citizens attended any school by the early 20th century. We present new, comparable data on school inputs and outputs for BRIC drawn from contemporary surveys and government documents.

Latika Chaudhary, Aldo Musacchio, Steven Nafziger and Se Yan, “Big BRICs, Weak Foundations: The Beginning of Public Elementary Education in Brazil, Russia, India, and China“, NBER Working Paper No. 17852, February 2012.

That is from the abstract of the paper. The NBER link requires subscription or payment to download the paper. There are many ungated versions available on the web, for example here.

I was very excited about this paper, until I came to the following sentence: “In addition to the variation in outcomes between BRICs and the rest of the world, there was enormous variation in educational outcomes (enrolments) and inputs (expenditures) within BRIC.”

Really? The authors actually consider warming a schoolhouse seat to be an outcome of compulsory public education! As an antidote to this reasoning, allow me to copy and paste a box from an essay that I wrote ten years ago, when I was employed by United Nations headquarters in New York

Box 2. Government Schools in Pakistan

Pakistan’s public schools (primary and middle) offer strict regimens for children, where playful learning is not common or encouraged. Many children, in rural and urban areas, spend long hours in dark and overcrowded classrooms, receive occasional beatings, are required to memorize an overload of (often irrelevant) facts which their counterparts in other countries can simply look up in encyclopaedias (or, in industrialized countries, increasingly on computer CD-ROMs), and face regular absenteeism by their teachers. This is the cause for high drop-out and repetition rates. ….

A positive recent development is the growth of the private education system. This is mainly an urban phenomenon, but is increasingly filling the gaps in the public system. It is estimated that, overall, private education now accounts for about 10-12 per cent of gross enrolments. Almost all of these schools are profit-based, but parents are willing to sacrifice a good deal of their meagre income and get better educational quality in return. In these settings, head teachers, teachers, students and community are excited about the educational process and take their school very seriously.

Source: Bragman and Mohammad (1998, pp. 78, 81).

Larry Willmore, “Education by the State“, United Nations DESA Discussion Paper No. 27 (November 2002).

The quote is from Jacob Bragman and Mohammad Nadeem Mohammad, “Primary and secondary education—structural issues”, in P. Hoodbhoy (ed.), Education and the State: Fifty Years of Pakistan (Oxford University Press, Karachi, Pakistan, 1998), pp. 68-101.

I recall reading, either in this essay, or in another essay in this volume, about the results of a natural experiment in Karachi. The researchers tested students who completed five years of public school and those of the same age who dropped out of school in the first year. The results for the two groups were the same, with one exception. The street kids scored higher for numeracy!

As further proof that school attendance is not a good measure of outcomes, consider the case of Sweden. This was the first country in the world to achieve universal literacy. By 1720, 90% of the population was literate, thanks to home schooling. Lutheran pastors taught mothers, who in turn taught their children. In the mid-18th-century, Swedes were literate but miserably poor. The industrial revolution began in illiterate England, and reached Sweden only a century later.

One Response to “measuring educational outcomes”

  1. Rachna says:

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