The untapped math skills of working children in India: Evidence, possible explanations, and implications (with A. V. Banerjee, S. Bhattacharjee & R. Chattopadhyay)

It has been widely documented that many children in India lack basic arithmetic skills, as measured by their capacity to solve subtraction and division problems. We surveyed children working in informal markets in Kolkata, West Bengal, and confirmed that most were unable to solve arithmetic problems as typically presented in school. However, we also found that they were able to perform similar operations when framed as market transactions. This discrepancy was not explained by children’s ability to memorize prices and quantities in market transactions, assistance from others at their shops, reliance on calculation aids, or reading and writing skills. In fact, many children could solve hypothetical transactions of goods that they did not sell. Our results suggest that these children have arithmetic skills that are untapped by the school system.

Disrupting education? Experimental evidence on technology-aided instruction in India (with K. Muralidharan & A. Singh)

We present experimental evidence on the impact of a personalized technology-aided after-school instruction program on learning outcomes. Our setting is middle-school grades in urban India, where a lottery provided winning students with a voucher to cover program costs. We find that lottery winners scored 0.36σ higher in math and 0.22σ higher in Hindi relative to lottery losers after just 4.5-months of access to the program. IV estimates suggest that attending the program for 90 days would increase math and Hindi test scores by 0.59σ and 0.36σ respectively. We find similar absolute test score gains for all students, but the relative gain was much greater for academically-weaker students because their rate of learning in the control group was close to zero. We show that the program was able to effectively cater to the very wide variation in student learning levels within a single grade by precisely targeting instruction to the level of student preparation. The program was cost effective, both in terms of productivity per dollar and unit of time. Our results suggest that well-designed technology-aided instruction programs can sharply improve productivity in delivering education.