Hard cash and soft skills: Experimental evidence on combining scholarships and mentoring in Argentina (with F. Barrera-Osorio, M. L. Biehl & M. A. Cortelezzi)

Many developing countries offer cash to low-income families to encourage children to attend school. These initiatives have increased educational attainment, but they have rarely improved student achievement. One potential reason may be that beneficiaries may need additional support to develop the requisite “soft” skills to succeed in school. We conducted a three-year randomized evaluation of a program that provides secondary school students with scholarships and non-academic mentoring in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The program improved students’ academic behaviors (e.g., starting to study early before an exam or catching up on schoolwork missed due to absences). Yet, we find little evidence that it improved their academic mindsets (e.g., self-beliefs about performance and efficacy), perseverance (e.g., grit), or learning strategies (e.g., metacognition). The program also improved some metrics of school performance (e.g., language grades, student absenteeism, grade failure, and the number of failed subjects) on its first year, but we cannot detect similar gains in subsequent years. This fadeout may be due to the fact that a large share of treatment students were expelled from the program for not meeting its requirements. We do not find any evidence that the program improved students’ achievement in math and reading or their personality traits.

Teaching with the test: Experimental evidence on diagnostic feedback and capacity-building for public schools in Argentina (with R. de Hoyos and P. A. Holland)

Despite the recent growth in the number of of large-scale student assessments, there is little evidence on their potential to inform improvements in school management and classroom instruction in developing countries. We conducted an experiment in the Province of La Rioja, Argentina in which we randomly assigned 105 public primary schools to: (a) a "diagnostic feedback" group in which we administered standardized tests in math and reading comprehension at baseline and two follow-ups and made their results available to the schools through user-friendly reports; (b) a "capacity-building" group in which we also provided schools with workshops and school visits for supervisors, principals, and teachers; or (c) a control group, in which we administered the tests only at the second follow-up. After two years, diagnostic feedback schools outperformed control schools by .34 and .36 standard deviations (SDs) in third grade math and reading, and by .28 and .38 SDs in fifth grade math and reading. Principals at these schools were more likely to report using assessment results for management decisions and students were more likely to report that their teachers engaged in more instructional activities and improved their interactions with them. Capacity-building schools saw more limited impacts due to lower achievement at baseline, low take up, and little value-added of workshops and visits. However, in most cases we cannot discard the possibility that both interventions had the same impact.

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.