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)

We examine the impact of two strategies to use large-scale assessment results to improve school management and classroom instruction in the Province of La Rioja, Argentina. We randomly assigned 104 public primary schools to: a diagnostic-feedback group, in which we administered standardized tests at baseline and two follow-ups and made results available to schools; a capacity-building group, in which we also conducted workshops and school visits; or a control group, in which we administered tests at the second follow-up. After two years, diagnostic-feedback schools outperformed control schools by .33σ in math and .36σ in reading. In fact, feedback schools still performed .26σ better in math and .22σ in reading in the national assessment a year after the end of the intervention. Additionally, principals at these schools were more likely to use assessment results for management decisions and students were more likely to report that their teachers used more instructional strategies and rated them more favorably. Combining feedback with capacity building does not seem to lead to additional improvements, but this might be due to schools assigned to receive both components starting from lower learning levels.

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.