EPoD’s Data-Driven Research on Education in Pakistan

Article by Tiffany Simon; Edited by Katie Rettig

The last couple of decades have seen major efforts to improve education in Pakistan. In the Punjab alone, the government has implemented over one hundred new educational policies and programs since 2001. Many people believe the reforms are working; primary school enrollment has climbed from 59 to 72 percent over the past ten years. But the pretty picture of full classrooms hides a sobering fact: Pakistan consistently has the lowest childhood literacy rates in South Asia, second only to Afghanistan. One out of every four Pakistani youth cannot read, write a simple sentence, or do basic arithmetic. What isn’t working?

Pakistani-American economists, Asim I. Khwaja and Tahir Andrabi, are taking an innovative approach to difficult questions like this one. Khwaja’s research group at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD), connects scholars and policymakers – uniting research and practice – so that tough problems can be approached with hard data. Using economic theory and experimental methods – including randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of empirical research – EPoD researchers are able to determine the causal impact of policies, and use these findings to inform policy design.

For example, in a recent study in Punjab, Pakistan, EPoD and the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan provided a report card to parents that graded local schools based on student test scores, prices, and enrollment in a random selection of villages. For the first time, parents could compare the average test scores produced at each school in their village, and as a result, schools faced increasing pressure to perform better or lose students. In villages that distributed report cards, the study found that child test scores increased by 42% of the average yearly gain compared to control villages. In addition, school fees declined by 17%, and enrollment rose by 3% in comparison to control villages. This simple exchange of information between schools and parents improved the entire village’s educational ecosystem.

Building on these findings and related work in education over the past 15 years, EPoD has recently embarked upon an ambitious six-year project that will use data-driven methods to identify how the educational ecosystem in Pakistan can be transformed. EPoD is working to make connections and develop a marketplace platform between groups in Pakistan that have historically been disconnected: the government, finance institutions, educational service providers, entrepreneurs, public and private schools, parents, children, and teachers. If these groups are going to interact, they will need to adapt and innovate, and catalyzing locally sensitive innovation is the key to improving education outcomes.

Improving actual learning in Pakistan means much more than test score numbers. Not just schooling, but learning, has significant effects on personal and social well-being that reach far into adulthood. EPoD invites you to join and follow its journey as it works to catalyze the educational ecosystem so that information exchange is spurring innovation all the way from the halls of government to the individual household.