…more teachers, more books, more inputs, like smaller class sizes – at least in the developing world – seem to have no impact, and that’s where most government money gets spent….
Dr Rachel Glennerster
If I told you it’s possible to deliver an extra year of ideal primary-level education for 30 cents, would you believe me? Hopefully not – the claim is absurd on its face.
But it may be true nonetheless. The very best education interventions are phenomenally cost-effective, but they’re not the kinds of things you’d expect, says this week’s guest, Dr Rachel Glennerster.
She’s Chief Economist at the UK’s foreign aid agency DFID, and used to run J-PAL, the world-famous anti-poverty research centre based at MIT’s Economics Department, where she studied the impact of a wide range of approaches to improving education, health, and political institutions. According to Glennerster:
“…when we looked at the cost effectiveness of education programs, there were a ton of zeros, and there were a ton of zeros on the things that we spend most of our money on. So more teachers, more books, more inputs, like smaller class sizes – at least in the developing world – seem to have no impact, and that’s where most government money gets spent.”
“But measurements for the top ones – the most cost effective programs – say they deliver 460 LAYS per £100 spent ($US130). LAYS are Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling. Each one is the equivalent of the best possible year of education you can have – Singapore-level.”
“…the two programs that come out as spectacularly effective… well, the first is just rearranging kids in a class.”
“You have to test the kids, so that you can put the kids who are performing at grade two level in the grade two class, and the kids who are performing at grade four level in the grade four class, even if they’re different ages – and they learn so much better. So that’s why it’s so phenomenally cost effective because, it really doesn’t cost anything.”1
“The other one is providing information. So sending information over the phone [for example about how much more people earn if they do well in school and graduate]. So these really small nudges. Now none of those nudges will individually transform any kid’s life, but they are so cheap that you get these fantastic returns on investment – and we do very little of that kind of thing.”
(See the links section below to learn more about these kinds of results.)
In this episode, Dr Glennerster shares her decades of accumulated wisdom on which anti-poverty programs are overrated, which are neglected opportunities, and how we can know the difference, across a range of fields including health, empowering women and macroeconomic policy.
Regular listeners will be wondering – have we forgotten all about the lessons from episode 30 of the show with Dr Eva Vivalt? She threw several buckets of cold water on the hope that we could accurately measure the effectiveness of social programs at all.
According to Eva, her dataset of hundreds of randomised controlled trials indicates that social science findings don’t generalize well at all. The results of a trial at a school in Namibia tell us remarkably little about how a similar program will perform if delivered at another school in Namibia – let alone if it’s attempted in India instead.
Rachel offers a different and more optimistic interpretation of Eva’s findings.
Firstly, Rachel thinks it will often be possible to anticipate where studies will generalise and where they won’t. Studies are being lumped together that vary a great deal in i) how serious the problem is to start, ii) how well the program is delivered, iii) the details of the intervention itself. It’s no surprise that they have very variable results.
Rachel also points out that even if randomised trials can never accurately measure the effectiveness of every individual program, they can help us discover regularities of human behaviour that can inform everything we do. For instance, dozens of studies have shown that charging for preventative health measure like vaccinations will greatly reduce the number of people who take them up.
To learn more and figure out who you sympathise with, you’ll just have to listen to the the episode.
Regardless, Vivalt and Glennerster agree that we should continue to run these kinds of studies, and today’s episode delves into the latest ideas in global health and development. We discuss:
- The development of aid work over the past 3 decades?
- What’s the right balance of RCT work?
- Do RCTs distract from broad economic growth and progress in these societies?
- Overrated/underrated: charter cities, getting along with colleagues, cash transfers, cracking down on tax havens, micronutrient supplementation, pre-registration
- The importance of using your judgement, experience, and priors
- Things that reoccur in every culture
- Do we produce too many programs where the quality of implementation matters?
- Has the “empirical revolution” gone too far?
- The increasing usage of Bayesian statistics
- High impact gender equality interventions
- Should we mostly focus on reforming macroeconomic policy in developing countries?
- How important are markets for carbon?
- What should we think about the impact the US and UK had in eastern Europe after the Cold War?
Footnote 1: You may understandably want to read the research on this! Unfortunately it is from an as-yet unpublished analysis by Noam Angrist at the World Bank. He worked on constructing a measure of Learning-Adjusted School Years for impact evaluations, which builds on Rachel’s 2013 paper in Science which attempts to determine the cost-effectiveness of a range of different health interventions. He says it should be available “sometime in the early new year” – we’ll link to it when it comes out.
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.