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The Heterogeneous Effect of Information on Student Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial in Mexico

By: Ciro Avitabile and Rafael de Hoyos

Journal of Development Economics (volume 125, 2018)

Published version

Manuscript version (free)

Commentary by Lee Crawfurd

Did you know what career you wanted when you were in secondary school? I didn’t. Most pupils make critically important choices that will affect their lives throughout their educational career, often on the basis of poor information about what those choices will mean for their future. In most countries, there is little transparency on the costs and benefits of pursuing education or information on the various career paths available.

In this paper, Ciro Avitabile and Rafael de Hoyos study whether or not providing pupils with better information about the earnings returns to education and the options available lead to greater effort and learning. Several studies have previously shown that providing information about the wage gains from schooling leads pupils to stay in school a bit longer, and affects their educational choices, but there is limited evidence that such information can affect learning per se, at least in a slightly longer-term perspective.

The authors collected pupils’ initial expectations on the earnings associated with education. This allowed them to calculate how accurate each pupil’s initial expectations were before they received the information. Both boys and girls underestimate the average earnings of adults with a high school degree and overestimate the earnings of adults with a university degree.

The information intervention was delivered through specially designed interactive computer software. Pupils spent an average of 12 minutes interacting with the software, and also viewed a 15-second video with the message that youth can empower themselves through education. The software provided three different pieces of information:

1. The benefits: average wages of workers with different levels of schooling.

2. The costs: details of a government scholarship for higher education.

3. How long the benefits might last: average life expectancy.

The experiment involved about 4,000 Mexican year 10 pupils, across 111 classrooms in 54 schools. 26 schools were randomly allocated to receive the intervention and 28 schools were randomly allocated to the control group, which means that we can be confident that the results pick up causal effects of the intervention.

The main outcomes analysed are obtained from the ENLACE examination, which pupils sit at the end of year 12. This is a low-stakes test for both pupils and schools – with no bearing on graduation, university admissions, or school funding – but it is highly predictive of future academic and labour-market outcomes. For various reasons, only 61 per cent of the pupils analysed actually appeared in the examination data. The paper therefore first analyses the effect of providing information on the probability of taking the test at all – which is used as a proxy for upper-secondary school completion – as well as the effect on scores in that test. A second set of outcome measures come from a university placement exam, which is used by a subset of universities.

So what were the effects of providing information? First, the intervention increased pupils’ expectations of the earnings returns to education and had positive effects on self-reported efforts. Second, it had no effect on the probability that pupils of took the low-stakes exam. Third, it had a large positive effect on mathematics scores, and a positive but statistically insignificant effect on Spanish scores, in this exam. The impact in mathematics is almost large enough to close the gender gap between boys and girls – and larger than the effect of coming from a high-income family. However, there were no statistically significant effects on the probability of sitting a university examination or on scores in that examination.

Effects on the low-stakes test were slightly larger for girls than boys, which appears to be due to the fact that the intervention improved the aspirations of girls in particular. It also increased the likelihood that girls, but not boys, chose to study economics in high school. Girls (but not boys) were also less likely to have married at age 18–20, consistent with their desires to go to university. Effects were also larger for children from wealthier households, suggesting the intervention had equity implications that must be considered.

From a policy perspective, the fact that the intervention costs next to nothing and is inherently scalable makes it exciting. Of course, it doesn’t solve the core challenge of improving the quality of teaching in low-to-middle income countries, and it’s important to take equity implications seriously. But free interventions that raise pupil achievement are rare and this one certainly warrants further exploration in other settings.

Lee Crawfurd is a CfEE Fellow and Deputy-editor of CfEE’s new Monthly Research Digest.

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