Top of the Class

In this chapter of Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo examine the failure of schools in developing countries.  Everyone agrees that education is good but there is a debate about the form education policy should take.  Supply-siders argue “that we have to find a way to get into a classroom, ideally taught by a well-trained teacher, and the rest will take care of itself” (73).  Demand-siders counter that “when the benefits of education become high enough, enrollment will go up, without the state having to push it” (76).  What Banerjee and Duflo find is disturbing.  Absentee rates are high among teachers and effort is low when they do show up.  Parents believe an s-shaped curve exists for returns to education (in terms of future salary) and thus “put all their educational eggs in the basket of the child they perceive to be the most promising” (88).  Furthermore, teaching and curriculum are biased toward the elite so only a small portion of those who have academic potential ever realize it.  Rather than serve the students they would like to have, schools need to focus on the students they actually have.

“Experts Tackling Education in Africa,” by Gabe Joselow ( addresses the crux of the debate in Poor Economics: a bottom-up approach to educational policy vs. a top-down approach to educational policy.  Both the chapter in the article cite the United Nations as a proponent of the bottom-up approach but what is interesting when comparing these two sources is how their discussions about the top-down approach.  The book analyzes the top-down approach through supporters of a demand –side oriented education policy which basically states there should be no education policy.  The article gives a telling example of the top-down approach to implementing education policy by using the African Union.

Joselow notes that “the AU plan is geared more toward developing stronger African universities that will produce graduates who are focused on solving African problems.”  Banerjee and Duflo contend that educational policy is geared toward the elite and Joselow’s article implicitly supports this argument.  If the focus is on improving secondary education at the cost of resources that could be used on strengthening primary education, the kids who have academic potential but do not already have adequate access to education will never realize this potential.  Therefore the only ones to benefit from the AU’s educational policy are elites, an important observation made by Banerjee and Duflo in Poor Economics.  “Experts Tackling Education in Africa” thus serves as a good extension of the chapter in the book but it is limited by its mainly qualitative nature.

The lack of statistics in the article bothered me the most.  Interviews with Joseph  Massaquoi (UNESCO) and Beatrice Njenga (AU) make this a strong qualitative piece but I would have liked to seen more data introduced.  Granted this is a news article with limited space but only mentioning that that the access to university is 2-7% in Africa as opposed to the 27% world average is not enough.  Joselow mentions that UNESCO has made strides in the effort to attain universal primary education in countries such as Guinea, Burundi and Ethiopia but he never cites any statistics to either support or refute UNESCO’s claim.  How is this success measured? Simply having higher enrollments doesn’t necessarily translate into educational attainment; Banerjee and Duflo make light of this at length.  For instance, it doesn’t matter how high the enrollment rates are if the teachers are unmotivated or the curriculum doesn’t suit the needs of the students.  Joselow’s article thus focuses too much on the qualitative aspect of the educational policy debate when it is read without reading Chapter 4 in Poor Economics.


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