Education Incentives and Effective Research Methods: A talk by Yaw Nyarko

Professor Yaw Nyarko, Director of the Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED), gave a talk last week at Evidence-Based Education: Policy-Making and Reform in Africa, an education conference in Ghana. The conference, hosted by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in collaboration with the Ghana Educational Service (GES), focused on issues of education policy and reform. Professor Nyarko spoke on a panel entitled “Teacher Characteristics, School Governance, Accountability And Incentives.” His remarks are based on his personal experiences growing up in Ghana and his philosophy of teaching. His one quibble with the conference is its implication that rigorous research is randomized control trials and vice versa. He cautions that research, even RCTs, can be good or bad, rigorous or non-rigorous. He received the most animated responses from his remarks that under the guise of rigorous research many of the papers several years ago on rates of return to education were presumed rigorous without enough attention to the larger economic theory. Many of the conclusions of that literature led to a de-emphasis on tertiary education, which today is lamented by many in Africa and which today we know was probably wrong. Many of the Ghanaians in the audience seemed to relate to this point passionately. 

Education is as big an issue in Ghana as it is in many other poor nations. It is important for the development of skills which will hopefully lead to gainful employment. For the nation, it is important for the technological advancement of the economy. Although many African countries are approaching 100% enrollment in primary education, secondary and also tertiary education are lagging far behind.

I went through my own secondary education in what was then a very small town, practically a village, of Kumawu in the Ashanti region. It was a little bit better off than other surrounding villages. It had electricity, but even when it worked it was on for only 4 hours from 6 to 10 pm, but it was off most of the time. I remember studying under kerosene lamps late at night, the fumes irritating my eyes. Then as now, there also remain major water issues. I recall having to walk quite a way to a neighboring stream for a bucket full of water for bathing and brushing my teeth every day. I also remember the lack of water being a big issue for the women in my class (and also for students in Niger reported recently in the New York Times). When I visited the school, which I keep in touch with, a few years ago and I asked them for the biggest issues facing them, they all said water and electricity. It is so sad that the same problems have persisted for so long.

I remember during one of the first days in my secondary school visiting the school library. There were maybe three shelves in the entire library with any books in them – all the other shelves were blank. I recall lamenting that we all did not have a future seeing that there were no books. My friend Roland Akosah, now a successful businessman, then said to me that we should not worry, but that we should make sure we read each book in the entire library of three shelves, and if we read each book several times and we would be fine. Luckily for us, we had the African Writers series – Chinua Achebe, James Ngugi and many of the classics there. And by the way, Roland is now an accomplished poet – rereading those books did him well! So, it was my peer, Roland, who remains a close friend to this day, who was so instrumental in my own early education. Peer effects are said to be important in the US too. Stuyvestant High School in New York is supposed to be one of the best in the US, and supposedly harder to get into than Harvard. The word on the street is that the school is good not so much because of the teachers but because of the students who teach and motivate each other to success.

To provide incentives to students, scholarships for top students given competitively, are great ways to motivate students.  These students will then serve as important peers and role models for others. I know that these scholarships (bursaries they were called) were important for me as I had my fees paid for by an aunt after the death of my father.

So, individual student incentives and peer effects are extremely important.  After these effects, what is left for the rest and particularly what is the role of the teacher? And is the role of teachers that of teachers or that of motivators?  It is a question I am grappling with personally, as I am involved in my old high school and my friend Roland is in favor of incentivizing teachers (with prizes for best teacher) while I am currently focused on students.

So, first, what is my own experience? In secondary school I had fabulous education. Mr. Sarkodie taught us physics outside on a carpenter’s table after a thunderous rain had destroyed the physics lab. I recently honored him in Kumawu at the school with a gift to the school in his honor. I also benefited from a number of US Peace Corps volunteers, such as Steve Merlo who brought so much humor to our math classes and with whom I re-established contact after two decades or so through a posting on the internet.  Another taught trigonometry using ropes sent up a tree. These were truly fantastic teachers in a small village in Ghana. They motivated me to work hard.  I recall I taught myself calculus over a bored summer in the village with this tattered reddish book I checked out from our meager library. My generation of teachers was inspired by intense nationalism, which has disappeared in our more materialistic society today.

So, what are my thoughts on teacher absenteeism? Well, absentee teachers were the norm during my university days, when professors were moonlighting as cab drivers during Ghana’s severe economic crises. Today however, increased salaries of professors and greater monitoring have made that problem much less acute today. However, it still remains an issue at the primary and secondary levels. The papers on video monitoring remind me of one of Ghana’s famous undercover journalists – Anas Aremeyaw Anas. To me, it seems should not be that hard to find absentee teachers – I am sure Anas could. What happens to them when they are found then? Why are they not punished to serve as a deterrent to others? Why does this strategy not work?

Well, that brings me to the second issue. I saw or was told of the following on a government worker’s desk a while back. It was a quote lamenting low wages that said the following: “They pretend to pay me, so I pretend to work.” Is it the case that wages for teachers relative to their opportunity cost is so low that they are not afraid of being fired? Or is it instead the lack of will from the authorities to punish those they catch absent from the classroom? I am a teacher myself and I know that if I am absent from my undergraduate classes I could get into serious trouble, trouble that would hurt. Why does the same not work among secondary school teachers in the areas studies in this panel?

On the technology front, our team at the Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED) is helping to deliver means beyond traditional teaching to broaden education in developing areas. Our team has developed algorithms for getting slices of the web (e.g., the slice for secondary school physics), which are then downloaded onto a portable hard drive and delivered to secondary schools. Students with computers but no or intermittent internet access therefore in principle have better learning opportunities. These drives can be refreshed whenever the internet is up and running in the rural school, if the access is intermittent, or it can be refreshed in the city or another location with internet access annually say.

In sum, incentives, particularly on the student side, are most important. Technology, which enables students to learn more efficiently, is also of critical importance. Teachers are also of utmost importance, and I salute and celebrate mine. Their role is in motivating, incentivizing and, of course, teaching, students.

In closing, let me remark that there is one small quibble I have with the program and the program announcements. There seems to be an equation between rigorous research and randomized control trials (RCTs). There can be, and has been, research that is non-RCT and rigorous, as well as RCTs which are non-rigorous. Again, let me emphasize, I am engaged in a 3 year RCT myself in rural Ghana. I just think that RCTs should not be put on a pedestal only because they are RCTs.

I ask: about a couple of decades ago, what was the rage in education and what was being called rigorous research at that time? Well, the economics of education was dominated by the rates of return to education regressions. These were empirical studies that computed the rates of return to primary, secondary and tertiary education. The empirical results suggested low rates of return to tertiary education. This in turn led to a de-emphasis, some would say destruction, of universities and other tertiary education institutions. My own research suggests that many of these conclusions were probably false. When one takes into account the tendency of people to leave the country for further education, coming back with higher skills or staying abroad to enjoy higher incomes and sending large and remittances back home, one obtains extremely high rates of return. In particular, even after accounting for the large brain drain of the tertiary educated there are very big returns to education.

I am hopeful that the researchers here will continue to do good research, for the policy makers will listen. Let us make sure we get the conclusions right, so that 20 years from now we will not be regretting our conclusions. Enjoy the rest of the conference.


About CTED

CTED, as part of the New York University Abu Dhabi Research Grant, is a multidisciplinary research lab that focuses on combining economic principles, technological advances, and human-centric design to create innovative solutions for the problems experienced in emerging regions.
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