Grant Funding Supports Economics Professor’s Work to Improve Schools in Pakistan—and Worldwide

Group of school children and educators in Pakistan

From his office on the Pomona College campus, Tahir Andrabi, Stedman-Sumner Professor of Economics, is helping to improve educational outcomes half a world away in Pakistan, with global implications. He leads a series of landmark studies of how economic and social forces affect student learning. These studies are already showing results as many rural schools in this low-income country improve in quality, affordability and resilience. “Education is a powerful engine to stop the intergenerational cycle of poverty,” says Andrabi. “This is especially true in low-income settings where the existing level of human capital is very low.”

Andrabi’s collaborative program of systematic observations and experiments is part of LEAPS—Learning and Educational Achievement in Pakistan Schools. Andrabi is one LEAPS’ core investigators with longtime collaborators Asim Khwaja at the Harvard Kennedy School, Jishnu Das at Georgetown University, and others at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP), which Andrabi helped to establish. Andrabi recently received $400,000 in new funding from the British Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) and similar funding from the Poverty Action Lab at MIT to support the research program. Significant support for CERP has also come from the Douglas B. Marshall Jr. Family Foundation in Houston.

Examining the education ecosystem

For 20 years, the LEAPS team and associated scholars have focused on educational opportunities in 112 randomly selected rural villages in Punjab, the region that is home to roughly half of the Pakistani population. Their studies have examined the various players in the educational ecosystem, including students, parents, teachers and schools, and tested how reducing what economists call “friction” between them might improve learning outcomes. The characteristics of these village school systems and families make LEAPS a superb real-time laboratory for rigorously testing key educational strategies familiar to researchers in many countries but difficult to study in most.

“Demand for education is through the roof,” says Andrabi, “and the state is scrambling to keep up. It’s the community-based private schools that are closing the gap.” Unlike in the U.S., Pakistani private schools are not the domain of the wealthy. “These are mom and pop schools, really small. The median size is four to five teachers. They hire local female teachers and pay them very little,” he says. “But private schools increase the density of education.”

Many villages have a couple of government schools and three or four private schools. The researchers wanted to know how mothers, many of whom are illiterate, decide which school their child should attend. “The issue of choice is probably the central question of economics,” Andrabi explains.

To find answers, the LEAPS team collected standardized test data on all of the students and schools in their sample of villages and issued detailed report cards on individual student, school, village and district-wide achievement. “What we saw is that the schools that were below the median really started putting in the effort to improve. After the report card, they showed a huge improvement,” says Andrabi. “And the schools that were on the top started feeling the pressure from the bottom. So the prices they were charging didn’t increase. There was a compression in the market—parents paying less and getting more for it.”

Because the work has been going on for two decades, the LEAPS team has been able to extend their research into many aspects of education in Pakistan. They have examined, for example, the recruitment and training of teachers, the impact of grant funding to schools, and how schooling impacts job opportunities and family formation in young adults from rural villages. Since the pandemic, they have also explored teachers and technology post-Covid. So far the team has published more than 30 academic papers, including a number in the world’s leading economic journals, and they make their datasets available to other researchers.

Scaling up

Andrabi has been working with policy makers in Pakistan to scale up implementation of what the research has found to be effective in school improvement. He is now helping to guide educational investments in more low and middle-income countries. They are the focus of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel of which he is a member. UNICEF, USAID, the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s FCDO jointly convene the panel. The goal is to share actionable recommendations for progress in education worldwide. Andrabi is also part of the academic leadership team and a principal investigator for What Works Hub, an 11-country research consortium.

Involvement with LEAPS has been a springboard for young scholars. Andrabi notes that some who have been part of the LEAPS research team have gone on to faculty positions at the University of Chicago, Concordia University Canada, the University of Notre Dame and UCLA. More than a dozen Pomona students and early career alumni have been research assistants with Andrabi at the College and have then been accepted to top graduate programs.

Pomona College has long valued a global outlook as a key part of liberal arts education. Dean Gerstein, director of sponsored research at Pomona, has helped Andrabi implement the complicated international funding arrangements of his multiple grants, including one from the World Bank Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund. Gerstein sees in this work “an important part of what global engagement means.” This research, he notes, “is a long-term effort to make the Pakistani education system work as an instrument of economic and social justice.” It is “a real model for cooperation,” Gerstein says, and “a model of discovery.”