The tricky ethics of education information, J-Pal edition

The Roving Bandit discovered this graph produced by J-Pal on cost-effective interventions for education.

That red bar is a result from a RCT in Madagascar which provided families with information on the “returns to education,” resulting in a reasonable increase in attendance (3.5%).

What’s the catch? The study wasn’t actually giving people an accurate measure of the returns to education in Madagascar, it was giving people the average correlation between education and income, job availability.

Why the distinction? Most economists believe that education attainment is highly endogenous – this means that brighter people and those from my advantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend and do well in school. This muddies the waters, as high-ability people are also more likely to earn higher wages.

There have been many, many attempts to control for the sort of characteristics that might bias the effect of education on earnings, but the study cited by J-PAL doesn’t really do this. This means they aren’t presenting people with an accurate estimate of their own gains from further education, but instead giving them a picture of the sort of lives educated people live.

Shouldn’t we be luring people into school anyway, though? Isn’t more education, in general, a good thing? J-Pal’s cost-effectiveness chart assumes this (notice that it assumes education is an end in itself, even though the intervention uses education as a means to further income).

Possibly, but I am dubious about the ethics of boosting people’s underlying demand for education. Providing accurate information on returns would allow them to make informed decisions (i.e. does this really make sense given my situation?), but instead providing them with a rosy picture may be leading them to make decisions that aren’t actually in their own best interest.

Supply-side interventions that lower the cost of attending schooling – pretty much everything to the right of the red bar – are more likely improve outcomes without the implicit deception.

5 thoughts on “The tricky ethics of education information, J-Pal edition

  1. Justin Kraus

    May 18, 2010 at 9:34am

    Why are we subsidizing uniforms instead of just advocating against their use in the first place. Especially since poor people so often cite their expense as a reason for not spending their children to school? Uniforms are just a colonial holdover anyway and many advanced countries do just fine without them.

  2. Sam Gardner

    May 18, 2010 at 8:10pm

    The state of development is still somewhat antediluvian.

    So we don’t know if education actually helps, but still promote it as one of the main development goals. Moreover, we do now that showing a chart works better to get kids in school than all other creative spending and incentive initiatives we can imagine, and we think there are moral issues with the chart, as it might not be fully true. Do we have moral problems with spending good money on ways that don’t work to get kids in a school that is in essence a waste of time?

    Perhaps we could be to start redirecting spending mostly to proven interventions and start doing RCTs for the rest, setting aside a fixed percentage for research. As the needs are enormous, we might want to diminish spending for the time being on interventions without any basis?

  3. John

    May 23, 2010 at 8:34pm

    How is this remotely misleading? The intervention simply provided information about the correlation. It’s not the intervention’s fault if recipients misinterpret the provided information. JPAL never said “If you go to school, here is what you would earn.”

    The effects this paper finds (and Jensen’s similar paper) are probably some of the most exciting results in education in the last several years.

  4. Matt

    May 24, 2010 at 9:02am

    John – here’s the description of the intervention:

    First, the “statistics” intervention sought to inform parents of the average returns to education,
    calculated from the nationwide population. In this treatment, school teachers first presented a few simple statistics based on the 2005 Madagascar Household Survey (Enquête auprès des Ménages) to all Grade 4 students and their parents at a school meeting. For each education level, the audience learned about the distribution of jobs by education, and the mean earnings of 25 year-old Malagasy females and males by levels of education.

    Then the teacher explained the magnitude of increased income associated with higher educational levels, therefore implying percentage gains or returns to education. Discussion on these statistics lasted about 20 minutes. Parents also received a half-page information card featuring mean earnings by gender and by education, and a visual demonstration of the percentage gain (see sample card in the Appendix Figure 2).

    1 – The intervention talks about *gains* in income. Look at the visual demonstration, it shows extra bags of rice associated with different income levels.

    It’s not the intervention’s fault if recipients misinterpret the provided information

    Would you feel the same way if the intervention was signing people up for loans/credit cards? Providing information that you know is highly likely to be misinterpreted is akin to misleading people.

  5. Steve

    June 3, 2010 at 3:36am

    There is a large economic literature on the returns to education. Most of the studies that estimate the causal effect show higher returns that what the correlation suggests (David Card reviewed these in a paper in the mid-90s). But those are from the US, does the same apply to poor countries? Maybe. Esther Duflo studied the returns to education using a natural experiment in Indonesia (in the 60s and 70s, I believe) and found substantial returns to education (something like ~9% a year). I don’t know if they were above or below the simple correlation (OLS) estimates.

    Here is a link to that paper:

    So I don’t think it’s fair to say they were giving misleading information. There probably is a large return to schooling of around 5-10% a year. If I remember that experiment correctly some parents though school was worth < 10% what it is and some thought it was worth 1000% what it is. So most people are now better informed, not mislead.

    Also, I did a little work on some data from India and found that education is correlated with happiness. That's certainly not causation but its consistent with the story that education is good for people's wellbeing (through higher incomes or some other means).

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